Sunday, February 14, 2016

After the Ashes

Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, the day when Christians around the globe gather to repent of sin and begin a time of spiritual preparation.

I didn’t make it to an Ash Wednesday service. I was in Harrisburg for a series of meetings, and spent the evening at dinner with colleagues.

I don’t usually do ashes, anyway. I grew up in a part of the church that views practices like that as superstition: I can hear my grandmother asking “why would God care if you put ashes on your forehead?”

I do believe that sometimes an outward, physical sign of an inward, spiritual condition is helpful. Ashes are a historical sign of repentance, dating back far beyond the days of Christ.

And a sobering reminder: "Remember, man, you are dust, and unto dust you shall return."

Most years I give up something for Lent: most often sugar, since I tend toward sugar addiction. Which also often implies giving up coffee, since I can’t drink it without sugar. I could give up other things: screens, devices, novels, wine.

But this year I’ve been rethinking my whole frame for Lent.

Ashes not as repentance, but reminder to invest time and energy wisely:
But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames. (I Corinthians 3:10-15)
I’ve been wondering how to use this time of Lent to focus on discerning the works that will last.
Candy Chang, Before I Die
And I’ve been rethinking what I call “desert days”, the forty days of Lent. What if instead of a time of turning away from distractions they become a time of turning toward?

Lent is meant to in some way mirror the days Jesus spent in the wilderness, at the start of his years of ministry. I’ve always thought of those desert days as days of avoidance: avoiding the clamor of the city, the voices of others, the insistent demands of the world around us. I was challenged, this year, by the question Jesus asked in Matthew 11, after talking to John the Baptist’s followers: “What did you go out to the desert to see?”

Not what did you go to the wilderness to avoid, but what did you go to see?

The word ἔρημος, or érēmos, sometimes translated wilderness”, or “desert”, refers to 
a solitary place, removed from civilization: in the strict sense expresses a lack of population (not merely "sparse vegetation"). This root (erēmo-) does not suggest absolute barrenness but unappropriated territory affording free range for shepherds and their flocks.
I find myself drawn to that definition: unappropriated territory, affording free range, maybe not just for shepherds and flocks, but for the rest of us as well.

Here’s what I’ve been wondering this year: what would it look like to use Lent as a time not to get away from distractions, but to move into a wider, freer space in search of whatever is most lasting and true?

Reading back through some of my Lenten posts I came across an exploration of the word “charash”: be still. There are many words for silence in Hebrew, for stillness, for quiet. “Charash” is the word used in the verse Be still and know that I am God. 
“That “be still” is “charash.” Wait expectantly. Watch and listen.
Stillness can go in lots of directions. It can be lonely, discouraging, lazy, defeated. It can be peaceful, sleepy, companionable, joyful. This Lenten stillness I find myself called to is something different. It’s an expectant stillness, the stillness of early spring, waiting for the daffodils to burst open, waiting for the buds to spring out into green. It’s a generative stillness, productive in mysterious ways, as I set my own agendas aside and see where God’s power is moving. It’s an attentive stillness: eyes open, ears alert.
National Observer; July 6, 2015 [video]
Experts Voice Fears for B.C.s Climate Future 
There’s a story I've been hearing about lately: Candy Chang’s “Before I Die” mural in New Orleansreplicated around the world, described in a Ted talk that went viral. It’s moving to read the things people post on the murals, but I find myself wondering, which of these things will last?   

There’s another story I hesitate to even write of: an unfolding narrative of struggle and sorrow and great distress. Jesus spoke of it in Matthew 24, John wrote of it in his Revelation, we see hints of it in the unprecedented forest fires of the Pacific Northwest, the dangerous, invisible methane leaks that may one day explode into fire. 

Thinking of both stories, I find myself asking: What remains after death?

What survives the heat of a raging forest fire?

These days, I give my time to family, friends, the challenge of finding a way toward fair elections in a state where democracy seems almost dead.

But this Lent, I’ll be listening: is there something I’m missing? Some deeper calling? Some essential word I’ve not yet heard?

What lasting fruit have I not yet tasted?

After the ashes – what remains?

This is the first in a Lenten series.

Other Lenten posts:



From 2013: