A New Lenten Discipline: An Ash Wednesday Meditation

Scripture can be found here

Ten years ago on Ash Wednesday—it was February 25 that year—I read the passage I’ve just shared with you, this selection from the second letter of the apostle Paul to the church at Corinth. I had decided, as I have this year, to make reading the daily lectionary and then writing about it my Lenten discipline for that year.

This reading made my hair stand on end. It made my pulse race. It remains the single moment in my life in which I felt most keenly that God was speaking to me through the words of scripture.

Some of you already know this story. When I came to UPC in the fall of 2007, I arrived as a designated pastor with a two-year contract. In coming to be your pastor, I made a decision to be less than entirely open with you about the fact that I was in a committed relationship with a woman. I had told myself: it was a two-year contract; let’s see how it goes! At that time, the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) contained language intended to prevent people like me from serving as deacons, or ruling elders, or ministers of Word and Sacrament.

But on Ash Wednesday I read these words:

“See, now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation!” (6:2b)

And I heard Paul defending his ministry by noting that he had commended himself to the church at Corinth,

in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors,” he writes, “and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known.” (6:7-8)

And over the course of the next day and a half, these words sounded, like a gong, in my heart, repeating themselves as I breathed in and breathed out. To me, the message was clear: Now is the day of salvation! It’s time. It’s time to be completely honest with these people you love. Finally, I had a conversation with my daughter, in which she said, “Mom, they love you. And even if you have to leave, it’s better to be honest about who you are.”

And at that moment, I knew that, before this congregation voted on whether or not I should remain your pastor, I would share with you the fullness of who I am. I knew that, for us to be together, authentically, in community, I had to break down that barrier between us. It was time for me to to trust that, if this was really God urging me to do this, then all would be well—no matter the outcome. There would be no more waiting for an “acceptable time.” “Now” was the day of salvation.

In our reading, Paul is in a different situation, but it is one that impacts the soundness of the community as well. He is having a struggle with the Corinthians. He is on the defensive. The relationship has broken down. This church, which he himself planted, is breaking his heart. And here, as elsewhere in 2 Corinthians, he tries to persuade them of his sincerity, of his value as their founding pastor, and of his call to be their pastor still. Paul has endured much for his faith. Writing this from Ephesus, his final residence of a jail in Rome is still ahead of him, as is his execution by the Roman state. He is undaunted. For his congregation, he still envisions a life in which they are, once again, one body, the body of Christ. But his pleas are urgent: “We beg you,” he says, “on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” And to be reconciled to God, for Paul, also means—be reconciled to one another. These are inseparable. Faith is a call to community.

Last week a friend of mine, a psychologist in Nebraska, sent me a poem he had written, in anticipation of the season of Lent. He wrote:

We give up the wrong things

Eliminating candy instead of self-criticism

Sex instead of selfishness

Acting as if what God desires most

Is for us to be on a diet from joy

Perhaps lent should instead

Be a time of letting go

Of all that prevents community

(As an aside, do people really give up sex for Lent? Maybe it’s a Nebraska thing?)

I heard someone say that each Ash Wednesday, we begin again, to take a long, honest look at our lives; to speak humbly to a loving God; to turn back to God. The church, from its earliest days, has found that certain activities, done deliberately and repeatedly, can help us to do this work. We call them the “Lenten Disciplines,” and in a few minutes, I’ll invite you to commit to them. But before that, I’ll invite you to take on yourself the sign of ashes.

Ashes are the burned up remains of last year’s palm fronds from Palm Sunday. But they signify to us another kind of remains, the dust to which God promises us we will return, eventually. But on Ash Wednesday they also signify something else: that we are a community. That we are one. That we take on this Lenten journey together. That no one has to go it alone, that, in Christianity, there are no “solo flights.”

What if we took on my friend’s suggestion for our Lenten discipline? What if we decided to give up everything that hurts or divides or otherwise prevents community? What would that look like, in your life? What would it look like, in our life as a congregation? What obstacles to community are so much a part of our lives, that we don’t even recognize them as obstacles? How have we hidden ourselves from others, and how might we begin to trust that God will be with us, as we allow the truth of our hearts to be shared?

Now is the acceptable time, Paul tells his church—and ours. Now is the day of salvation! We don’t need to wait any longer. This season invites us to let God’s invitation resonate in our hearts like a gong:

We are invited to go on the Lenten journey, knowing that God, who loves us, will be our companion.

We are invited to journey in community, knowing that we have one another to lean on, should the road become rough.

We are invited, not to go on a diet from joy: quite the opposite. We are invited into the joy of God’s beloved community, in this, and every season.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Poem “Lent” by Steven Andrew Westby