Ashes, Dust, and Mercy Like Rain

My dear reader,

Growing up, I had lots of Catholic friends and a dear, devout, feisty, funny, bright, beautiful Irish Catholic aunt. They taught me the sign of peace and the purpose of confirmation. They introduced me to fascinating new words like “Eucharist” and “homily” and “purgatory.” They taught me about holy water and, yes, Ash Wednesday. They showed me the Stations of the Cross. I was struck by the meaning underlying the rituals and spiritual disciplines they practiced, and I adopted some. One was the observance of Lent. Lent is the solemn season that precedes the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. It starts today and ends with a joy-soaked celebration of Jesus’ victory over sin – and death itself – on Easter Sunday.

The traditions of Lent are taken from both the Old and New Testaments. Ashes symbolize the dust from which God made us and remind us of Old Testament references to repentance: Mordecai, Job, and Daniel all repented “in dust and ashes.” So, each year for Ash Wednesday, the previous year’s Palm Sunday branches (which symbolize those used to honor Jesus when He entered Jerusalem for Passover) are burned and the ashes are given as a blessing on the forehead, in the shape of the cross:

Repent, and believe in the Gospel.

Because the whole point of this whole season is this:

The Gospel.

The Good News.

(Very, very Good News.)

Typically, the 40-day Lenten season is marked by daily reading of the Gospels, prayer, confession, and fasting.

We read and pray. And we confess.

Yep, got plenty to keep me busy right there. Daily – no, hourly – I screw up, fall down, act out, give in… to all sorts of temptations and (mostly self-made) traps. Arrogance, outrage, envy, grousing, gossip, gluttony. (*Note to self: do not celebrate Fat Tuesday with such wild abandon next year.)

When my heart is soft and my mind is still, my thoughts turn to that cutting remark, my ugly impatience, the glory grab or careless dismissal, a bitter grudge, my false humility and appalling apathy. Not to mention my little white/big bold-faced lies and foolish pride and relentless self-obsession and stubborn refusal to show a little mercy… or shake off an offense… or share more than just my extras. Nearly everywhere I look, every single day, I’m culpable. How can I – still – be so stuck in my muck?

The truth hurts:

I am broken, bound, laid bare.

I can’t fix myself or free myself or cover myself up with nice clothes or good deeds.

I’m toast.

Dust.

And ashes.

I ache with sadness and sorry. Gutted, I fall at the feet of Jesus – who held all my heinous ugly as He hung bloody on that cross – asking forgiveness for the umpteenth time.

Going through the motions doesn’t please you, a flawless performance is nothing to you. I learned God-worship when my pride was shattered. Heart-shattered lives ready for love don’t for a moment escape God’s notice. ~ Psalm 51:17 (The Message)

He sees me… in all my disgrace. Begging for His good grace.

And He tenderly obliges, yet again. He rains mercy on me. Showers me with lovingkindness. Soaks me in Living Water.

Oh how I adore Him.

O come, let us adore Him.

In the Advent season. In this Lenten season. Always.

Let’s talk to Him… and listen. Let’s say sorry and mean it. Let’s give a thousand thanks for amazing grace.

And maybe too… let’s offer ourselves. Wholly. And holy. (Because by His blood, He made us so.)

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. ~ Romans 12:1 (The Message)

During Lent, some of us will fast.

We fast to remember that Jesus gave up everything for us. (That’s the Gospel right there.)

We “give up” some comfort. Or comfort food. Or any manner of convenience or indulgence. And in those moments when we feel a measure of discomfort (or, my fellow chocolate addicts, desperation), we are reminded to keep our focus not on our cravings, but on the cross. Not on sweets, but on our sweet Savior.

Over the years, I have given up coffee, cable, wine, chocolate, ice cream, and social media for Lent. (Not all at once. Heavens, no.)

A couple years ago, my aunt and uncle made a suggestion. Rather than giving up something for Lent, they suggested I give to someone. I kicked that idea around awhile and decided to give it a whirl. What could I give? Random acts of kindness. One each day to those who serve others every day. A compliment or a thank-you note, a bunch of flowers or a batch of cookies, a gift card or a glowing customer satisfaction survey. To teachers, waiters, cops, caregivers, counselors, nurses, soldiers, social workers, the woman who cleans the bathroom at the airport. God bless her.

And guess what? The more I gave, the more I got. The more I bestowed, the more I was blessed. (I received thank-you notes for my thank-you notes. Crazy. And lovely.) When I brought flowers, I got a bright smile and warm hug. When I offered a compliment, I got heartfelt appreciation. When I sent a gift card, I got genuine, joyful surprise. When I baked cookies, I got a couple spoonfuls of cookie dough. (I have not yet conquered a cookie fast.) And my kitchen smelled like heaven.Or someplace close, like Hershey, Pennsylvania. When I told someone who does a really tough, thankless job that her hard work (and heart work) wasn’t going unnoticed, I was given the precious gift of grateful tears.

I made a delightful discovery during Lent that year. When I give love, it boomerangs its way right back to me. Every single time.

More good news.

Mercy me,

Wendy

P.S. For the record, I’m giving up candy for Lent. Which likely means I will be giving up movies too, because without movie candy, what’s the point, really? I will miss you, Sno-Caps and Skittles and Twizzlers… oh my. (To make matters worse, I just realized that the 40-day Lenten fast is actually 46 days when you count the Sundays too.)  Which means I will be hitting the day-after-Easter candy sale at Kroger. Hard. And humming the Hallelujah chorus as I do.