Gracious Inventory: Ash Wednesday Reflection

I have to be honest with you- Ash Wednesday is not my favorite service and Lent is frankly, a downer. Sure, I look good in purple and there is Easter cheese at the end of the Lenten maze. But still…

I have heard Lent described as the time of spiritual heavy lifting during the Christian liturgical year. Heavy lifting? Have you ever moved or bought new furniture? There’s a reason why there are so many moving companies and moving trucks. Hauling around stuff, especially bulky stuff, is indeed exhausting work. Perhaps Lent is about examining one’s stuff.

In the popular book, Spark Joy, by Marie Kondo, the author brings ancient Japanese wisdom on minimalism in the home to contemporary readers. Maybe you have heard of it. Recently The Simpsons did a spoof episode where the family tries out the minimalist principles. Lisa ended up getting rid of her prized saxophone. It was rough to watch, in an amusing way of course. Marie Kondo’s method can be summarized:

  • Commit yourself to tidying up
  • Imagine your ideal lifestyle
  • Finish discarding first
  • Tidy by category, not by location
  • Follow the right order
  • Ask yourself if the item sparks joy

I will confess that I do experience joy when space is clutter-free. There is value in taking a long hard look at how much we consume and then readjusting in order to minimize one’s footprint. It can be a healthy practice to have seasons in the year and in life- lean times & feasting times. It can be liberating to take a personal inventory. What areas am I doing well in? What areas can I do better in? When am I most experiencing God? When do I struggle to experience God?

A lot of people think of Lent as a time to reduce stuff & to clear out clutter sometimes literally, but most often metaphorically. A lot of people think of Lent as a time to test self control- with enough grit & determination I will completely ban chocolate or television or social media or alcohol or complaining or clutter. If Lent is reduced to what to do & what not to do, we miss potential depths of the season.

Allow me to begin with what Lent is not:

  • Lent is not a time to punish yourself. While it is true that we are all imperfect, God does not desire self-punishment or self-loathing.
  • Lent is not a religiously sanctioned time to try out a crash diet. Focus on health is usually a good thing, but self-loathing or unhealthy restrictions is damaging. How does dishonoring one’s body honor the incarnate Christ?
  • Lenten is not a time for practices approached like a religious new year’s resolution. There is a dismally low average rate of sticking with new year’s resolutions anyway & Lent isn’t about goals, it’s about focus.
  • Lent is not an opportunity to humble brag about piety.
    • Matthew 6:1- “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

 What then is Lent?

  • Logistically, Lent is a 6 week time of preparation for Easter.
  • Lent is the mirroring of Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the desert as he began stepping in to his greatest purposes.
    • Writer & theologian, Frederick Buechner, writes, “After being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent 40 days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.”
  • Lent is a time of deeper fellowship with Christians of many denominations and traditions around the world & even across time.
  • Lent is a time of individual and shared lament. This season puts the “Lent” in lament. These days there is no shortage of situations, laws, injustices, abuses, hurts, and loss to grieve and lament.
  • Finally, Lent is grace.

In our passage this evening, Psalm 51, David expresses deep regret and begs for God’s mercy after the prophet Nathan convicts him about his sins of adultery and murder. You may or may not be guilty of adultery or murder, but surely you are familiar with regret. Have you ever regretted something you did or didn’t do?

The book of Psalms is timeless largely in part because it includes a full range of human experience and emotion. Psalm 51 can be a model for Lenten practice:

  • Appeal to divine mercy
  • Confession of sin
  • Cleansing & renewal
  • A vow with thanksgiving

Today, Ash Wednesday, we do all 4 of these rapid fire, as an overview of the season. Today in particular we remember our sins & confess them to God. That’s kind of the easy part. Throughout the season of Lent may we actively seek to make right broken relationships. Sin doesn’t separate us from God because God is always with us, but sin does distort our image and understanding and experience of God and sin does our image and understanding and experience of ourselves and other people.

Sin is like acid rain wearing us down. May we alternatively be renewed in the life giving waters of God’s grace and perhaps even grace for ourselves. Sin is not a surface wound. May we dig deep together as we examine our stuff, clear out the clutter of our lives, accept God’s grace, & actively make right our relationships.

O, God, “Create in us clean hearts, put new and right spirits within us. Restore to us the joy of your salvation, and sustain in us a willing spirit. Deliver us, O God of our salvation, and we will sing aloud of your deliverance.” Amen.