Hitting Pause: The Unexpected Gift of Ash Wednesday and Lent
“The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time. Any fool can do it.” – James Taylor
In his new book Thank You for Being Late New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman notes the struggle we all to have to keep up with the pace of change we are experiencing. The speed of our lives keeps accelerating in a never-ending battle to maintain awareness and efficiency in an age that continuously outpaces our ability to stay abreast of new information and changing demands. We’re tired. We’re even intimidated. We lose our bearings and need something of a reset to regain the equilibrium essential to some kind of personal health and relational integrity.
It’s been observed that hitting the ‘Pause’ button on a machine makes the machine stop while hitting the ‘Pause’ button on humans makes us start. We start to reflect. We start to observe. We start to ponder, behold, and ‘take stock’. In Biblical language, we ‘consider our ways’. Wayne Muller has written about how frequently people say to him, “‘I am so busy.’ We say this to one another with no small degree of pride… as if our exhaustion were a trophy… to be unavailable to our friends and family, to be unable to find time for sunset (or even to know when the sun has set at all), to whiz through our obligations without time for a single, mindful breath, this has become the model for successful life.”
Enter Lent, the divine pause we need, starting with the shocking, sudden stop of Ash Wednesday.
From Pathology to Patience
It’s an ancient tradition, one sure to be despised by the mere technologists. It is perhaps true that for many such moderns patience is a virtue only in an outdated agrarian society in which people had no choice but to wait. We, on the other hand – the sophisticated, urbane masters of eliminating spaces between events, between actions and outcomes, between desires and fulfillment – are ‘efficient’. Yet the elimination of space and patience is part of the pathology of our current accelerating despair. Leon Wieseltier has wisely noted that ‘the ancients believed there was wisdom in patience… Patience wasn’t just the absence of speed. It was space for reflection and thought.”
I suggest that this upcoming forty day journey with Jesus to the cross is a holy pause we can all embrace, slowing our pace, setting aside certain appetites, asking God with the Psalmist to ‘teach us to number our days that we may present to you a heart of wisdom’.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. On that day a Pastor is going to smudge ash on my forehead and quietly say to me, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” Not terribly encouraging? Well, on the surface of it, no. More deeply considered, however, it is. Any possible excitement lost in this quiet ritual is more than made up for in wisdom gained. We need this reminder of the limitations of our personal chronologies, not to make us work harder, but rather to love deeper and rest more richly. It’s an odd moment, strange in our age of addiction to celebrity and celebration; yet it is at the intersection of the smartphone glow of our era and the dust of an ancient discipline we discover the reality of our Faith. Surely Stanley Hauerwas is correct when he observes, “We believe that many Christians do not fully appreciate the odd way in which the church, when it is most faithful, goes about its business. We want to claim the church’s “oddness” as essential to its faithfulness.”
From Folly to Wisdom
“All are from dust and to dust shall all return… it is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living take it to heart”
These words penned centuries ago in Ecclesiastes by the man widely held to be the wisest in the Jewish tradition bring us back to the fact that our few atoms blow to dust and we do well to take this to heart, not only for ourselves but for the sake of those around us.
In some ways this is the reflection of what CS Lewis wrote of in The Weight of Glory, pointing out that everyone we meet is an immortal soul, that there are ‘no ordinary people’, that we have never spoken with ‘a mere mortal.’ What Lewis notes about personal immortality and glory, Ecclesiastes underscores in raw physical terms. Dust. Mourning. Fasting. The End. Death. Take it to heart. If you’re wise, you will. In Creed, Rocky Balboa tells his protege Donnie Creed that he didn’t really beat his father Apollo. “I didn’t beat him. Time beat him. Time is undefeated”, he said.
I’m writing this while sitting on a large wingback leather chair at the Factory in downtown Franklin with a cup of hot coffee to keep me company. In the course of doing so, I’ve said ‘hello’ to some people working here, as well as a couple folks I know who paused on the way to wherever their journey was taking them; I’ve paused to pray with one friend I didn’t expect to see today but did. Am I working? I don’t know. In a way, yes. In another way, I feel the holy pauses and rejoice in the unexpected rhythm of their presence in the song of my day. My temptation as an efficient, type A, get it done ‘leader’ is to see these pauses as interruption and delay rather than gift. How sad and sick that really is. How arrogant. Me, mere pile of dust, thinking of God’s image-bearers as unworthy of my smile or time because of the important demands of the word processor in my lap? Wow, do I ever need Lent – and a fresh cross-shaped smudge of ashes on my face.
From Life to Living
While Thomas Friedman brilliantly analyzes the current state of accelerating change in technology, nature, and the market – forces which deeply affect us all – the need to step back from the relentless demands of the technological age is not an altogether new message. TS Eliot, easily my favorite prophetic poet, many years ago wrote movingly of our lapse into this idolatry.
“The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.”
― T.S. Eliot
‘Where is the Life we have lost in the living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?’ The irony of Ash Wednesday is that by bringing us face to face in fresh ways with the reality of our death, it also serves to bring us into communion with God’s matchless love and mercy. It turns out that this reminder of our mortality leads us back to Life. Ash Wednesday is the front door to Lent, to a Pause from the passions that dominate us, and thus a journey back into the slower, more ordered and observant habit of beholding, of seeing God in everything: the beauty of our family members and friends, the wonder of creation, and the gift of work.
This is why next Wednesday evening I will say these words of welcome as we gather to enter the days of Lent that will take us to Good Friday sorrow and Easter joy.
Beloved People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.
I invite you, therefore, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer and fasting; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now come before the Lord, our maker and redeemer, confessing our sins silently before him and embracing the gospel promises of Christ in faith.
If you live in Franklin, I invite you to join me for this service. But wherever you live, I invite you to enter Lent with the deep gratitude of seeing the magnitude of the gifts we’ve been given, deep repentance for the sins we’ve committed, and deepening trust in the unchanging promises of the faithful Savior. I invite you to hit the ‘Pause’ button and start to live again. The service is at 6:30 pm at Christ Community Church. Ashes supplied.
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