Psalm 51:1-17 – A Prayer on Ash Wednesday

            Today on this Ash Wednesday the appropriate posture of the devout Christian is to pray.  Specifically, to confess our great and many sins, shortcomings, and moral failures.  This might sound negative and a major downer.  Yet, to not look evil square in the face and call it out for what it is, is at best denial, and at the worst allowing a bitter seed of unforgiveness to gestate in the depths of your soul.
            I believe there is no better way to confront the darkness within than with using the ancient prayer book of the Old Testament Psalms.  I encourage you to pray Psalm 51 out loud, slowly, with a generous amount of emotional flavor – even, and especially, if you don’t feel like it.  Pray it over more than once, and perhaps several times punctuated throughout the day today.  In doing so, you will be joining the faithful across this entire big world who today offer to God a prayer of subversion against the blackness on this earth.
51 Have mercy on me, God, according to your faithful love!
Wipe away my wrongdoings according to your great compassion!
Wash me completely clean of my guilt;
purify me from my sin!
Because I know my wrongdoings,
my sin is always right in front of me.
I’ve sinned against you—you alone.
I’ve committed evil in your sight.
That’s why you are justified when you render your verdict,
completely correct when you issue your judgment.
Yes, I was born in guilt, in sin,
from the moment my mother conceived me.
And yes, you want truth in the most hidden places;
you teach me wisdom in the most secret space.
 
Purify me with hyssop and I will be clean;
wash me and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and celebration again;
let the bones you crushed rejoice once more.
Hide your face from my sins;
wipe away all my guilty deeds!
10 Create a clean heart for me, God;
put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!
11 Please don’t throw me out of your presence;
please don’t take your holy spirit away from me.
12 Return the joy of your salvation to me
and sustain me with a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach wrongdoers your ways,
and sinners will come back to you.
 
14 Deliver me from violence, God, God of my salvation,
so that my tongue can sing of your righteousness.
15 Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will proclaim your praise.
16 You don’t want sacrifices.
If I gave an entirely burned offering,
you wouldn’t be pleased.
17 A broken spirit is my sacrifice, God.
You won’t despise a heart, God, that is broken and crushed. (Common English Bible)
 

 

Amen.

Lent

            Imagine you are out for a hike on a beautiful spring day and you come to a creek. You notice that someone has dumped trash into the stream—not a pretty sight. Judging by some of the empty soda cans, the trash has been there awhile. And there is an ugly film on top of the water. You can’t just leave the scene as you found it, because it would bother your conscience.
            So, you stoop down and begin gathering the trash.  It ends up taking several hours before you can begin to see a difference.  You’re amazed how much junk is there. You sit back, rest for a moment, and realize you’ll have to keep coming each day until the site is truly clean. But when you come back the next day, it’s as if you didn’t even do any work at all.  In fact, there’s more trash than the day before. It’s as if the garbage bred overnight. You think about the unlikelihood of someone coming to this very spot to dump their garbage just in the one measly day you were away.
             Then, you realize that something smells fishy—so to speak. So, you begin to follow the creek upstream.  Sure enough, there’s a nasty garbage dump that’s been there for years. It’s emptying into the passing creek. Your cleaning job was only a small opening to a world of filth. You could try and clean every day.  But if you really want your creek to be free of pollution, this means going directly to the source and dealing with the crud that’s there.
            Our hearts are the source from which our lives flow. Unfortunately, we spend great amounts of time, money, and energy—even in the church—doing trash removal “downstream.” But real transformation begins when we travel upstream to the source. Our real struggles and sins take place where no one sees: in the heart.
            Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day in the season of Lent.  Ashes remind us that we live in a polluted world full of garbage; that it is fouling up our lives; and, that we must respond to the mess with a humble return to God.  Lent is a 40-day cleaning project on the inside of our hearts, instead of trying to keep up dealing with all the scum on the outside of our lives.
            Entrance to confronting the dump of garbage requires fasting, self-examination, prayer and repentance.  As the Lord God said through the ancient prophet Joel:
“It isn’t too late.
You can still return to me
with all your heart.
Start crying and mourning!
Go without eating.
Don’t rip your clothes
to show your sorrow.
Instead, turn back to me
with broken hearts.
I am merciful, kind, and caring.
I don’t easily lose my temper,
and I don’t like to punish.” (Joel 2:12-13, CEB)
 
            We find that at the end of the Lenten journey, Jesus is there.  He swallows all the massive tonnage of the world’s garbage on the cross.  It’s so rotten that it kills him, and there is only darkness.  Then, three days later, Christ is risen, having shaken off the filthy stench of death.  Jesus Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of the prophet’s words, the merciful one who has taken care of the filthy source of garbage once and for all.
            May you find on this day and every day that the spiritual practices of prayer, fasting, and repentance put you in a place to receive Jesus. As you lean into the mess in throughout the next six weeks of Lent, may you discover the cleansing and healing agent, Jesus Christ, the Savior who scrubs the heart clean of toxic waste.

Remember

remember you are dust

Here’s a thought for your mind to consider: Remembering is a spiritual practice.

It doesn’t take any effort to forget.  But it does take an intentional plan to remember.  If you have a habit of losing your car keys, you make the effort to build some ritual in your life to not lose them.  Maybe they always live on the same hook just inside your back door or are always with you in your pocket.  That way you never have to “remember” where they are.

I look at my planner every day.  Every morning it’s a ritual.  Before doing any work, I access my planner and go over my schedule and my goals.  I will forget my best laid plans unless I review them each day.

Christians are about to enter the season of Lent.  Lent is a 40-day observance of journeying with Jesus to his cross.  It’s a time for believers to remember their baptisms, that is, to remember that they belong to God – to remember and to never forget that our primary identity is in Christ, known and loved by God as his people.

We even have an entire book of the Bible dedicated to remembering: Deuteronomy.  The book of Deuteronomy is a restating of the Law for a new generation of Israelities about to enter the Promised Land.  They were to remember why they existed as a nation, and to whom they belonged.  The Israelites needed to remember through restatement and ritual that God delivered them with power from the mighty Egyptians.  God is their trust – which means there is no need for a trust supplemental insurance policy with another deity in case he doesn’t come through for them.

dont-forget-to-remember

Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” (Deuteronomy 5:15, NIV)

Remember the long road on which the Lord your God led you during these forty years in the desert so he could humble you, testing you to find out what was in your heart: whether you would keep his commandments or not.” (Deuteronomy 8:2, CEB)

Remember the Lord your God! He’s the one who gives you the strength to be prosperous in order to establish the covenant he made with your ancestors.” (Deuteronomy 8:18, CEB) 

“So all your life you will remember the time you left Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 16:3, NCV)

Remember a time long ago.
Think about all the past generations.
Ask your fathers to remind you,
and your leaders to tell you.” (Deuteronomy 32:7, GW)

We cannot expect the next generation to simply know God because we do.  If it’s so easy for you and me to forget about God in our workaday world, then how much more do we need to be intentional about passing on the words and ways of Jesus with routines and rituals which help us to remember?

On Ash Wednesday the minister applies the sign of the cross to the forehead of the penitent with the words: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s not meant to be a downer, or a morbid display that we are going to die someday.  The ashes are to be a reminder that we only have one life to live on this earth, and it is to be lived knowing, trusting, and finding our truest identity in the Holy Trinity whom we serve – Father, Son, and Spirit – the God who has orchestrated salvation for his people.  Remember, and do not forget, your life belongs to God.  He cares for you, and you can trust in his goodness.

ash wed

“The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.” (John 14:26, NKJV)

“In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:35, ESV)

“Then he broke it in pieces and said, ‘This is my body, which is given for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.’  In the same way, he took the cup of wine after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant between God and his people—an agreement confirmed with my blood. Do this in remembrance of me as often as you drink it.’  For every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are announcing the Lord’s death until he comes again.” (1 Corinthians 11:24-26, NLT)

“They only asked us to remember the poor, and that was something I had always been eager to do.” (Galatians 2:10, CEV)

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead.” (2 Timothy 2:8, NRSV)

Remember, then, what you were taught and what you heard; obey it and turn from your sins.” (Revelation 3:3, GNT)

If you think about it, caring involves consistency.  Others know what to expect from us.  We continually show up with the grace and kindness given to us in Christ.  People don’t have to wonder what kind of mood we’re going to be in.  We’re there for them.  We have provided for them a history of consistent rituals they can remember – a history of patient assistance and quiet strength on their behalf.

We’ve been given one life to live.  It is to be a life dedicated to practicing remembrance. We’re to live in the remembrance that Christ has delivered us from brokenness to be an agent of healing in a world in need of remembering who they are.  There’s no need to invent new rituals for remembrance.  We just need to remember to show up and participate in the rituals the church has practiced for centuries.

Remember That You Are Dust

 
 
            Today is Ash Wednesday.  This is the first of forty days in the season of Lent.  It is a time of reflection, contemplation, spiritual discipline, and especially repentance as Christians anticipate and prepare themselves for the redemptive events of Christ’s passion. 
 
            Last night I took the dried palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday celebration, broke them all up, and put them over a hot fire.  Over the course of the next forty-five minutes, I watched the dried branches slowly wither and turn to dust and ash.  By the time it was all done, no one could ever recognize that the dust was ever palm branches.  It could have been just about anything.  And there we have the sign and the meaning behind Ash Wednesday:  In the end, we are all dust.  All of our mortal striving, worrying, and pride to get ahead, posture ourselves for good positions, and preening to look better than we really are will eventually result in absolute diddly-squat.  The richest person on earth, as well as the poorest, will both look exactly the same in the end.  We all will be dust and ashes.
 
            Today I will take that unrecognizable palm branch dust and apply it to the foreheads of my parishioners in the sign of the cross – a tangible reminder that this is to be a season of repentance.  To be mortal means that we will all die someday.  But, for the follower of God, death will not be the end.  Something will arise out of the dust and ashes.  New life, a life unrecognizable from the first, shall come out of it all.
 
            The words I will utter when putting the ash to the forehead will be:  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”  Yes, it is both an ancient and a very solemn saying.  But there is much more than solemnity and tradition here – there is the hope of something different, of observing something sacred in the ashes, of knowing Christ.  If you think about it, there cannot be ashes unless there is fire.  When something comes close and exposed to fire, it is changed and becomes dust and ash.  It is no longer distinguishable as to its original form.  It will not and cannot ever be the same again.
 
            When Moses came into contact with the burning fiery bush, he was never the same again.  All that Moses was before became broken down and unrecognizable.  When Isaiah came into contact with God’s burning coal in the temple as he worshiped, he would never be the same again.  Isaiah was a new person, filled with a mission as God’s emissary.  He became completely unrecognizable from his former existence.  When the early church encountered the Day of Pentecost and the Spirit came upon them like fire, they were completely changed.  The believers became dust and from the ashes there arose a church that went on to impact the entire world.  They were never and could never ever be the same again.
 
            We all share the same fate in the end.  We will all eventually die.  And we will all eventually face fire; it is just a matter of which fire we will encounter.  Either it will be the fire of God’s purifying grace which humbly reduces us to ashes so that we can be renewed and fitted for a life with Jesus Christ forever.  Or we will face the consuming fire at the end of the age that will burn in eternal torment, separated forever from the life giving grace of God.
 

 

            So, today remember that you are dust.  Lay aside all that now seems so important, and humbly allow Jesus to remake you and fashion you after his image.  Go to that Ash Wednesday service and receive a sign of mortality, even death.  For only through dying can we live.