Leaving Behind Easy for Good
Ash Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Holy Names University
Beloved, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Our lives are fleeting. They’re like remnants after a consuming fire. We are blessed today by our own mortality, as ash is wiped across our foreheads and falls dusty onto our nose. We are reminded that we are fleeting on this earth, among billions of others who are just as fleeting. Just like everyone else, we were born, there was a time when we did not exist, and there will be a time just like for everyone else when we will stop breathing, and die, and become dust again. This is deeply humbling, and I think it is also good news—almost a relief. We are in control of only a small portion of our lives, and God holds the parts which we do not.
The theme during this time of Lent in our community here is “from desert to paradise.” In the scripture from Joel today, we’re in a land that is beyond the control of its people, and is becoming a desert before their eyes. A cloud of locusts blackens the sky. They eat everything. Every aspect of life and livelihood, the locusts have decimated. Vegetation, crops, and fruit-bearing trees have been stripped to the whiteness of their bark, farm animals have no food to eat, and even the grain brought in arms to the temple to burn as an offering to worship God is gone. Before this destruction, the land is like the Garden of Eden, but after it is a desolate wilderness. Unknown, harsh, and disorienting.
This is a hard God to look at. A God whose coming day brings destruction and fear. Who brings natural disaster upon a people who do not fulfill their end of their promise between them and God. Whose anger becomes like an attack. How do we meet a God who does this? How do we love a God, and trust a God who does this?
Notice though that the focus turns to repentance, not the sin itself. In this story, God shows more interest in the response of a people before God rather than on the sin itself they committed that distanced themselves from God. While the sin, the estrangement, still happened, the point of the story is how we return to God.
Further, this story, like so many stories in the Bible, points out a hard fact: we’re not in control. We’re not the masters of our fates. In times like the story of Joel, that’s really scary. And even while its scary, it can also be good.
I can’t help but think of this moment in the Narnia series, in the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where Aslan, who appears as a Lion, is a majestic and mysterious creature. Right before Susan is about to meet Aslan, she asks tentatively of another character, “Ooh, I thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
The other character says, “That you will dearie, and no mistake, if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or just plain silly”
“Then He isn’t safe?”
“Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
I have thought a lot about what it might mean if God isn’t there to make us just feel good and easy, but is the fierce source of goodness itself. It’s hard, because I’ve so often heard watered-down versions of the story of following Jesus. Things that make people who already feel pretty good about themselves feel better.
Like, God loves everyone just the way they are.
God wants us to be nice.
In his teachings, Jesus shows us a better example of how to live.
Yes, these are all true, but they are far from the end point. God absolutely loves you just the way you are—and loves you too much to leave you there.
Sometimes God wants us to be nice, but moreover God wants us to be bold, and sometimes rude, in matters of life and death.
Jesus shows us a better example of how to live—but inescapably, it ends at the cross.
When we follow Jesus, parts of us die. In Lent, we die little by little to ourselves. But we accumulate a lot of junk on ourselves, and I think it’s a gift of Lent to be able to slough that off. To gain clarity as layers fall away. And when we develop a physical practice like the fasts and commitments in Lent, our spiritual practice is developed as well. To clean out the house of our heart, so that there is space for us to receive God. It’s not always safe, or popular, and it’s usually not easy, but it is so. good. Because it calls us back to the source of all goodness, the source of goodness we were created in, and the essence of love.
And so, with a God who is infinite good in our court, the fact that we are not in control can be the best thing—we aren’t in control of our lives by ourselves. We have an infinitely good God working with us in our lives.
And it is no coincidence that Lent is 40 days. Jesus also wandered for forty days in the wilderness, and the Israelites wandered for forty years in the desert. Like Jesus, and like the Israelites, we may be tested. We may be faced with our own limitations. Our own failures. Our own finitude. Our moments of distrust, and of longing for places that were more comfortable, broken-in, easier, but not better for us. And in this time and these tests, the answer is “God.”
These forty days are a journey that reconciles the points where we get off track. In Lent, we tune parts of our lives to make the call of God come in a little clearer. It is a journey of our intimacy and estrangement with God. Many theologians over the centuries have defined sin as estrangement from God. Where God seems far off, and things make less sense. Sin is a terribly loaded word, but I think it boils down to: What makes you feel stingy with love? Do less of that. What makes you truly love more? Do much, much more of that.
And the gospel passage reminds us true intimacy is not just acts you do, or looking like you have a relationship with God; it is sharing your soul, counting on God and knowing you can, feeling that nothing is too ugly or shameful to bring before God, because in the end you are held in unconditional love. So this love gives us room to admit when we fall short of all we could be, because those shortcomings are still not the final word. And we have value not because of the things we do or do not do, but because God loves us first.
So I hope that this is a time when we are bold to rend our hearts, not just our garments. To brave the parts of ourselves that we feel ashamed of, that we keep hidden in darkness, that we deny are parts of us. It’s safe and easy to leave these places stale in darkness, but I want to encourage you to be bold and hold them up to the light. I hope we can notice these places and bring them before God. Because no matter what ugliness we dredge up, God’s steadfast love is the final word.
This is a hard time, a trying time, but God is with us, reminding us that in all times, we are held in an eternal, unconditional love. We are mortal, just dust, but dust animated with the breath of God and loved with a love that existed before time and will after. We belong to an existence that is so much bigger than just one person.
And in this time that calls for self-denial, I cannot still in good conscience preach self-denial to anyone who already denies themselves in ways that are damaging. Lent is getting to the core of who you are and whose you are in God, and for many people that entails giving something up. But for someone who struggles with anorexia, or is the primary caregiver to your family, taking care of everyone but yourself, or someone who works two jobs, too many hours a week, I want to implore you to add self-care on. Give up self-defeating thoughts. Give up self-harm. Give up apologizing as a reflex. Give up silence.
We all come from different places, and may have different ways to grow closer to God during Lent. The whole goal is intimacy with God, at the end, not pure self-denial. Self-denial is often the means, but the end is relationship. Authentic, intimate relationship. I encourage you to think thoroughly and prayerfully about what practices, in your own circumstances, will open your heart to God.
And I invite you, with words from artist Jan L. Richardson,
Rend Your Heart
A Blessing for Ash Wednesday
To receive this blessing,
all you have to dois let your heart break.
Let it crack open.
Let it fall apartso that you can seeits secret chambers,
the hidden spaceswhere you have hesitatedto go.
Your entire lifeis here, inscribed wholeupon your heart’s walls:
every path takenor left behind,every face you turned towardor turned away,
every word spoken in loveor in rage,
every line of your lifeyou would prefer to leavein shadow,
every story that shimmerswith treasures knownand those you have yetto find.
It could take you daysto wander these rooms.
Forty, at least.
And so let this bea season for wandering
for trusting the breakingfor tracing the tearthat will return you
to the One who waitswho watches
who works withinthe rendingto make your heart