I attended a church last Sunday where, during the announcement time, they shared about how they would be participating in Ash Wednesday. What they are doing is providing the opportunity, over several hours during the day, for folks to drive up to the church’s covered turn around, roll down their window, receive the imposition of ashes, and be on their way. I’ve been thinking about that ever since Sunday.
Part of me applauds what I think they are trying to do. For those who know me you know I am a big fan of innovation. I love new things and creative ways of offering good news. So part of me says, “good for them.” They are trying to offer an opportunity for busy people who don’t have a lot of time to participate in Ash Wednesday. They want to give people who have half an hour for lunch a chance to experience a positive beginning to their Lenten journey. So again a part of me says “Amen” to that.
But another part of me worries a bit about the message we’re sending. A part of me worries if we are missing the point this year when, for the first time since the end of WWII, Ash Wednesday falls on the same day as Valentine’s Day. The comparison between what is most often the primarily feeling based expressions of love that tend to surround Valentine’s Day and the much deeper sacrificial love that is reflected in Ash Wednesday and Lent are a contrast to which we should pay attention. What proports to be love in our culture often falls far short of what the Christian faith identifies as love. Too often, Valentine’s Day love focuses on what I get from it and if I don’t get what I want then you’re not going to be my love very long. It is a consumer love that is ultimately incredibly shallow.
The love represented in our faith is love that is centered around a cross and the process of picking up that cross for ourselves in the various situations, circumstances, and relationships of our lives. It requires of us to love our enemies. It requires forgiveness and grace towards those who not only don’t ask for it, but who boldly stand defiant in their ongoing willingness to keep doing what they are doing (Luke 23:34). Ash Wednesday love requires of us a commitment to a course of living that reflects Jesus to a world that does not understand what real love is. And it requires of us a willingness to die for that same course of love rather than to give it up. and that reality takes me back to my drive-up friends.
I know their hearts are in the right place. And I may be wrong in my assessment (it certainly wouldn’t be the first time!!). But drive-up ashes seem to me to be Valentine’s Day love; easy, convenient, not very costly at all. Jesus love and the love he calls us to live out is so much more, so much deeper, so much more about a willingness to do whatever it takes to live it out even if it costs us everything we have. Maybe it’s me, but drive-up ashes just seem to fall short.
During the Ash Wednesday service in Muskegon last week, Bishop Bard shared with the congregation some paradoxes of the Christian faith in his sermon entitled “A Liminal Lent.” It was a rich sermon and I appreciated it greatly, and as all good sermons do, it has caused me to continue to think about it since.
There have been times in my life when I have struggled with paradox. I understand that struggle is by definition a part of the nature of any paradox, but the bishop in his sermon invited us just to hold some of the Christian paradox’s we experience in tension and live with them, maybe even celebrate them. I don’t always do that well. Being the age I am I have lived most of my life within the context of “modern” thinking. That is, this is right and that is not right. Modern thinking is dualistic. It is one or the other, either or, right or wrong. And so I have struggled with paradox and situations that seem to invite a “both and” reality. But I’m grateful for the ways that is beginning to change.
Much is being written today from a variety of corners of the church about non-dualistic thinking, the idea that things need not be either this or that but may very well be both…or even more than just the sum of the two! Many are exploring how we might value the seeming tension of paradox or live into an understanding that few things really need to be as clearly delineated as we have made them out to be. Engaging this perspective, while sometimes difficult for those of my certain age, is, at least for me, remarkably freeing. For when we begin to let go of some of our dualism, our often-tight fisted definitions of what is or should be, it opens us up to a whole new world of possibilities. God begins to be removed from the small confining boxes into which we have placed God. There is a new breadth and depth to theology. Bible Study and life itself begins to abound with new prospective. We move from being guardians of truth to a joy filled journey of exploration led by God’s Spirit into places of learning and discovery. We become much more comfortable with paradox and ambiguity, and we live much more comfortably in the tension of that which we don’t know rather than in the old warm blanket that having everything all figured out once provided.
I’m not suggesting all this is what the bishop was saying last Wednesday! But like I said, good sermons always put you to thinking and praying, contemplating and celebrating and that’s what I’ve been doing.
I don’t know where you are as we enter this second week of the Lenten season, but I invite you to allow the Spirit of God to blow through your life in these days. I invite you to become more and more comfortable with the paradoxes and ambiguities of faith and trust that God who loves you and me and everyone – with an incredible love – will hold us safe even as we allow ourselves to navigate all the new currents the Spirit moves us upon.
I have been cleaning out files on my computer. It is amazing to me how fast files and folders — designed to make life more efficient — can become unruly! I’m certain I had a plan when I set up a given file structure. I had a purpose and an understanding of how that structure would work and benefit me moving forward. But somewhere along the line I forgot what I had done, and I started a new folder with a different file system in another place that made sense in that moment! Consequently, as I’m working my way through the cleanup process this morning, I’m discovering that there are four locations of folders that should be in one place, and sometimes multiple copies of the files in each of those areas!
I think I’m getting a handle on it and I’ll probably have a much cleaner structure soon ─ at least for a while!
As I’m doing this work, I’m also thinking about the worship service tonight that begins the season of Lent. Through the years I have engaged a number of different practices during the Lenten season. Sometime I have removed things from my life to allow a deeper focus on God. Other times I’ve added things with the goal of enabling a richer connection during these weeks. Lent is a time for sorting. It is a time for evaluating where we are, and what in our lives has gotten perhaps a bit unruly and needs cleaning up. It may be that as we take stock, we will discover that we need to become more involved. Maybe we will find that our level of commitment to our faith and path of discipleship needs to be enhanced by activity. Maybe we’ll discover that our life is filled with too many activities, even at church, and what we need to do is create some space for God to speak.
Whatever it is that you sense God calling you to this Lenten season, I pray that you will choose to follow and discover the richness and renewal God longs to give. May God bless all of us as we give ourselves to this year’s Lenten journey.