I like to observe the liturgical calendar. The rhythms and rites of the church year are important to me, so it chafes me that the weather has been so awful this week that I’ve finally given in and cancelled my Ash Wednesday worship service. Aside from Good Friday, Ash Wednesday is one of the most difficult but most important times for worship of the year, in my opinion. Maybe it’s because I tend toward being hard on myself, or maybe it’s because I’m an introvert and the introspection of these two days is actually quite comfortable for me—either way, there’s something very useful in sitting in church with other sad-feeling souls on a Wednesday in the winter…even when there’s good basketball to be watched that same evening. In recent years, I’ve even begun to appreciate observing a time of silence on Holy Saturday—stopping to think about that tomb that I know will be empty the next day, but isn’t, for right now.
All of this is to say that I’m used to church on Ash Wednesday. I’m really good at taking out my sins and putting them in front of me, picking them up and scrutinizing them, and feeling bad about myself. There’s little about confession that I find terribly unsettling, save for the fact that confession itself is supposed to lead to repentance, that turning away from the “bad” and toward the “good” that’s a hallmark of real desire to be a more faithful disciple. I confess that as I’ve contemplated this blog post, I’ve eaten not one, not two, but three honey popcorn balls that are left over from a youth fundraiser this past weekend. I’d even like to eat another! I mean, what else is going to happen to them, anyway? We don’t have any other place to sell them and by the time the weather clears up and we have any kind of event at the church, people will think they’re too old to be eaten. And popcorn balls, even those made with honey, are healthier than eating a bunch of chocolate or something, right?
Well, there you go—I sound like I’m all ready for Ash Wednesday, don’t I? I have my list of sins to confess and I even have good excuses for them! I am set! But what I guess I’ve learned about Ash Wednesday, through the years and even this week, as I began preparing for a sermon the weather rapidly made less likely that I would ever preach, is that all this putting my sins out in front of me and feeling bad about them is not exactly the point of Ash Wednesday. As we begin Lent, it’s not just 40 days to feel bad about ourselves, which it sometimes feels like it is (to me, at least). It’s not just 40 days to feel kind of miserable, so we can be even happier when Easter comes. It’s actually 40 days set aside to put all this stuff before God and let God reckon with us, as we let go of it.
Think of it like this: I was bitten by a dog once, and the well-meaning physician who treated me told me to use a synthetic skin covering on the bite, to avoid bad scarring. Little did he realize that a thick covering, regular antibiotic ointment application, and the strong oral antibiotic he prescribed for me would actually help develop an infection in the wound, rather than heal it more quickly or aesthetically pleasingly. By applying his knowledge of burn wounds to this bite wound, he actually helped mislead me into more misery and suffering (not to mention, the next doctor that looked at that wound became very concerned because, apparently, dog bites very rarely get infected!).
I think that’s how we tend to do Ash Wednesday—and all of Lent, actually. We keep trying to treat our own “badness” in some sort of way, so as to make ourselves feel better (I have lots of good reasons!), or to save face with others (Look at how good I can be!), or even to ignore or downplay it (I’m really not that bad!). And we are so good at this! We have lots of experience—this is what we do 364 days of the year! (Or maybe only 363 or 362 days, depending on our Good Friday and Holy Saturday practices.) If we can take out all our sins for just a minute, put them on display before God for about an hour, say we repent, recite parts of Psalm 51, get a few ashes swiped on our foreheads, and then head on out the door, we’re good—we’ve taken care of things. So Ash Wednesday becomes this day to carefully arrange ourselves so the scratches and bruises don’t look so bad, to bring them in front of God, just a little bit, and then to get the heck out before we really have to deal with them…or with God.
Now, this probably makes it sound like I think none of us is really honest on Ash Wednesday, and that’s not what I’m trying to say. What I think is that most of us aren’t totally honest with God most of the time—isn’t that part of human nature? If nothing else, maybe Ash Wednesday can become the one day of the year when we really, honestly admit to God that we don’t have it all together—can’t have it all together—and really need a little help down here. Like it or not, the way we do that is to stop and admit it, and then take 40 days (plus Sundays) to try to let God change it. Maybe we like to let ourselves off the hook by giving up something that’s not too bad, or by making some miniscule change that we know we can handle for that long. How many of us bother with what the Matthew text for Ash Wednesday talks about (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21): prayer, fasting, and almsgiving? Two of those three disciplines make almost no sense to most Americans. Why abstain from anything? And why give money to the church and to the poor? What did they do to deserve it? Ick. Who likes spiritual disciplines, anyway?
But one writer on this Matthew passage makes this point: “Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, the great trinity of spiritual disciplines, have in common the practice of detachment and saying no as a way of discovering anew that God is not simply an extension of ourselves or a means to our own ends. Through these practices we seek to experience and listen to God as God, and to be transformed from our self-centered, instrumental, manipulative, idolatrous religious existence to the true life of faith and the genuine experience of the God who exists in freedom and comes to us in freedom as authentic Other. For this reason, we must perform our ascetical practices in principle, and in fact, ‘secret.’” (Rodney J. Hunter, from Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2)
So, Ash Wednesday is a time for us to get together, to sit down before God and be real, and to commit to trying to let God change us…again…And we do this together (though we won’t tonight at my church because of all this ridiculous snow and cold) because we need each other. We need God to change us, and we need each other to walk with us in person and be God with us, even when we can’t feel God’s presence with us. Jesus suggests in Matthew that we should do these practices in secret, and he gives specific reasons for that—because if we do them for recognition and honor, which was common in his culture, we are doing them wrong.
Let’s be honest. Putting the wrong bandages on our wounds and doing things for the wrong reasons hasn’t helped us at all. Sometimes it even makes us sicker. I think it’s time to let God work on the parts of me that are still so far from perfect, to stop pretending that if God will just wait a minute, I’ll get it all together. I think it’s time I stop eating honey popcorn balls when I’m not hungry and I’m just bored of this weather. I think it’s time I put my wounds out in the open before God, for a little bit of fresh air, and maybe for some fresh dressings that God knows can bring healing. And I think it’s time I ask someone else to keep me accountable to all of this. Honestly, as a pastor, it’s incredibly easy not to ask for anyone to keep me accountable with Lenten disciplines…my job is to ask everybody else how their disciplines are going, right? So, I think I’ll commit to what I’m going to do (if you need some ideas, I have a list of suggestions—or you could try out that old “prayer, fasting, and almsgiving” stuff!), and I’ll ask someone else to be in covenant with me about it…and I’ll actually let God help me get things together. I’ll let you know how it works out!
Oh, and here’s a song that’s been going through my head as I’ve been thinking about Ash Wednesday. It makes me think of all the ways I don’t have it together but try to pretend I do, anyway. God, help me to be more honest about this, and help me to let you work on it because how I’ve tried just hasn’t worked!
I've been living out of sanity
I've been splitting hairs and blurring lines
I am a house that is divided
In my heart and in my mind
I use one hand to pull you closer
The other to push you away
If I had two hands doing the same thing
Lifted high, lifted high
I have a broken disposition
I'm a liar who thirsts for the truth
And while I ache for faith to hold me
I need to feel the scars and see the proof
And if we just keep digging we can reach the foundation
Of our souls
And if we just keep cutting all the chains from our hearts
We'll lose control
And it feels like giving in
It feels like starting over
It feels like waking up, and you know it's coming
It feels like a brand new day
Open your eyes