Holy moments

Some of the best moments in the life of a pastor happen at the end of a long aisle. 

Take weddings. I’ve gotten to marry dozens of times. In my job I get to stand at the end of a long center aisle and watch as a bride, in the moment of her life when she is perhaps most radiant and beautiful, makes her way toward her husband. So many people live together today that you might think that marriage is no big deal. But that’s not what it feels like when you’re standing between two trembling people.

Then there’s communion. People line up down the aisle, waiting to tear off a piece of bread and dip it in the juice. It’s a bit awkward, frankly; it’s hard to tear bread neatly. But then, shouldn’t we feel a bit awkward? Are we not entering together into the great mystery of salvation? I get to say the words, “The body of Christ, broken for you. The blood of Christ, poured out for you.”

And last, there’s Ash Wednesday. The people who line up down the aisle know they need to be there. They know that only through confession and repentance, symbolized by ashes, can they receive the true life Christ offers. I get to enter in to a moment when total strangers make themselves vulnerable before God, as I make the sign of the cross in ash on their forehead.

Radiance and beauty, mystery and salvation, vulnerability and life, at the end of a long center aisle.   

Beloved Dust

One of our most ancient stories pictures God as a gardener, reaching down and scooping up some dust, and forming the first human being with his own hands. God then breathed into the man’s nostrils, and he came to life. The Hebrew word, athaam, means “earth.” It’s no surprise that the first man was called Adam.

There’s a one day a year on the Christian calendar when we remind ourselves that we came from dust, and that’s where we’re headed. We’re all dust, the mightiest and the humblest of us. There’s no denying where we came from, and there’s no escaping where we’re headed. 

But we’re dust that’s been made alive by a loving creator. His own breath is in us, literally and spiritually. The least of us is an incredibly complex creation, and God’s supreme work of art.

Ash Wednesday is the day when we remind ourselves that we’re dust; dust that’s been made alive and that remains utterly dependent on God. We also remember that the God who can do the unimaginable…make dust out of nothing and then make dust come alive…loves us with unimaginably great love.

And so, on Ash Wednesday we remember what the pastor says at a funeral, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

But we’re beloved dust.

Repent? Who, me?

A school district took away jump ropes. Kids could still jump rope, but without the rope. It seems that jumping rope was hard for some kids. Failing might damage their self-esteem.

For two decades, psychotherapy has been in decline, despite research that it really works to promote patients’ mental health. The reasons for the decline are complex, such as the increased use of medications, but here’s the thing: psychotherapy involves long, hard work facing our own issues. Most people blame others for their problems. Psychotherapists used to see patients who were unhappy and wanted to understand themselves. Now, more patients want someone else to change. Fewer people say, “I want to change myself.”

It would seem that Ash Wednesday and repentance are out of touch with the times. That’s too bad, because repentance allows you to face the evil that you’ve done without the guilt crushing you.

The classic case study in repentance is the parable of the prodigal son. A young son took his share of his father’s wealth, left home, and squandered his wealth in wild living. When his life had fallen totally apart, he resolved to go home and work his way back into his father’s good graces. That was the first part of repentance—turning from his old way of life and heading home.

While the son was still a long way off, his father ran to him and kissed him. Instead of giving him the punishment he deserved, he welcomed him back as his son. When the son experienced the radical love of his father, he fully repented. In that moment he had access to all the father’s love and riches.

Repentance is like a key which unlocks our own hearts and allows the love of the father to flow into us. True repentance isn’t about feeling guilty for what we’ve done; just the opposite. True repentance is about joy.

The father, who represents God in the parable, didn’t give his son what he deserved.  He transferred the son’s guilt and humiliation to himself. Real repentance is turning away from an old way of life and accepting God’s love.

Ashes, ashes, we all fall down

Remember the nursery rhyme, “Ring around the rosie, a pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down?”

There was a time when we enjoyed nursery rhymes, but we eventually grew up. We became serious, mature.

Now we think it’s more important to keep up appearances, so we avoid looking silly.

An article in the NY Times a while back suggests the practice of psychotherapy in the United States has declined significantly. The reasons for this are complex, but researchers focused on one thing: psychotherapy involves the long, hard work of facing our own issues.

But today most people today blame others for their problems.

Psychotherapists used to see patients who were unhappy and wanted to understand themselves. Now they see more patients who come in “because they want someone else to change.” Fewer and fewer people are saying, ‘I want to change myself.'”

Ash Wednesday is about facing up to our own, most basic issues.

Ash Wednesday is the day when believers publicly acknowledge that we’re not perfect; that we don’t have all the answers; that we came from dust and that’s where we’re headed.

Ash Wednesday is the day above all days when it’s safe to acknowledge our vulnerability and our total reliance on God’s grace.

When we as believers fall down together; when we stop worrying about appearances; when we let down our defenses; when we allow others into our lives; when we let them know that we’re not perfect; that we don’t have all the answers, that’s when we’re most available to the reconciling work of Jesus Christ.

Today, we wear his ashes.

One day, we will wear his crown.


360 view

A number of years ago I spent a week at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) in Greensboro, North Carolina. The visit was the culmination of a “360 degree” evaluation I was trying out for the Air Force. In a “360” you answer a battery of questions about yourself, then a group of your superiors, peers, and subordinates answer the same questions about you. Finally, you meet with a psychotherapist to go over the results. Ideally, you want to be able to see yourself as others see you. It’s not good to think more highly of yourself than others (maybe your ego makes you blind to your faults).

The therapist told me that others consistently rated me higher than I rated myself. I was pleased, but not for long. She said it is also not good to think less of yourself than others: the gap represents untapped potential.

At the end of my week at CCL, I wanted to know if I should tell those who evaluated me what “my issues” were. The answer? Of course. Why? Because they already know! The idea is that when you own up to your issues, it builds trust, and others can support you as you work to build on strengths and overcome weaknesses.

We’re about to begin the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday this week. This is the season of prayer and self-examination where we prepare for the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the time when we tell God, as best we can, what “our issues” are. In confessing our sin and brokenness to God, we’re not telling God anything new. God already knows us from all sides. Confession helps us to learn to see ourselves as God sees us. It frees us so the blessings of God can flow into our lives.

It’s so comforting to know that the One who knows everything about us loves us more than we can imagine and wants to make us into someone much like him.