Wednesday, Feb. 17 (Ash Wednesday) Ps. 51:1–17; 2 Cor. 5:20b—6:10
Ashes. Why ashes? Why this symbol of repentance to begin the season of Lent?
Ashes are what’s left after any use has been made of the wood that once served as a house, a piece of furniture, or simply fuel for a fire that provided warmth. In some Christian traditions, ashes of palms waved the previous year in celebrating Palm Sunday are used on Ash Wednesday. Sometimes they are applied in the form of a cross on the forehead of the penitent. The wood, the greens have burned; of what use can they be? What value do they hold?
In themselves, the answer, of course, is none; they have no value, they produce nothing. They symbolize for the Christian two critical truths about ourselves. The first has to do with our inability to serve the Kingdom of God as we are; the second has to do with what God does when He creates beauty out of ashes, eternal good out of worldly brokenness. We begin Lent, the season of repentance, with the honest truth about ourselves. David’s plea in Psalm 51 comes from someone one who has honestly faced himself for who he really is and what he has really done. No excuses, no explanations, no blame placed on circumstances or on other people. He knows he has committed sin and wants only to be honest and acknowledge what God already knows. He cannot have peace, he cannot please God, he cannot be of meaningful service unless God washes him and restores him completely. Far from David’s mind is any idea that God is lucky to have him on His side, that God should take what He gets and be satisfied, grateful for the assistance He has received.
The second truth is the miraculous (yes!) work that God does in the life of one who honestly repents. It is the truth of what God intends to do with and through the person who has honestly faced the truth about himself/herself and places one’s life in God’s hands, both for forgiveness--full forgiveness--and for ministry in bringing about reconciliation. We won’t know what it looks like, and it might not even look like success from the perspective of the world; see Paul’s assessment in 2Corinthians 5-6. Paul is honest about wanting the kingdom more than anything, and he is willing to serve it no matter what. Most of us are not quite of that mind, if we are honest about it. We’d prefer some assurance of safety, some degree of comfort and acceptance, some confidence that folks will understand us. These are good things; but they are not guaranteed. Yet God’s promise is that He will gather up the ashes and use them for His redeeming work in our very uncertain and broken world.
Prayer: Lord, I don’t come to You because I can do You favors with my spare time. I come because I know in my innermost spirit that my thoughts and intentions, my acts and my desires are not pure. I come in this season to allow You to search me and and show me both who I am and what You can do when I honestly repent. Set me free with Your mercy; I have no other strength. Amen.
Thursday, Feb. 18: Ps. 27; John 1:29–34; 1 John 1:3–10
Light and darkness. Seeing clearly and groping desperately. Experiencing beauty and doubting such a thing exists. Confession and denial. The freedom of forgiveness and the bondage of guilt.
The psalmist declares that the Lord is his light, his salvation. It is the beauty of the Lord’s holiness upon which he longs to fix his eyes. What does that mean? While there are many implications, consider that holiness is a “wholly otherness.” It is a far different perspective from what we know, or think we know. It is a view of all things as created, not as perceived by fallen people in a fallen world. David knows that to experience the first member of the pairings above, he must seek God’s perspective, the Maker’s own intent. To see otherwise--from our own position--is to experience the second part of those opposites; and it does not satisfy. It is the Lord who must be our light, putting our experience of the world and our conclusions about it into a beautiful, coherent picture. It’s not the job of a nation, a political philosophy or party, or a community of people who happen to look like us, think as we think, or behave as we do.
Perhaps the most beautiful experience people can have in this world is forgiveness sought, granted, and received. We see far less of it than we should. Could it be that we are spending too much energy denying that we have a problem, denying our own need for forgiveness? If we do not experience God’s forgiveness, it is unlikely that we will extend that kind of grace to other people in our lives. Yet if we confess, He forgives. Fully, completely, absolutely, no exceptions for the things we think are really too big to let go. And when that forgiveness happens, when it sinks into the mind and spirit that it is real--that is beautiful. So much so that we will begin to see the world in a different light, finding its inherent beauty in increasing measure.
Prayer: Father, I long to see the world in the beauty that You saw when You declared it to be good. Open my eyes to the things in my heart and soul that are not beautiful. Then give me, I pray, the grace to repent, trusting Your promise of forgiveness through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Friday, Feb. 19: Ps. 22; John 1:35–42; 2 Tim. 4:1–5
How can we know whom to believe? Whose word should we trust? Does it really matter, as long as we are hearing what seems to be helpful? Does anyone really tell the truth, if there is such a thing in the first place? We hear a lot of thoughts about the way the world works, where it is going, and how to make the best of it along the way. Much of the talk about these matters can be dismissed rather easily; a little reflection can go a long way toward eliminating one idea or another. After a while, none of it sounds believable. Then what? The questions about life persist after the answers seem to have exhausted themselves.
Andrew might have had some of the same confusion when he happened upon the teaching of John the Baptist. Here was a guy who didn’t seem to be out to make a buck by peddling his thoughts about the mysteries of life. What he said resonated with Andrew. When Jesus happened on the scene, John pointed to him as the real answer--not because of what he would say as much as because of who he was: the one long promised, the one so much more important than John himself, the one who could change everything, the truth. When Andrew heard this everything fell into place regarding the question of whom to believe. It was no longer John, but Jesus--the one to whom John had pointed--who held the answers to the perplexities of life in this world.
Today’s world isn’t much different from the one in which John and Andrew and Paul lived. Lots of people draw crowds, create a following, a party, a movement; they claim to have the key to making everything work smoothly in the world. We tend to latch on to the ones who say the things we want to hear and argue against those who challenge those ideas. Paul reminds us that it is only the ones who point to Jesus and his kingdom that are worthy of our attention. It is then up to us to see beyond the messenger and fix our attention and set our course according to Jesus himself. He not not only speaks the truth, but is himself the truth.
Prayer: Lord, I hear so many who claim to know the way we ought to follow. Some have helped me along the way, some have harmed me by pointing in the wrong direction; some have disappointed, some have misled. Sometimes I hear things I need to hear but do not like to hear. During this time of Lent, I repent of following messengers rather than the One who is the message, Jesus himself. I repent of failing to follow because of the dangers through which He leads. Keep me close; keep me in the truth, I pray. Amen.
Saturday, Feb. 20: Ps. 43; John 1:43–51; Titus 3:1–15
I wonder what would happen if Christians would read the Titus text every day from now until the end of the Lenten season. Would we have need of more instruction than what is given in these few lines of the Bible? We hear people say that they want to be a good person; we wonder what that might look like. We might wonder what prevents someone from being one. We’d like Jesus to say of us, “behold an Israelite (or Christian) in whom there is no guile.”
Our world has become very contentious. Finding common ground on controversial subjects has become rather uncommon; showing sensitivity to the needs and experiences of other people has almost ceased to seem sensible. Social media have given us the opportunity to talk to and about other people without actually facing them and choosing our words or our silence in ways that respect them. Demonizing those who are not like us has freed us from responsibility for honoring their dignity. And even when we might venture to do the good as found in this passage from Titus, we fear the disapproval that might come from those of our party--or even of our churches. It can be very disheartening to read and to hear the comments of fellow Christians regarding people with whom they do not agree or whose lifestyles they do not condone.
The good life. What does it look like? Being subject to authorities, ready to do what is good, to refrain from slander, to be peaceable; avoiding foolish controversies, shunning divisiveness--it’s a start. And in our world, starting is enough to occupy us. Will I be a good person today?
Prayer: Jesus, when you said to a certain man that no one is good except the Father, you let it be known that we all have a way to go to be considered a good person. I confess that I have a very long road toward complete goodness; for I have not followed the guidance you give. I have not always respected, honored, and spoken well of other people. I have not avoided the unhelpful controversies, the divisive conversations. Forgive me, I pray; and lead me toward that genuine goodness of spirit that comes from your own example. Amen.