Ashes on the Forehead… Smudges on the Soul

Ashes on the Forehead… Smudges on the Soul
A reflection for Ash Wednesday, 2011

In a few minutes, I’ll invite you all to come forward and receive ashes on your forehead or hand, as a ritual act to mark the beginning of this season of Lent: little smudges on the body in the shape of the cross, to serve as a reminder of the sacrifice of our Lord.

The thing is, as I enter this season of Lent, I’m less concerned with the ashes on my forehead than I am the smudges on my soul.

A United Methodist colleague and gifted preacher, Safiyah Fosua, who works for the Board of Disciples, wrote the following a few years ago:

I would rather wear the smudge on my forehead than to admit its residence upon my soul. I prefer a crude cross above my eyes to questions about runny mascara and smudged liner. In a place where self-confidence is rewarded and any sign of weakness or emotional predisposition is held suspect, it is difficult to consider actually following the advice of the prophet to return to the Lord with fasting, with weeping and with mourning. It is, however, acceptable — maybe even fashionable to appear in public with a dirty forehead as a sign that I have religion. It is amazing how the symbols of piety, sackcloth and ashes, have been transformed into mask that hides me from myself and circumvents the intent of Ash Wednesday.

The intent of Ash Wednesday is not to declare to the outside world that “I have religion,” but to open up to God. In the language of the Bible and the church, it’s to recognize and admit that I “have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” In modern language – as another writer got me to thinking this week – it is to admit that I’m dirty. The ashes on my forehead are just a reflection of the smudges on my soul.

A friend’s Facebook status pointed me toward the blog of Ryan Peter, a Christian living in Johannesburg. I want to share with you a longer selection from his blog, where he wrote the following last July:

I came to the realization many years ago that I would sooner follow a dirty pastor than a clean one. Let me explain what I mean. A clean pastor is the guy where everything is so wonderful and perfect, his teeth shine whiter than Obama’s, and he always has the perfect thing to say. His theology is clean cut; his preaching is clean cut; his family are perfect; and of course his hair is so clean cut it’s unbelievable.

A dirty pastor is the guy who makes mistakes and is real about it. He’s open about his mistakes. His theology is jumbled; he doesn’t always have the answers; he is just a fellow traveller on this narrow, dirty, rocky road that is finding his way and finding Jesus. The only difference is that God has called him to lead others on the road. That’s not an easy thing to do.

When I picture Jesus I picture a dirty guy with mud on his clothes and having maybe forgotten to brush his teeth that morning. He’s not worried about his image — after all, if you clean others you’re going to get the dirt on you. Jesus walks with us through the muck and crap of our lives and so he is bound to get dirty.

Give me dirty Jesus, who isn’t afraid to get mud on his clothes and sand in his hair. Give me dirty Jesus where sin isn’t some sort of kryptonite that makes him run away. Holiness isn’t idealism. Holiness isn’t clean teeth and ironed clothes. Holiness is wild, free, and prepared to get dirty.

A dirty Jesus equals a dirty Christian, who, like Jesus, isn’t afraid to waddle through the muck and help those who are stuck in the muck.

Our band has an Audio Adrenaline song they sometimes do, “Dirty.” Like Ryan’s image of Jesus, it takes the term to refer to how we end up dirty when we serve others…

Tired of being clean, sick of being proper
I wanna live among the beggars
and dig out in the dirt…
Don’t be afraid to get some mud on your face…
Come on, come on and serve someone

let’s get dirty, let’s get used
No matter where you come from,
if you’re beaten up or bruised
let’s get foolish, let’s get free
Free to be the one thing you were meant to be
Let’s get dirty

Lent could be said to be about getting dirty in this way: our call to renewed vigor in our works of mercy, as we seek to serve others.

But in a broader sense, this entire season of Lent is about being real – being real with God, real with ourselves, perhaps even – if we dare! – real with one another.

To admit we don’t have it all together,
that we even feel guilty that we don’t have it together,
that we struggle with doing the very thing we don’t want to do…

but also to admit that we have the desire to do the right thing…
to live the good, kind, holy life we believe is possible in Christ…
the kind of life some of us imagine our neighbors in church have.

It was about a year ago that I shared in our contemporary service my struggle in disciplining Will – how my first response is often that which was bred into me by my family of origin: anger, yelling, even occasionally swatting. And I’ll be honest, I’m still struggling with this.

Indeed, for this season of Lent I’m not concerned with trivial asceticism like giving up chocolate or coffee or television or Facebook; but I am concerned with the more difficult discipline of consciously and intentionally directing my attention and energy into recommitting myself to being the kind of parent I want and hope to be: more patient, kind, gentle, and slow to anger. More the reflection of the loving father from Luke 15 than the angry and relationally dysfunctional role models I was given.

This is the holiness I’m feeling called to at this time. It’s not an easy thing, and it’s not the only “dirt” in my life. But it is the smudge on my soul that most concerns me. It is the darkness within that I most lament, and where I most want the light of Christ to shine in to and help dissipate. Lord, have mercy.

I could conceal it, I suppose. Make it seem as though I were a better parent than I am. Or I could claim that I’m generally a good and patient person, but for when the stress of life (or vocation or family or whatever) leaves me feeling on edge.

But the reality is, the truth will out some day, in some way. And if I hide or excuse it, from others – and most especially from myself – than there is less likelihood that Christ can help heal it. I may be dirty, but I hope to be real about it. Because I do believe in the power of God, in the transformative healing that can occur through faith.

The Apostle Paul was “dirty” in this sense of being real; he was honest with those he wrote to. As we approach the finish of our reading through the New Testament these first 90 days of 2011, we read again this past week, in 2 Corinthians, passages I shared in worship earlier this month; passages where Paul shares his bruises and weaknesses. He writes in 2 Corinthians 6, that he has “spoken openly to you,” not holding back but sharing how the grace and power of God is strong even in his weakness.

Paul is real about himself as well as the situations in the churches, and among the Christians, he writes to. And he also gives us encouragement to find it within ourselves to be real with and open to God. To open ourselves to the transforming reality of personal holiness, as a side-effect of Christ’s death for us. Paul writes, in his letter to the Romans:

…count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.   (Romans 6:11-14)

This is the invitation of Lent, to seek to more fervently offer ourselves to God. To seek to die to sin and live in righteousness. This invitation is echoed again in Romans when Paul exhorts us with the following words:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:1-2, 21)

That’s my hope. Not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome it with good. God help me, I hope in this season to discipline myself a bit more in that direction. And, as can happen, perhaps the increased commitment and discipline now will make it a bit easier in the future.

But this journey, this commitment to holiness, has to start somewhere. Somehow.

Which brings me back to today, Ash Wednesday, the beginning of this season. A day we are marked with ashes that we might recognize and confess our dirt. Let me share from UM preacher Safiyah Fosua again, who wrote:

Rend your hearts and not your garments, the prophet [Joel] said.. The gift of this day is personal reflection, a season of confession, and change. Start the arduous journey from shadow to substance, from ritual to reality, from façade to faith. Today, choose the harder course. It is easier to buy new clothing than to mend a soul.

Outward expressions of faith are easy to do, and easy to change. Lent calls us to a harder path: a path of self-examination, confession, and true repentance. A path that embraces the possibility of real, deep, and perhaps even painful change as God seeks to remold us. A journey that not only recognizes but claims the “dirt” in our personal life, and asks not only for God’s forgiveness, but that God’s strength will work in the context of our weakness; in cooperation with our personal discipline, to transform us… which is never an easy process.

May the Lord work in your most inner being during this Lenten season, that you may know both the brokenness, and the restoration, of life in our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.


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