February 10, 2016 – Ash Wednesday
Tonight, after the service, when I go home and see myself in the mirror I will be startled to see a black smear on my forehead. “Oh yeah, it’s Ash Wednesday” I tell myself. That startle happens every year—I don’t expect to see that smudge.
In the Christian Year, we start our journey to Easter at Ash Wednesday. We tell the truth about ourselves and about the human condition. We are mortal. We are finite. We will die. Our bodies will disintegrate. As God made the first human being from the dirt, from the humus of the earth, so will we return to the earth. Not only in being buried in the earth but our bodies will become earth again.
This is a story we mostly do not want to tell nor do we want to hear. Atul Gawande, a surgeon and writer, in his latest book titled Being Mortal writes eloquently about how so many of us, including our doctors, do not want to talk about the end of our lives, even when we are there at the precipice of our lives.
But to talk about the end of our life—to talk about our death—is also to talk about our life.
After the death of someone she loved, artist Candy Chang created an interactive mural on the side of an abandoned home in New Orleans. The mural invited people to participate by completing the statement: Before I die I want to___________________. [i] You’ve may have seen this same mural on E Market Street. Chang’s mural idea has been replicated all over the country and all over the world.
I heard an interview recently with Chang and she said what surprised her was how her wall didn’t make people think about death as much as it made people think about life. “Thinking about death clarifies your life.”[ii]
And so our journey to Easter and eternal, abundant life, begins in death. And the road from death to life travels through the wilderness of Lent as we ask ourselves about our lives:
What kind of life do we want to live before we die?
Is the life I’m living rooted in my identity as a follower of Christ or is it rooted in something else? If it’s rooted in something else, what do I need to do about that?[iii]
What helps me live my faith—and what gets in the way?[iv]
In Lent, we traditionally focus on three practices: prayer, giving something up, and works of love. These practices, and a season of dedicating ourselves to them, invite us to remember who we are and how we are called to live. We are beloved children of God and we are called to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. We could also say we are beloved children of God and we are called to love God with our heart, soul, strength and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
So let me talk about those three practices and suggest ways we might engage them as we move from Ash Wednesday through Lent.
Prayer. Prayer is an invitation to return to God with all our heart. It is an invitation to bring our whole selves before God. It is an invitation to be present and attentive to the presence of God.
How might you create space and time for this each day? You can start small. It’s always easier to create a habit with a small step than with a huge step. What if before you get out of bed in the morning you give thanks for the day ahead and invite God to be with you in the day? It might be taking five minutes at lunch time to pause and pray “thank you” and “help me” for whatever is happening in your day. It might be reviewing your day before you go to bed, bringing to God what you are most grateful for and what you are least grateful for.
And what if our Lenten practices were not only focused on what the Spirit is doing in our lives but also open to notice and pray with the suffering of our sisters and brothers? We can pray with the news, not turning away from one more shooting of an unarmed black man or another drowning of a refugee child, but paying attention and asking God to be present for people in places of suffering. We can take ourselves, our very bodies in which the presence of God dwells, to places where there is suffering and pray.
Another Lenten practice is giving something up. What do you need to give up to live the truth that you are a beloved child of God and it’s not anything you do or buy or say or have or put on that gives you value? What gets in the way of following Christ and how might you give it up?
This is more than giving up chocolate or alcohol. The early Christian mystic John Chrysostom said, “No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sign continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.”[v] Chrysostom is saying the same thing the prophet Isaiah is saying. God is not interested in our actions that are only about ourselves. What God cares about is how we treat others, how we work for justice for all, how we provide for those who are most vulnerable and disadvantaged.
In his Lent message last year, Pope Francis said if we’re going to give up something, let us give up indifference toward others.[vi] Perhaps this Lent we practice relinquishing our privilege of not having to care about the lives of others. Or to give up turning away from what we don’t want to face in order to face it.
And the third traditional practice of Lent is doing works of love; the kind of actions that Chrysostom talks about—that benefit others. It seems to me that working to dismantle the evil of systemic racism is perhaps the most important work of love we can undertake. That, of course, is an enormous undertaking so we must find ways to chip away at it that we can actually do so we don’t grow discouraged and quit all together. One way we can do this is to build relationships with people who have borne (and continue to bear) the weight of the systemic racism.[vii]
Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson in a presentation at Yale told his audience “Rendering injustice visible is the proudest tradition of protest.”[viii] That sounds like the work of love: rendering injustice visible.
I can’t predict what praying, giving something up, and doing works of love will look like for you this Lent and how it might transform your life. I do know it begins with death. On Ash Wednesday. Because it is when we look at death that we gain clarity about our lives.
Even when it feels fearful and uncertain, we can begin with death and journey through the wilderness of Lent to the mystery of Easter trusting, as our confession says, “In life and in death we belong to God…With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[ix]
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[ii] http://www.npr.org/2016/01/29/464424348/what-do-you-want-to-do-before-you-die, accessed 10 February 2016.
[iii] John G. Stevens and Michael Waschevski, Rhythms of Worship – The Planning and Purpose of Liturgy, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 54.
[iv] Ibid., 53.
[v] http://time.com/3714056/pope-francis-lent-2015-fasting/, accessed 10 February 2016
[vii] William Goettler, “Lent Is Where We Live” Journal for Preachers, Lent 2016, p4.
[ix] A Brief Statement of Faith, PC(USA).