Matthew 6:1 -- 6, 16 -- 21
Clearing Out the Pipes
Ash Wednesday, which begins the season of Lent, is a time when we have an opportunity to squarely face our humanness. It begins a season where we have an invitation to be honest with God, with ourselves and with one another. The season of Lent which begins this Ash Wednesday offers us a 40 day time period modeled after our Lord's 40 days in the wilderness. Some of us may not feel the need to take on extra disciplines during these 40 days. Perhaps our lives already feel full of enough challenges that a day of prayer or fasting may seem trivial. Others of us who are just as challenged may welcome the external disciplines of regular prayer, fasting, acts of service as opportunities to get out of ourselves and away from the messes that for many comprise significant portions of a life.
Ash Wednesday in this first day of Lent provides us with an opening to the possibility of transformation. St. Francis used to refer to his own body as Brother Ass, he was constantly aware of the stubbornness and limitations, which comprised his life. There is something very good in the disciplines and work that reminds us to recognize our humanness, our frailty and our vulnerability. Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent requests the honor of our presence in such activities. Our Lord Jesus Christ has personally stamped each invitation with the seal and sign of his own blood.
Many years ago when my two oldest children were around six and four years old I purchased my first house. It used to be a barn before it was converted to a house by someone far handier and I will ever be. It was in a wonderful location in northern New Jersey. A dirt road ran in front of the House and across the street there was a pond full of largemouth bass. Behind our home was another pond and to the south was a small stream that connected the two ponds. Beyond the pond behind our home was over a hundred acres of wooded land. I never knew who owned that beautiful treed property. Our home was very near the Appalachian Trail in Sussex, New Jersey. The home was quite roomy though it did have a few problems that reminded us we were living in the country. We saw rats in the kitchen, on the south end of the home there was an old fruit cellar that was crumbling and we soon discovered there were significant drainage problems. The old house had three floors; the top floor consisted of three rooms two of which were joined together. At the far end we created a chapel, in the middle our four-year-old had his bedroom and at the other end our six-year-old daughter had a pink colored bedroom. On the main floor there was another bedroom, a full bathroom, which we all shared, a living room with a dining area and the kitchen. The first or was comprised of another large room that could have been used for a bedroom but we used it as an office/music room the only problem was the ceiling was so low I couldn't stand up straight, there was a second bathroom, a place for a television, a bar and even a sink. We were very blessed to have such a fine place to live as a young couple.
I'm not sure what the occasion was that led to the problem but we soon discovered that the downstairs sink did not drain very well. Not having too many financial resources this plumbing problem would have to be resolved through my own labors. It soon became clear to me that the previous owners had done the plumbing themselves and had violated every kind of building code that there may have been, but after all we were out in the New Jersey countryside. The line went from the downstairs sink under the concrete carpeted slab floor and out the backside of the House. From there I had a difficult time tracing the line but eventually found a drainage pit full of stones, which it was supposed to drain into. Unfortunately there was a clog somewhere in the line. This became an image to me of the kind of work that we will want to do during the season of Lent. Perhaps years of accumulated potato peels and other roughage had made its way down that sink and finally now the liquid had nowhere to go and so it sat still no longer responding to the best plunge one could muster. What past hurts, unresolved griefs and resentments lurk in our lives and clog the flow of the Spirit in us? The only thing I knew to do was to begin digging up the pipe. And so I began to remove the dirt and follow the pipe until I noticed a particular place in the garden where the soil was wet and muddy. I found the break in the pipe. I was able to flush out the blockage using a garden house and I learned that this particular pipe was not designed for any thing but water or other noncongealing liquids.
The season of Lent provides us with an opportunity to experience a kind of personal roto--rooter. It's foolish to take on spiritual disciplines if we have no expectation or hope for growth, for change or transformation in our lives. And it's equally foolish to take on spiritual disciplines that become badges of honor that we display to others. The kind of spiritual disciplines that our Lord invites his disciples to take on themselves aren't a whole lot different than cleaning out clogged lines between houses and septic tanks. Our Lord desires us to have a fully functioning system of connection with him. Of course the difference is we do the work of cleaning our pipes, our lives, so we can connect more easily to the source of grace, glory and goodness, so we can connect to God our Father in Heaven.
My first wife Betsy (Betsy died January 2, 1999) was also an Episcopal clergyperson who I will refer to at times during this season of Lent and in these writings. She once focused upon the very jarring words in the Ash Wednesday liturgy found in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. In that service we are reminded that, "you are dust and to dust you shall return." Ash Wednesday in the season of Lent reminds us not only of our need to be transformed they remind us of our mortality. It is extremely challenging to see ashes placed on the forehead of a newborn sleeping in their mother's arms -- the newborn so fresh, so innocent, so seemingly far from ashes and death. Yet perhaps the mother who cradles the child as the child receives the ashes is deeply aware of the pain of childbirth and how close birth and death really are. Both birth and death involve a very powerful process of letting go, and isn't letting go a rather large part to what we are called to do on Ash Wednesday and in the season of Lent.
The ashes that get marked in on the forehead's of those who come to the Ash Wednesday services may appear startling, strange and even incongruent with the Gospel text that invites us not to make a show of our piety…. Yet perhaps the crosses that are sealed upon the forehead of those who come to traditional liturgical Ash Wednesday services are strangely appropriate. Our children are not our own, in fact we do not even belong to ourselves, all of us belong to God and in the end unless we let our best gifts and intentions be marked by the cross, we will not experience the joy of growth. Betsy once wrote,” nowhere do we find this truth more dramatically portrayed than in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Nowhere do we participate more fully in this truth than in the liturgical drama of the Eucharist. Here we celebrate, we touch, and we eat and drink the death and life of our precious Lord. Here we learned the price and the liberation of letting go.”
That truth and was brought to Betsy years ago one time when she received communion at an unfamiliar church. As she saw the priest offering "the gifts of God for the people of God," the bread and wine of communion, she noticed above the altar a small stained-glass window of the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of her son. She realized then how hard it must have been for Mary to let go of Jesus body for burial. And later when Betsy became a mother she imagined her own child dead and how she would want to hold on to her child forever, to not let the child be taken away and to the grave. What courage Mary had in letting go of the body of her crucified son. Had she not let go of that dead body, we would not be here feasting on his living body. Had she not let her Son bare that cross, the mark of mortality, the ashes upon us would fill us with fear rather than hope.
So here we are at the beginning of a journey. Where will it take us? Not so long ago I heard some sports radio guys talking about not eating dessert and other sweets during the season of Lent. At some level they were joking but at another level I think the one was quite serious, he whom had taken on the discipline of avoiding sweets for lent. He had been invited as a guest to cover a sports banquet and without thinking he had eaten the piece of cheesecake that was placed in front of him at the end of the meal. His not so churchy commentator friend reflected with him about God's displeasure and that when it was time for his life to be over and to get on to the elevator that would take him to his eternal home he ought to push the down button. The humor of their exchange was enjoyable but the shallowness of the idea that God seems to care more about our consumption of cheesecake and M&Ms than he does about our hearts is really very sad.
For nearly 2000 years Christians have observed with deepest devotion the passion and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. These verses in Scripture remind us not to make a show of our religion, to offer charity with humility, to pray in secret and to fast without making a show of it. These verses show us a method by which we can make ourselves more pleasing to God as well as more honest in our devotion. We may be strengthened by one another on his journey but ultimately God himself and our own self-examination will measure the integrity of our experience.
The work of prayer, fasting and self-denial, the work of reading and meditating upon God's Word, the work of repentance and self-examination is a work designed to clean out our pipes. It's a good work of creating a clear channel through which the grace and favor and Spirit of God can flow to our hearts, minds, souls and our whole being through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season provide us with an opportunity to let go and to allow ourselves, our children, our parents, our friends, one another -- everyone to belong to God. Perhaps this year we can go beyond triviality's as we recognize that God's desire for each of us is to come into a deeper relationship with him thereby becoming more capable of engaging ourselves with one another and with the world in which we live. And at the end of the day and at the end of the season let us pray that our hearts and lives will be fuller. Filled with the treasure of a renewed and empowered relationship with the living God through Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit.