Susquehanna Morning

Susquehanna Morning

Friday, February 16, 2018

Lent 1: Ash Wednesday 1995

When my children were little we had an Ash Wednesday ritual we observed with them. Gathered around our dining table after dinner, we wrote on small pieces of paper something we wanted to think about or do during Lent. It might be some aspect of our character we wanted to work on (a friend has told me she tries to soften her heart to certain people during Lent). It might be some small pleasure we would forego (the hardest thing I ever gave up for Lent was wearing earrings). It might be some spiritual discipline we would take on (daily prayer with scripture, or maybe blogging). After we'd finished writing we would fold the papers, put them in a small metal bowl, and strike a match. The flame always shot up disconcertingly high, which means the kids adored it. After the ashes had cooled (which took almost no time at all), we would place ashes on one another's heads, saying the appropriate words.

The year my daughter was three, we said, "Repent and believe the gospel." First, Ned placed the ashes on my forehead, saying those words, and then, I placed them on Joan's, doing the same. And Joan, very solemnly, placed the ashes on her father's head. And she said: "To the hospital."

Joan was absolutely on target. Among other things, Lent can be a time to reckon with what one hymn calls our "sin-sick souls." We Presbyterians have the reputation of being big on sin. When I was in seminary, you could always tell when the Presbyterian students were leading chapel, because, without fail, we included a prayer of confession. I've heard from people over the years that this is varying degrees of useful. I think it's important for the church to understand how skewed interpretations of scripture and toxic forms of Christianity have turned what is a useful concept (missing the mark, turning in on ourselves instead of outward to God and one another) into a spiritual bludgeon. When someone I care about told me the prayers of confession were causing pain, I took a hard look at the ones I had been writing and using and made some changes.

At the church I serve we now say "Prayers for Wholeness." When I pray with folks one on one or in small groups, I usually offer them in the name of Jesus, "who is our healer and our hope." The shift from sin-full to sin-sick is one that resonates with me personally. At their best, the images we use lead us to acknowledging our need for God, drawing us closer, rather than pushing us away.

Lent can be a good time to get ourselves to the spiritual hospital.

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