Ashes for the World

C.Z. Shi

Since Lent 2020 seems to have never ended but simply lumbered on, carrying our now raw and limping carcasses behind, it’s difficult to consider how we should renew the experience. Once again we’ve arrived at the gateway to the weeks of bright sadness–but do we want to enter? Did we ever exit?

Each of us will find how we are to engage (or not engage) these days, hopefully with the help of our pastors and those who know us best. But whatever we fast from–or don’t, whatever practice we add–or don’t, I’m convinced that this is a good year to be freed from the tyranny of self-expression by remembering how Lent is not only about my personal experience (what I hope to feel or leave behind or re-engage, what discipline I need) but also about how I enter into the suffering of this aching world.

On Ash Wednesday (in non-pandemic years at least), we’re marked with ashes and reminded that these same friends in line with us will one day lower us into the dirt. With all of creation, we groan. With every other human who has ever lived, we labor under death’s grey gloom. In Lent, we remember that our lot as humans is tied up together–and that our hope is entirely wrapped up together, in Jesus the Crucified, in Jesus the Risen One.

On Ash Wednesday, we repent. Not merely for my sins and shortcomings, but for the world’s. We name our collective greed, our racialized evil, our abuse of the poor, our outrageous consumption, our failure to welcome and protect vulnerable children, our disdain for the immigrant, our failure as stewards of creation, our failure to nurture friendship and tenderness and self-sacrifice and bold courage and the virtues that would make us the kind of community that we would actually hope to hand to our daughters and sons.

And our repentance is not on behalf of “those sinners.” We take on the ashes. We say the words. We confess how we, with all our human family, are the problem. We refuse to separate ourselves with self-righteous godspeak. We confess for ourselves and for all who are unable to utter the words, all who need God’s grace as much as we do.

This Lent, this “on behalf of” element is far more potent, as so few of us will actually be there in body to receive the sooted cross on our forehead. Small numbers of us will receive ashes on behalf of so many.

Perhaps this will be enough this Lent. We can bend our weary body and allow our words, born of pain and sorrow, to confess our collective need. We can be the ones who will take on the burden to tend to hope’s candle, the ones who offer our tears, the ones who cling to God’s mercy on behalf of everyone in the world who needs the love that holds us all.

Church is the group of disciples of Jesus who take upon themselves the sin of the world. Not the way Jesus did, of course, but in confession, in contrition…in confessing that God is our judge and has every right to be our judge. The role of the church in taking on judgment on Ash Wednesday is to do it for all of the people who are not there, and to confess the world’s sin not only on behalf of ourselves but on behalf of those who are not there—ALL of those who are not there. This is what the church does. The church is the representative in the world of God’s forgiven and justified sinners. We want to model that. We want to model what it means to be God’s sinful, forgiven, and justified people. {Fleming Rutledge}

Dear John – 15 February 2016

Dear John,

Apparently I’ve passed my crazy dreams on to Miska. Mine have faded, but Saturday night, Miska dreamed that Donald Trump asked her to be his spiritual director. She remembered this only a minute or so before I was supposed to stand up to give Sunday’s sermon. She leaned over and whispered her dream in my ear, and I slapped my hand over my mouth to stifle a cackle that would have interrupted the Scripture reader who was diligently reminding us of how God led Israel into a land flowing with milk and honey. I had to recover before I stepped up to the lectern. 

This morning, I read Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s tribute to Antonin Scalia. Did you know they sat side-by-side at the opera regularly, and their families celebrated every New Year’s Eve together? Ginsberg, the liberal stalwart, called Scalia, that fiery conservative, her “best buddy.” She even praised his dissents for pointing out the ‘applesauce’ and the ‘argle bargle’ that needed to be sliced from her majority opinions. I like that – argle bargle. Watching coarseness overrun the political scene and finding ourselves bombarded by the various kinds of flash-mob flareups that happen about every 17 hours on the Facebook feed, it’s easy to believe we have devolved so far that the anger consuming us has stripped us of our most basic humanness: a charitable spirit, neighborliness, a willingness to listen rather than merely snipe and score points. But then you’re given a small gift, like a note where Ginsberg calls Scalia her best buddy and you gain a little hope again. I wish I had words to describe the estrangement I feel from the dominant storylines in our world. But I don’t right now, so I’ll just say that I needed to hear Ginsberg’s kindness and warmth.

Last word on these sorts of things – but since we’re thrust yet again into the electoral carnival right now, I do wonder why anyone with more than a pea-brain’s worth of sense would want to be president? These days, that job sounds like my worst nightmare.

On to better topics – I like your vision of Pony, Montana. I’m willing to carry your ashes there should you land on such a request, but I think we should plan a trip — while we’re still breathing. There’s lots I want to do in the years ahead. On Ash Wednesday, the gravity and humanness hit me at a new level. I can’t say why. But marking that black soot on the foreheads of so many friends, looking them in the eye, touching their body with the sign of the cross, remembering our frailty and the fleeting days of our life — I had a steady lump in my throat. I held it together, but only barely.

A month ago, I bought Paul Kalanithi’s When Breathe Becomes Air. Per the usual, Miska’s gotten to it before me. Kalanithi, a 36-year-old neurosurgeon, was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, and as his world came unglued, a question dogged him: “what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life?” Miska says that Kalanithi tells his story beautifully, I look forward to it. I know this question has my attention. I want to live well. I want to love well. Also, I have to say again: I despise cancer. 

We’ve been handed another snow day. We got a few inches, but they say ice is on the way. Looking out my window, Carter’s Mt. has a lacy fog flowing over the ridge line and fingering toward the white-dusted trees, as if the Northern Queen is breathing fresh winter over us. It’s going to be a grand day. 

 

Your Friend,

Winn

Ashes and Roses

I raised my drooping head, my soul dripping shame, in order to ask forgiveness. There was barely space to get the words free because she had already begun to pull me into her bosom and to bury her cheek in my chest. “I forgive you,” she said, without hesitation. Without demand. Without holding any part of herself back as penalty for my foolishness.

In marriage, you find yourself replaying the story of the Prodigal time and again. Sometimes you’re the one watching for the other to come home. Sometimes you’re the one needing to come to your senses and make your way back. Either way, love must be the central player if our marriage is to truly be a marriage.

Though calendars collide for no good reason, I find it timely that yesterday we were marked with ashes and today we celebrate love. Surely there’s a rhythm there. Dropping our pretense, lowering our guard and welcoming mercy makes all the rest of it possible.

Lenten Possibilities

Some days
one needs to hide
from possibility
      {Kooser and Harrison}

Recently, Wyatt pronounced a liberating confession. "Dad, I'm going to start watching TV instead of Netflix."

"Why?" I asked.

"Well, Netflix has a 1,000 choices, and I can never choose. But the TV only offers three choices. That's better."

We were not made for vast infinity. We were made to be creatures with limitations. Some resist this axiom and pursue a dogged determination to contravene the fact that our body is sagging, our energy fleeting, our years narrowing. What are midlife crises other than a panicked effort to wrench every conceivable possibility from the past and ride it wildly into the present? I speak as a man who has moved into that mid-life shadowland.

But it is a grace to know our place, to know that we are not defined by our possibilities, whether missed or exploited. We are defined by the one who has loved us – and by the love that, having settled into our heart, eeks out meagerly and lavishly to the ones we are uniquely able to love. To live with perpetual options is to never settle into gritty and particular living, into gritty and particular love. Only God is able to truly love the whole world. And we are not God.

To try to live everywhere is to never truly live anywhere. To try to love, with equal fervor, all things is to never deeply and generously love anything. To attempt to live another person's expectations is to surrender the one true thing you have to give. Let the young have their limitless paths – there's a grace in that too. Yet the hope is not to roam eternally, but to find the place of belonging. And then belong.

Lent is a grace because it strikes at the idol of endless possibility. When, on Ash Wednesday, we are marked with burnt soot, we hear the words from dust you came and to dust you will return. Dust doesn't have numerous options; its trek is pretty much complete. Of course, dust isn't the end. There's Resurrection and new creation and all the truths that kindle our faith. But first: dust.

There are many (in the church as much as anywhere else) pushing endless visions of all we might accomplish, but Lent asks us to take an honest look at all that. Lent asks us (could we please, just for this stretch of 40 days) to be more discriminating, more present. Sometimes to seek your one truth thing, you have to hide from hundreds of others.

Day of Ashes

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. On this day, we embark on a journey toward redemption, a journey toward Easter.

Lent spreads over forty mornings and evenings, beginning today, the day of ashes, and concluding with that beautiful sunrise when we proclaim with loud and joyous voices, “Alleluia, Christ is Risen!” For these forty days (excluding the six Sundays we will encounter because each of these is a “mini-Easter”), we renounce evil (sin that binds us or distractions that pull at us or lies we have believed) by a physical act of repentance. We give something up (chocolate, sex, TV). Or we take on a discipline (praying the Hours, serving in a shelter). Essentially, we allow Jesus, physical God, to meet us in physical ways.

I grew up in a tradition that didn’t celebrate Ash Wednesday or Lent (or Good Friday or Advent or anything else that might align us with those “Christians with the smells and bells”). Like any good thing, these practices can of course be abused, tempting us to flex our spiritual muscle or to try to earn kudos from God. However, I’ve found that I need these physical reminders, these sacramental encounters, to guide my mind and my heart and my body deeper toward Jesus.

A friend of mine who is Anglican priest told me (in flabbergasted tone) how put off he was by a fellow pastor who complained that Ash Wednesday was too somber, too focused on sin. Out of 365, he wanted to know, can’t we have just one single day to repent?

These practices are certainly no end to themselves. They aren’t intended to focus on us: our rigor, our righteousness, our devotion. These sacramental practices intend to turn us toward Jesus, to stir our heart toward our desperate need for a long redemption.

This, then, is the question for us to ask these forty days that will follow: where do we need God’s redemption? Where do we need resurrection? Where is the broken place that – unless God heals us – we are truly without hope?

For me, I want to be released from myself, from my fear. I want to turn away from all the noise I allow to distract me from the work God wants to do in my heart. I want to truly believe that Jesus is life, my life. I want to embrace my full salvation in Jesus. To do this, I need the ashes, the reminders that I am marked by Jesus. I need these concrete actions: turning off both the computer and my appetite for food each night at 9 (the discipline Miska has chosen for me – each of us choose for the other). I need my community to journey with me these days. It’s too long to go alone.

I hope to continue this Lenten conversation with at least one post each week of the journey. I hope to share more of what God will be stirring in my heart. Join me these forty days of hoping and waiting and repenting, these days of believing in Jesus and moving toward resurrection.

We are not converted only once in our lives but many times, and this endless series of large and small conversions, inner revolutions, leads to our transformation in Christ. -Thomas Merton