Left Over Ashes

The ash residue from last weeks Ash Wednesday service has finally washed out of crevices under and around my fingernail. During the imposition of ashes, the person who marks the forehead carries them longer, as the sooty grime works its way into the days ahead. Ashes symbolize our mortality. They are reminders that all we have will one day be gone. We won’t live on this earth with these bodies forever.

As I walk through the days of Lent, I’m reminded that if I am to do any good in this world, it will have to be now. Years are passing, and I doubt that I will have the stamina of a Jimmy Carter if I make it to his age. My family history of dementia and memory loss are not soothing messages to me of my future reasoning ability. We have this one life to use. I want my last years to be marked by grace, compassion and a generous spirit. I wish I could say that I succeed in this daily.

At our ordination United Methodist clergy are asked “Are you going on to perfection?” Everyone laughs, even as we say “yes” to the question, knowing the impossibility of perfection.  John Wesley began the tradition with the first group of clergy he ordained.  He did not see going on to perfection as  impossible at all. Wesley  thought of these words as a means of grace, where each of us attempts every day to love God and our neighbor as perfectly as we can. So, I work on the perfection piece, knowing I will fall short, but trying each day to love my neighbor and to love God a little more faithfully, than the day before.

 “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  

Matthew 5:48

Lent – A Season of Turning Around

IMG_8923 When Jesus began his ministry he said, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Mark 1:15  Repentance is not simply feeling remorse for wrongs done.   Rather it is a time of turning around.   True repentance is a radical  reassessment of how we live our lives, opening ourselves to change our whole way of thinking, reasoning and being.  It’s letting ourselves see the world as God sees it and  turning away from those parts of our lives  which limit our compassion, our goodness and our following Jesus.  Lent is such a time of reconnecting and of turning around.

Many years ago, I knew a woman who could not let go of her anger at a sibling. The event in question had happened in her childhood. By then the woman was growing frail, yet she continued her long grudge. Her sibling had reached out many times in the sixty years since that breach. Other family members had intervened. She, however, refused all efforts, all kindness, all willingness to understand. She would not allow herself to be reconciled.

As I listened to her reasons, I thought how sad that she would allow those thoughts to destroy the friendship of a sibling who genuinely cared about her. I thought of a relationship she had missed out on and the family gatherings she had excluded herself from. I thought of her ongoing loss. What I found especially sad was how much healing would have come to her,  if she had only been willing to let go of her pride and forgive.

That we are willing to forgive others is important to Jesus. Who other than Jesus, or a mom with a brood of kids, insists that we forgive each other?  The problem with hanging onto resentment is that eventually it will eat us up. Long term grudges imprison our possibilities. We cannot live our lives with joy, while simmering with resentment.

The need to forgive is just as real and genuine as our need to be forgiven.  Not forgiving destroys our spirits and our souls. When we refuse to forgive it causes not only us grief, but God. Paul said as much when he wrote these words to the people of Ephesus: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander together with all malice and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Ephesians 4:30-32

In your life there may be a person who needs your forgiveness. There may be a person who really needs to know that you have decided to forgive. Who in your life might that be? What can you do to express that forgiveness? What symbol can you share? May God give you grace to forgive, even as God has forgiven you.

*The season of Lent begins this year with  Ash Wednesday on March 1.

The Way of the Cross – Grace and Mercy

When I was a child, my parents would often take part in special Lenten studies and worship services. When I became an adult, I found that I needed to take the weeks of Lent as a time for renewal of my own soul. Lent is that period of the year defined as 40 days, beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter Sunday set aside as a period of self-denial and self examination.

The words self-denial seem strange in our world. Most often we’re told through both politicians and media that we shouldn’t have to deny ourselves anything. Yet, Jesus talked about denial. He said that anyone who wanted to be a follower of his must “deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” ( Matthew 16:24,25) Christianity is centered around a cross. You can’t be a follower of Jesus, without encountering that troubling cross.

Followers of Jesus have never had an easy existence. Challenges have come from within and without. As a person who follows the way of the cross, you will inevitably put yourself into situations that you would never have had to deal with, had you not chosen to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Saying “yes” to Jesus can be demanding, because by its very nature, following means that you are going somewhere. You may be growing deeper in your relationship with God, through prayer, fasting or sacrificial giving. You may feel the call of God to move into the world in a new way, and get involved in an outreach ministry. The call of Christ to follow may lead you into worlds you never expected to go, and to move among people you would have avoided. Following Jesus will ask something from you – in time, commitment and attentiveness to God. It will not leave you where it finds you. Which in itself is both grace and mercy.

Unanswered Prayer and God’s Answers

My first vivid experience of answered prayer was the Thanksgiving Eve when I looked up at a star filled night sky and prayed for snow. My five-year-old self didn’t know that from then on I would ask myself how much I wanted a prayer answered before I asked. Thanksgiving morning arrived with  a foot of fresh snow. So very much snow, there was talk about not making the trip to my grandparents home thirty miles away. I vowed from that time on, I would be more cautious in my prayers.

Most of my prayers have not had that vivid answer. More often, prayer has been a source of strength, hope and encouragement when life has taken a painful or punishing turn. Prayers have been answered through people God has put into my life, who have offered wise counsel. Meanwhile, difficult people have continued to be difficult. Problems have not vanished. Rather they have demanded that I walk through them. And yet, there have also been the vivid answers. Unexpected financial resources to help me through the early years of a divorce, a job and a scholarship that came at just the right moment when I started seminary . . . all answers to prayer.

The church I volunteer at has been doing a church wide study on prayer this Lent where I’ve been leading one of the groups. In the weeks we’ve been together, we’ve pondered the mystery of unanswered prayer. We’ve thought about the tragedies in our collective experience. We’ve named heartaches in our lives. We’ve puzzled over those moments while we’ve also recognized moments when we have known God was using us to help another person. We’ve recognized God’s nudges to reach out to a person who was hurting, lonely or afraid with a note, a call, a hug.

Is it that we simply don’t recognize when God is doing the same in our lives? Was that note which came, the unexpected phone call,  a person who reaches out to us (that we might even think is annoying),  all a response to one of God’s nudges? God’s answers clearly, do not always come in the way that we hope and pray for, but they do come. When we wonder why God isn’t answering our prayers, it might be a good time to take a backward look in life . . . To look at the other hard moments when we wondered how we could go on. How did we get through that time? Who was there in our life to give us encouragement or support? Did we ever think of those encouragers as God’s answer in our lives? In the backward look of accrued wisdom we see their light shining in our lives, reflections of God’s love and care for us.

In another era, the Apostle Paul wrote the people of Ephesus with his prayer for them, which is a prayer for each of us: “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 6:16-21 NRSV)    May it be that as you puzzle over God’s answers that you do see the breadth and length, height and depth of Christ’s love in your own life.

Life with Abundance

Once, a troubled teenager tried to trick an elderly rabbi, known for his wisdom. The boy said, “I have a bird in my hand…is it alive? Or is it dead?” He knew that if the rabbi said “Alive,” he could crush it and prove the man wrong. On the other hand, If the rabbi said “Dead” he would open his hand and let the bird fly away . . . again proving the rabbi wrong. But the rabbi was not so easily trapped, for he responded by saying, “The answer, alive or dead, is in your power and in your hands. It is what you will.”

The season of Lent, which begins on Wednesday, is a time to look seriously at our lives and to see that they truly are in our hands. . . . for good or for ill. God has given us the power to use our lives in ways that are life-giving or to waste them through destructive actions. Daily we make those choices through our habits, our attitudes, our relationships and our use of time. Often, we don’t consider just what it is that we are doing. But choices are ours to make. We can continue in destructive patterns, and self-defeating actions or we can make positive changes in our lives. We can ask for the help we need. We can go back to school and educate ourselves. We can get counseling for ourselves or a troubled child. We can deal with our illnesses. We can end destructive relationships. We can stop abusing alcohol, drugs and other people. We can treat everyone with kindness and respect. We can choose the path of goodness. We can reach out in love to those around us. We can learn to cope. We can draw nearer to God. We can experience the comfort and peace of God. We can accept God’s forgiveness and mercy. We can let go of yesterday’s destructiveness and move into tomorrow’s promise.

Lent, the six-week period that begins on Ash Wednesday and continues till Easter, offers us the opportunity to reflect, to grow, to ask the questions about our life that we can too easily put off. However difficult the questions may be, we have this assurance that God is with us. There is nothing that can separate us from God’s love. Not a troubled child, or an ugly divorce, a business that fails, or our personal failure. God wants for all of us to experience that abundance of life that comes in our putting ourselves in the hands of God, then following where God leads. Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) May your Lenten Journey draw you more fully into that abundant and life-giving power of Christ.