Friday, March 2, 2012

More Than Ashes.

The pastor pushed his cold thumb into my forehead.

Ashes to ashes, and to dust you shall return.

The ashes he used had a gritty consistency and my forehead tightened and itched increasingly as they dried.  I wanted to go to the bathroom to wipe them off but for some reason I felt I couldn't.  Maybe because the pastor told us that we used them for a reason - they were a sacred reminder.

Ash Wednesday marks the season in the church called Lent when we commemorate Christ's 40 days in the arid desert, temptations assaulting him from every direction. During that time in the wilderness, the enemy tried to manipulate Jesus again and again as he used the Word against the Word Became Flesh. 
It is also a time in the liturgical calendar when we remember the passion of Christ - a time where some even make sacrifices to identify more with the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus. It serves as a catalyst to our memory that Jesus so determinedly took the death we deserved.
    Quite a far cry from the beads and parties we find on Bourbon Street only one day prior, wouldn’t you agree?  When compared with the gluttony and the overemphasis of physical pleasure of a celebration like Fat Tuesday, Ash Wednesday offers balance in the form of an unlikely sort of reality check.  The differences between these two consecutive days can be summed up in the prophecy of Isaiah:

"Let us eat and drink,” you say, “for tomorrow we die!”  

The seemingly relentless excess of Mardi Gras reflects a certain level of truth about this life - it doesn't last forever.  However, focusing on the Fat Tuesdays of this life without
observing the Ash Wednesdays leads us to a vain half-revelation and a poor understanding of God’s gift of today.  If we focus on life like those to whom Isaiah prophesied, we will miss the point God’s Church tries to make through the practice of Ash Wednesday:

This life doesn’t last forever, and only the things done for eternity will have significance.  Everything else will fade away, as Jesus Himself pointed out in the Gospels.

If we spend our lives enjoying all the temporal pleasures of the world, all we will leave behind is a pile of ashes, bringing painful remembrance that we bowed at the altar of the insignificant and worshipped things that won't last on the other side of forever.

But when we let the idea of Ash Wednesday teach us to live for the Lord every moment that we’ve been given and to invest in what will last (such as our relationships with God and others), those ashes do us a favor.  They make us focus not so much on what we can do in this life, but what we can do for the next life.  Someday we will stand before a Throne and give an account of what we did with this time we had.  I want us to examine ourselves and make sure we are spending our moments well.  Not adding to our pocketbooks, or our planners, or our bellies (okay, working on that one) with things that continue to produce emptiness, but filling our souls with Truth and encouraging the souls of those around us.

I’ve seen two friends pass from this life into the next in the last month.  Two mighty men of God who loved Jesus more than they loved themselves.  One was a pastor.  The other a blue-collar man.  They didn’t know each other but I bet they’ve made fast friends because of their mutual love of serving Christ and devoting their lives to Him.  I have full confidence that they invested heavily into the Kingdom of God – the only Kingdom that will forever stand. 

Could people write those same words about me when all that’s left is dust in the wind, as Kansas sang so hauntingly?  Would they see that I left not only those ashes behind, but a trail that points to my King?

As I passed by their caskets and grieved, I was reminded yet again, like those cold ashes on my head.  Just as the demise of my close friends, Ash Wednesday reintroduces me once every year to my own mortality.  Every year at this time, I purpose in my heart to remember that this is my only chance to leave a mark on eternity.  I want to take it seriously.  I choose to die – to my selfishness.  To my greed.  To my needs that are really wants.  To my apathy and indifference.  To my judgmental and critical spirit. 
 Jesus Himself said this is the only route to true life.

I invite you to spend some time thinking this Lent about this phrase:

Ashes to ashes, and to dust you shall return.

I want to instill in you some hope.  Maybe you are reading this and you’ve lived a hundred Fat Tuesdays and not a single Ash Wednesday.  God has a word of covenant love for you, through the pen of that same prophet, Isaiah:

I can promise you this much based on my experience and God’s Word, friends.  God can do a lot of things with a pile of ashes.  When he looks at us (fallen, flailing mortals), he sees untold potential and purpose for the here and now and for the there and then.  In order for us to see that pile of ashes turn into beauty, we have to decide what it is we live for, and whether we will die to ourselves for the sake of it.

Fat Tuesday?  Do whatever you want.  Live for yourself.  After all, we only get this one life.


Ash Wednesday?  Love and live for Christ.  Die to self.  After all, we only get this one life.

I implore you to make your choice with great care and to consider your mortality in the most refreshing of ways this Lenten season. Let's make the decision to leave behind more than ashes.

Jesus, aid us in our desire to invest in Eternity.  May we die to those things that hold us back from full surrender to you.  May you receive the reward of Your suffering because we choose now to leave behind more than just ashes... a life lived for things that matter.

Enjoy this has been a blessing to me through this Lenten season.