An Ash Wednesday Reflection

I like participating in Ash Wednesday. I like walking around with a cross of ashes right smack dab in the middle of my forehead. I like the surreptitious glances of people who see the mark and then quickly look away, as if they caught me doing something inappropriate. I like wearing a symbolic declaration of my identity.

© Copyright Helgi Halldórsson and  licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Helgi Halldórsson and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

Ash Wednesday marks me as a Christian, someone who would follow Jesus on his journey through the wilderness toward Easter. The mark of the cross identifies me with the historic Christian faith, but it leaves me without an agenda. It is not a bumper-sticker Christianity that proclaims what I do or do not support. It is not my effort to convert others to my way of thinking. It does not set me aside as an individual; rather, the two smeared lines of ashes join me together with the people of God who, throughout the ages, have declared that they sin, that they are mortal, and that they look to Jesus for any hope of change.

I have this same feeling when sit, sandwiched between other penitents on the bench in the back of the church, waiting for my turn to go in to confession. There is something serious about setting aside time for self-evaluation, repentance, and affirmation of a desire to change. There is something important about desiring to strengthen my will to choose good and turn from evil. But there is something humbling to realize that I am one in a long line of sinners who, regardless of what we have done or neglected to do, wait desperately for the mercy and absolution of a loving God. The reality of my humanity, of my ordinariness, strips me of self-importance, even in the midst of repentance.

And so I begin this season of Lent soberly, having a desire for spiritual growth and discipline. Yet I also go gently into a season of penitence, knowing that I will break my fast and, if nothing else, fail to love God whole-heartedly and to love others as I love myself. But there is nothing remarkable in that. Nothing unexpected. What is remarkable is that at the end of Lent comes the promise and the hope of Easter. Being one of many sinners who seek and receive God’s gift of grace frames all of Lent, in fact any act of contrition or repentance, with the mystery and hope of the Gospel–Christ in us, the hope of glory. I like having that stamped on my forehead, the reminder that I belong to Christ and that he is working his will in me as he does with countless others.

© Copyright Michael Saludo  and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Michael Saludo and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

By the end of the day today, the cross of ashes will most likely be rubbed into an unrecognizable smudge. By the end of the season of Lent, I will have repented and failed and repented and failed some more, and hopefully grown in awareness and strength of character. But the mark of the cross will remain on my life, seen on my forehead or not, as the constant reminder that I am marked as Christ’s own. Forever.

Democracy of the Dead – Gregory of Nyssa

G.K. Chesterton once said that “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead…Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”  

To honor that sentiment and to stave off an easy chronological snobbery, today’s post comes straight from the mouths (or pens) of men and women who have died in the faith.

From Gregory of Nyssa

Cross by George Wharton JamesOur good Master, Jesus Christ, bestowed on us a partnership in his revered name, so that we get our name from no other person connected with us, and if one happens to be rich and well-born or of lowly origin and poor, or if one has some distinction from his business or position, all such conditions are of no avail because the one authoritative name for those believing in him is that of Christian.

…As this astute perceiver of particular goods says, “Do you seek a proof of the Christ who speaks in me? and “It is now no longer I that live but Christ lives in me.”

This man knew the significance of the name of Christ for us, saying that Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.  And he called him peace, and light inaccessible in whom God dwells, and sanctification and redemption and great high priest and Passover, and a propitiation” of souls, “the brightness of glory and image of substance,” and “maker of the world, and spiritual food, and spiritual drink and spiritual rock, waterfoundation of faith, and cornerstone and image of the invisible God, and great God, and head of the body of the Church, and the firstborn of every creature, firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep, firstborn from the dead, firstborn among many brothers and mediator between God and humanity, and only begotten Son and crowned with glory and honor, and lord of glory and beginning of being speaking thus of him who is the beginning, king of justice and king of peace and ineffable king of all, having the power of the kingdom, and many other such things that are not easily enumerated.

When all of these phrases are put next to each other, each one of the terms makes its own contribution to a revelation of what is signified by being named after Christ, and each provides for us a certain emphasis.  To the extent that we take these concepts into our souls, they are all indications of the unspeakable greatness of the gift for us. However, since the rank of kingship underlies all worth and power and rule, by this title the royal power of Christ is authoritatively and primarily indicated (for the anointing of kingship, as we learn in the historical books, comes first), and all the force of the other titles depends on that of royalty.  For this reason, the person who knows the separate elements included under it also knows the power encompassing these elements. 

But it is the kingship itself that declares what that title of Christ means.  Therefore, since, thanks to our good Master, we are sharers of the greatest and the most divine and the first of names, those honored by the name of Christ being called Christians, it is necessary that there be seen in us also all of the connotations of this name, so that the title be not a misnomer in our case but that our life be a testimony of it.  Being something does not result from being called something.  The underlying nature, whatever it happens to be, is discovered through the meaning attached to the name.

Two-Cents

I’ve been reading the parable of the widow with her offering.  It makes me think of the phrase “two cents.”  I like this phrase.  It’s a useful disclaimer when I’m about to say something.  “I’ll give you my two cents,” I’ll say.  “But that’s about all its worth.”

© Copyright Warburg and  licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Warburg and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

I hide behind that sometimes, as though saying my words don’t carry weight will excuse me of any negative implications.  I like to name them as two cents, so that no one will think I’m passing them off as a twenty-dollar bill.

My husband caught me the other day.  “I don’t know what that’s rooted in,” he said.  “That desire to say you only have two cents.  What you have to say is worthwhile.”

I’ve thought a lot about that recently.  Our tendency to determine what contributions are more valuable than others.  Sure, money is the most obvious one, but what about Time? Conversation? Relationship?

What do you have to put in the box?  Holly Pierlot uses this example when she’s talking about being a present mother:

“Jesus is perfectly wiling to bless my efforts,” she writes.  “But first he had to have efforts to bless….I had to give a full five loaves and two fish – not three loaves, not two loaves.  I had to apply all of me to the task and mission I was called to be and do, not haphazardly, but fully, methodically, completely.  Jesus was asking for the dedication of my entire self to my vocation.

The story of the widow and the offering box seems straightforward.  It really doesn’t matter whether you’re putting in two cents or twenty.  It’s whether you are putting in all you have.

© Copyright warrenlead69 and  licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright warrenlead69 and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

I think the trick is that we often don’t know what we have.  Two mites or twenty dollars, we think it’s about what we can scrounge up to give. But the real question is: are you putting in all of yourself?

Perhaps it’s time to stop determining what our contributions are really worth and hustle on up to the offering box instead.  He can use two mites.  He can use four loaves.  He can use the mouth of an ass.  He can use you and me, whatever we have to offer.

Democracy of the Dead – Hannah Hurnard

G.K. Chesterton once said that “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead…Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”  

To honor that sentiment and to stave off an easy chronological snobbery, today’s post comes straight from the mouths (or pens) of men and women who have died in the faith.

From Hannah Hurnard‘s HINDS FEET ON HIGH PLACES

Cross by George Wharton James“Much-Afraid trembled a little, partly at the tone of his voice and partly because she was still Much-Afraid by nature and was already trying to picture what the Forests of Danger and Tribulation would be like.  That always had a disastrous effect upon her, but she answered penitently, ‘No – I know that you are not a man who would lie to me; I know that you will make good what you have said.

“’Then,’ said the Shepherd, speaking very gently again, ‘I am going to lead you through danger and tribulation, Much-Afraid, but you need not be the last bit afraid, for I shall be with you.  Even if I lead you through the Valley of the Shadow itself you need not fear, for my rod and my staff will comfort you.’

Then he added, ‘Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.  Though a thousand fall at thy side, and ten thousand at they right hand, it shall not come nigh thee…For I will cover thee with my feathers, and under my wings shalt thou trust’ (Psa. 91:4-7).  The gentleness of his voice as he said these things was indescribable.

Then Much-Afraid knelt at his feet and built yet another altar and said, ‘Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”  Then, because she found that even as she spoke her teeth were chattering with fright and her hands had gone quite clammy, she looked up into his face and added, ‘For thou art not a man that thou shouldest lie, nor the Son of man that thou shouldest repent.  Hast thou said, and shalt thou not do it?  And hast thou spoken and shalt thou not make it good?’

Then the Shepherd smiled more comfortingly than ever before, laid both hands on her head and said, “Be strong, yea, be strong and fear not.”  Then he continued, “Much-Afraid, don’t ever allow yourself to begin trying to picture what it will be like.  Believe me, when you get to the places which you dread you will find that they are as different as possible from what you have imagined, just as was the case when you were actually ascending the precipice.

I must warn you that I see your enemies lurking among the trees ahead, and if you ever let Craven Fear begin painting a picture on the screen of your imagination, you will walk with fear and trembling and agony, where no fear is.”  When he had said this, he picked up another stone from the place where she was kneeling, and gave it to her to put with the other memorial stones.  Then he went his way, and Much-Afraid and her companions started on the path which led up through the forests.”

Spiritual Therapy

My husband Aaron has had back trouble on and off for years.  The pain is growing un-ignorable, the kind that begins to affect his daily life.  He finally went to see a doctor and then a physical therapist a few weeks back.

© Copyright Frank Olsen and  licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Frank Olsen and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

The physical therapist pinpointed his problem exactly.  She explained that it wasn’t the hurting muscles that were the problem.  Instead, those aching muscles were working extra hard to cover for a different, smaller, weaker, undeveloped muscle.  The pain came from the body adapting to the weak muscle’s inactivity.  A pattern set in, and over the years, the other muscles are strained.

The cure isn’t to relax those overworked muscles.  It’s to strengthen the weak muscle.  As the weak muscle’s capacity grows, the other muscles will relax and the body will begin to work properly again.

I was thankful for Aaron’s sake that these exercises might reduce his pain, and as I began to consider the underlying problem, I began to see the relevance for my own life.

In so many areas, it’s the symptoms of brokenness and sin that capture my attention.  The anxiety or fatigue, the surprising anger or fear that explode into daily interactions, upsetting me and those around me.  I don’t like it.  I want to fix it and root out the problem that’s causing such unpleasantness.

I try to manage my anxiety or rest more so I won’t be so fatigued.  I work to rightly express my emotions or fill-in-the-blank with whatever behavior I’m trying to counteract.  But Aaron’s physical therapy lesson brought new insight.

Ridding myself of the bad won’t necessarily strengthen the good.

Counteracting those negative emotional patterns may bring some short-term improvement, but it doesn’t get at the underlying problem.  My emotional being won’t function properly until the weak underdeveloped muscles can be brought into wholeness.

© Copyright Simon Eugster and  licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Simon Eugster and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

What does it mean to strengthen the good?  Scripture is full of this kind of theology.  It’s not just the “putting off” of the old, but the “putting on”of the new.  In fact the putting on of the new often forces out the old.  Clothing myself with Christ strips off the old tattered rags while simultaneously giving me His life.

I think about this in my struggle with fear.  If you’ve ever battled any sort of emotion, you know it’s not enough to tell yourself it isn’t rational or to try and not respond in that way anymore.  I can’t make myself unafraid.

I’m already learning that the primary offensive strategy is to act out of truth rather than emotional response.  To act according to what I know to be true without giving way to fear – to act in the face of it.  But I think this physical therapy approach gives me another angle on it.

 When I feed on the goodness of God, when I abide in the truth of his love, I am strengthening the muscle that enables me to trust him.  As that muscle grows, it undoes the damage done by the cramping fearful self-preserving muscles.

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.  Oh, Lord, may it be so.

© Copyright Dirk Beyer  and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Dirk Beyer and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

Democracy of the Dead – Gregory of Nazianzus

G.K. Chesterton once said that “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead…Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”  

To honor that sentiment and to stave off an easy chronological snobbery, today’s post comes straight from the mouths (or pens) of men and women who have died in the faith.

A Prayer from Gregory of Nazianzus

I am spent, O my Christ, breath of my life. 

Cross by George Wharton JamesPerpetual stress and surge, in league together, make long, O long, this life, this business of living.

Grappling with foes within and foes without, my soul has lost its beauty, blurred your image.

Did ever oak such buffeting from winds or ship receive from waves as I do now?  Labor to labor, task succeeds to task…friendship has bowed and illness wasted me…Do not forsake me, my Strength, I beseech you.

When the storms beat hard I may have betrayed you, but let me return to you now.

–Gregory of Nazianzus.

Jesus Loves Me

When I first taught my young sons Jesus Loves Me, I modified the words.  “Jesus loves us,” I sang, “this we know.”

© Copyright Nicolas Perez and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Nicolas Perez and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

I think some of this was pragmatic: the grammar stickler in me wanted the pronoun to be plural if the singers were, in fact, plural.

But part of it was my theology.  I was kind of pleased with my version, as though I was giving the cold shoulder to modern Christianity and its individualistic thinkingIt’s not all about me, I probably thought to myself.  And I don’t want my kids to think it’s all about them.

It’s like that old evangelism technique that goes: if you were the only person on earth, Jesus would die for you.  I don’t know why, but this always used to make my head explode.  Maybe it’s because I’m an American, from the country where everything is all about me.  Or maybe it was a pendulum swing against the evangelicalism that ignores the corporate identity of the church in favor of my personal Christianity.  Or maybe it’s because I swim in constant marketing that tells me I am the only person on Earth.

Or maybe it’s because the directness of Jesus’ love is uncomfortable. 

Hiding behind the words Jesus loves us reveals my inability to receive his love. The truth is that Jesus does love me.  Me, all by myself.  Standing there vulnerable and alone.  Me, who knows what I’ve done or thought about doing.  Who knows how un-lovable I am.  Me, if I was the last person on earth.  He really does.

And Jesus does love you.  You, all by yourself.  Standing there vulnerable and alone.  You, who know what you’ve done or thought about doing.  You, who know how unlovable you are.  You, if you were the last person on earth.

© Copyright J J Harrison and  licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright J J Harrison and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

That kind of piercing, knowing love can make us squirm.  We are naked and we want to cover up.  To joke or push it aside.  To jump in a group where we can breathe a sigh of relief and shove aside the compulsion to respond to His love.

It’s a self-awareness my children don’t have.  Several months ago, I taught them the original words, and they sing it with gusto.  “Jesus Loves Me,” they shout, dancing around the living room.  Sometimes we insert their names.  “Yes, Jesus loves Elijah,” we’ll sing when it’s his turn, and he beams.

I learn from my children.  They don’t have to parse childlike faith.  They breathe it.  So join us.  Dance around your living room if you’ll let yourself.  Let’s sing it together: Jesus loves me, this I know.