Over breakfast I was looking though the latest issue of The Lutheran and came across this article.
Story by Glen A. Bengson
'But God can'
Ash Wednesday reminds us God renews, reforms, revives our lives
I had baptized 4-year-old Sarah and her brother some months before and was visiting the family to see how things were going. “Has Sarah mentioned anything about the experience?” I asked her mother.
“Oh, yes,” she answered. “She said the pastor made a cross on her forehead. I told her, ‘But you can’t see it now.’
“‘But God can,’ replied Sarah.”
When the ashes of Ash Wednesday welcome us into the disciplines of Lent and Christian life, we begin that 40-day journey of repentance and renewal confident that, indeed, “God can.” God can bring life out of death. God can join water and word, bread and wine, repentance and forgiveness, and cross and community to fashion a new beginning and a new people in Christ. God can renew and reform and revive my life because of Jesus.
The sign of the cross we share marks us as one body witnessing to God’s gracious presence. We bear the sign of our baptism as we receive those ashes. We enter the baptismal life of daily repentance, as Martin Luther reminded the church in the first of those famous 95 Theses: “When our Lord Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he meant the whole life of the believer to be one of repentance.”
Lent begins with that invitation to renewed repentance, to submit once more to what only God can do with sinners: turn them into saints. Lent has historically been the time of baptismal preparation—baptism celebrated as the sun rose on Easter morn, baptism into the Risen Lord for a daily journey of faith, hope and love.
Sarah was too young to know the full implications of that water, those words and that sign. But by the power of the Spirit, active through family, sponsors and congregation, she grew to trust that the promise of God in Christ was for her. “God can.”
Ash Wednesday leads us into the Lenten disciplines of faith, the practices of Christian life that reflect the presence of Christ in our life. The Gospel text for Ash Wednesday is Matthew 6:1-6 , 16-21. Jesus calls his disciples to give, pray and fast—without fanfare, without trumpets blaring and without grumpy faces.
But Jesus does assume they will do them: “When you give … when you pray … when you fast.” The caution is to do these traditional disciplines in ways that honor God and serve the neighbor, rather than bringing attention to the disciple.
“When you give alms” challenges us to use the gifts God has placed in our hands to empower others. Our giving may begin with thoughts of charity but the goal is the strengthening of the lives of others so they also serve God and their neighbor.
Whether it is money given to the ELCA World Hunger Appeal; time dedicated to volunteer efforts at the local food pantry, feeding program or Habitat for Humanity project; or the yield from the annual spring cleaning given to a neighborhood clothes closet—our giving seeks to serve the neighbor God has first given us.
And “giving alms” may mean other ministry as well. How about those who give up vacations for mission trips to Honduras, the Gulf Coast or their own nearby inner city? We serve, and hopefully learn, as we experience in a new way the lives of people both different and the same as ourselves.
Call to loving community
“When you pray” invites us to open our hearts and lives to the movement of God’s Spirit, to commend our world to God’s care and to ask God’s leading to discover the ministry that our neighbor may need. This seems to be the breadth of the prayer Jesus taught those first disciples. When you pray, give thanks for and place yourself at the service of God’s kingdom and will and have confidence in the Lord’s care even to the end. At the prayer’s center, the petitions for “daily bread” and “forgiveness” call us into loving community in the Lord who gives and forgives.
Our prayers may take many forms. We pray around family tables filled with the signs of God’s gracious love, both food and each other. We gather for the more formal prayers of Sunday morning, culminating in the Great Thanksgiving of the whole people of God for the greatest gift of all.
The words that “Jesus took the bread, blessed, broke and gave it” to be shared by all who are hungry for hope recall the miraculous feedings of the thousands. We remember that “Give us today our daily bread” is a prayer for not only me—but for all with whom I share this great blue ball of life.
Another kind of prayer may enter our minds—the active prayer of our advocacy for those who hunger or have other needs. God promises the words to speak to those in power and positions of influence that God’s advocacy for the “least of these,” our brothers and sisters, may be heard. Public policies shaped for the good of all people call forth prayers of praise and thanksgiving.
Down to earth
“When you fast” brings us back down to earth. These words connect us once again to our dependence on God for all that enables life. We are dust. Only the breath of God’s Spirit gives life.
Fasting means far more than striving for a smaller waistline or even healthier eating habits. How can we not “fast” when so many go hungry, unable to enjoy our luxury of voluntary fasting? How can we not fast when earth cries out for relief from the burdens of greater and grander human demands on its resources? How can we not fast when we find ourselves succumbing to the tempting come-ons of consumerism?
Fasting is about disciplining our personal lifestyle as well as our corporate behavior as stewards of God’s creation.
In the Jewish Passover liturgy, one of the refrains of the prayers is dayenu, meaning “it would have been enough.” (“Had God brought us out of Egypt and not divided the sea for us, dayenu; had God brought us to Mount Sinai and not given us the Torah, dayenu.”)
God always provides enough. Fasting helps us to connect once again with the “enough” we receive from God. When you fast, you commit yourself to work so all your neighbors on earth might experience God’s “enough” for their lives.
Perhaps these Lenten disciplines might serve as a “catechism” for intentional life in Jesus’ name. We are dust, but precious dust, enlivened by the breath of the Spirit. We are marked by the sign of the cross, washed in water, shaped by the word, fed at the table.
In our fasting we feast on the promises of our Savior. In our prayers we offer ourselves in his service, even as we acknowledge our utter dependence on God’s grace and power.
We know it is a big commitment to accept the disciplines of Lent. We confess we may not be able to see the results very clearly.
But God can.