The Radical Relief of Repentance

pexels-photo-54566Today, millions of men and women around the world will begin preparing for Easter by celebrating Ash Wednesday.  Christians from both the Catholic and Protestant traditions will line up to hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” They will close their eyes as the minister scratches a cross of ashes onto their foreheads. They will acknowledge their weakness and ask God’s forgiveness.

As anyone who has ever celebrated Ash Wednesday can likely attest, the service is surprisingly popular.  Its appeal, I think, lies in its counter-cultural message.  It shares with us a truth that we are desperate to hear.  It tells us that the God who created and controls the universe is good.  It tells us that the world does not rest on our shoulders alone.  It tells that we are unconditionally loved.

Modern American culture, as described by David Brooks in Bobos in Paradise, tells us something different.  It rewards us according to our accomplishments.  It values us according to our achievements.  Any failures can be catastrophic.  Failures don’t just threaten our social or professional standing; they threaten our very identity and dignity. The result is a generation of men and women low on self-worth and high on anxiety.

As Ash Wednesday attests, however, there is room for imperfection in the Christian tradition.  In fact, there is an assumption of imperfection.  

Ash Wednesday is a reminder that no accomplishment or failure can add to or subtract from our God-given worth.  

For those of us caught up in the relentless pursuit of perfection, Ash Wednesday offers immense and immediate relief.  We can to admit our shortcomings without risking our dignity.  We can confess our sins without losing God’s love.  

Acknowledging our weakness and asking for forgiveness does not mire us in guilt.  It washes us in grace.  

Repentance, as epitomized in Ash Wednesday, does not destroy; it heals.

The Ash Wednesday service I attended at noon today was crowded.  People were packed in the pews, standing and squeezed into the foyer.  Some were in suits.  Some in police uniforms.  Some in scrubs.  People of various ages, of various races.  All burdened by the pursuit of perfection.  All worried their worth was lost.  All seeking salvation from their sins.  And, in one voice they echoed the words of the Psalmist, “have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.”

Amen.

 

2 Questions to Consider for Ash Wednesday… and Lent and Easter and Everyday

2 Questions to Consider for Ash Wednesday_2Something big is coming.

Something life-changing.

Something world-changing.

As a general rule, I hate change.  I am quick to judge and slow to warm.  Transitions are tough for me.

These days, however, I am craving a change.  My anxiety, some of it my own creation and some of it borrowed from the outside world, has left me weary.  I’m eager for a fresh start. I’m excited for the something big.

As with most things, there is good news and bad news.  I’ll start with the bad: the something big requires a lot of work.  Think of how your body feels after a run: chest heaving, shins aching, hair sticking to your hot cheeks.  Imagine if your soul felt like that. The something big demands that sort of effort, exertion.  Now, for the good news: the something big comes with countless gifts.  Think of how your body feels after a shower: skin soft, muscles relaxed, hair dripping down your bare back.  Imagine if your soul felt like that.  The something big can cleanse you, calm you, heal you.

Even I’m okay with that kind of change.

Preparations for the something big start in 7 days, on March 1, with Ash Wednesday. Christians from the Catholic and Protestant traditions will spread ashes across their foreheads in acknowledgment of their iniquity and mortality.  Just like Job, they will pray, “I despise myself,/ and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).  

For approximately 40 days thereafter, us Christians will undertake certain sacrifices and practices to grow closer to God.  We will do so in the example of Jesus, who “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil” (Luke 4:1b-2a).

Then, on Sunday, April 16, we will celebrate the biggest something that ever was: Easter. Just as Peter did some 2,000 years ago, we will get up and run to the tomb; stoop and look in, [and] see the linen cloths by themselves.  We will return home, amazed at what has happened (see Luke 24:12).

How will you prepare to fully experience and embrace the something big?  

If you’re not sure how to prepare, reflect on the questions below.  Your preparation may involve sacrificing something (e.g., alcohol, makeup, social media, etc) for the 40 days. Or, your preparation may involve doing something new (e.g., volunteering with a local charity, reading a devotional, calling your grandma, etc).  The questions below helped me make my own Lenten commitments, and I hope they will help you prepare appropriately for Easter. I pray that, when the something big does come, it will change us and our world like never before.

Questions

  1. How can I better love and serve God?
    • What practices help me connect with God (e.g., studying the Bible, walking a labyrinth, keeping a journal, etc)?
    • Can I engage in these practices more frequently?
    • If so, how can I make time and space for these practices?
  2. How can I better love and serve my neighbor?
    • Have I demonstrated all the fruits of of the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, etc)?
    • If not, how can grow in one or more of these fruits?
    • Is there a particular relationship in my personal or professional life that needs particular attention or effort right now?
    • Is there a need in my local or national community that I can address?
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