Friends, Ash Wednesday is upon us. Please join me in exploring the wilderness during the next forty days of Lent. Each Monday, I’ll post a new reflection based on a word (or two) that embodies the lectionary reading for the previous Sunday. The series, entitled “Lent, In Other Words,” is a Lenten devotional, prayer, or reflection that aims to make faith relative and impactful in our everyday lives.
This morning I joined a few friends and an adorable dog called Gus to administer ashes to commuters at a busy train station in Oakland, California. Some paused out of curiosity before continuing on their way, others smiled and said good morning, and still a few others stopped to receive ashes and a reminder: “From ashes you were created, and from ashes you will return.” One woman named Jill offered me a blessing too. “God bless you,” she said as she gently squeezed my shoulders before hurrying off to catch her train.
Just watching the routine spectacle of life’s drama unfold on a normal workday morning reminded me that we’re only human, and that’s a beautiful thing. People of all ages and colors, and strengths and weaknesses, and beliefs and challenges, just doing the best they can to make it in the wilderness of the world. I don’t know their stories, but I do know two undeniable facts about each of them and about me too: we are flawed and imperfect, and although our time here is finite, we are loved beyond measure.
During Lent we hold these truths together. While we are broken and limited, there is hope for us yet. It’s the light that beckons on the horizon and compels us to move forward knowing that with each step, transformation is possible. In that spirit, I share two words with you to begin the Lenten journey: mercy and humility.
First, consider the words of the prophet Joel, who said:
(Joel 2:12-16, The Message)
“But there’s also this, it’s not too late—God’s personal Message—
‘Come back to me and really mean it! Come fasting and weeping, sorry for your sins!’
Change your life, not just your clothes.
Come back to God, your God.
And here’s why: God is kind and merciful.
He takes a deep breath, puts up with a lot,
This most patient God, extravagant in love,
Always ready to cancel catastrophe.
Who knows? Maybe he’ll do it now,
Maybe he’ll turn around and show pity.
Maybe, when, all’s said and done,
There’ll be blessings full and robust for your God!”
If I can accept that God is kind and merciful, and puts up with my mistakes, understanding that I will miss the mark every day of my life yet invites me to begin again every morning, why can’t I offer the same mercy to myself and to others? There is good news, friends. It’s not too late to change! You don’t even have to wait until tomorrow morning’s commute, you can start right now…
But there’s a warning too: the world is not a stage! Consider the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (Matt 6:1-4 The Message):
“Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding.
When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure—‘playactors,’ I call them—treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.”
I would do well to remember this today (and everyday). I witnessed “life’s drama” unfold as I offered ashes this morning, and I must remember to play my part authentically. Remembering that I’m only human (and bound to make mistakes, as Billy Joel would say), also means that I remember that I’m only human (and no less limited than any of the other humans wandering the wilderness–no matter what I do).
In other words, humility must color my every step. Walking humbly means that we don’t treat life like a performance meant to impress others, or to please others. Instead, we tread knowing that we are fallible, yet loved; finite, yet important. It also means that we must reflect the mercy that God shows us.
I invite you to hold these words together as we enter the season of Lent: mercy and humility. And to share your thoughts!
How will you reflect mercy and walk humbly?