Ash Wednesday Thoughts

Erwin McManus tells a story about an experience he had while rafting (in his book Uprising: A Revolution of the Soul).  In the calm water the rules about a tight/snug life jacket “made about as much sense as a seat belt in a parked car” but after the raft had flipped in the rapids and he was fighting to keep his feet up and his head above water the rules made complete sense.  He describes the thoughts of fear and regret as he looked for a way to get out of the rapids, all while struggling to keep his feet up and his head above water, and in the midst of it all “it was as if I could hear a voice inside of me both crying out and confessing without shame, ‘I want to live!’” A few pages later he says, “I am convinced that in all of us there is a voice crying out, a confession waiting to be declared without shame, ‘I want to live!’”

Perhaps I am stating the obvious, but I am increasingly convinced that if we forget that this relationship we are in—we being the Church, we being the Bride of Christ—if we forget that this relationship we’re in is nothing more than a matter of the heart, then we are missing the whole point and we are giving away opportunity after opportunity to live an abundant life.

In my church tradition we frequently voice a prayer of confession that begins with the most important thing we can ever confess: “We confess that we have not loved you (God) with our whole heart.”

I spent several years away from Church in my teens and early 20s.  When I returned to the church it was in a tradition where we had weekly confessions.  As we made our confession we stood before a large icon of Christ, with the priest standing at our side.  One Saturday I was standing there, looking into the eyes of the icon and I quietly offered, “I don’t know if I have anything to confess this week.”  I mean, I had been an impatient father and husband on more than one occasion, and I had been a less than charitable human on more than one occasion, but why bother Jesus with those kinds of trivialities? So I said, “I don’t know if I have anything to confess.”  And the priest, standing next to me, quietly said, “Maybe, Daniel, that is where you need to start.”

We confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart…

Why do we say that? Because the Shema says, “Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.”  And Jesus, when asked what the greatest Commandment is says, “The first and greatest commandment is this: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…” (He’s reciting the Shema, by the way.)

And so we confess…but why do we confess?

Joel says, “Bad things are on the horizon.” Like any number of prophets before him and after him, Joel says, “Trouble is coming, so change your ways; clean up your act.”

At least that’s where he starts.

I would bet–and I’m not really a gambling person–but I would bet that most of us have been on either the giving or receiving end of a statement like: “If this happens again, you’re going to be…” (grounded, written up, standing in front of the Captain, etc.)

Granted, there is a time and a place for “Come to Jesus talks,” and enforcing negative consequences certainly creates compliance.

But I’m thinking, and wonder if you don’t agree, that God is interested in more than just compliance.  Because compliant people aren’t joy-filled people.  They are compliant; they are afraid of being in trouble and so they toe the line.    What God is after, ultimately is our hearts, our complete and total devotion.

There happen to be a few sets of words that have changed my life; one set is this: “This will be so much easier if you just admit that you love me.”  They came from my best friend.

Lately as I ponder what it is to undertake the season of Lent and the disciplines that we are invited to be molded by–and ultimately what I understand the life of a Christian to be about–I hear the words spoken by my best friend, “This will be so much easier if you just admit that you love me.”

“Religion is a private matter.”  It used to be that there were three taboo topics for public conversation: Politics, Religion and Sex.  It’s still common to have folks not want to talk about these things outside of circles of close friends or outside of a conversation with a confidante, because what we believe religiously and what we believe politically, those are deeply personal things.  And reading or hearing the things that Jesus says in Matthew 6 may lead one to believe that even Jesus felt that religion was supposed to be a private matter.

But I want to consider, as we step into the season of Lent—that religion is less of a private matter than it is a matter of the heart.  Maybe we’d be better off saying that religion is deeply personal rather than private.

Both readings we encounter today point to a personal religion.  Through Joel, God calls us to give our hearts back to a life of holiness. “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend 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.”  Through the prophet God calls us to physical acts of spirituality, but warns us not to make it shallow—be aware of your need for God and for repentance, but don’t make it an act.  “Rend your hearts, not your clothing.”

In the same Spirit—no pun intended—Jesus says, “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.”  Notice that neither Joel nor Jesus say, don’t have practices of piety—what they say is don’t make the practices the point; let them point to a greater thing.

One pastor, in reflecting on these passages says that the practices of Lent, the use of spiritual disciplines, help us “learn to live holy lives because a closer relationship with the God who sees in secret will be reward enough.” (Maryetta Anschutz)  Another pastor says, “The temptation that comes with being religious people is to substitute religion for God. We mistake our road map for our destination. We turn the means into an end.” (Patrick J. Wilson)

All of that said, it may seem strange that, as we receive ashes and oil on our foreheads that we hear statements of “secret” piety.  After all it’s a bit difficult to hide dark cross shaped smudges that are smack in the middle of our foreheads.  It almost screams, “Look at me! Look at my piety! Look at how religious I am!”

But with the smudge of ashes come some words.  “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.  Repent and believe the Gospel.”  These things are not signs of our piety, they are reminders that all of our striving is for nothing if we don’t allow ourselves to meet grace along the way.  We can fast, and pray, and ponder the Scriptures, and give away everything to the poor, but that’s not the end. It is only the means.  Our piety, our works, they are meant to pull us into the embrace of the Divine.  They are—as we call them in my tradition—means of grace.  Methods of getting connected with the Holy and understanding how much we need that connection.

Augustine of Hippo once said “O Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.”  If ever a pastor put a fine point on our yearning for God, Augustine did.

Or maybe we can think of Lent as a spiritual form of cognitive dissonance.  Cognitive dissonance is a state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.  The journey of Lent gives us the opportunity to disrupt our behaviors for the sake of spiritual formation, for the sake of leaning into grace, for the sake of putting our hearts with the most important treasure of all.

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