Archives For Ash Wednesday

Hammer Time

Jason Micheli —  February 14, 2018 — Leave a comment

     Ash Wednesday – Matthew 6

I want to thank you all for coming out tonight instead of staying home and watching the Charlie Brown Ash Wednesday Special with your kids.

There is a Michael Bolton Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special, but there’s no Peanuts Ash Wednesday Special. Nobody grew up watching a stop-motion Burl Ives saying ‘Hey kid, you’re a sinner and you’re going to die.’

Ash Wednesday doesn’t get anyone like Kris Kringle or Krampus. Starbucks doesn’t unveil any Sin-themed soy lattes for Ash Wednesday.

Christmas has been commercialized and loaded down with crap. Easter has been sentimentalized by bunnies and butterflies and metaphors of springtime renewal, but, there aren’t any Ash Wednesday office parties.

Meanwhile, we ship our ill and aging off to die in private while we put inflatable Grim Reapers in our front lawns on Halloween in the hopes that death will turn out to be a joke because when we lie awake at night we know our sin is not make believe.

What we mean by the soot we smear on Ash Wednesday- culturally speaking- remains an unsullied message. There’s no marketing, no media, no movie tie-ins or product placements for Ash Wednesday.

Nobody but Christians want anything do with talk about Sin and Death, which is a shame because, as allergic as our culture is to the ashes, what we do with them tonight has more to do with love actually than any saccharine Hugh Grant movie.

As allergic as our culture is to Death and Sin, what we do tonight with oil and ash is about love actually.

Because when you do away with the concept of sin, the category of shame is your only alternative. With sin, what’s wrong with me is just what’s wrong with me. Leaving sin behind is lonely-making. Without a concept of sin, there is no correlative category of grace, and you’re left only with what St. Paul would call the crushing accusations of the Law.

Accused by the Law and in the absence of Grace, we self-justify. We perform and we pretend. We wear masks- like Jesus condemns in our text tonight. We project a purer false self out into the world, which of course is just a way to shame others lest we be shamed first.

This is what I mean-

Frances Lee is a Cultural Studies scholar in Seattle. In an article entitled Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice, Lee describes her decades-long exodus out of a shame-based conservative evangelical Christianity only to find the same sort toxic dogma practiced by progressives in the social justice-minded activist communities where she landed.

She writes:

“There is an underlying current of fear in my community, and it is separate from the daily fear of police brutality, eviction, discrimination, and street harassment. It is the fear of appearing impure.”

Both communities, Lee argues, both sex-obsessed evangelicals and justice-driven progressives seek to justify themselves in the relentless pursuit to acquire purity according to the standards of their convictions.

Law, whether it’s law according to evangelicals or activists, always accuses, and Lee notes how the need in progressive social justice communities to be reckoned as pure produces a suffocating, shaming fear of being counted as impure:

“[A kind of] social death follows after being labeled a ‘bad’ activist.

When I was a Christian, all I could think about was being good, showing goodness, and proving to my parents and my spiritual leaders that I was on the right path to God. All the while, I believed I would never be good enough, so I had to strain for the rest of my life towards an impossible destination of perfection.

I feel compelled to do the same things as a [progressive] activist a decade later. I self-police what I say in activist spaces. I stopped commenting on social media with questions for fear of being called out. I am always ready to apologize for anything I do that a community member deems wrong, oppressive, or inappropriate- no questions asked. The amount of energy I spend demonstrating purity in order to stay in the good graces of fast-moving activist community is enormous.

Progressive activists are some of the judgiest people I’ve ever met, myself included. At times, I have found myself performing activism more than doing activism. It is a terrible thing to be afraid of my own community, and know they’re probably just as afraid of me.

“Ultimately,” says Frances Lee- and, pay attention- this is the point on Ash Wednesday- “the quest for purity is a treacherous distraction for the well-intentioned.”

——————————

     What Frances Lee describes is what the Apostle Paul means when he warns that our well-intentioned efforts to acquire righteousness on our own lead to death.

It kills us.

Frances Lee escaped the toxic dogma of one community only to discover it again in an opposite sort of community.

She left her evangelical Church hoping to find respite from the demands of purity and relief from the suffocating pretense those demands require.

In St. Paul’s terms, she fled the Law but the Law found her.

Yet she had been searching for Law’s opposite.

Grace.

What Frances Lee found in neither, not in her evangelical upbringing nor among her progressive activists, is what the Church offers you tonight with oil and ash and a promise that sounds frightening at first.

     “To dust you came and to dust you will return.”

Ash Wednesday is the antidote to the treacherous distraction of the well-intentioned because the medicine administered tonight is not grim but, to those who know they are sick, it is the good news of the gospel.

No matter how much booze you give up or how much bible-reading you take on for Lent, tonight isn’t about penance in a quest for purity and it’s not about needing to pretend when you fail to find that purity through your piety.

Ash Wednesday isn’t about your performance in life or your piety in religion at all. Ash Wednesday is about the grace of God given to us and for you in Jesus Christ and him crucified.

In other words-

Ash Wednesday is about grace.

Ash Wednesday is about freedom.

Freedom from the fear of your impurity.

And freedom from the fear of death.

(Death being the wage paid for your impurity)

Ash Wednesday is about grace.

But it’s not your fault if you experience some cognitive dissonance tonight.

Ash Wednesday can look and sound like it’s exactly the sort of righteousness-chasing, purity-performing that Frances Lee critiques and, even worse, what Jesus Christ forbids.

After all, in the Gospel passage assigned for every Ash Wednesday, Christ in his Sermon on the Mount commands us to do the very opposite of what it appears we’re about to do.

We will practice our piety before others; there is no ad space more public than your forehead.

We will disfigure your face with oily ash, and then we’ll send you forth with unwashed faces not into the privacy of your prayer closet but out into the world where you will be tempted to repeat after the Pharisee “Thank God, I am not like other men.”

Ash Wednesday’s promise of grace can get lost in the contradictions.

And there’s more than a few contradictions tonight.

For example, when you come forward tonight, we’ll say “Remember that from dust you came and to dust you shall return” but then we’ll mark your forehead with ash not dust.

Hang on-

God formed Adam not from ash but from the dust of the earth, and when you die- and, news flash- you’re not getting out of life alive- it’s dirt I will throw on your casket, mud not ash.

Shouldn’t we be soiling your head with soil not ash?

Sure, ash is a symbol for repentance and mourning in scripture, but it’s a pile of ashes Job sits on in sackcloth not a smudge streaked across his brow.

If you’re not clear about what we do here tonight, then, despite your good intentions, the ashes and the oil will be but another example of what Frances Lee calls a treacherous distraction.

That is, they’ll be nothing more than an exercise of purity-seeking piety, a work of worship that, King David tells us tonight, God despises- a work of worship that God tells the prophet Isaiah is no better than a filthy rag.

In which case, it’s probably a mercy there aren’t any Charlie Brown Ash Wednesday Specials.

——————————

     Because the stakes are high then, I want to set your ashes straight before you come forward for the cross.

The first point- I know, another 3-point sermon. If you want me to give these up for Lent you better tell me tonight. The first point to know about the ashy cross we smear across your fore-head is that it’s a cross.

What we do tonight with oil and ashes is not a treacherous distraction.

It’s not, as Jesus warns, practicing your piety before others because the cross on your forehead marks you out not as a pious person but as an impious person.

The cross is absolutely irreligious.

The cross is a reminder the very best of our piety put God to death; therefore, on Ash Wednesday Christians come out of the closet and with a soot scarlet letter freely admit that we are not just flawed and not just broken (that’s a romantic Christian word) but sinners.

Sin is the only word that appropriately names our racism and our prejudice, our violence and apathy and avarice.

We are the worst text messages that we send. We are the email we accidentally reply all to. We are the school shootings we tolerate.

We’re sinners.

The cross on your forehead announces that before God’s Law you are a failure.

You have not loved God with your whole heart. You have not loved your neighbor as much as you love yourself, and you haven’t even begun to love your enemies.

In fact, loving your enemies is just one of the many commandments you’ve left undone- and that’s the real problem for most of you, what you’ve left undone.

You see, like Job’s, the cruciform ashes are ashes of mourning because the cross on you is the outward, visible sign that inside and unseen the hammer of God’s Law has crushed your sinful heart; so that, no longer curved in on itself your heart has no where else to turn but the grace of God alone.

What’s important about the ashen cross is that it’s a cross.

So don’t worry about Jesus’ warning tonight.

What we do with ash and oil tonight does not violate Christ’s command against virtue-signaling because the cross signifies your vice. It brands you not as someone who thinks he’s holy but as someone who knows his need.

A soot colored cross is more inclusive than any rainbow flag.

Tonight Christians remember that- on paper at least- we are, in fact, the most inclusive people in the world.

We are all sinners.

Smudged or not smudged. Christian or not, activist or evangelical, whether you’re resisting or making America great again- none of us are clean. None of us are pure. All of us would love to have a John Kelly keeping our secrets.

There is no need for us to shame one another because between us there is no distinction.

We are- all of us- sinners.

——————————

     And the wage paid out for sin is death. The wages of sin is death, the Apostle Paul writes.

We mix up our metaphors tonight, dust…ash…dirt…sin…death…because the wage for the sin we should mourn with ashes is a death marked by the throwing of dirt.

Or the sprinkling of water.

And this is the second point you should understand as you come forward tonight.

     The words we will say to you invite you to remember that you’re going to die.

The cross we smear on you invites you to remember that you deserve to.

That’s as offensive and counter-cultural as anything Christians do.

You deserve to die.

And you have.

You have.

     The cross on your forehead isn’t just a symbol of your sin. The cross on your forehead is a symbol of your death to sin. That is, the cross is an oily and ashen reminder of your baptism. ‘To dust you came and to dust you shall return’ – you’re gonna die- is grim godawful news not good news unless it presumes the prior promise that by your baptism you have already died.

     You will die, sure. To dust you came and, when your DNR kicks in or the safety net gets gutted or your children lose their patience, you’ll just as surely return to the dirt.

But the death that should haunt. The death that should keep you up at night, meeting God in your sins, the death that should haunt you is a death you’ve already died.

You’ve already been paid the wages your sins have earned.

What you have done and what you have left undone- what you have coming to you has already come to you by way of the grave we call a font.

By water and the Spirit, God drowned sinful you into Christ’s death.

The death Christ died he died to sin, once for all. The death Christ died he died for your sins, all of them, once, and in his blood by your baptism all your sins have been washed away.

The way we mix the metaphors tonight it’s not your fault if you missed it. What we do tonight neither confirms Frances Lee’s critique nor does it contradict Christ’s commandment. This ash is not a means to achieve purity or practice piety. We’re not inviting you to pretend or perform or prevaricate or protect your impurity from the shaming of others.

We do not smudge our foreheads to solicit God’s forgiveness for our sins. We smudge our foreheads to celebrate God’s once for all forgiveness of them.

The dust on your forehead says: “You were dead in your trespasses.”

But the cross on your forehead says: “You have been baptized. Into his death for your trespasses.”

The wages of sin smudged on your head is good news not grim news.

Your sin, though incontrovertible, cannot condemn you. There is therefore now no condemnation for you. The seal of that promise is your baptism into his death. The sign of that promise is the symbol of his death smeared on your temple.

And that promise should give you not only joy, it should- as Paul says- shut your mouth up. It should stop whatever words of judgment you might have on your lips because the ash marks us out as those who know that the Judge was judged in our place.

Of all the people in world we should be the least judgiest. Or at least the quickest to own up to it.

——————————

     “Where is our humility when we examine the mistakes of others?” Frances Lee asks in her essay.

“There’s so much wrongdoing in the world. And yet grace and forgiveness are hard to come by in my circles.”

Humility and Grace and Forgiveness- in this circle at least, they shouldn’t be hard to find.

And that’s my final point:

The most important thing about the ashy cross you’re about to receive is that it won’t remain there.

You’re going to wash it off.

You’re going to wash it off because you’ve not only died with Christ to sin, but in your baptism you’ve been raised with Christ too. Because it’s not just that your sins have been reckoned to Christ, it’s that his purity has been imputed to you. As the Apostle Paul says in another Ash Wednesday reading: ‘He who knew no sin was made to be sin so that we might become the purity of God.’ 

He makes himself our sin.

He makes us his purity.

In other words-

However ‘woke’ you think are, whatever righteousness you have, whatever purity you have- it didn’t come from you.

Indeed, it had to come from outside of you.

By way of your baptism.

As gift.

Just to make sure you didn’t miss the offense of that exchange, Martin Luther referred to the purity we do posses as ‘alien.’

Our alien purity. Our alien righteousness. Alien- as in, we don’t have either, purity or righteousness, on our own.

So what you’re doing tonight, by wearing a cross and then, just as quickly, washing it off again, you’re puncturing the inflated anthropology our culture gives you. The flattering self-image to which our culture would convert you- tonight, you’re kicking it in the ash, and you’re opting instead for a low anthropology.

As stern and old fashioned as it sounds, with ash you’re insisting that ‘No, we’re not- none of us- basically good people who are doing our best so that God can do the rest.’

We’re worse than flawed. We’re more than broken. ‘Nobody’s perfect’ doesn’t begin to put it right. We’re sinners.

And that’s how what we do here tonight is about love actually.

Such a sober assessment about ourselves is the only true path to patience and empathy and understanding for another- because acknowledging the worst about you is the surest way for you to accept it another.

So, ironically, or maybe not ironic at all, what you do with ash tonight has everything to do with that other holiday tonight.

For, if the fruit of a low anthropology is compassion and empathy and understanding and acceptance, then

Being able to say “I am a sinner who deserves to die” is the necessary precondition to saying “I love you, unto death.”

 

 

Last week my friend and podcast partner, Taylor Mertins, cribbing from a podcast we did with Fleming Rutledge last Ash Wednesday, argued that the trend of ‘Ashes-to-Go’ must go. I concur with much of what Taylor wrote and I applaud Fleming’s larger point that we who claim the Protestant mantle have become overly fixated on the sacramental-seeming to the detriment of the actual kerygma.

I also see the other side of the argument.

Ashes are not sacraments. Indeed to argue ‘What’s next, drive by eucharist?’ is to underscore Fleming’s point that we don’t know what we’re doing with the ashes in or out of the church.

Of all the things we do as Church, ashes express that which is most existentially and universally felt: you’re going to die (and you’re probably a sinner too). Despite what Fleming says, I’m not sure that requires a scripture text or interpreter for someone to know in their bowels it’s true. I may be self-justifying as I’ve both given and received ashes, not outside in a parking lot, but in a hospital ward shorn of any exegesis or expositor. Because I can see the validity to the counter point, I invited my colleague, Michelle Matthews, to write an apologia for ashes-to-go.

Here you go:

Two years ago I bit my theologically-trained tongue and publically mixed olive oil and ashes for the first time at the back table of our local Peets’ Coffee. That morning, I slapped on my collar and a nametag that read “Ask Me for Ashes”, pitched a quaint storefront chalkboard sign that read “Ashes-to-Go with a Cup of Joe,” and waited, somewhat nervously, for a stranger to approach, someone whose coffee I could buy, whose prayers I could share, whose ashes I could impose.

I could say that doing Ashes-to-Go was merely a practical decision on my part. That if my church had a building, I would have had an Ash Wednesday service. That as a new church planter, without yet a space or a discernible and consistent gathered community, taking ashes to the coffee shop was circumstantial and therefore deemed acceptable for me and those like me.

I could say this, I could explain it away, but to do so would support the common and characteristically condescending assumption that us church planter types get to play at church, do “Ash Wednesday light,” with ashes in one hand and a macchiato in the other, while the rest of the clerical lot in the real world get church right, bearing the burden for us all of liturgical preservation, corporate worship, and communal teaching on a day such as Ash Wednesday.

To say it was a merely practical or circumstantial church-planting decision would also be to undermine the courageous willingness by clergy at churches of all types and sizes to, like the Apostle Paul, try something possibly theologically questionable for the sake of the Gospel and the mission of the Church.

I could say it was simply a decision of convenience, but it wasn’t. It isn’t.

Taking ashes to the streets, the metro, the coffee shop – the work of carefully adapting and translating our private, sacred liturgies for the public square – is a prayerful, purposeful, and pivotal decision within the Church in post-Christendom.

When I say prayerful, I don’t mean the kind of prayer that critics of Ashes-to-Go obsess is missing from its representations. I’m not talking about the kind of prayer that is artfully crafted and nestled appropriately within a liturgy, of which a worshipping community consciously and responsively takes part before the imposition of ashes.

No, when I say prayerful, I’m talking about the kind of prayer that is paying attention. The kind of eyes-wide-open prayer where we vulnerably lend ourselves to seeing what God sees, hearing what God hears, where we open ourselves up to conversations, questions, stares, and even concerns of unaffiliated people, who by the grace of God and our presence, now have a fresh curiosity about what the Church uniquely has to offer the world in Jesus.

For the mom in the coffee shop, inclining her body to receive the ashes while tearfully whispering her recent breast cancer diagnosis. Lord in your mercy.

For the jaded and self-professed “ex-catholic” man who, after reluctantly receiving ashes, insists on knowing what kind of church accepts “lady priests”. Lord in your mercy.

For the 19 year old barista watching skeptically from a distance until on his break he pulls up a chair to ask all the questions swirling in his head about God. Lord in your mercy. 

For the Hindu man at the neighboring table quietly googling Ash Wednesday and then asking permission to receive ashes because of its “coherence with the virtues of Hindu faith.” Lord in your mercy.

For the woman exceedingly grateful for a complimentary coffee who later returns with her entire book club for communal prayer and ashes. Lord in your mercy.

The decision to take ashes to the street corner or the coffee shop is wholly prayerful and wholly Lenten, as my friend, United Methodist church planter Brian Johnson, believes. “If Lent is calling people to repentance, including people who aren’t otherwise listening for God, beckoning people to turn and encounter Jesus,” Brian says, “then Ashes-to-Go is our best shot of doing this all year.” 

Ashes-to-Go is prayerful, but it’s also purposeful.

When I say purposeful, I don’t mean to chalk it up as another strategy for church growth, another attempt at making the church relevant in the Innovation Age. When I say purposeful, I mean that adapting and translating our private, sacred liturgies for the world is a decisive culture-setting, identity-driving work within a mainline denomination like the United Methodist Church, where we have spread ourselves so theologically thin, attempting to be the church for all people, that we no longer know who we are.

Who we are is embodied in our worship, vivified in our prayers, hymns, creeds, and history. As who we are becomes more and more obscure to us, it feels safe and righteous, within the panic of losing who we are, to hoard, preserve, and protect our liturgies and sacred habits from the world’s dilution. In so doing, though, we create further barriers between the church and a growing populous who will stay away from the church, not because the church is antiquated or irrelevant, hypocritical or judgmental, but because they have no opinion of the Church at all as we have not adapted our shared language and practice to adequately introduce the world to who we are and why church is worth contemplating anyways.

My friend Matt Benton, pastor of Spirit & Life Church, sees this lack of identity, this lack of discernable culture, even within our United Methodist church plants. “In many ways, our church planting culture has been borrowed from the non-denominational world,” Matt says, “but it hasn’t served us well.”

Ashes-to-Go becomes a means to ecclesial distinction. It is culture-setting, identity-driving. It pulls back the veil and approachably shares with the community who we are. “It says, ‘We do Lent. We do Advent. We do ashes. We do palms. We embody a faith with more than a 50 year (or even 200 year) history,’” says Matt.

Ashes-to-Go is prayerful, purposeful, and, dare I say, pivotal for the Church in post-Christendom. When I say pivotal, I mean the word in its etymological richness. The United Methodist Church’s willingness to carefully adapt and translate our private, sacred liturgies for the public square, our ability to communicate who we are and why it matters to our communities, is the hinge pin, the pivot point, I believe, on which the Church currently spins.

As Brian and Matt reminded me:

Adapting, translating, and trying something theologically questionable

for the sake of the mission

is what Methodists do.

Our ordination does not afford us the luxury of being pretentious about our liturgy. For John Wesley the mission was always greater than the details of what was deemed liturgically and theologically proper.

Taking ashes to the streets and coffee shop is to dust off our fear of evangelism and proclaim who we are and why it matters amidst the backdrop of the Church’s growing invisibility. For my friend Kate Floyd, the offering of ashes and prayers from an Arlington metro station is to proclaim that “none of us have it together, that it’s okay to be broken, and that God in Jesus Christ meets us where we are in our life and in our mess with radical grace” – a message Kate believes people do not hear enough from the church.

There will always be a place for Ash Wednesday worship, space created to turn Christians away from our navel-gazing, to reorient us to our shared mortality, brokenness, and need for God’s healing, to remind us that forgiveness begins with repentance and that we cannot save ourselves. There will always be a place for Ash Wednesday worship, but the necessary pivot lies in us realizing that as beautiful as Ash Wednesday is, it is an intensely internal and unintelligible thing to a world where the church is rapidly becoming inconsequential.

          Here’s my Ash Wednesday sermon. The texts were Psalm 51 and Luke 15.11-24.

Since Ash Wednesday is a day for confession, I suppose an apology is in order.

Dennis and I- we should say we’re sorry. It’s our fault.

After all, every year, every Ash Wednesday, we make you flagellate yourselves with King David’s hyperbolic guilt and indulgent self-loathing: “My sin is ever before me…Against you, you alone God, have I sinned…Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner since my mother conceived me.” 

It’s our fault.

Every year, every Ash Wednesday, we drag you through this liturgy that, no BS,  derives, from the ceremonies for the reconciliation of grave sinners, like torturers and rapists and conquistadors.

And then every year, every Ash Wednesday, we invite you forward to receive ashes to remember that from dust- by God’s grace- you came but to Death- by your sin- you deserve to go.

So I apologize. We’re sorry. It’s our fault.

If you’re one of those people who think that when we do good God will reward us, if you’re one of those people think that when we do evil, when we sin, God will punish us, if you’re one of those people then maybe it’s our fault.

I mean, it’s freaking strange that Christians of all people should think this way about God, think that God doles out what we sinners deserve but maybe it’s our fault.

Maybe we’ve let the sackcloth and ash mislead you.

Sure, it’s not really odd that other people should think of God this way, think of God rewarding us when we do good and punishing us when we sin. It’s probably the most common way of thinking of God.

Freud was dead-on right: for most people God is just a great projection out onto the sky of our own interior. Our own feelings. Especially the guilty ones.

But if that’s who God is, rewarding us when we’re faithful and punishing us when we’re sinful, then I don’t believe in Him. And neither should you.

I mean if you think God is like Santa, forever auditing us to reward the nice and punish the naughty, then you better wipe your ashes tonight because you’ve lost the plot.

God, Jesus preaches again and again, isn’t like that all.

——————————

     Just take the parable.

The prodigal son goes off to a distant country, far off from his father, and goes on a Tinder binge. Only after he’s penniless and debauched as Tiger Woods, does the prodigal see himself for what he is.

 “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.” 

     Here’s a question for Ash Wednesday:

Where did the son get the idea that his father would ever treat his children like hired hands? Where did he ever get the idea that his father gave his children what they deserved?

Notice- how the prodigal son’s sin- his sin– alters his whole relationship with his father.

Alters how he sees his father.

Instead of seeing himself as his father’s beloved son, the prodigal sees himself as one who gets the wages he’s earned. Instead of seeing his father as someone who loves without condition, he now sees his father as someone who doles out to his children what they deserve.

Notice, and this is everything tonight, seeing his father as someone who doles out what his children deserve- that isn’t who his father is. That is what the son’s sin has done to how he sees his father.  

His father hasn’t changed.

His sin has changed how he sees his father.

Seeing his relationship with his father this way, it’s what his sin has done, and just so you see it too, Luke repeats it twice.

The prodigal son’s sin- it’s something that changes God into a wage-master, into a judge, into a father who doles out what his children deserve.

You see-

     Sin turns God into exactly who Freud said God was: the projection of our feelings of guilt. Sin turns God into the projection of our shame so that we no longer see the real God at all.

‘God’ isn’t a proper name, don’t forget. It’s an answer.

Fundamentally, ‘God’ is the answer we give to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ a question to which there is never any other answer but grace and love.

But instead, according to Jesus here in Luke 15, our sin turns God into an accuser, a wage master, a judge who weighs our deeds and damns us.

Maybe tonight, more so than any night, when we put forth confession and put on ash, it’s crucial that we stop and notice how so much of our Christian speech and thought is in fact a kind of Satan worship.

It’s worship of an Accuser.

Which can never be motived by love or joy.

     Maybe tonight of all nights, instead of confessing, we should be lamenting, lamenting how for many of us, because of our sin, the only glimpse of God we ever see is how God looks from Hell.

That’s what Christians means by ‘damnation’- it’s self-imposed exile.

To be damned is to be fixed forever in this illusion about God. It’s to be so stuck on justifying your self, so shut-eyed towards your sins that you end up seeing our Father as your Auditor in Heaven.

——————————

     Don’t let the ash get in your eyes and blind you to the real God.

The real God isn’t a kind of Satan, an accuser, weighing your sin to dole out the wages you deserve. The real Father is like this father. And this father, Jesus says, his heart towards his son is no different on the day his son forsakes him than on the day his son returns home to him.

The real God doesn’t mete out reward or punishment according to our merit. Freud was right- that god is a caricature drawn by sin. Our Father in Heaven is like this father, Jesus says, always helplessly and hopelessly loving.

     God is like a father whose love without condition.

Because God- pay attention now- is without change. God, by definition is immutable.

God doesn’t mutate. God doesn’t change.

Therefore-

If God does not change, your sin cannot not change God’s attitude towards you.

Your sin does not change God’s attitude about you.

No, what sin does- it changes your attitude about God.

Sin blinds us, distorts our vision, so that the Father we see is a punitive paymaster, an angry judge, a kind of satan.

Just look at all the trouble we’re going to tonight. We’ve carved out a day on to the calendar. We’ve mixed oil with ash- who would ever think to do something like that? You’re skipping Tucker Carlon’s show on Fox News.

Look at all the trouble we’ve gone to tonight- sin matters enormously… to sinners.

Sin matters enormously to us if we’re sinners.

But it doesn’t matter- at all- to God.

God doesn’t change. Your sin cannot change God.

God, literally, does not give a damn about our sin. It’s we who give the damns. We wish our father dead. We hate our brother. We give the damns.

And then we justify ourselves for having done it.

Until finally all we can see is a Hell’s eye view of God.

——————————

     Before I graduated, my Jedi Master at Princeton, Dr. Robert Dykstra, a counseling professor, told me that it’s not until year seven in a congregation that the curtain comes up, the pretenses fall away, and you see who your people really are.

“You need to stay in one place long enough,” he said, “so that they no longer have the energy to keep their secrets.” 

Well, this is my twelfth Ash Wednesday here. And, by now, I’ve worn you down.

I know a lot of you pretty well. I know who’s cheated on their taxes and who’s cheated on their husbands. I know which husbands were on the hacked Ashley Madison website I know who used to hit their wife and I know the friends that pretend they didn’t know it happened.

I know the fathers who refuse to welcome their own prodigal sons home. I know the children who can’t forgive their parents. And I know who fills a hole in their marriage with stuff or drugs or drink.

After all this time, I know a lot of you pretty well.

And I know a lot of you see God as angry. At you.

As judging, damning. You.

I know a lot of you worry about getting from God what you have coming to you.

I know some of you are here tonight, hoping that if you muster up enough contrition, kneel in penance, pray for forgiveness, and bear your ashes then maybe, just maybe, God will forgive you.

Listen up-

You see God the way you do because of your sin.

Freud’s right, you’ve made that god in your image. Or your sin has.

God’s not angry at you because of your sin. That’s not how it works.

Rather, because of your sin you see God as angry.

God doesn’t give a damn about your sin.

Rather, it’s because of your sin that you see God as damning.

God doesn’t mete out what you deserve.

Rather, because that’s the currency you pay others, you see God as a merit-weighing, sin- auditing, wage-master.

     God doesn’t mete out the punishment you deserve.

If you think that then you’ve lost the plot.

God responds to the crosses we build with empty tombs.

After all this time I know you pretty well. I know the damns you’ve given to others in your life. So on this night of sackcloth and ash I want you to know:

God’s love for you doesn’t depend on what you do or who you’re like.

There’s nothing you can do to make the Father love you more and there’s nothing you have done to make the Father love you less.

Our heavenly Father doesn’t care whether you’re a sinner or a saint, a prodigal or a self-righteous elder brat.

It makes no difference to our Father because nothing can make our Father different.

Your sin doesn’t do anything to God, but it can distort everything about you.

It can ruin your eyes even, to the point you don’t recognize your own Father anymore.

——————————-

     Don’t let all this talk tonight about sin mess with your sight.

Don’t let your sin change how the Father’s seen by you.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that if you have contrition, if you confess your sins, if you bear your ashes with the proper penitence then God will come and forgive you, that God will be moved by your heartfelt apology, that God will change his mind about you and forgive you.

Not at all.

God never changes his mind about you.

Because God doesn’t change.

No, what God does do- over and again, as long as it takes- God changes your mind about him.

If you’re sorry for your sin, that’s why. If you’re contrite over your sin, that’s why. If you want to be forgiven of your sin, that’s why.

It’s the unchanging God, at work, in you. To change you.

It’s God changing your mind, helping you to see your sin, and see how your sin has changed how you see him.

You are not forgiven because you confess your sin.

You confess your sin, see yourself for what you are, because you are already forgiven.

Forgiveness is not the product of something we do to change God.

Forgiveness is the product in us of what God does to change us.

God’s forgiveness always precedes our confession and contrition.

That’s why when you come forward for a smear of ashes, you are not coming forward in order to have your sins forgiven. You’re coming forward to celebrate that your sins are forgiven.

Which means-

    These ashes are not a sign that we are the people who have changed how God views us.

     These ashes are the sign that we are the people whose vision God has changed.

Sure, these ashes are black and gritty and oily but you should bear them as though you are wearing the finest robe and gaudiest ring, as though someone has kicked on the turntable and set out the flatware and linens, killed the fattest calf, and invited you to get drunk out of your mind because you once were blind but finally you see.

See-

The God you thought was an angry judge.

An auditor.

An accuser.

He’s just a Dad on a porch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Drumroll…

The team at Crackers and Grape Juice are launching a new offshoot podcast called Strangely Warmed. Henceforth, it will drop every Monday and it will focus on conversation around the coming Sunday’s lectionary readings. Obviously a lectionary podcast has preachers in mind but we aim to keep the stained glass language to a minimum so that JC loving lay people can enjoy it too.

To kick off Strangely Warmed we talked Ash Wednesday with my paramour, Fleming Rutledge. After starting out taking about ‘prophetic preaching’ we talked about Matthew 6 and Psalm 51 and Ash Wednesday as the day when Christians, on behalf of humanity, put themselves first before the judgement of God.

Up next, we have Time Magazine’s America’s Best Theologian Stanley Hauerwas reflecting on the lections for Lent and Brian Zahnd teed up for Eastertide, and all of it is introduced by the soulful tunes of my friend Clay Mottley.

You can subscribe to Strangely Warmed in iTunes.

You can find it on our website here.

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Here’s my sermon from Ash Wednesday. You can listen to below, in the sidebar to the right, or download the Tamed Cynic app here.

Psalm 51

Maybe its the last dregs of chemo brain, but am I the only one who hears ‘…against you, you alone God, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight…’ and thinks ‘eh, that’s a bit much?’

I mean, I don’t know what you look like in your baby photos but I look absolutely adorable. Even back then I had a face any woman could love. Did God really look at me, wearing an OshKosh onesie and a world weary expression, and think to God’s self: Baby Jason, he’s a miserable, wicked sinner? Is God’s ego really so fragile?

True, I’ve been a sinner since I hit puberty and received my first SI Swimsuit Edition in the mail, but from the moment my mother conceived me?

And I don’t know if my guilt extends all the way back to the womb like today’s scripture contends- seems awfully grim- but I know my guilt extends at least as far back as yesterday to that guy I cut off in traffic on Route 1.

Even if I am everything he swore at me (at the next traffic light) and even if my mother is everything he shouted at me (at the next light) and even if I deserve to do to myself everything he suggested I do to myself (at the light after that), to say that I rebel against God, day and night, and that I’ve done evil in his sight sounds a bit heavy handed, more than a little over the top.

Is God really so quick to anger and abounding in steadfast wrath? Shouldn’t God be at least as nice as Jesus?

—————

     We’ve all heard the cliche that the Church is a place not for great saints but for great sinners. ‘The Church,’ as the sign out front of Bethlehem Baptist Church said last week, ‘is a hospital for sinners.’

Fine. Whatever.

But-

What about just average sinners? What about mediocre sinners?

Like you? Like me?

Just read through the Ash Wednesday liturgy the Church with a capital C has given us- there’s no room in it for us run of the mill, grump at your kids, cheat on your taxes, fall asleep watching Game of Thrones types of sinners.

Or take another scripture that’s a standby for Ash Wednesday, where Isaiah says we’re such rotten sinners that ‘…all our good deeds, to God, are like filthy rags.’ It’s over the top.

And consider King David who wrote Psalm 51. David is exactly like a Game of Thrones character. David is a peeping tom, a sexual predator, a murderer and a religious sycophant. David collected 100 foreskins just to impress his girlfriend and I’m willing to bet at least 99 of them came from reluctant donors. David tore off his clothes and danced naked on the altar of the covenant.

Even by the Jersey Shore standards of his Old Testament day, David was terrible, a terribly exceptional sinner.

I mean, it’s no wonder hardly anyone brings their kids to Ash Wednesday service. You all come here to confess how you don’t pray as much as you should or how you feel badly about blocking your neighbor on Facebook or how you’re secretly thinking about voting for Trump and what do we do?

Bam, we hit you over the head with ‘…against you, you only, God have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.’

And then, as if that wasn’t overkill enough, we invite you to participate in this liturgy of sackcloth and ash that derives, lemme tell you, from the ceremonies for the reconciliation and forgiveness of grave sinners, like torturers and rapists.

When it comes to you and me, the scripture, the ceremony- it misses the mark.

—————

     King David’s language in Psalm 51 is beautiful, but as gorgeous as the words are, it’s bad language. It’s to use the language badly because it misses the mark about you and me and just what kind of sinners we are.

Here, of all places, we shouldn’t lie or exaggerate about ourselves, most especially to God from whom, about us, no secret is hid.

So, let’s be honest. Most of us are ordinary, mediocre sinners. Boring even.

I mean, the average United Methodist church would be way more interesting if we sinned like David, but I for one, after the year I’ve had, don’t have the energy for that.

We are not great sinners. We’re not rebelling day and night against God.  We haven’t been guilty since our mother’s first trimester. I dare you to come up with even one truly evil thing you’ve done.

No matter what the baptists will tell you, you’re not totally depraved. When God made humanity he called it ‘very good’ and then God considered you and me good enough to put on skin himself. So, no, you’re not totally depraved.

We’re not great sinners. We’re not murderers or predators or spiritual psychopaths. Other than Dennis Perry, I’ve not seen one of you dance naked at the altar. So forget the psalm. Forget David’s confession for a moment and let’s be honest.

     Your sins do not offend God.

     There, I said it.

Your sins do not offend God.

No doubt you commit ordinary, mediocre sins against a great many people in your lives, probably against the people you love most. And probably your sins leave most of those people PO’d at you. But your sins- they don’t anger God.

Let David narrate David’s experience for himself, but let’s be honest about ours. There’s a difference between David and you. He’s a lot more interesting of a sinner. Fine. Whatever. So be it.

Let’s be precise, David’s a Game of Thrones sinner and most of you are basic cable, Modern Family kinds of sinners.

You may hate your ex or grumble about your pain in the butt neighbor, but those sins don’t mean God takes it as though you hate God.

No, your sin just means you’re lazy and shallow and stingy and careless in how you love God and love your neighbor.

You haven’t been committing evil since you were teething- that’s insanity. No, you just screen your mother’s calls. You won’t forgive that thing your spouse did. You don’t give near the value of your beach rental to the poor. You’re only vaguely aware of the refugee crisis.

Those are the kinds of sinners you are. We are.

But compared to David? Don’t flatter yourself, you’re not much of a sinner.

No matter what the liturgy says, you haven’t been guilty since the day your mother conceived you.

I know it’s Ash Wednesday, but we don’t need to exaggerate how sinful we are just to prove how gracious God is.

Seriously, don’t take yourself too seriously.

As it turns out, not taking yourself too seriously as a sinner is the best way to understand what sin, for most of us, really, is.

—————

     Sin isn’t something you do that offends God.

They’re not errors that erode God’s grace. They’re not crimes that aggrieve God and arouse his anger against you. They’re not debits from your account that accumulate and must be reconciled before God can forgive you.

Don’t take yourself so seriously.

     Sin is about where your love lies.

     Sin has nothing to do with where God’s love lies.

God’s love, whether you’re a reprobate like David or a jackass like me or a comfortably numb suburbanite, doesn’t change. Because God doesn’t change.

There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less. The Father’s heart is no different when the prodigal returns than on the day he left his Father.

God’s heart is no different whether you leave here with your forehead smooth or smudged tonight.

So before you come up here today to put on ash, before we invite you follow Jesus into the wilderness for the 40 days of Lent, don’t think it has anything to do with where God’s love lies.

God’s love for you is unconditional because God is unchanging.

Don’t think an ashen cross keeps the fires of hell at bay. Don’t think Lenten penance in any way persuades God’s pathos in your favor. Don’t think that by confessing your sin you’ve somehow compelled God to change his mind about you.

No. When God forgives our sins, he is not changing his mind about us. He is changing our minds about him. God does not change; God’s mind is never anything but loving because God just is Love.

Who the hell are you to think your mediocre, run of the mill sins could change God?

You’re not putting on ash tonight to change God’s love, you’re putting on ash to change your love. To stoke not God’s affection for you but your affection.

Because that, says St. Thomas Aquinas, for most of us, is what our sins are. They’re affections. They’re not evil. They’re things we choose because we think they’re good for us: our booze and pills and toys, our forgive-but-not-forget grudges, our heart is in the right place gossip.

Most of our sins- they’re not evil. They’re affections, flirtations, that if we’re not careful can become lovers when we’re, by baptism, betrothed to only One.

And so with sackcloth and ashes, we invite you, over the next 40 days, to kill your lovers.

Or if the sound of that makes you squeamish, we invite you to die to them.

Because Jesus said there’s no way to God except through him, and Jesus shows us there’s no way to God except through suffering and death. There is no other way to God.

Jesus didn’t die for us instead of us. That’s a lesson I learned about a year ago tonight when the doctor called and asked if I was sitting down.

Jesus didn’t suffer and die so that we don’t have to. Jesus died to make it possible for us to die (to our sins) and rise again. And that isn’t easy because there’s no way to avoid the cross.

Even boring, mediocre sinners like us. We have to crucify and die to our affections and our addictions, to our ideologies, and our ordinary resentments.

Like Jesus, we have to suffer and die not so God can love us but so that we can love God and one another like Jesus.

It’s exactly a year ago the GI doctor called me the night after my CT scan and asked if I was sitting down.

I missed Ash Wednesday last year.

The year before immediately after the Ash Wednesday Service I ran to Safeway to procure a few (non-meat) products for the first dinner of our Lenten fast.

I was standing in line in the small, Soviet-esque Safeway near my house, about 4 people back. I could hear the bagger and the teller whispering words like ‘what’s’ and ‘going on’ and ‘holiday’ and ‘apocalypse’ and ‘probably’ and ‘something’ and ‘in’ and ‘Revelation.’

They were staring at the black, greasy cross on my forehead.

When I got to the checkout, one of them asked me furtively:

‘So, uh, is it like a holiday or something? Or did you go to a funeral?’

Thinking that would certainly be a memorable (and probably psyche-destroying) funeral, where we grind up the dearly departed and wipe him on our collective craniums, I replied:

‘It’s Ash Wednesday.’

‘Oh, right!’

Long pause.

‘What’s Ash Wednesday?’

And I replied with exactly what I’d told the congregation 30 minutes earlier: ‘Ash Wednesday is the day we remember that life is a gift from God by remembering our mortality.’

Longer pause.

‘I don’t get it.’

I kind of just smiled and swiped my debit card not wanting to venture too much more into this conversation and not because there were a dozen people waiting behind me impatiently with their lunch meat, TP and Crystal Light.

I didn’t want to say much more because, in all honesty, I still hadn’t processed or recovered from the night’s service.

Less than hour before, I had traced an ugly black cross on a child in my son’s class and said: ‘Remember that you are from dust and to dust you shall return.’

Words that become jarring when spoken on to a 10 year old’s forehead.

And after her, several people back in line, I traced the same bruise-like cross on the forehead of someone whom I’ve grown to love over the past 8 years. Knowing that if I stay in this congregation for a while longer I’ll likely perform this person’s funeral, I said to this friend: ‘‘Remember that you are from dust and to dust you shall return.’

I fought back the sudden urge to cry.

And after that friend came another soon after, someone with whom I’ve shared many a laugh on mission teams in Guatemala. On him, I traced a brooding black cross and said: ‘Remember that you are from dust and to dust you shall return.’

There were others like that.

Like the parishioner whose battle with cancer I was privy to. When I marked him with the cross and said ‘Remember that you are from dust and to dust you shall return’ the words rung with a painful truth.

Or the parent worried that their child will one day make good on threats to return themselves to the dust prematurely.

And then there was a handful of complete and total strangers. People who came in off the street because they saw the service announced on the sign out front. To these strangers, I drew an executioner’s tool on their forehead and basically said: ‘Remember, eventually you’re going to die.’

More so than any other holy day in the church year, Ash Wednesday affects me.

On Ash Wednesday it’s as though every one gathered in the pews becomes a walking, talking, breathing (for now) illustration of the day’s meaning:

life is a fragile, tightrope experience, sometimes precious and sometimes terrifyingly awful and, good or bad, it will one day end.

In so many ways, we’re finite. We’re grass, says the Poet. Just a part of the world God made. Worse than grass, says the Ash Wednesday, we’re like dirt.

But were it not so, our lives would cease to be gifts.

I didn’t preach a sermon that Ash Wednesday. A year later, last winter, I learned how I hadn’t need to preach one.

I was, somewhere deep in my percolating marrow, already embodying the day’s message.

Fasting with Christ

Jason Micheli —  March 7, 2014 — 2 Comments

By Janet Laisch~

Each Ash Wednesday, I try to prolong the ephemeral cross on my forehead from fading, praying to absorb its meaning before it washes away.

Jesus never said worship me but rather He said follow me.

During Lent, we have 40 days to contemplate his life so that we may incorporate it more wholly into our own being. During Lent in 1308, a grand ceremony processed through the streets carrying Duccio’s Maesta, an altarpiece, to the Siena Cathedral and placed it, all 7 x 13 feet, gleaming in gold and tempera paint, at the crossing square –the very heart of the Cathedral– where the vertical and horizontal axes meet of this cruciform building plan. Entering this Cathedral, and walking to the crossing square, we begin our Lenten journey by looking at images of Christ’s life. 

duomo-siena

 

Today the Maesta has been dismantled, cut up and sold to the highest bidder. Scenes from Christ’s life that once decorated the back are now housed in museums and private collections, but we can at least view the majority of these scenes at the Siena museum. 
Originally placed in the center of the Cathedral, like sculpture, the believer could walk around it to encounter snapshots from Mary’s life and Christ’s infancy on the front and Christ’s adulthood on the back. Snapshots of the very stories as told in the Gospels.  The Maesta, the Italian word for majesty, shows the Virgin enthroned holding the infant Christ and surrounded by saints. The predella, or stand, on which the altarpiece rests, depicts the Annunciation, Nativity, Adoration of the Magi, and Flight into Egypt, to name a few of the other major events on the front.

 000maesta

Walking around to view the back of the painting,  it depicts major events of Christ’s adulthood–not a single moment — but instead many acts to observe during Lent.  The Passion is told in thirty-four scenes, beginning on the bottom left with Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Using gold leaf in each scene, Duccio unified these images of Christ’s life so we can consider them together.

duccio-maesta-reverse1

 

Drop your eyes to the left side of the predella (image below) where a scene depicts the Temptation of Christ, now at the Frick Musuem in NYC. The scenes that follow show Christ calling his followers, the wedding at Cana, the Transfiguration and the raising of Lazurus to name a few.
duccio-maesta-back

 

Duccio_-_The_Temptation_on_the_Mount

 

In this Temptation of Christ, Duccio paints the moment when Christ commands Satan away. The space surrounding Christ shows how Christ through fasting becomes vulnerable to the temptations of Satan and also more open to God. The angels stand to Christ’s right ready to direct Christ out of the desert to begin his ministry. It is the perfect image to study at the beginning of Lent as told in the Gospel of Matthew.
“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him. 
 
Duccio used artistic elements to emphasize Christ’s resolve against sin. Satan first tempted Christ, who had been fasting, to turn the stones surrounding him into bread. Duccio represented these stones as the very rock that supports Christ’s feet in the center of the painting. 
Satan next tempted Christ to test God. Rather than give into sin, Christ stands on a rock that looks more like a hill than a mountain. Duccio used scale to emphasize that Christ conquered sin and could easily step down from the mountain without testing God as the devil commanded.
Lastly, Satan promised Jesus the kingdoms of the world if only Christ would worship him. Duccio manipulated scale to emphasize Christ’s power over this temptation as well; in the foreground, the towns should appear larger than Christ as they are closer to our view; however, the kingdoms in the foreground are just as small as those in the background. Scale then communicates power and here clearly Christ is most powerful as he is largest.  
Duccio_-_The_Temptation_on_the_Mount
 Duccio used line to communicate Christ’s power and resolve against sin. If you were to draw a diagram of this painting, you would draw smooth continuous lines, lines without agitation. 
Christ’s right arm gracefully extends from his body sending Satan away to the shadowy background. The devil in response to Christ raises his hand to communicate that he has given up and then turns and steps away. These graceful, continuous lines do not  depict a battle scene or struggle between the two main characters, but rather Christ has drawn a line to separate himself from sin.
Duccio divided the panel into two halves through color; notice the contrast in color between the background and foreground– Duccio painted the background using browns and grays whereas Duccio painted the foreground using pinks and blues. Christ directs Satan back to darkness whereas Christ inhabits the lit space. Also the artist used color to communicate Christ’s superiority to the devil and all temptations. 
19271035e.jpg
Our eyes first notice Christ who stands slightly off center because Duccio has painted Christ wearing red, the highest saturation of color anywhere in the painting.
If instead Christ were wearing black like Satan, we would view the scene very differently. We would sense Christ’s struggle. If Duccio reversed the colors, painting Satan red and Christ gray, we would interpret Satan as the dominant figure. Through color choice, Duccio communicates that Christ dominates the scene–a metaphor for Christ’s actual resolve to conquer these temptations.
Duccio juxtaposed Satan and Christ; their bare feet next to each other as well. Duccio depicted Satan as a dark monster with webbed feet, large pointed ears, and  wings; whereas Christ has a beautiful face surrounded by a gold halo. Duccio applies decorative punching around Christ’s face and outlines him in greater attention and detail than Satan. The halo reminds us of Christ’s divinity; He is Lord on earth.
As Lord, Christ humbles himself hence the bare feet. Looking closely at this image, it like so many earlier Byznatine icons, has been touched by human hands. Visible scratch marks cover Satan, as an attempt to mulitate him believeing the image had magic power. 
Despite all of our sins, we are made in Christ’s image not in Satan’s image.
temptations-of-christ
4387-florence-baptistery-north-door-1401-24-temptation-christ-1
Throughout Art History, artists have portrayed this story. Artists in Northern Europe depicted The Temptation of Christ less frequently than artists in Greece and Italy. Artists in Greece and Italy also depicted this subject most frequently in early Christian history and during the Renaissance. In Greece, it is more often portrayed as an icon (above), and in Italy, it is more often portrayed as part of a larger sculptural program on doors (above) or painted as one of many scenes on altarpieces like Duccio’s.
When it is painted independently it is rare. 
In modern art, Christ is more typically shown contemplating, alone in the desert rather than tempted by Satan (below).  
christ-in-the-wilderness-briton-riviere

Lent begins Christ’s forty-day fast and temptations in the desert.

As Christians we don’t observe the temptations of Christ from a safe distance. We have been baptized into Christ, and so throughout Lent, we participate in the mysteries of Christ knowing that His Resurrection is a reality as well.

The root of temptation is the same–to work apart from God.  Jesus knew the force of temptation better than we do, because He resisted temptation fully whereas we do not. This artwork with its many images of Christ’s life is a perfect place to start our Lenten journey. It is not what we give up for Lent that is most important, it is whether or not we can become vulnerable to absorb more of Christ into us.

 

It’s Ash Wednesday, the day the Lenten season begins. Lent is a time when we imitate Jesus’ own time of testing in the wilderness by confronting the sin and idols in our own lives.

We will observe Lent this year by preaching on the themes in Tim Keller‘s book Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters. Some of you have insinuated my blog could use  a ladies’ touch. Well, here to prove I’m responsive and always a good listener, to reflect on the book, I’ve asked Julie Pfister, one of the most authentic Christians I know, to blog her way through the book.


counterfeit-gods-timothy-kellerHere’s her first entry:

I have had them myself; stickers on my shiny new SUV (not new or shiny anymore) showing that my family was on its way.  A few of the right schools, waiting and hoping for that empty spot on the back window to have just the right University stickered to it showing the world just how smart and perfect the little family that I had made was.

Like most of us, I didn’t realize it as it was happening.  Pride, like any other idol can be insidious, and so difficult to spot.  But my children, my seemingly perfect little family was on its way.   I wanted room in my car to carry around the whole hockey team.  I wanted my kids to want to have their friends come to my home where I could serve up the milk and cookies.

They did for a while.   Then, things started to awry.  As Keller put it, its not that I loved my children too much, I just didn’t have any room left in my heart or time in my schedule (or theirs) for God.  I wanted my children to be happy, successful, loving and to love me!  Perhaps it is partly because of the culture I grew up in that the desire for the perfect little family was so important.  Having happy, successful, smart, athletic, caring, loving children would validate me as a person – especially since I had quit my job and “sacrificed” (oh please) my career to raise my kids.

Like any false idol, it didn’t take long for the cracks in my perfect little life to really start to show.   My children and family are a wonderful gift and precious blessing to me, but I learned a long time ago, what Keller reminded us, that until or unless we stop trying to map out perfect little lives for our children, and trust God to be their God in the inevitably bumpy and even tragic path that HE has for them, we will be brought to our knees.

Do we pray that they will be Humble, shunning the world and the trappings of success and searching for God? How do we view others children who go off the chosen accepted cultural track…high school, college, graduate degree, career, family, Do we think that there is something wrong if our children “choose” a different path?  Are we not quick to give a qualifying response when we tell someone that our son or daughter is not in college?  How honest can we be with each other when people ask how we are?  How is Sally….Can we really just honestly pray that they will know God?  Will we or they be ok if we pray that God will use them, that they will seek God and God will seek them…..if that means that they go against the cultural norms? How can we as parents hope that God will break our children’s hearts so they can be desperate for HIM.  Do we trust God enough to want that sort of brokenness for them?  What if we pray that our children KNOW God?  Do we trust him with the pieces of their broken hearts?  Do we trust Him to ????  It is so counter-intuitive for me as a mother for my children to want to feel the emptiness and desperation that I have felt.  Do I want my children in the pit of despair?

That same pit that Christ reached down and pulled me out of and set my feet on firm ground and put a new song in my heart!   I loved teaching at the Day School.  With each new class I always felt a twinge of envy along with the joy of meeting the bright and shiny precious, babies and the hopeful, loving parents that brought them. I wondered how they might feel if their child called them something horrible and told them they hated them.

I hoped and prayed that their child would never get beaten to within an inch of his life or disappear for days and weeks at a time.  I wanted to go all Isaiah on them and belt out….Get on your knees NOW and study and learn all that you can….not from Dr. Spock but from the Author of their Life….the Ultimate Educator….so that you are as ready and STEEPED in God and His Word that “when the rest of life unravels”  He and his Word will be such a part of your fabric that you will not.

Some people still tell me, hoping to not offend, that I used to remind them of Barbie….Unless I missed the happily broken, God fearing, Grace loving, sinner Barbie, there is no resemblance.