i am currently in the process of facilitating a tuesday night discussion group based on the tv's the simpsons, a show which i absolutely love. each week we watch an episode and then discuss it in terms of what it has to say to us, as well as what it might be saying about us. in the episode we watched last week one scene finds bart and lisa in their sunday school class. the teacher is describing just how awful hell will be, and then tells them the children that there is really only one way to avoid eternal damnation, and that is to abide by the ten commandments, which she says are, "ten simple rules that are easy to follow."
part of our discussion centered around this teacher's dismissive denial of the reality of the difficulty of living a disciplined, obedient life. in reality it is hard to follow the law sometimes, and perhaps even harder to follow Christ's law of loving God and others. there are, of course, times when it comes easier than others, but often it is very hard work. but in our class we also talked about how this sunday school teacher in the simpsons might actually be a caricature of us. in other words, we need to ask ourselves, "am i guilty of making the christian faith look like something easy and effortless? do i so want people to see my joy that i deny them the truth of my own struggle? do i project a faith that is forced and fake?"
of course, it's not just the church. it's culture, too. look, for example, at the fear of death that is so rampant in our culture (and in our churches). we buy every product, every surgery, every diet, everything we can to cover up the effects of aging. every wrinkle and spot gets hidden. our elderly and ill we marginalize away into the far corners of nursing homes. we idolize and glorify youth and vigor and strength. all in an effort to perpetuate one of the oldest lies going, "you will not surely die" (genesis 3:4).
you see, as humans, we've become pretty good at hiding what we know to be true deep down inside us and ignoring that truth as we busy ourselves with other things. we'd rather work tirelessly to hide the effects of our own aging than deal with our own mortality. we'd rather put on a happy smile and make christianity look like a giant game of candyland than be honest with our neighbors about our doubts, fears and struggles.
which is why i love ash wednesday. i mean, i know that today is fat tuesday, so i should be probably be writing about pancakes or something, but i just can't. i need to remember again the deep importance of ash wednesday, with all its gritty greyness. ash wednesday, the beginning of not only the 40 days of lent, but also of the entire paschal cycle, ending with pentecost, is a day of reconnecting to reality. it is true for each one of us that tragedy eventually comes to our lives in one way or another. when it does, we all have our ways of handling it. we cry and mourn and go through all the rituals associated with it. in the ancient hebrew culture, the custom was to tear you clothes - a symbol of brokenness. and God must certainly understand our pain in times of grief, and our need to turn to God for answers or assurance or aid. but ash wednesday reminds us that God doesn't want us to just turn to God in times of trouble, when tragedy strikes. "tear your hearts, not your garments" God says to us in Joel 2:13. in other words, don't just react when tragedy strikes. don't wait to face your own mortality. deal with your own brokenness now.
and that is, at least for me, the great value of ash wednesday. it forces us to deal with our brokenness now. we get ashes put on our body as a reminder that we, too, will one day be a pile of ash. we get ashes put on our body as a reminder that, just like ash, we too are not whole, broken by life. we get ashes put on our body as a reminder that we ought to be honest with one another about our own brokenness rather than trying to cover it up and hiding it with spiritual make up and pernicious lies. i don't want to be the simpsons sunday school teacher who says with a nice smile, "christianity is easy! look at me. i'm happy, and things are wonderful. why aren't you happy, too?" this only serves to make people feel like they aren't cut out for the whole faith thing because life, for them, is too hard. instead, i want to be someone who is comfortable in my own mortal skin; who knows my own propensity for death; who lives a life that truly models the audacity of hope in redemption by being honest about my own fears and failures. i want to be real, and to really connect with others. i want my ashes to be visible all the time, perhaps most importantly to myself. and i want to believe with all my heart that the ashes aren't the end of the story -that somehow what is broken is made whole again in the end (lord, help my unbelief).
as you begin your season of lent and thing about what disciplines you might pursue during these 40 days as a way of returning and being restored in your relationship with God, i pray that you will get comfortable with your own ashes - your own death - and allow that to make you a more honest, authentic and genuine person.