A Meditation for Ash Wednesday

MaryAnn McKibben DanaIdylwood Presbyterian Church March 9, 2011 Ash Wednesday Isaiah 64:1-7

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— 2 *as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 5 You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned;  because you hid yourself we transgressed. 6 We have all become like one who is unclean,   and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf,   and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 7 There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered* us into the hand of our iniquity.


Last week, as I was walking with Caroline to the bus, I heard something that I hadn’t heard for several months. It was a shaking sound, like the rhythm instruments my children like to make, homemade rain sticks made with paper towel tubes and rice and coiled up pieces of aluminum foil.

I looked up, and saw the source of the noise. It was a tree full of leaves that were rustling in the wind. These leaves were dry, brown, shriveled---a remnant from last fall, but there they were, still clinging to the trees, fluttering, ludicrously enough, in the breezes… of spring.

It was so incongruous. So foreign to my auditory experience of early March. All around me were bare trees—in fact, those trees are starting to bud! And yet here is this one tree, still clinging to the leaves from two seasons ago—in effect clinging to its past self.

Now surely there is a horticultural explanation for this. Maybe certain species of trees do this. Maybe there was a quirk of the weather during its normal leaf-dropping phase and it just didn’t follow the program. Or maybe this is a very unhealthy tree. I’m sure one of our master gardeners will set me straight after the service!

But of course, I looked at this tree with an eye of faith, and a wondering about what the Spirit might be up to here.

Today is the first day of Lent, but because the season of Epiphany was such a long one this year, we are here on Ash Wednesday with just 12 days until spring begins. And if you are like me, you are ready for spring, practically on a cellular level! You are ready for daffodils and crocuses and tulips and color and growth. And I’m ready to see what that tree does with all its brown leaves. I’m fairly certain that those are going to have to go before the new buds can form.

But maybe like that tree, we are still clinging to the debris from the past, and maybe in this season we are called to discard that debris, so that there can be new growth. Otherwise spring will come and spring will go, and more to the point, Lent will come and Easter will go and we will still be hugging tightly to stuff from two seasons past.

Our text today is one of contrasts. Isaiah contrasts the greatness of God with our own iniquity, our own sin. God is associated with mountains and power and fire and the torn curtain of heaven. And we? We are associated with forgetfulness and faithlessness and sin and insignificance.

“We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”

We want to hold on to what is comfortable, or what is familiar, or those things that make us feel important, or those things that we think will preserve our lives… but those things crumble like a dry leaf in our hands.

We sit in this sanctuary tonight wearing the mark of the cross on our foreheads. The ashes that we bear come from palm leaves from last year’s Palm Sunday celebration. These ashes come from the leaf that has faded, crumbled, been burned…

We are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. We are a dry leaf that flutters away. It’s not a message we like to hear. It’s not exactly the stuff of Oprah Magazine. But it’s the deep dark truth—our lives are finite. And if we needed a reminder of this grim, precious truth, we need only watch today’s news and think about the couple in rural Pennsylvania who lost seven of their eight children in a fire that consumed their home.

Rubble. Ash. Complete devastation.

We all fade like a leaf, and the wind takes us away.

* * *

Many of us, after we’ve gone home and wiped off the ash, take up a practice to try to keep Lent before us. We may give something up during this season—I spoke to people today who are giving up caffeine, or who are fasting from the midday meal, and so forth.

Others like to take on something new during Lent. I encourage people to read a psalm a day, or make their way through one of the gospels, or practice a random act of kindness. I spoke to a pastor today who is going to be more intentional about physical exercise and self-care. (Although, as some church members pointed out, taking something on involves giving something else up---perhaps it’s an extra 15 minutes of sleep each morning to get up and read!)

I think all of those things can be faithful Lenten disciplines to the extend that they point us to God. Whenever you think about that grande mocha with double whip, it can serve as a reminder to stop, take a breath, and pray. Daily exercise becomes about more than personal improvement, it becomes about stewardship of this precious gift of life that God has given to us. These practices can be like the string around our finger that reminds us of God’s presence in our lives.

But this year, I’m feeling a different kind of nudge. The fact is, I see myself in that tree. Instead of taking something on, or even giving something up, let’s think about letting something go. I think that is the true work of Lent. That’s the work of repentance. That’s the way we die to what’s old and outdated and small and dull.

Letting go sounds a lot like giving up, but I think they are very different things. To my ear, giving up has an air of resignation to it.

Giving up feels fatalistic. Giving up suggests we’ve thrown in the towel. Giving up is a defeat.

But letting go is a victory… because letting go is an act of faith in a power that is beyond us and greater than us. Letting go shows trust, that God’s deepest desire for each of us is to know abundant life. Letting go is a statement that the God who shakes the mountains and makes the fires to blaze will not annihilate us for our misdeeds, but will take those bare branches of our lives and paint them with resurrection color. Letting go is the work of Lent. So that when Easter bursts forth in six weeks we are prepared, we are ripe; we are not caught short, clutching our dead brown leaves.

…We all fade like a leaf, and the wind takes us away.

But letting go is what makes that verse good news. When we let go of old habits, or of the need to be in control, or of crippling resentments, or unrealistic expectations of ourselves or others, we can embrace this life that God has given us, this life that is fleeting. There is not a moment to lose.

I have this thing I do each month. Last year I read about Ben Franklin, who kept a list of virtues that he wished to cultivate in this life, and each day he would reflect on his day and see how he did, and actually check off items as he went. I was charmed by this notion of keeping track of ourselves, because I think we all have ideas about how we want to be, but it’s easy to stray from that. And because I, like Ben Franklin, want to live an intentional life, I started keeping a list of intentions each month.

I would pray about the upcoming month and ask, “What does the Lord require of me?” (A good biblical question from the prophet Micah!) And I'd choose a few things to focus on. Some of my monthly intentions are very concrete, like taking care of myself through exercise, or nurturing my marriage by having a meaningful conversation with my spouse each day (not as easy as you think with three kids around!)… and some are more general, like “practice gratitude” or “do the loving thing.”

This has been a transformative spiritual practice for me. It appeals to my OCD side, I guess, to have a checklist. I don’t ever beat myself up when I fall short; rather, it’s been a real gift to ask each month, “Who does God want me to be?” and to seek to live it out.

But for Lent, I feel God inviting me to let go of the monthly intentions. I’m going to let go of keeping track of my “progress.” Hopefully I’ll still do those things that bring joy to myself and people around me, but I’m not striving to do them. For a season, I will let go of a sense of control. I will let go of self-improvement. I will let go… so that I can be reminded that I am loved by God, right here and now, just as I am. That’s the good news I need in this life of mine that is so structured and organized—by necessity—that it can easily get brittle and dry.

What might you let go of for these few short weeks of Lent… or forever? What needs to go so that you can experience good news again?

Pastor Anne Howard from the Beatitudes Society wrote this morning in their newsletter, “Lent is less about tackling a pile of spiritual disciplines than it is about accepting the invitation to focus in and look into the messiness, the chaos of our inner selves, our society and the world, and acknowledge our need for God.”

What do you see when you look into the messiness of your self?

What are you desperately clinging to?

What are those things that have been with you so long that they have left your spirit dried and shriveled and impervious to anything new or surprising or bursting with joy?

What would it take for you to let it go, right now, tonight?

Carrie Newcomer, a Quaker singer/songwriter, has a song that describes this process. Perhaps it can be our anthem for Lent:

Leaves don't drop they just let go, And make a place for seeds to grow. Every season brings a change, A tree is what a seed contains, To die to live is life's refrain.

I've traveled through my history, From certainty to mystery. God speaks in rhyme in paradox. This I know is true.

And finally when my life is through, I'm what I am not what I do. It comes down to you and your next breath, And this I know is true.

Leaves don't drop they just let go, And make a place for seeds to grow. Every season brings a change, A tree is what a seed contains, To die to live is life's refrain.

To die to live is life’s refrain…

To die to live is Lent’s refrain.

Thanks be to God.