Throughout the month of January, I’ve asked my parishioners one question: What gets in the way of your relationship with God? There were small slips of paper in the bulletin every Sunday.
I asked people to write down their responses on those slips of paper and return them to me. All of this way done anonymously. As Ash Wednesday approached, I shuffled all the responses into six general obstacles:
Then I set up a table in each sanctuary. The table is full of objects that represent those obstacles – a clock for busyness, a mirror for selfishness, a chain for control, a computer screen for media, a pair of sweatpants and a remote control for complacency, and framed blackness for fear. There are also seven candles on the table. We’re doing sort of a backwards Advent. Each Sunday, we’ll have a short reading and a prayer. Then we’ll extinguish one of the candles, removing the fuel and energy from those things that get in the way of our relationship with God.
Lenten obstacles table – Presbyterian Church of Oronoco
Lenten obstacles table – First Congregational UCC, Zumbrota
And so we gathered for our Ash Wednesday service last night – to repent and to acknowledge those times and places and habits and realities in our lives that need to be redeemed. We highlighted each of the obstacles, naming our complicity in their presence in our lives and our continued struggle with these things that get in the way of our relationships with God.
SELFISHNESS – “Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” ~ Phil 2:3-8
It’s mine! My decision … my choice … my life … my time … MY WAY. We often become so concerned with ourselves – what’s going on in our careers, our families, and our lives – that we forget to look at the world around us. We’re so concerned with getting wherever we’re trying to go that we shout at the other drivers around us. We’re so concerned with getting what we think we deserve that we neglect those who are truly in need. We’re so concerned with making sure that our own voices and opinions are heard that we often talk over the still, small voice of the Living God in our midst. We come together tonight to remember that our time, our lives, our strength is in God. Alone, we are the ash and dust from which we come. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” * God of all things, remove us from ourselves. Make your desires our desires. Make your Way our way. May our lives reflect not our own selfish ambitions but your own eternal hope. Amen.
FEAR – “You yourself have kept track of my misery. Put my tears into your bottle— aren’t they on your scroll already? Then my enemies will retreat when I cry out. I know this because God is mine. God: whose word I praise. The LORD: whose word I praise. I trust in God; I won’t be afraid. What can anyone do to me? I will fulfill my promises to you, God. I will present thanksgiving offerings to you because you have saved my life from death, saved my feet from stumbling so that I can walk before God in the light of life.” ~ Ps 56:8-13
We cannot deny that there is darkness in our world. And there are many things to fear in the darkness – uncertainty, illness, grief, anxiety, isolation, hatred, and pain. And so much more. We know about all those things that lurk just outside our vision, waiting for us to feel safe and secure … waiting until just the right moment, our most vulnerable moment, to pounce and devour whatever strength and confidence and peace we have. Yes, fear is a natural part of the world. It is a defense mechanism that has allowed us to survive in the face of challenging and dangerous circumstances for millennia. The problem comes when we allow our fears to paralyze us … when we allow our fears to consume our whole selves, stopping us in our tracks and cutting us off from everything – our friends, our lives, and our faith. In the face of our greatest, most overwhelming fears, we must remember that our God is greater. * Strong and faithful God, be our light in the midst of whatever darkness scares us the most. Be our strength in the face of whatever weakness threatens to paralyze us in fear. You are stronger. You are greater. You indeed are our light and our salvation. Of whom should we be afraid? Amen.
COMPLACENCY/HABITS – “Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise builder who built a house on bedrock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It didn’t fall because it was firmly set on bedrock. But everybody who hears these words of mine and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built a house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It fell and was completely destroyed.” ~ Matt 7:24-27
This is my rut. This is the path that I travel, and I know it so well. It’s familiar. It’s comfortable. It’s easy. I know where the path goes uphill and down. I know where the potholes and pitfalls are. I know where it gets messy and where it gets confusing and where it veers off in a completely different direction. We don’t like change because it’s challenging. It’s scary. It’s strange. And so we fall into old, familiar habits. We do what we’ve always done because it’s what we’ve always known. We settle into our complacency like a well-worn pair of sweatpants, satisfied to do just enough … to get by. But how many times has God called people to be safe and complacent? Was Moses’ call to lead the people out of Egypt anywhere near his comfort zone? Did Peter and the other disciples live lives of familiarity and habitualness? Imagine what Paul’s ministry might have looked like had he stuck only to the territory that he knew. God created us in God’s own image – the image of One who is wildly creative, the One who is always doing something new, something inventive and invasive, the One who bursts through, not the one who lays back. * Inspire us, Holy One. Stir us up. Shake us up. Move in our hearts and in our souls in a way that inspires us to shake off our complacency, abandon our fruitless habits, and follow you anew. Amen.
BUSYNESS – “There’s a season for everything and a time for every matter under the heavens: a time for giving birth and a time for dying, a time for planting and a time for uprooting what was planted, a time for killing and a time for healing, a time for tearing down and a time for building up, a time for crying and a time for laughing, a time for mourning and a time for dancing, a time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones, a time for embracing and a time for avoiding embraces, a time for searching and a time for losing, a time for keeping and a time for throwing away, a time for tearing and a time for repairing, a time for keeping silent and a time for speaking, a time for loving and a time for hating, a time for war and a time for peace.” ~ Ecc 3:1-8
It’s all about priorities. There are only so many hours in the day – nothing we can do about it, no way for us to change it. And the way that we use those 24 hours is telling. How do we fill up those minutes and hours? But we have so many activities pulling us in so many different directions. There’s always something we need to be doing, somewhere we’re supposed to be. We’re supposed to do it all – keep things running smoothly at home, go above and beyond at work, be involved in the community, and everything else. For some reason, we place our worth in the number of things that we get done – the number of accomplishments under our belt and the number of hours we spent running, the number of hours we spend away from home. As this familiar passage of Scripture says, there is a time for everything … but we have to make that time. We have to make the choice – make the effort. We have to set aside time for important things like family and self-care … and God. * Be with us in our decisions, Everlasting God. You have all the time in the world for us. Remind us to make time for you in our day-to-day lives. Help us to slow down. Help us to stop. Help us to breathe. Amen.
CONTROL – “Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love, to deliver their soul from death, and to keep them alive in famine. Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and shield. Our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name. Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you.” ~ Ps 33:18-22.
We’ve got this, right? Things are a little stressful, but we’re in control. We’ve got this. Things are a little crazy, but we can handle it. We’ve got this. The society we live in praises our ability to hold it all together, to be cool under pressure, to be able to juggle work and a personal interests and relationships and outside interests and hobbies. Sometimes we’re really good at that juggling act. Sometimes all we can do is duck as the balls come tumbling down around us and hope one of them doesn’t hit us in the head. The biggest problem with juggling: focus. When our energy is so exclusively focused on keeping things running our way, how can we possibly have anything left to give to God? While we should be using our energy first and foremost to the One who gave us life to begin with, more often than not, God is lucky to get a quick “thank you” as an afterthought. * Almighty God, remind us that the power is yours. The plan is yours. Help us to relinquish our illusion of control and teach us to pray again and again, “Thy will be done.” Amen.
MEDIA – “Nobody should deceive you with stupid ideas. God’s anger comes down on those who are disobedient because of this kind of thing. So you shouldn’t have anything to do with them. You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord, so live your life as children of light. Light produces fruit that consists of every sort of goodness, justice, and truth. Therefore, test everything to see what’s pleasing to the Lord, and don’t participate in the unfruitful actions of darkness. Instead, you should reveal the truth about them. It’s embarrassing to even talk about what certain persons do in secret. But everything exposed to the light is revealed by the light.” ~ Eph 5:6-13
The headlines are inescapable. This celebrity is marrying that one. This candidate insulted that one. This athlete did the right thing … or the wrong thing … or the childish thing … or the crazy thing. They’re bold. They’re eye-catching. They’re sensational. It doesn’t matter whether the news is good or bad or somewhere in between. It’s all about selling. The more outrageous the story, the more inflammatory the soundbite, the more scandalous and salacious, the better. Somehow, as a society, we have shifted away from news for the sake of information and instead seek out whatever production will entertain us the most, no matter how accurate or inaccurate the “report” may be. And our eyes are so pulled from one crazy “news” story to the next that they are pulled further and further away from God. When the stories of the world – be they good or bad – are presented in this way, they encourage separation among us. Stories like these make it easy to criticize THEM because THEY do things differently, strangely, wrong wrong WRONG. “This must be so because if they were “normal” like me, they wouldn’t be in the news to begin with.” But when we begin to think and believe this, we mar the beauty of God’s creation with ugly divisions. * Temper our hearing, our seeing, and our acceptance of the words in the world around us, Gracious God. Help us to see through the illusion of entertainment to find the story that matters most – the human story, the truth about your beloved children, wherever they may be. Embolden us to speak your words of truth, love, and grace loud enough to drown out competing voices of exaggeration and sensationalism. Amen.
After naming and claiming all of these, after calls to prayer and repentance from Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21; and Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, we participated in the imposition of ashes. As I told my parishioners last night, it is such a humbling and honoring experience to do that for people.
When you think about it, this is an odd thing to say to someone – to remind them of their own mortality and the fleeting nature of life. And yet it is such a powerful moment. The responses I got varied from “Amen” to “Thank you” to a simple smile or a somber nod. The best was the 6-yr-old who grimaced as I drew the sign of the cross on his forehead. But as Nadia Bolz-Weber said, “If our lives were a long piece of fabric with our baptism on one end and our funeral on another, and we don’t know the distance between the two, then Ash Wednesday is a time when that fabric is pinched in the middle and the ends are held up so that our baptism in the past and our funeral in the future meet. The water and words from our baptism plus the earth and words from our funerals have come from the past and future to meet us in the present. And in that meeting we are reminded of the promises of God: That we are God’s, that there is no sin, no darkness, and yes, no grave that God will not come to find us in and love us back to life. That where two or more are gathered, Christ is with us. These promises outlast our earthly bodies and the limits of time.”
And so we came together – to repent, to remember, and also to rejoice in God’s promises that outlast even the dust. We affirmed our faith. We sang hymns. And we extinguished our first candle with the following reading from Mark Fredericksen’s book Lenten Meditations: A Forty-Seven Day Devotional Journal.
Create in Me Pure Heart
Ash Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016
Sometimes, it’s easy to gloss over scripture and make unexamined assumptions. For instance, without reflection, one can assume that a willing spirit, or a pure heart, is already ours. Lenten liturgies that use these verses often communicate a subtle presumption of our holiness or purity. A prayer, a cross made on the forehead with ash and we’re good to go. But do we really pause long enough to check if we feel the pure heart? The steadfast spirit? God’s presence and the Holy Spirit? Joy in our salvation? …
[There] is, perhaps, too quick a jump to the Easter good news. There is a wisdom to The Church holding onto the forty days of Lent prior to Easter. It is forty full days to explore deeply within ourselves some questions we might not really want to explore, except privately with our God.
Consider these questions as you travel through Lent: do I really want a pure heart? Is my spirit willing or steadfast? We may not be ready on these first days of Lent to say “yes.” Sure “yes” is the right answer, but is it MY answer right now? If not, why not? Perhaps our very first step should be to pray for a willing spirit or pure heart. Truthfully, taking on either one can directly change your whole existence and life habit. We should never be in a rush to get some place spiritually just because others are already there, or want us to be there with them!
With Lent, we are granted 40 days to honestly search our hearts. We are granted time to ponder where our souls reside. We don’t need to be pressured to arrive too quickly at conclusions. These conclusions need to be more gently grown or fermented or aged. We are granted time to be still and just know what God already knows about us. We can take in that knowledge and use it creatively and constructively for God.
Extinguish one candle.
Prayer: God, you are holy and faithful. You are glory and light. You are joy and peace, hope and above all, you are love. We are created in your image, gracious Lord, but even though we try to follow, we can’t. We come to you with broken hearts and tarnished dreams, tired souls and disordered lives. Love us in the midst of our brokenness. Love us through our frustration and misunderstanding and hesitation to the grace and compassion waiting for us on the other side. As Jesus taught us, “Forgive us our sins and we forgive those who sin against us.” Amen.
 Mark Fredericksen. “Day One – Ash Wednesday” in Lenten Meditations: A Forty-Seven Day Devotional Journey, 2012 Edition. (Arlington, TX: KLG Press), 5-7.
And then we went out with a blessing and sharing the peace of Jesus Christ with one another.