Pastor John and I stood together during the Ash Wednesday service a couple weeks ago, dwelling in the contemplative mood and setting of worship. As I found my spirit moved by the many voices behind me singing in unison, I recall PJ leaning over to say something along the lines of the church needing Lent this year.
I can’t agree more. Ash Wednesday brought with it a new attitude towards Lent that I have never experienced before. An attitude of living in the tension of a world that is caught between the hope of the gospel and a conviction of doubt rooted in fatalism. The belief that the good news we long for has become another faded thought consumed by the things that challenge our recognition of God’s faithfulness in this world.
Ash Wednesday invited us to begin the journey of naming the very things that have led us to don the various masks we choose to wear when life’s happenings try our assurance. Masks we wear that stem from shame, deceptiveness, guilt, or insecurity. Hasty efforts to avoid confronting the very things God does not desire of us. God desires good of us, but we feel stuck when we have to name where we have foregone that goodness or misused it. To name the hatred. To name the lust. To name the addictions. To name the infidelities. To name the lies. Having our skin peeled back in such a way leaves us feeling lost without God.
I am one who believes that going about Lent should never be absent of personal wrestling. Now, we can easily mis-purpose Lent as another chance to make up for failed New Years resolutions or attempted diet plans, but when it comes down to the bare bones of this solemn season, it is about filling our voids with meaning and the gradual healing of the stains that attempt to drown us. And what I appreciate about the Lenten season is that it is an opportunity for us not so much to focus on the particulars of our unfaithfulness, but to embrace the communal awareness, the communal reminder that we wrestle alongside one another as we grow in what it means to live into the image God has in mind for us.
Lent may be a time where we give up something, but it is more so a season where we recognize that God does not give up on us. It is easy to see and to note the disparity in our world when our imperfections take precedence over the moments of gratitude and thanksgiving. When all we know is disappointment with the state of things, suffering because of the choices those in power make, or inner conflict because of our own struggles, God’s persistent grace cries out for our attention. We need to reclaim the promises of God’s faithfulness in this season of Lent. Because there have been moments this year where that faithfulness has seemed faint or difficult to fathom in the midst of individual, communal, and societal brokenness.
Lent marks forty days of fasting, forty days of Jesus’ desert excursion where he confronted the very temptations you and I face everyday. Security, sustenance, and power. The security of privilege that comes with socioeconomic background, with a position of authority, with race, with gender. The sustenance of having food on the table and a place to dwell. The power to use success and achievement to ensure a sense of control over one’s life without the constant fears of a changing world.
Barbara Brown Taylor has this quote, “New life starts in the dark,” and I can’t help but wonder if this is the posture we seek during Lent. The mark or smudge of ash on our foreheads may be a sobering confrontation with the staleness of the life we know. Our frailty seems to become much clearer when we let someone mark our foreheads with the sign of a cross. But it is in the discomfort of that moment of great vulnerability that we encounter the delicate touch of a God who embraces us as “fearfully and wonderfully made” children. Children who goof up. Children who make messes. Children who walk daily with the seal of a cross that can still show up through the grittiness of ash.
We need Lent as we need the openness to welcome the undeserved grace God so freely gives. The promise we carry, the hope in each day’s glimpse of resurrection.