What is Left

flower_ashes_by_dennisallendorfScripture Passage: Joel 2: 1-3

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near— a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. Fire devours in front of them, and behind them a flame burns. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.

I know.  What a way to begin the season–darkness and gloom, devouring fire and flame, and desolate wilderness!  I know what you’re thinking.  Can we go back to that manger scene now?  Can we go back to being bathed in light with the hope of the world nestled in our arms?  Well, the problem, is that somewhere on this journey between seasons, we forgot.  We forgot who and whose we were.  Somewhere along the way we became self-sufficient and sure of ourselves.  Somewhere along the way, we thought we had figured it out, thought we were so right.  Somewhere along the way the trumpet announcing the birth of our Savior became our own horn.  Somewhere along the way we forgot that we were blessed not by what God has given us but by what God has called us to do.  You know–scattering the proud and bringing down the powerful, filling the hungry and sending the rich away.  (Hmmm, that sounds distantly and vaguely familiar.) And now we sit in ashes wondering what to do next.

This has been an odd couple of months for me.  It seems that I have turned many times and have run smack-dab into loss of some sort—some have been real honest-to-goodness losses and others have been, well, maybe just sort of grandiose pity-parties because things have not gone as I had planned.  Either way, loss is a time that invites us to move, to pick up the pieces, and hand them back to God.  And as we begin walking, God takes what is left and once again breathes life into it.

Lent is our chance to begin again.  Because, think about it, those ashes that you are going to spread on your forehead today are what is left.  They are what has survived.  After all of the devouring fires scorching the gardens, they are left.  They are the remnant.  They are the hope for what will come next.  So we begin our Lenten journey in ashes because we repent for what we have done.  But that is not the end.  God does not leave us on the ash heap alone.  God picks us up and recreates us, walking us through the wilderness, through the valley of the shadow of death, through the Cross, to Life.  The ashes, the “what is left”, are the beginning.

So what will you do with what is left?  What will you do with your share of ashes?  Repent and turning–that is what this day is about.  No longer do we wallow in morbid shame and guilt; no longer do we pound ourselves down for our past mistakes; no longer do we sit on the ash heap sullen and morose.  This is the day when we begin to begin again.  Pick yourself up!  Dust yourself off!  And start.  This is the day when we begin the journey to life.  But we are called to travel light.  God has given what we need.

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  (Luke 1: 46b-49)

As you begin this Lenten journey, what things do you need to leave behind? What things do you need to take with you?  Remember, we are traveling light.  The wilderness journey is long and difficult.  But we are traveling with the one who created us and calls us to live life freely and blessed.

And for a program note…I’m going to try to post every day again during this Holy Season, but sometimes it gets away from me (or I get away from it–I don’t know which).  So, true confessions…I may do some “rehashing” of past blog posts (this one was–with some new tweeking).  I mean, I guess it’s OK to plagiarize yourself, right?  Either way, I hope that it makes for a meaningful season for you.  So, give something up or take something on or just go a little bit deeper than you usually do.  Have a wonderfully profound Lent!

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Oh, All This Talk About Sin!

flower_ashes_by_dennisallendorfScripture Passage (Psalm 51: 1-3, 7-13)

1Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 3For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me….Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 9Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 10Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. 11Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. 12Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. 13Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

 

 

I know, we’re not really ready for Lent yet. (I saw a Christmas tree still up less than two weeks ago. That was a whole lot more festive.) This season has come WAY too fast thanks to an apparent impatient spring on the calendar. So, the pancakes were all eaten last night and the masks have been removed and put away. We are ready to begin the journey again. It is a journey of giving up and giving in, of wandering in the wilderness, of stopping or at least slowing down enough to let God’s Spirit begin once again to seep into our being. But first, first, on this day of dust and ashes, we have to talk about sin.

 

Sin? Who wants to talk about sin? I mean, I’m Methodist. We are “grace” people, after all! We are forgiven people. Isn’t that what we’re told? God’s mercy is infinite. Jesus took care of all that, right? Really? So, you have no part in this? You just want to go on your merry way? The truth is, what relationship with God would we have if we truly thought we were either sinless or our sins were just hosed off of us without us even knowing what had happened? I mean, what in the world is forgiveness if there’s nothing to forgive? But the fact that God loves me not just in spite of me but BECAUSE of me is a much deeper understanding of God. This is a God who is not waiting for me to clean my act up so I can get on the yellow brick road toward a grace-filled life. This is a God who walks with me down this rocky, sometimes steep and treacherous trail through a wilderness I do not understand and showers me with grace even when I am muddied and worn by sin. This is a God who doesn’t just wait for me to return but takes me by the hand and leads me home even when I sin.

 

There I said it—sin, Sin, SIN! Hmmm! Steeple didn’t fall off, stained glass windows still there, me, still standing. (I just went and looked—yes, the sign out front still says United Methodist!) On this day of dust and ashes, it is our time to acknowledge that yes, we mess up; that yes, we make the wrong choices (I’m hoping God doesn’t yet regret that whole free will decision way back when!); that, yes, we sin. But this day is also the day that we choose—we CHOOSE to follow God on this journey. Now, at the risk of speaking for the Great I AM, I would much rather have a relationship with one who CHOSE to follow rather than one who knew nothing else. Choosing God and being innocent are not the same. This day, we acknowledge that we are both in need of God and that God loves us more than we will ever fathom. Now, you would think those two scenarios would fit together rather well. But somewhere along the way, we have somehow replaced our need for God with our need to be perfect. Albert Outler called it “overreaching”, getting in God’s business. See, God doesn’t need us to be perfect, or sinless, or innocent. God desires us to choose to follow. God desires us to be who God calls us to be.

 

And so, the pathway looms ahead. It’s not always familiar territory. And, in fact, we usually have to leave part of what we carry and hold so tightly behind. We usually tend to travel too weighted down to notice where we need to go. So, give up what you need to give up or take on what you need to take on. And feel the ashes on your skin to remind you who you are and also whose you are. Let them be a blessing and a beginning. And know that God calls you away from the self that you have imagined. And begin to walk. It is a journey that is hard and difficult and takes you through darkness. But it is a journey that leads to life, that leads to beginning again.

 

Meanwhile, sin is our only hope, because the recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again. (Barbara Brown Taylor, in “Speaking of Sin”)

 

Thank you for sharing your Lenten journey with me!

 

Grace and Peace,

 

Shelli

What Is Left

Flower in AshesScripture Passage: Joel 2: 1-3

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near— a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. Fire devours in front of them, and behind them a flame burns. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.

I know.  What a way to begin the season–darkness and gloom, devouring fire and flame, and desolate wilderness!  I know what you’re thinking.  Can we go back to that manger scene now?  Can we go back to being bathed in light with the hope of the world nestled in our arms?  Well, the problem, is that somewhere on this journey between seasons, we forgot.  We forgot who and whose we were.  Somewhere along the way we became self-sufficient and sure of ourselves.  Somewhere along the way, we thought we had figured it out, thought we were so right.  Somewhere along the way the trumpet announcing the birth of our Savior became our own horn.  Somewhere along the way we forgot that we were blessed not by what God has given us but by what God has called us to do.  You know–scattering the proud and bringing down the powerful, filling the hungry and sending the rich away.  (Hmmm, that sounds distantly and vaguely familiar.) And now we sit in ashes wondering what to do next.

Lent is our chance to begin again.  Because, think about it, those ashes that you are going to spread on your forehead today are what is left.  They are what has survived.  After all of the devouring fires scorching the gardens, they are left.  They are the remnant.  They are the hope for what will come next.  So we begin our Lenten journey in ashes because we repent for what we have done.  But that is not the end.  God does not leave us on the ash heap alone.  God picks us up and recreates us, walking us through the wilderness, through the valley of the shadow of death, through the Cross, to Life.  The ashes are the beginning.

I’ve used this before on Ash Wednesday (and for those who will hear me later in the day, you have two more chances to hear it in a sermon!), but it’s such a great reminder, I couldn’t resist.  A rabbi once told his disciples, “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on their needs.  When feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “Ani eifer v’afar; I am dust and ashes.  But when feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or without hope, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “Bishvili nivra ha’olam…For my sake was the world created.”

So what will you do with what is left?  What will you do with your share of ashes?  Repent and turning–that is what this day is about.  No longer do we wallow in morbid shame and guilt; no longer do we pound ourselves down for our past mistakes; no longer do we sit on the ash heap sullen and morose.  This is the day when we begin to begin again.  Pick yourself up!  Dust yourself off!  And start.  This is the day when we begin the journey to life.  But we are called to travel light.  God has given what we need.

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  (Luke 1: 46b-49)

As you begin this Lenten journey, what things do you need to leave behind? What things do you need to take with you?  Remember, we are traveling light.  The wilderness journey is long and difficult.  But we are traveling with the one who created us and calls us to live life freely and blessed.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

 

The Season of Shadows

Scripture Passage: Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—2a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come…12Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;13rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.14Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God?15Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly;16gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.17Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”
 
In the shadow of the morning, we can see just a hint of light peeking through the clouds.  There is no brightness, no need to shield our eyes from the glare.  The season of shadows has begun.  We have been through this before.  We know what is to come.  And, yet, we cannot help but continue down the path.  It is where we are called to go.  The Light is at the end.  But to get to it, we must walk through the shadows.  We must walk through the ashes of last year’s palms and the smoky residue of plans we had.  It is the way that we return.  It is the way home.
 
We don’t do well with shadows.  There is something untrustworthy about these shadows, as if they’re hiding something that we cannot see.   But think about it.  A somewhat overcast day is a photographer’s dream.  After all, we need light; we crave light; we are children of the Light!  The darkness is not for us.  It is foreboding.  We do not know which way to go.  But light…full, glaring, heat-ridden light.  It is too much.  So we don our sunglasses and we pull down the shades.  Our eyes are not accustomed to the glare.  It is just too hard to see.  But filtered light, those overcast days, those gray, cloud-filled shadow days that seem to hide something behind it all–those are the ones that let us see.  The glare is gone.  And there is just enough light to illumine our way.  Shadows are disconcerting and, yet, they provide the place for the most clarity.  The filtered colors are brilliant as if all of them are refracted through one prism in brilliant technicolor.  The shadows are where we can truly see.

This is the Season of Shadows.  As hard as it is for us to admit to ourselves, we are not yet ready for the Light.  So God gives us just enough to show us the way without blinding our path.  We will walk for 40 days, stopping to rest every now and then as the Light become brighter, stopping to adjust our eyes.  This is the Season of Shadows, the season of clarity, the season that lights our way when we’re not really ready for the brightness of Home.  Let us now walk, slowly, basking in the shadows.  Even the Shadow is a part of God’s grace.

On this Day of Ashes, remember that even the Shadows were created by God.  And be thankful.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli
 
 

Mixed Messages

Lectionary Gospel for Ash Wednesday:  Matthew 6: 1-6
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

On the way home last night, I heard some pieces of an interview with a political figure questioning another well-known political figure’s religion.  The claim was that it was difficult to discern whether or not this person practiced “legitimate Christianity”.  Really?  And what in the world, pray tell, is “legitimate Christianity”?  And how do you know?  I mean, especially since we’re apparently suppose to be in our rooms with the door shut praying in secret!  But then, aren’t we supposed to be out in the world showing the love of Christ?  Whew!  Well, regardless of the fact that it must have been a slow news day, sometimes it’s just a whole lot of mixed messages, isn’t it?

Today we begin this season of mixed messages.  First of all, Lent itself, literally “springtime”, means that we begin clearing all of the winter debris that has grown and gathered in the flowerbeds and leaving room for new life.  This season is about both pruning and fertilizing, cutting and nurturing.  It’s about cleaning out and freshening up.  Theologically, this season brings images of walking through darkness toward the light, of giving up and taking on, of death and new life.  We are told to let go and to take up, to lay down and to rise up.  We are told to breathe in and to breathe out.  And now, to pray in secret and go out and serve the world.  So, is your head spinning?  Maybe that’s why this season is so difficult.  There’s no baby; there’s no star; there’s not even, when you think about, anybody around to tell us not to be afraid.  No one comes to tell us what is going to happen.  There is no appropriately convenient Lenten anunciation.  We just have to start walking that pathway toward Jerusalem with both assurance and humility.  But this time, in many ways we walk alone.  This God who has walked with us every step of the way has seemed to have gone on at least a few steps ahead of us.  Where Advent kept pushing us back, telling us to wait, in many ways, this season of Lent is pulling us kicking and screaming into something we do not understand, something that, given the choice, we might choose not to do, choose to go back into our room and shut the door.  Mixed messages…

I’ve shared this story before, but it is one of my favorites:  A rabbi once told his disciples, “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on their needs.  When feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “Ani eifer v’afar; I am dust and ashes.  But when feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or without hope, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “Bishvili nivra ha’olam…For my sake was the world created.”

Talk about mixed messages!  We are dust and ashes, resembling that cast-off debris.  And we are loved more than we can even fathom.  We are so very human, struggling with greed and hubris, with some inflated sense of our own worth that makes us think we are better than others or deserve more than others, makes us think that there is some sort of “legitimate Christianity” in which we are called to participate to prove our very worth.  And, yet, somewhere in the midst of our humanity, in the midst of all those things that we do not do or those things we do not do well, there is a piece of the Divine.  Bishvili nivra ha’olam.  Do you even know how much you are loved?  Do you even know how to imagine a God that has given you the world?

Perhaps the mixed messages are because we cannot let go, cannot see what God is offering, cannot fathom how much we are loved.  Today is the day when we proclaim we are dust, when we confess our sins and lay prostrate before the ruins of our lives.  Today is the day when we take burned palm branches and allow them to be smeared across our forehead in the faint shape of a cross.  Today is the day that we remember we are dust, remember that we are particles of waste that are left from what was.  Today is the day when we go in our room and shut the door.  But the only reason we do this is so that we will stop what we are doing, look at our lives, and know how very much we are loved.  Bishvili nivra ha’olam.  For your sake, the world was created. 

Faith is about mixed messages–letting go and taking on, human and Divine, death and life, sending and return.  Perhaps this Season of Lent is about realizing that there is a Holy and Sacred “And” connecting it all.   Lent is not about giving things up; it is about emptying your life that you may be filled.  Lent is not about going without; it is about making room for what God has to offer.  And today is not about clothing yourself in the morbidness of your humanity; it is about embracing who you are before God.

There was once a question posed to a group of children:  “If all the good people in the world were red, and all the bad people in the world were green, what color would you be?”  A little girl thought for a moment.  Then her face brightened, and she replied:  “I’d be streaky!”  We would all be streaky.  To be human is to be a mixture of the unmixable, to be streaky.  It is to live incomplete, yet yearn for completion; to be imperfect, yet long for perfection; to be broken, yet crave wholeness.  It is to live with mixed messages.  And as we begin what is essentially our own journey to the cross, we note that it is one that not only recognizes but embraces the fact that there are many conflicting and disjointed ideals that God, in God’s infinite mystery and wisdom, allows to exist together—arrogance and humility, good and bad, faith and doubt, human and divine, cross and resurrection, death and life—none can exist without its counterpart.  It is about living a life of breathing out and breathing in.  Neither can exist alone.

So…remember…you are dust and ashes…breathe out…..

For you the world was created…breathe in….

In this Season of Lent, I invite you to join me in my own Lenten practice of trying to post something to this blog each day.  I would also invite you to let me know that you are reading it and join in the conversation!  And if this is not enough for you, I’m also “re-posting” my blog from a few years ago based on the book, Bread and Wine.  The blog is located at http://breadandwine-lentenstudy.blogspot.com/ or you can get there through the Dancing to God blog.

And in this Season of Lent, this season of giving up so that we can take on, I invite you to find those things in your life that you need to put down, need to let go, and also those things that you need to cherish.  So on this first day of Lent, find something that is dusty.  (This may be easier for some of us than others!)  Pick it up, clean it off, and put it in a place of honor.  Let it be your reminder for this entire season that the world was created for you.  But that sometimes you have to get dusted off!

Grace and Peace on this Lenten Journey,

Shelli

Ashed

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercies, blot out my transgressions.  Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin…Create in me a clean heart, O God and put a new and right spirit within me. (Psalm 51: 1-2, 10)

Ashes

I sit here this evening with some semblance of an ashen cross partially hidden under my bangs.  It’s actually the second time I’ve been ashed today.  I washed the other one off so that I would appear clean and “unashed” for the second service of the day.  The truth is, this annual ashing, so to speak, is nothing less than odd.  We get all dressed up (well some of us) and we make our way to what is a sort of dark and sullen sanctuary to say out loud that we have once again not been the people that we really ought to be.  I supposed you could call it our annual cleansing, a spring cleaning, as we ask God to create in us a clean heart.

But ashes?  It is rather odd, when you think about it–remnants of a life gone, reminders of death and destruction, of finality.  And yet, ashes are also a symbol of a great leveler.  Destruction is like that.  A fire burns and knows no bounds.  In its path is both beauty and ugliness, both wealth and poverty, success and failure, right and wrong, righteousness and evil.  The fire burns, consuming whatever is there, and leaves nothing but ashes.  So, being ashed this night is a reminder not merely of what I have done wrong, not only of those places where I have wandered off the pathway, but rather that, when it is all said and done, we are really all the same.  We are dust, blown helplessly through the winds of the earth until, until God breathes into us the breath of life and we are born alive and renewed.  And the oddest thing of all is that God does that over and over and over again, never seeming to tire of sweeping through our lives and giving us a clean heart.
It is a good thing, this clean heart, because that is what it takes to make the trip to Jerusalem.

So, this night, I am ashed, but, if only for a moment, I am clean enough to begin the journey.  From these ashes, comes life.  Again and again and again.

Our journey to the Cross has begun.  Go in peace.  Go with a clean heart.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Counterpoint (A Sermon for Ash Wednesday)

This, Not That

We live in a world filled with choices. We live in a world where we are continuously bombarded by directives to buy this (not that), eat this (not that), drink this (not that), drive this (not that), wear this (not that), say this (not that), and do this (not that). To be honest it is completely overwhelming. There are so many competing voices vying for our loyalty that most of us easily lose perspective of what’s really important, what really matters in our lives. But perhaps it really is easier to know which way to go if someone tells us exactly what path should be taken, if someone points us ahead by saying “Go this way. Do not go this way.” Maybe that’s the point. Those who are vying for our attention have figured that out. By presenting counterpoints, contrasts or opposites, they are assuming that they are leaving us with no choice but to follow down the road that they want us to go.

It appears that Jesus is doing the same thing in the Gospel passage that we read. The words “do not” appear in the translation from which we read five different times: “Do not do something so that you are noticed when giving offerings,” “Do not let others know what you are doing when you give them,” “Do not pray so that others notice you,” “Do not call attention to yourself when you fast,” and (probably the most challenging for us twenty-first century hearers) “Do not store up or hoard your treasures or your wealth here on earth.” Jesus presents these directives as counterpoints. It’s like saying, “you know the way the world tells you to do things; do not do things that way. There is a better way.”

Intellectually, I think we as Christian hearers know that. We know that there are many things about our contemporary worldly lives that are not exactly in line with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But change is hard. And, after all, we’re only human, right?

A Season for Change

But today we begin the journey of change. As we move from the season of Epiphany and the celebration of God’s light manifest in the world, we now begin the time when we are called to shift our own perspective and our own vision in relation to that light. This is the beginning of a time in which we are called to redirect our lives and realign them with what they are supposed to be, a time to look at what it is that fills our lives, at those things that we do, and at those things that we treasure. Because as we go along, it is so incredibly easy for us to become swept up into whatever it is that makes up our lives and somehow convince ourselves that that is what life is supposed to look like. We like having choices. Being directed toward “this and not that” is difficult. But, my friends, this is the season of change.

Lent, which, literally, means “springtime” is a time of nurturing and preparation. It is the great Christian festival of new life. It is a greening and bringing back to life of our souls. Going back to the fourth century, Lent was traditionally associated with penitence, fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Lent, like springtime, is a time of growth and renewal and, yes, change. Our forty days of Lent are reminiscent of the forty trying days that Jesus spent in the dry and secluded wilderness as he readied himself for his ministry. In the same mode, the early church used Lent as a time to prepare believers for baptism, to prepare them to begin their walk with Christ. It is a time to allow God’s spirit to point out to you those habits, attitudes, and behaviors that may be blocking you from a deeper walk with God.

Joan Chittister says that “Lent is not an event. It is not something that happens to us. It is at most a microcosm of what turns out to be a lifelong journey to the center of the self. The purpose of Lent is to confront us with ourselves in a way that’s conscious and purposeful, that enables us to deal with the rest of life well.” Truth be known, Ash Wednesday invites us into what is for some of us some fearsome territory where we might find healing and renewal from those things that get in the way of the real “us” that we are called to be. It is not a day where we begin to deprive ourselves of things we need or even things we want; it is the point at which we begin to look at things differently. We are called to look at things through the heart of Christ rather than through the eyes of the world.

So on this day, as we begin this journey, we are called to repentance, to a turning around, to change. Think of it, though, as a threshold that begins a journey into new life, a window to a new way of seeing, and a doorway to a new way of being. It is the day when we finally tell ourselves “not that, but this.”—this way of life to which Jesus calls us, a way of recreation and renewal. And it is the day when we finally admit that we cannot do it alone.

A Parody of Life

To the rest of the world, I suppose this practice of putting ashes on our foreheads is extremely odd. Who are we kidding? If we back away from the ritual of this day, most of US would probably think this practice is extremely odd. Because, once again, in the big scheme of what the world has laid out as normal, being Christian, following Christ, is probably just odd.

In fact, even in the first century setting in which these words were heard, what Jesus says is almost a parody of life. Think about it. These good, righteous people were told their whole life to act righteous, to show themselves holy, to set themselves apart. They were told that part of penitence was letting others see that they were penitent. It was who they were; it was part of their identity. But Jesus is telling them, “No, that’s not it. Righteousness has nothing to do with what you look like to others. It has nothing to do with proving yourself good or righteous. It simply has to do with quietly and inconspicuously turning toward God so that you are no longer seen. It has to do with changing your life so that when people look at you, they do not see what you are doing for God in your life; rather, they see the very image of Christ in you.

This passage is indeed a parody of life. It presents a counterpoint to what we humans have figured out life should be. And at its deepest meaning, it is not merely calling us to a different way of acting or a new way of doing things. It is instead a call to in essence die to oneself that we might become one with God.

And From the Ashes…

Hence, the ashes. Ashes have traditionally been a sign of repentance and mourning. They inherently represent the passing of something—a tree that once grew tall, a house destroyed by fire, a once-vibrant city now a victim of volcanic eruption. Historically, the ashes used on Ash Wednesday were burned palms of last year’s Palm Sunday. They carried the reminder of all those grandiose hopes and triumphal offerings that without the proper perspective can in just a short time turn easily turn to betrayal, persecution, and even death. Ashes represent what is left when all that we know, all that we have built, all that we hold dear is gone. It is a reminder that nothing really matters unless it is part of our returning to God.

And so, traditionally, the sign of the cross was made with ashes on the forehead. The traditional wording, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” evokes the story of our creation in the second chapter of Genesis: “and the Lord God formed humanity from the dust of the ground, and breathed into humanity’s nostrils the breath of life, and humanity became a living being.” Instead of this wording, we usually say the words, “repent, and believe the Gospel.” The meaning is similar: “Turn, turn back toward God and toward what you were created to be and believe in the good news that is Christ, that takes you forward to new life.”

That is the point. From the ashes comes new life. It is a mark of our returning to God, as the reading from Joel depicts. It is our beginning again. At the end of the service, we will sing a hymn that is one of my favorites. It is not in our hymnal that we use every week. It is something new—a new reminder of the new life that we are offered each and every day. It speaks of this returning, of our realization that we have not been who God created us to be. We have not remembered our baptism; we have not loved our neighbors; we have lost perspective. But from the ashes comes life, renewal, recreation, a new heart now right and one with God. It is this, not that, the true counterpoint to what this world offers.

A Harmonious Counterpoint

There’s another definition for what a counterpoint is, though. In music, a counterpoint is the relationship between two or more voices that are independent from each other in contour and rhythm and yet are harmonically interdependent. The focus, then, is not on the differences between the two but, rather on the way they fit together, the way they are transformed into something new. As I realized this, I suddenly began to look at this Scripture differently. Perhaps Jesus was not telling his hearers to do this and not that; perhaps instead he was calling us to a different way, a new perspective in how we pray, how we fast, how we give offerings, and, most importantly how we live. After all, Jesus was not calling us to leave this world and all of its worldly entrapments, but to rather be instruments of transformation. Jesus was reminding us, like the ashes do, that we are human.

But Pierre Teilhard de Chardin contended that “we are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” The truth is, we need to be reminded every once in awhile that we are indeed human. But it is not merely a reminder that we are only human and in need of God’s love and forgiveness; it is also a glorious reminder that, as humans, we are indeed made in the image of God. We are indeed created as spiritual beings whose home is with God.

I’ve used this before on Ash Wednesday, but it’s such a great reminder, I couldn’t resist. A rabbi once told his disciples, “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on their needs. When feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “Ani eifer v’afar; I am dust and ashes. But when feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or without hope, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “Bishvili nivra ha’olam…For my sake was the world created.”

It is the perfect counterpoint, a harmonious symphony. We are dust and ashes, dark remnants of something that once was. But even within those ashes are the imprints of new life. That seems to be God’s pattern. From endings and death, comes beginnings and new life. But as Leo Tolstoy once remarked, “there are many reasons for the failure to comprehend Christ’s teachings…but the chief cause which has engendered all these misconceptions is this: that Christ’s teaching is considered to be such that it cannot be accepted, or even not accepted, without changing one’s life.” New life, new beginnings, are not replays. They are brand new symphonies.

As you leave today with the mark of both death and life on your forehead, remember that there is always something more. The Kingdom of God has already come and yet there is much for us to do before it becomes what it was fully created to be. Many ask the question, “How long do I need to keep these ashes on my forehead?” “When can I wash it off?” In fact, it has been pointed out to me that it is odd to read warnings about practicing our piety for all to see and then marking ourselves in this way for all to see. You know, I’m clear that it doesn’t matter at all. It has nothing to do with anyone else. It’s not for show. It is just a reminder to you only of who you are and to whom you should return. It is a reminder to “repent and believe the gospel”. It is a reminder that there is always more to life than we thought but at the same time, we have to let go of what we thought. Let these ashes be an ending and a beginning, darkness and light, benediction and invitation, a counterpoint to what was and a harmonious overture to what comes next. So, wash your face when your heart is ready. Just don’t forget what it is like to be dust into which God has breathed life.

Let us now begin our journey to the Cross and follow the One who leads us down a different way.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli