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Omaha, Nebraska, United States
I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Monday, February 18, 2013

'Tis the Season of Ashes

Lent. 40 days of purpose.  Everybody's doing it these days! Join in the discipline and self-denial...you'll get to know Jesus better...you'll be healthier...you'll be a real Christian...trust me...I read it in a book. (Not the Bible incidentally, where all we get is Jesus in the desert for 40 days, and we get to pretend that we are like him when we give up chocolate for a bit.)

In my parish pastoring days I enjoyed Lent, but mostly because we got to have another worship service in the middle of the week. For me, pastoring was all about worship services, and the more I could squeeze into a week or day the better I liked my job. (Curiously, I was never a big fan of preaching, although I did that a lot too.) I like worship services for Christians because they tend to behave better during them than they do when they are left to their own devices to fill the hours of a day. Corporate prayer beats self-abuse (pick your addiction) any day.

During this season of Lent we always got introspective, which for the Lutherans in my tradition was not much of a stretch. (I mean, I come from a people where if you look at the tops of someone else's shoes when your head is down you are being "brash") So we'd metaphorically heap the ashes upon our heads, relish our inadequacies, and patiently count down the days until we could get back to our normal life. Real effect that Lent had upon us, yes?

Invariably someone or some family in the congregation would show up in my office on Ash Wednesday and declare that they were going to "take Lent seriously this year." Most of the time by Easter they'd have left the church, and were too ashamed to look at me in the grocery store for their failure to measure up to...

You see, that's the thing--you can't finish that sentence. What--exactly--are humans supposed to measure up to? God? Seems a far stretch when we can't even be nice to our neighbor. Are we supposed to measure up to some "human-made" standard like being nice to the environment or helping poor people or something? What do we measure up to in the season of Lent?

For me, it's measuring up to the ashes the priest inscribes on my forehead on Ash Wednesday. All I have to measure up to is death--my death, your death, our death. There are no prizes for lives well-lived. There are no punishments for lives that don't meet some made-up moral standard. (And all moral standards are made up, even the good ones.)

The question then becomes for Lent, not how am I going to live better; but, rather, how am I going to live on my way to death? Like the ash that blows away, how am I going to treat the ones I love? The ones I hate? As I am blowing away into the great beyond how are my relationships being lived? As my pastor asks each week, "Where have you received love? Where have you given love?"

What has always impressed me about Jesus of Nazareth is that on his way to death, he always stopped, healed some people, patched up some arguments, made a new community or two. Those things never stopped him from dying, it didn't stop him from the death on the cross. Ash is the perfect symbol for Lent, not because it's messy, but because it's all that's left when the wood dies...it is the last relationship left for that stick or leaf...there's just dust and God.

And in the end, that's as true for the palm branch as it is for you and me.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

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