Wearing Ashes As A Sign Of Grace

Peace to you all, friends, on this Ash Wednesday!  Here is my meditation from our service tonight.

Photo Mar 05, 8 05 03 PM

Before I left for church today I was watching the Pioneer Woman on the Food Network and she was making some sort of green bean dish. As she dumped the beans into the pot she explained that she had trimmed and washed them. “They’re not perfect, but they don’t need to be,” she said as the dish started to come together on the stove.

Now I realized she probably just said this to fill dead air time while the beans were being transferred, but for some reason I could not get that sentence out of my head.

“They’re not perfect, but they don’t need to be.”

A few weeks ago, several of us gathered for Pat 1 of our discussion on the book, Practicing Balance. During our time together, we all shared the different ways that we feel out of balance in our lives. We talked about feeling out of balance at work, at home, in our relationships and with our children. One word that seemed come up over and over again was “guilt”. People felt guilty that they worked too much, but – at the same time – not enough. People felt guilty when they spent time with their spouses because they weren’t with their children and their children because they weren’t with their spouses. People felt guilty because they didn’t take time for themselves, but then felt guilty when they did take time for themselves. We were all kind of in a lose-lose situation.

I don’t know if it is the society that we are living in or how connected we all are, but now, more than ever, people seem to feel guilty that they cannot do enough or be enough. They feel guilty that they fall short of some unrealistic standard set for them by perfectly edited magazine articles, blog posts, news reels and pinterest boards.

But that is not reality.

The reality is that we are not perfect – but we do not need to be. Because God is within us and working through us – not despite these imperfections, but through these imperfections.

Today is Ash Wednesday, a day when we wear a tangible and visible reminder of our sins and imperfections.

People often look at Ash Wednesday as a “dark” day, as a day clouded by our human sins and immortality, to make public our confessions.

But I think Ash Wednesday gives us a wonderful opportunity to look in the mirror and see the beauty of what is truly there – an imperfect human being, touched by the grace of God. The ashes that we wear do not symbolize some sort of punishment; rather they symbolize an awareness that God will continue working through us and through our imperfections no matter what.

This is grace alive in one of the most spectacular ways.

One of the greatest musicals I have ever seen on Broadway is The Lion King. The song, “He Lives In You” is performed at a point in the musical when Mufasa, Simba’s father, is trying to show him that he will never be alone. Through this song, Simba sees that the spirit of his father and of all the Kings who came before him will always be within him.

In a way that only music can, this song reminded me that God is within us always. God lives within us. God gives us strength when we are weak, love when we feel hate and grace when we stumble. God does not make us perfect; rather God uses our imperfections in a way that only God can.

Before we receive our ashes this evening, I invite you to hear the song, “He Lives In You.”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T239kqN7yq4]

Finding Peace In The Pieces

My meditation from tonight’s Ash Wednesday service.

Peace, friends, as you enter this Lenten season. xo

Psalm 51:1-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Finding Peace In The Pieces

You might think that I am weird for saying this, but Ash Wednesday is probably one of my favorite services throughout the Christian year.

Last week I wrote a blurb in the Epistle about our Ash Wednesday service. I wrote:

This will not be a “depressing” service; this will be an opportunity for you to come and meditate on the upcoming Lenten season, to embrace who you are as a child of God, to acknowledge your brokenness and to seek strength, both from God and from this community.

I have been thinking a lot about brokenness lately – and not necessarily in a depressing way, either. We are, as a human race, broken. We sin. We fall short. Our imperfections are revealed on a daily basis.

And yet – we live in a world that continually strives to make us perfect.

Advertisers are constantly trying to sell us on products and systems that make our hair, skin and bodies look perfect and un-aged. Pharmaceutical companies research and sell drugs around the clock that create instant fixes and “feel-goods” in our bodies and in our lives. Technology is quickly advancing so that machines run faster, longer and more efficiently.

Why, I often ask myself, do we always have to be better?

When, I ask myself, will we be good enough?

What, I ask myself, is wrong with being less than perfect?

Is it okay to just be broken?

Yes. It is. In fact being Christian allows us to be broken.

A few weeks ago I heard a song called “21 Guns” by Green Day. The lyrics caused me to stop and think about the struggles of being human, of feeling broken. The song goes:

Do you know what’s worth fighting for?
When it’s not worth dying for?
Does it take your break away and you feel yourself suffocating?

Does the pain weigh out the pride?
And you look for a place to hide?
Did someone break your heart inside?
You’re in ruins.

When you’re at the end of the road.
And you’ve lost all sense of control.
And your thoughts have taken their toll.
When your mind breaks the spirit of your soul.

Your faith walks on broken glass.
And the hangover doesn’t pass.
Nothing’s ever build to last.
You’re in ruins.

I keep going back to that line, “Your faith walks on broken glass.” How true is that in our lives and in our faith? A Christian journey is not a journey walked on the marble floor of an expensive mansion. That is not even how Jesus, himself, lived his life. It is walked on dirt roads, uneven floors and around obstacles. It is real. It is human. And it is very often broken.

Walking a Christian journey allows us to be broken. It allows us to confess our sins and our shortcomings and our brokenness to on a daily basis and still be assured of God’s love and grace in our lives.

I never really liked the traditional Ash Wednesday liturgies that forced people to be reminded of their failures, sins and shortcomings. People know them already – they do not need a priest or a minister to remind them. What they do need, however, is to have someone tell them that it is okay to fail, sin and fall short. What they do need is to be assured that despite those failures, sins and shortcomings, God loves them.

Ash Wednesday is an opportunity to pause in our walk of faith and allow us to be broken. More than that – it allows us to be okay with our brokenness.

The ashes that we will receive tonight come from the palms leftover from last year’s Palm Sunday worship service. This is the ash of the palms that we once laid down for Jesus as he entered Jerusalem and we shouted ‘Hosanna!’. We do this because it reminds us of the complexities of who we are as human beings. We strive to be good people and yet we fall short. We shout ‘Hosanna!’ and lay down palms for Jesus to enter Jerusalem on and yet we betray him and put him on the cross.

Wearing the ash of the palms that we once so boldly laid down for Jesus reminds us of the contradictory nature of being human. We try. We fall short. We are broken.

But – God’s grace redeems us. Always. And that is why we come to this space to tonight.

We are all imperfect and broken human beings touched by the grace of God.

These ashes are a sign of grace. We wear them on our foreheads and on our hands today because we know that despite the mistakes that we have made, we know that God forgives us always.

Tonight is a time to acknowledge our brokenness – and also a time to be okay with our brokenness.

As you receive your ashes this evening I will not be using the traditional imposition phrase, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” Instead, as we reflect on – and find peace in – our own brokenness, I will invite you to receive your ashes by hearing the phrase, “Find peace in the broken pieces; and let yourself be loved by God.”

We are all broken at one time or another. But God will put the pieces back together.

Find peace in the broken pieces; and let yourself be loved by God.

Blessings into your Lenten season. Thanks be to God! Amen.

From Ashes To Grace

Tonight’s Ash Wednesday meditation. Short and sweet. Enjoy!

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Psalm 51:1-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:-10

From Ashes To Grace

The church I grew up never once hosted an Ash Wednesday service. In fact, they were vehemently opposed to the idea, saying it was too morbid, too ritualistic, too – well – Catholic. Year after year, I would watch my Catholic classmates come to school marked with ash on their forehead and I quietly wondered what it would be like to have ashes cling to my forehead.

During my second year of seminary I was interning at Pilgrimage United Church of Christ in Marietta, Georgia and my pastor asked me if I would be willing to help out with the church’s Ash Wednesday service. She had to go out of town at the last minute and I ended up co-leading the service with our associate pastor. I went in with no expectations – in fact, I was a little bit nervous and just wanted to (for lack of a better phrase) get it over with. But I was blown away by the service. As the congregation came forward to receive their ashes and the sounds of the piano playing Come and Fill joined mine and Heidi’s voices repeating, “From dust you came, to dust you shall return,” I felt something move through me. And suddenly I understood why it is so important for me, as a Protestant Christian who believes in faith-based spirituality and feels that God is still speaking, to take part in this service every year.

In a very basic sense of the service, Ash Wednesday is about remembering our own mortality. It is about confessing our sins. It is not supposed to be uplifting or cheerful. We do not bring in the brass and fill the sanctuary with poinsettias or lilies. We came from the dust of the earth and the ashes clinging to our foreheads remind us that – in the same way that Christ clung on the cross – we are all mortal. We are all sinners. We will all return to the dust of the earth.

But more than that, Ash Wednesday reminds us of our humanity. The ashes that we will receive tonight come from the palms leftover from last year’s Palm Sunday worship service. This is the ash of the palms that we once laid down for Jesus as he entered Jerusalem and we shouted ‘Hosanna!’. We do this because it reminds us of the complexities of who we are as human beings. We strive to be good people and yet we fall short. We shout ‘Hosanna!’ and lay down palms for Jesus to enter Jerusalem on and yet we betray him and put him on the cross.

Wearing the ash of the palms that we once so boldly laid down for Jesus reminds us of the contradictory nature of being human. We try. We fall short.

But – God’s grace redeems us. Always. And that is why it is so important for us to celebrate Ash Wednesday.

I have realized that while Ash Wednesday is about confessing our sins and remembering our mortality, wearing ashes is not supposed to be something done in shame. It is something to be done in assurance of God’s grace – God’s amazing grace.

Tonight as you receive your ashes I will not be using the standard imposition phrase, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” Instead I thought it would be more appropriate this year for us, as people bound together by grace, bound together by our commitment to one another and to this community and bound together by the desire to grow in our faith to receive our ashes by hearing the phrase, “Turn away from your sins and believe in the good news.”

We try. We fall short. We face our humanity, our shortcomings, our sins. But God’s grace redeems us always.

Turn away from your sins and believe in the good news. Thanks be to God! Amen.