By Linda Rex
On Wednesday this week a few of us gathered at Good News Fellowship, and we spent some time reflecting on the meaning of Ash Wednesday and sharing the Lord’s table together. This year was a bit unusual because Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day were both celebrated on the same day.
In some ways there can be a disconnect between these two celebrations. As I walked around the local grocery store earlier in the day, the amount of fresh flowers and candy which were available for the customers was overwhelming. We watched people walking out the door with bundles of flowers, and my daughter and I speculated on who these flowers were for—a wife, a girlfriend or boyfriend, a mother, or someone in the hospital?
But the irony was, we were surrounded by all this abundance at the same time some of us were trying to determine what, if anything, we were planning to give up for Lent. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Lenten season and Lent is a time when we may in some way participate with Jesus in his forty days in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. We participate in Lent by heeding the Spirit’s call to repentance. During Lent, it is appropriate to offer something to God or give something up temporarily as a way of making ourselves available for the Spirit to grow, heal, and renew us. This is a spiritual discipline which has been practiced by people in the universal Church for centuries.
There is a perspective of repentance and humility we can gain by taking some time in somber reflection on our broken humanity and expressing to God our acknowledgement of our need for and utter dependence upon him. He is our Abba who not only made us and sustains us, but also redeemed us in his Son Jesus, and dwells in us and with us by his precious Spirit.
Many traditions offer a smudge of ashes upon a person’s forehead on Ash Wednesday as a mark of humility and an acknowledgement of our need for grace and salvation. The priest often uses the words of scripture: “All came from the dust and all return to the dust.” (Eccl. 3:20 NASB) That seems rather final to me. There is so much more to the story than we’re all going to end up in the ground, returned to the basics of our existence—the ground out of which we were made.
It seems to me, and this is just my opinion, that it ought to be possible to celebrate Ash Wednesday as a time of humility and hope. To me, I don’t feel we need to abandon our hope in the resurrection just because we are acknowledging our brokenness and need for Christ. As I offer the mark of ashes upon each one’s forehead, I like to say something to the effect of, “You came from dust, you return to dust. We thank the Lord of the dust he has joined us in our dust so we will join with him in glory.” The gospel tells us that death is not the end—there is so much more to our existence than this!
Thomas Torrance in chapter two of his book “Atonement” examines Psalm 49. Here he shows how the ransoming of a human soul or life is impossible for you or me. There is no price we could pay which would be sufficient to redeem any person from death. No matter how hard we may try, we cannot save ourselves. Our best efforts are insufficient.
God made us, the wonderful creatures we are, in his own image, to reflect his likeness. We are to be image-bearers of God himself. Yet it seems we prefer to image everything but God. And because of that, we invariably inherit death. We have, in essence, a “death-wish”—a corruption in our humanity which we cannot fight against or escape on our own.
God made us from nothing to have a glory which was a reflection of his. And all we seem to do is choose the path back to nothingness. As Athanasius said in “On the Incarnation”, in seeing his good creation falling back into the nothingness from which it was made, what was God, being good, to do?
What was God to do, indeed? As Torrance explains, God gave a life for a life—his life for the life of humanity. The great exchange is the Word of God, the true Image-bearer of Abba, given for you and me and every other human being who has ever existed, in our place and on our behalf. The Life for our life.
This is how we know we are loved by God. The apostle John writes, “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us….” (1 John 3:16 NASB) Whatever Valentine’s Day may mean to each of us, we can know this: The true expression of love is found in the gift of Abba—his Son. The laying down of his Son’s life for you and for me and for every other human being on this earth is a true expression of genuine and faithful love. And no bouquet of flowers or box of candy could ever match that precious gift. The Life for our life.
So, even though we can and should admit our brokenness and our desperate need for salvation, we can also at the same time rest in the eternal embrace of God’s love and grace. We can face the dust to which we return without fear—death has lost its sting. In Christ, there is no fear of death left. We can see death for what it is—a defeated foe, a failed conqueror. Death and sin are cast into the fire of God’s love and grace and no longer reign triumphantly over us. And so we have hope in the midst of our humility.
Thank you, Abba, for your precious gift. Thank you, Jesus, for giving yourself in our place. Thank you, Spirit, for bringing this to full expression in each of our lives in your own special way. Our Loving God, we give you gratitude and praise, and offer you all our love and devotion, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Why should I fear when trouble comes, when enemies surround me? They trust in their wealth and boast of great riches. Yet they cannot redeem themselves from death by paying a ransom to God. Redemption does not come so easily, for no one can ever pay enough to live forever and never see the grave. Those who are wise must finally die, just like the foolish and senseless, leaving all their wealth behind. The grave is their eternal home, where they will stay forever. They may name their estates after themselves, but their fame will not last. They will die, just like animals. This is the fate of fools, though they are remembered as being wise. Interlude Like sheep, they are led to the grave, where death will be their shepherd. In the morning the godly will rule over them. Their bodies will rot in the grave, far from their grand estates. But as for me, God will redeem my life. He will snatch me from the power of the grave.” Psalm 49:5-15 NLT
By Linda Rex
Last Saturday I held the Sharing God’s Love women’s retreat at my home. It was a small gathering—altogether there were nine of us who participated. I have limited space in my downstairs, so it was a tight squeeze for everyone to have a place to sit, especially around the dining table at lunchtime. But we did it, and I believe we all had a good time together.
We began our event with an icebreaker where we shared some things we didn’t know about each other. Then we moved into contemplative prayer where we invited the Holy Spirit to show us areas in our hearts and lives where God would like to bring healing and transformation. We wrote these things down as God showed them to us.
I talked briefly about the spiritual discipline of inner-healing prayer and how God uses it to bring healing and renewal in each of our lives. I used as a reference the book The Handbook of Spiritual Disciplines by Calhoun. The ladies then split up into pairs and prayed for one another, specifically keeping the concerns in mind God had showed them earlier. I saw tears and heard laughter. It was a moving experience for those involved.
We paused to have lunch together, and then I began the afternoon session. I read Acts 2:42-47 and showed how what we had done so far that day was like what the early church experienced shortly after Pentecost. We had spent time hearing the Word of God, we had prayed together, and had fellowshipped and shared a meal together. They each had received a small gift. The ladies had also each brought an item to the event to give away, and put it in one of the baskets we would be giving away to some of our Community Café visitors in February.
During the afternoon session we continued in the spirit of the early church and created something to give to others. We began making Valentine’s Day cards using some templates and precut items Pat and I had made earlier in the week. Some wrote messages on the cards, others just pasted scriptures and greetings on the cards. It was all a simple project. We ended up with about 65 cards to give away.
We split these cards up between two people. Teresa would be taking some to the nursing home where her mother was, and Valinta would be giving some away at work. Our goal is to have them return and report to the church the way the early apostles would do after a trip sharing the gospel. So, we all gathered hands and prayed for Teresa and Valinta and God’s blessing on their efforts to share the message of God’s love with all those who received the cards. We followed this with communion and a benediction.
We had hosted one of these two years ago at Mercy Convent here in Nashville. That had been quite a different experience since we had the use of the chapel, the porch and the grounds during that event. But no matter the location, gathering together to share in spiritual community in this way is often healing, and creates a sense of refreshment and renewal.
I believe there is something significant which is lost when we do not slow down long enough to experience renewal with others. I’m afraid we are often so busy being individuals with our own plans and agendas, we don’t have time or even the desire to sit and be silent, or to share important parts of ourselves with others who can pray with us and for us, and be a part of helping us to heal and to be renewed.
The irony about this event, in my experience, was what happened afterwards in my own personal life. As a pastor, often we are the ones hosting these types of sessions, and we are not always the participants. Because this is the case, we don’t often experience the renewal others experience while participating in them. We had an uneven number of ladies on Saturday, so when we split into pairs to pray, I sat out. I prayed silently while they were praying, but did not specifically participate in the inner-healing prayer.
Indeed, God had brought a particular thing to my mind during the contemplative prayer session, but I held onto it, thinking the Lord and I would work it out together later. I would have some downtime later, and we would talk about it then. And God did address it with me, but not as I expected.
The next day I had a busy day at church. I not only played keyboard in the band during worship, but I also preached. That is draining enough, but I also had a meeting following the service which I felt was very important. So by the time I left the church building and headed home, this introvert was pretty drained.
I got into the car and started up the road. I vaguely realized I needed gas for the car, so I started looking for the brand of gas I prefer to use. And I just started driving, and driving, and driving. I finally realized I was just driving absentmindedly, and stopped to fill the tank. I had not realized how overcome with grief I was until that moment when I felt I could just keep driving and not look back.
I wasn’t really very far from home, so I went there, parked the car, and called one of my team members. I explained what had happened and asked her to pray for me. And as she prayed, I cried. God had called me into inner-healing prayer in spite of my neglect of it at the retreat. God knew I was grieving and needed to grieve, but also knew I needed to grieve with someone. God works healing within the context of relationships, whether we like it or not.
It’s tough to let go of our rugged individualism and humble ourselves enough to confess our brokenness and need to someone so they may pray for us and we may be healed. But this is what God encourages us to do (James 5:16). This is extremely difficult to do in a culture where such spiritual, emotional intimacy is mistaken for other types of relationships, but it’s what we were created for. God did not intend for us to live as islands—we were created for deep, close, loving relationships with him and with one another.
If I might share this piece of encouragement—find a safe person who you feel you can trust, and who loves the Lord, and ask them to pray with you and for you. Don’t keep your grief, struggles, and brokenness to yourself. If you don’t have one, begin seeking one out, asking God for direction and wisdom. God never meant for you to carry this all alone. And if I might help, I would be more than happy to pray with and for you—just ask.
Abba, thank you for surrounding us with caring people who are willing to pray for and with us when we are in need. Make us more aware of the love which you have placed in our lives—show us how you share your love with us day by day through all the caring relationships we participate in. If we do not have these, then Lord, I pray—shower us with your love. Without you, and without one another, we are truly lost. Thank you for your faithful love, through Jesus and by your Spirit, we pray. Amen.
“They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.” Acts 2:42–47 NASB