Ash Wednesday Meditation

The lectionary passages for Ash Wednesday are about repentance, and for me as a recovering fundamentalist, especially reading Psalm 51, repentance is all about wallowing in guilt and what Brennan Manning called cultivating ingrown eyeballs, where you try to imagine all the ways you might have offended God and debate whether you’re sufficiently penitent.

I went to a thing called a Prayer Advance once, because Christians don’t retreat, they advance, get it? So at the Prayer Advance, they have this time called “Sweet Hour of Prayer” where you go off into the woods and work your way through this list of things that are… well, I’m pretty sure many of them aren’t actually sins.

“Am I really concerned about revival?” I used to be, back when the problem was other people.

“Am I willing to pay the price for personal revival?” I don’t know. What are personal revivals going for these days?

“Am I sinning the sin of prayerlessness?” Prayerlessness is a sin?

“Do I get angry?” Especially when I read lists like this.

“Have I paid all my debts to others?” You try owing the cost of a college education to Great Lakes Student Loan Servicing, Prayer Advance People.

“Is my home a testimony for Jesus?” Well, we do have that sign that says “No matter who you are, you’re welcome here,” so… yes?”

“Does my pastor KNOW that he can count on me?” Well, first, you misspelled “she,” and second, judging by her helpful reminder emails, I think she knows she can count on me when I reply.

You get the picture. You can’t read through that and take it seriously without starting to think, “You know, I kind of suck.” And that’s the point of it. It’s to make you feel bad so you come back to your home church with this testimony of how you repented and did a soul cleanse and you’re basically sinless. When I came back, I was pretty much perfect by fundamentalist standards for, oh, a good three days at least!

Now compare that to the Prayer of the Day for Ash Wednesday in the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship:

Almighty God,
you despise nothing you have made
and you forgive the sins of all who are penitent.
Create in us new and contrite hearts,
that truly repenting of our sins,
and acknowledging our brokenness,
we may obtain from you, the God of all mercy,
full pardon and forgiveness;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Redeemer…

Full pardon and forgiveness. It’s not a list of “Did I do this or did I not,” you just own up to it, like we did tonight, and you are told that you obtain full pardon and forgiveness – no ifs, ands, or buts, no asterisks and no guilt required. We tell the truth and forgiveness is granted. God has no interest in sacrifices; God wants the truth, because killing an animal won’t set us free. I learned a few years ago that to get free of what holds us down or holds us back, we have to tell the truth.

Ash Wednesday, maybe more than any other day, is a day Christians set aside to tell the truth – the truth the Psalmist wrote about.

And the one truth that we as humans, and to be honest, probably mostly me, probably don’t like to think about the most is that we are going to die.

We are dust, and to dust we shall return.

My friend Emiola is a slam poet, and he wrote one, I think it was called “I hope you die empty,” about hoping none of us makes it to the graveyard with lives still partly unlived, talent unspent, dreams unspoken, love unshared.

We are dust, and to dust we shall return.

Every time I walk through a graveyard, I look at the tombstones. Barring unusual circumstances, besides the love we share with others, that’s what most of us will leave behind: A tombstone with an epitaph, maybe, our name, two dates, and a hyphen between them.

We are dust, and to dust we shall return.

There’s a show on Netflix called No Tomorrow, about a guy named Xavier who’s sure the world is ending in 8 months and twelve days. Xavier has stopped doing the things that he thinks don’t matter and is busy filling out his “Apocalist,” a list of things he wants to do before the world ends and he dies.

Maybe part of the point of Ash Wednesday is to help us do that – to help us stop doing the things that don’t matter, the things that drain our lives away, things that do nothing for ourselves, or God, or others.

Life is too short not to love our neighbors as ourselves.

People who are going to die don’t have time to wallow in pride.

Who has energy to waste on hypocrisy?

We whose days are numbered have no time for false judgments or uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors or prejudice or contempt, and yet we insist on using our brief time on earth to do just those things.

Impatience is ultimately a desire to hurry our lives to their conclusions, to make the hyphen, the dash between the day we were born and the day we will die even smaller than it already will be. Besides, according to a new study, patience helps you live longer.

Ash Wednesday isn’t about guilt. Repentance isn’t about guilt. Lent, at its best, isn’t about guilt. Maybe even the Prayer Advance’s “Sweet Hour of Prayer” isn’t about guilt.

…No, I’m pretty sure that’s about guilt.

But Ash Wednesday and Repentance and Lent… that’s about life. It’s about shaking off those things that keep us half-alive.

So as we move from the word to the table, let’s pause and think about some of the things that are holding us back, and consider what we might disentangle ourselves from, at least for the next forty days.

Because life is too short for that shit.

About David M. Schell






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