It's a grey, rainy morning. It's Ash Wednesday. I've sort of tip-toed my way up to this Lenten season wondering what it is I can/should/ought to give up. I think I know, but it's hard to articulate. It's a bit abstract. Sometimes the really tangible fasts like "I'm giving up soda" or "I'm giving up ice cream" turn into a game in my mind. So I have to steer clear of them. They aren't wrong or bad or anything I just think I can too easily assume them as simply a legalistic "no, no" for the season without much thought for some of the deeper realities of why the season is significant, etc. I've thought "well, I could give up sugar. that would be hard but it would also be really good for me--i'd have the discipline and the beneficial affects of a better diet..." But see, then I start thinking of things for all the wrong reasons--wanting to choose something "just because" it's hard or because I'd also gain something from it. Last year was super hard because giving up worry was like giving up something so attached to myself that I was failing and falling at every turn--being tempted at nearly every moment to forget that there is a place to cast all fear, worry, anxiety and experience freedom and newness. It was therefore rather "abstract" but it was extremely practical in what it revealed and taught.
So, this year I am giving up thinking and living in terms of "Rights and Entitlements," instead living to recognize things as Gift, Promise, and Privilege. It's sort of the product of a lot of thought about what it means to trust God and what it means to believe in His nearness--two "themes," if you will, that have been constant for me of late. What does it mean to trust more in God's faithfulness, love, and provision than in my ability to determine, figure out, and control? What does it mean to have those hard conversations with God about the difficulty of handing over to Him (consistently) and surrendering, entrusting, and believing that He's big enough and good enough to have a better handle on things (he's trustworthy, in other words). What does it mean to see God's work in my life and in the world as a work that is close? Scripture is not shy about telling God's story as one in which He is near--a traveling presence. He pilgrimed with Israel out of slavery into wilderness and guided to the Promised Land. He set up camp in their midst. He presenced himself with them. So goes the story...and then He sends himself into the story, right into it. Human. God-man. To be with us, God with us. And lives a life that's a part of ours--facing the realities of human life and learning: temptation, love, sorrow, beauty, desire, difficulty...When he leaves he gives an extraordinary gift: his very Spirit, to live in us. There are, it seems, profound patterns of committed nearness.
It can be uncomfortable to think of God as one who is near. A God who is near means a God who knows. He knows our dirt and our mess; our beauty and our unique wonder. He lives with us deep deep down, acknowledging a value and worth that undercut all of the outward expressions of "who we are." And when we realize we are so exposed in the journey, I suppose we necessarily feel a little embarrassed, uncertain, and uncomfortable. A God who is near and a God who knows means that we have to wonder if he actually loves and accepts what he lives with and sees of us. This takes trusting him to a whole new level and reliance to a new depth. This is what I hope to dwell on for lent--God near my mess; God in my need; God loving my brokenness; God mending, healing, renewing, tearing apart, putting back together...God on the journey with me. So the things that I often falsely consider to be my rights and entitlements (anything and everything, really: achievements, accomplishments, understanding, knowledge, revelation, faith, belief, love...the things that I can begin to feel like I come up with...) can be seen and understood as gifts and promises (the "product" of God at work in my life--my mess--accomplishing something deeper and longer lasting; God worthy of trust because He's committed to a larger picture than the one I'm committed to but he's patient enough to help me get there. He journeys with. He offers gifts and remembers promises. He cares for us as we work to control what we think we understand..). He stepped into our mess for a reason. He's in the business of redemption and reconciliation--making all things new. That's the freedom and hope that is "Gospel." Free from the entanglements of sin and it's web-like trap that offers a lot but follows through with little. The hope and freedom that are our life in God recognize the gifts of relationship, love, and committed faithfulness. They offer a courage and strength for living our imperfections in liberating ways (toward health and wholeness) not in ways that discourage true life and growth.
What will all of this look like, for Lent? Well, I'm not 100% certain, of course. It will be daily, that's for sure. Daily work to face the temptation of wanting to recognize my life as my own. It will require daily reminders of God's promises, His workings in/through history, and His goodness that is sometimes hard to understand. It will demand that I consider new ways of trusting God's provision--believing that He bestows and privileges us in ways we don't always expect or understand, but they are gift. This feels a little like an experiment and I don't really know how it will go. I'll keep you posted as I journey. I like the journey-feel of Lent...the feeling of "travel." How are you traveling this Lenten season? What are you considering, wrestling, hoping?
Finally I'll just post this prayer in consideration of today, Ash Wednesday, and the journey ahead...
Marked by Ashes (Walter Brueggemann)
Ruler of the Night, Guarantor of the day . . .
This day — a gift from you.
This day — like none other you have ever given, or we have ever received.
This Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness and possibility.
This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day, for we are already halfway home
halfway back to committees and memos,
halfway back to calls and appointments,
halfway on to next Sunday,
halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
half turned toward you, half rather not.
This Wednesday is a long way from Ash Wednesday,
but all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes —
we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
of failed hope and broken promises,
of forgotten children and frightened women,
we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.
We are able to ponder our ashness with
some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes
anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.
On this Wednesday, we submit our ashen way to you —
your Easter parade of newness.
Before the sun sets, take our Wednesday and Easter us,
Easter us to joy and energy and courage and freedom;
Easter us that we may be fearless for your truth.
Come here and Easter our Wednesday with
mercy and justice and peace and generosity.
We pray as we wait for the Risen One who comes soon