By Linda Rex
Yesterday, as the sun peeked out occasionally from storm clouds and a cool breeze kept us wishing for a jacket, we sat outside the church and talked. Good News Fellowship was stepping out of our comfort zone and had invited the community to stop by for the administration of ashes on Ash Wednesday.
Although no one from the community joined us for this event, or for the Community Ash Wednesday service which followed, it was still a good opportunity for us to reflect on the reality of what Christ has done and is doing in our lives.
As a denomination, in the past we have not celebrated this particular day or tradition. But our pastoral team felt it was an opportunity for us to open our doors and begin to step outside of them, offering others an opportunity to share with us the good news of what God has done and is doing in our lives.
As I studied the common practices for the observation of Ash Wednesday, I was struck by the focus on our humanity—“from dust you came, and to dust you will return”—and by the emphasis on repentance and penitence. As we move into the Lenten season, a season of fasting, prayer and repentance, Ash Wednesday provides a good marker and way of getting us focused on and looking forward to the events of Holy Week and the resurrection of Jesus.
It is a good thing to be reminded we are made from dust and will return to dust. There is a sense of humility which comes from realizing apart from the grace of God, we would have no existence at all. In fact, we only exist because of the love and grace of a God who determined before time began we would share in his glory.
I was reminded, though, that any thought of repentance or penitence needs to be kept within the reality of who God is, who Christ is, and who we are in him. We begin not by gazing at ourselves, our faults and failures, but first at the God who created us and made us his own. This God isn’t focused on our limitations or our weaknesses, but on the relationships he created us for, and on the love he has for us.
One of the lectionary readings for Ash Wednesday this year was Joel 2:1–2, 12–17. These particular verses leapt out at me: “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, ‘Return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning; and rend your heart and not your garments.’ Now return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and relenting of evil.” (Joel 2:12–13 NASB) The prophet Joel placed the call to repentance within the framework of who God is, just as God had described himself to Moses so many centuries before, a God who is compassionate, gracious and slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and truth (Exodus 34:6-7).
God indeed wants us to own our stuff, to face up to the truth of how we fall short as human beings. But he more importantly, wants us to face up to the truth of who he is—the kind of God who is loving and forgiving, not cruel, condemning and rejecting. In giving us his Son Jesus Christ, God didn’t push us away in our brokenness, but rather brought us close, joining with us in our sin and shame, washing it away, and drawing us into deeper relationship with himself.
In fact, one of the first things which occurred in Jesus’ life after his baptism, when he heard the words of blessing from his Father “this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased”, was being, in effect, “cast out” into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted of the devil. This forty days of fasting and testing, this penitence, was done on our behalf, for our sake. Jesus took the road of repentance we need to take, where we own our stuff and we choose to turn to God in faith rather than make our own way to glory.
As we enter this season of penitence, this Lenten season of reflection on our need for deliverance and salvation, I feel it is essential we begin with the reality of God’s love and mercy rather than just ending with it. Start with owning what is ours—the gift of forgiveness, and love which comes from the heart of our loving Father—as well as his Spirit who works in us our transformation and healing. And in the light of that, we look at our fallenness and need for grace.
When we keep these things in that order, then repentance is not a move toward despair and despondency, but rather a move toward joyful gratitude. We are compelled to say, “Thank you, Lord, for your mercy.” This is why I could not bring myself just to tell people as I administered the ashes “You came from dust and you will return to dust.” For me, it seemed to leave them in the dust in despair—that doesn’t seem to be what God had in mind. Why else would we have Christ at all?
To me repentance is an essential part of our walk as followers of Jesus Christ. We confess our fallenness, our brokenness, our ungodly ways of living and being. But we do it all in the context of the forgiveness which is already ours and available to us in Jesus Christ. We act as if we are forgiven and act as if we are healed. This is why I felt compelled to use these words in the administration of the ashes this year, “You came from dust, and you will return to dust. So thank the Lord Jesus for joining you in your dust and lifting you up to glory.”
Perhaps I will see things differently in the future—God is always working to heal, transform and renew. But in owning our stuff, I believe we not only need to own our fallen and broken ways of living and being, but also the heart of our loving Father who in Christ and by his Spirit says to us, “You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.” Owning our stuff means owning the reality we are forgiven, accepted and cherished by the God who calls us his own, and living and acting as though it were true.
Thank you, Heavenly Father, for the great love which compelled you to not only create us out of the dust of the earth and to breathe your life into us, but to also send your Son to join us in our humanity and to raise us up to live with you in the Spirit. Grant us the grace of true repentance and faith, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
A psalm of David.
Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight! Yes, what joy for those whose record the LORD has cleared of guilt, whose lives are lived in complete honesty!
When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat.
Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.” And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.
Therefore, let all the godly pray to you while there is still time, that they may not drown in the floodwaters of judgment. For you are my hiding place; you protect me from trouble. You surround me with songs of victory.
The LORD says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you. Do not be like a senseless horse or mule that needs a bit and bridle to keep it under control.”
Many sorrows come to the wicked, but unfailing love surrounds those who trust the LORD. So rejoice in the LORD and be glad, all you who obey him! Shout for joy, all you whose hearts are pure!” (NLT)
by Linda Rex
The other night in our weekly discussion group, we talked about why God allows bad things to happen to innocent children and to “good” people. I put “good” in quotes because in reality, the goodness any of us do have is merely a reflection of and participation in God’s goodness. So why does God allow people to harm others, especially the innocent and those who are defenseless?
This can be a difficult question to answer sometimes, because not everyone is open to the possibility of owning responsibility for the way we as humans live our lives and the many ways we hurt and abuse one another. It is as if we want to hold God responsible for our faults and shortcomings.
It’s God’s fault, we say, that so-and-so abused his neighbor’s child, and so he grew up to be an abuser of children. It’s God’s fault that priest or pastor was unfaithful to his wife and destroyed his marriage. Sounds whacky, doesn’t it? Is it really God’s fault we make stupid choices and hurt each other?
Think about it. Say, you are a parent and you have three children, and you send them to play outside. You tell them to behave themselves and to not get into trouble. You want them to get along and have fun while they are out there.
In about an hour, you begin to hear screaming and crying, so you go out to investigate. One child is on the ground, with a big bump on her arm, obviously in great pain. Another child is yelling at the oldest child, tell him what an idiot he is. The oldest child is holding a large stick, with which he quite obviously hit his sister. Now I ask you—how could it possibly be your fault that your daughter got injured and all your children are quarreling?
Well, we could say it is your fault, because you sent them outside to play by themselves. You didn’t go with them. We could say it is your fault because you didn’t watch them every minute they were out there, telling them what to do and what not to do as they were playing. We could say it is your fault this happened because you allowed your children to play with sticks. There’s a lot of ways in which we could place the blame on you—but would you really be at fault?
Placing blame nearly always happens when we are not willing to be responsible for what is ours. If you want your children to grow up into healthy adults, they need opportunities to learn how to play nicely with others. Part of that learning process is having minimally supervised playtime where they have to apply what they have learned about getting along with other children. As they negotiate the rocky road of relationship building, they will make mistakes, and injuries will happen. As parents, we just try to minimalize the hurts while maximizing the learning.
God didn’t just send all humanity out to play though, and then ignore them. That’s the difference. What he did was to take on a human body in Jesus Christ, and join us in our humanity. He experienced, just as we do, the ups and downs of human life, including the unjust and degrading imprisonment, torture and crucifixion at the hands of the Jewish and Roman authorities. He allowed us as human beings to dump our worst on him so he could redeem it and turn it into his best.
Because, in Christ, the worst we as humans have done has been turned into our transformation. We have a new humanity which Jesus forged in the midst of all he lived and suffered while he played with us here on earth. We don’t have to stay in the brokenness which is ours, but can embrace the gift of a new way of thinking and being, and Christ’s way of living together. He illustrated for us and formed in us the unity amid diversity in equality the Father, Son and Spirit live in, and sent his Holy Spirit so we can live in this way with one another.
But we as human beings have always insisted on doing things our way. Just like stubborn, rebellious children, we believe we know what is best, and that our way is the only way that matters. And we are reaping the results of this way of believing and behaving. And God is not at fault in this—we are.
It’s okay to accept the reality we are messed up human beings. We hurt each other. We hurt ourselves. We do not live the way we are meant to live. And that’s why Jesus came—so we could share in the truth of real loving relationship with God and one another.
God doesn’t prevent all the bad things from happening to us, but rather takes them and uses them as a means to heal and restore relationships with him and with others. These bad things, if we are willing to place them where they belong—at the feet of Jesus, become our stepping stones to a greater maturity and a deeper walk with the God who created us.
Assuming responsibility for what is ours is key. We need to own the truth when we mess up our lives. As human beings, we need to accept the reality we are broken and flawed people. This is not God’s fault, other than he allowed us the freedom to choose, so he would not have robots or animals, but persons who could live in loving relationship with the divine Persons.
God has given us personhood. And this personhood means there are things which are ours and things which are God’s—and the line really doesn’t become blurred, except in Jesus. He, as the perfect God/man, is the one who takes what is ours and transforms it, healing it, and restoring it to the place where God meant for it to be in the first place. Jesus made and makes for us the decisions we ought to have made but didn’t—and then by the Spirit—he gives them to us.
But we are always responsible for what is ours—God doesn’t do for us what is ours to do. We receive what Jesus has done and begin to live in the truth of who we are in him. We no longer live as bratty children who stubbornly want our own way. We begin to play nice, and to get along with our siblings the way we should so we can have a happy family.
We take the bumps and bruises, the encounters with hurtful people, and allow God to transform them into compassion, understanding, and a willingness to help and heal others. We comfort others who are suffering with the comfort we receive from Christ in the midst of our own suffering. And stronger, healthier relationships of love and acceptance result.
In Christ, all these negative, hurtful experiences can become the means by which God binds us to himself and to one another—if we are willing. When we stop blaming God and put the blame where it really belongs and receive the grace given to us in Jesus Christ, we find ourselves beginning to heal and to have a heart to help others who are in need of healing and restoration. May God give us compassionate, understanding hearts as he works to heal and restore all we have broken and wounded.
Heavenly Father, thank you for forgiving us all the times we do not get along with one another, and when we hurt and abuse one another and ourselves. Grant us the grace to bring our wounds and broken selves to you, to allow you to transform and heal us with the life you have given us in your Son Jesus. May we become more and more like you each day, learning to live in the truth of who we are as your beloved, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort. 2 Corinthians 1:3–7 NASB