“Create in me a clean heart oh God.”
These words are a part of the selected readings every year for Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday: the day when people of faith from around the world gather to receive an avant-garde makeover with ashes imposed upon our foreheads.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent.
Let’s begin with a few words about Ash Wednesday:
Ash Wednesday is an invitation to recognize and embrace our humanity. And this invitation is not easy.
It’s easy to avoid our humanity.
It’s easy to tap and swipe and tune out the world around us with earbuds firmly implanted into our eardrums.
It’s easy to walk with a tunnel vision, unintentionally ignorant of the world literally within arm’s reach.
It’s easy to focus on being a persona rather than being a person, favorites and likes rather than friends and lovers.
It’s easy to see the world you want to see, a self-preferential fulfillment of the prophecy that “you’ll find what you’re looking for.”
It’s easy to turn any reflective surface into our own magic mirror, telling us that we are indeed the fairest of them all.
It’s easy to walk a mile without feeling a single step.
It’s easy to think about what you’re feeling, a disembodied existence lived from the neck up. It’s easy to masquerade as someone pretending to be human.
It’s difficult to embrace our humanity, to become what we already are, to suffer and celebrate, to weep and rejoice, to live and die.
It’s difficult to admit our mortality, to find our place in the order of things, to admit that entropy affects even us.
It’s easy to ignore suffering. It’s difficult to embrace it.
It’s easy to clean your forehead. It’s difficult to feel it crowned with the weight of ashes.
It’s easy to find your life and end up losing it. It’s difficult to lose your life and end up finding it.
Ash Wednesday is an invitation to be here now, to be in this world as it truly is, to be with yourself as you truly are. The ash upon your forehead reminds us of our mortality, our brokenness, and our need for a God who will make us new.
“Create in me a clean heart, oh God.”
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent.
And now a few words about Lent:
What New Year’s Resolutions are for the body, Lent is for the soul.
The most popular New Year’s Resolutions are often about eating less, working out more, and other goals to change our physical health. It’s as if the mantra for New Year’s Resolutions could be, “Create in me a better body, oh will power.”
Lent, however, is an invitation to change our spiritual health as we echo the words of the Psalmist, “Create in me a clean heart, oh God.”
In French the word “Lent” means “slow.” It is common during this season for people to give something up as a way to focus themselves on God and prayer. We fast during this season of slow.
A few years ago I gave up something unique for Lent. Rather than chocolate or social media or whatever vice people seek to rid form their lives, I gave up 5 miles per hour. I did this when I was living in West Michigan and drove a car everywhere. The A train doesn’t quite have service all the way out to Lake Michigan.
My commute to work took about a half hour each way. And during the 40 days of Lent I gave up 5 miles per hour, meaning whatever the speed limit was, I drove 5 miles per hour below it.
This was a reminder for me to be where I am, not where I’m going. To be present with myself and with a God who is as close as my very breath. And as cars would unavoidably line up behind me, looking for their window to zip past, I found myself extending this invitation to be present to them as well. I’ll just assume that they were raising their fists and one particular finger in solidarity and celebration.
Lent is a New Year’s Resolution for the soul, an invitation to be present, to notice the parts of yourself that need care and healing, and to discover God already there: “Create in me a clean heart, oh God.”
It is here, in the healing of our souls, that we must begin. For in order to heal the brokenness of our world, we must first tend to the brokenness in our own lives.
We do not ignore the brokenness of the world: we see racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and more on the headlines, the sidewalks, and in the speeches of certain presidential candidates. We will not rest until these -isms and -obias are no more. Our world is desperate for healing. And God is inviting us to be a part of the solution.
But before we look out we must look in. Before we heal that we must heal this. God will heal our world by healing our soul.
So with ash on your forehead tonight and 40 days of lent ahead, however you fast, may you enter this season of slow, a space to stop and breathe, to be present with God, with yourself, and with the world around you.
Create in me a clean heart, oh God, as we work to create a more just and loving world.