Thursday, February 26, 2009

Strangely smudged.

Ash Wednesday. It's a jarring day to me. A few random people show up in the morning at work with black smudges on their foreheads and when I first see them it takes a second to register, to recognize the sign of the cross, the thumbprint of ashes. Yesterday one of the administrative assistants at my work, a hard-working recently divorced young Mom, slipped back into her chair after lunch with an ashy cross on her face and a slightly guilty look. Like she was sorry to admit it, in and among her group of "too cool for God" co-workers, that she believes in this whole crazy Jesus/redemption/Lent thing, even though she may not know why. Or maybe that's just me. Maybe she was just feeling guilty about taking a little longer for lunch.

Last night I went to the Ash Wednesday service at our church and I was struck by the reading of Isaiah 58 how much people wanted to be connected with God but couldn't quite get it right. They were doing what they knew how to do--fasting, prayer, sackcloth and ashes--but it wasn't really getting them anywhere. But they wanted it to. Like those people at my work with strange markings on their foreheads, they were looking for some kind of relationship with God, and some kind of insight into why we're here and what the hell we're supposed to do with ourselves while we're here. And they weren't afraid to admit it.

I was sitting at the front so I was one of the last to go forward for my ashes. Which meant I had a ringside seat for the line of people walking up, kneeling, receiving their cross, turning to go back to their seats, a newly marked man or woman. Everyone was quiet and orderly and serious...even the single 5 year old angelic-faced blonde girl who walked up to the front with her Mom, but went alone to the pastor at the railing for her ashes. When she came back she was smiling, like she'd just gotten away with something.

While I was waiting I was thinking about the words the pastors say when they draw the cross on your forehead. You come from dust and to dust you will return. In years past those words have annoyed me, troubled me. I get the whole Lent as a time for penitence and personal reflection thing, but why must we start it with those words that seem to be just a reminder that death is going to come at some point, as if we'd forgotten. Couldn't we start things off with something more positive and affirming? Couldn't the cross on our foreheads symbolize that we were loved by God, claimed by God, that we belong to God. To me, that always seemed like a "nicer" way to kick off Lent--with a message of God's love, with the symbol of God's touch on our lives.

But last night those words finally made some kind of sense to me. You come from dust and to dust you will return. You are not God. You are simply a human being. You can't fix things. You can't do things perfectly. You don't know everything. You can't DO everything. You don't have all the time in the world.

So I want to start there with Lent this year. Reminding myself that I am human, not God. Too often I think I should be God, or at least powerful and perfect and all knowing. Rather than simply flesh and blood, finding my way through every day like a blind person touching an elephant--what is this whole thing?

Ashes on the forehead to remember that I am a mere mortal. And I'm not afraid to admit it. To admit that I can't do everything. I can't do everything perfectly, I can't control any of this. I can only live honestly and openly and lovingly in the midst of all I can't fix or manage or control. This strange smudge on the forehead to remind me that life is short.

I just have today. What will I do with today?

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