The Day of Ashes
Where We Find Ourselves
So, where do you find yourself today?
I don't mean your location: the place, the address, where someone might "place" you via GPS. I'm thinking about your heart and soul. Where do you find yourself today? Are you feeling settled…happy…good…comfortable…okay? Are you feeling well? Have you been sick? I've had a bug and still don't have a lot of energy. I think the worst of it is past, and yet it's hanging on. I know when you're not feeling good it's hard to think much beyond the physical discomfort: whether you're trying to keep from coughing and spreading around germs, or your back or your head hurts. But sometimes it's hard to think beyond the other kinds of aches we carry around. Heart-aches. Times of emptiness…uncertainty….or failure. The feeling that we haven't accomplished what we thought we might…or that we didn't at some point respond to something as well as we should have. Sometimes we get stuck in that place. Someone might ask us how we're doing and we say, I'm good, I'm fine. And on the surface it seems that we are. But inside there's this achy place. We hope others can't see it, that no one will notice those ragged places inside us that we're so painfully aware of.
So I wonder today, if you were to answer honestly, where do you find yourself? How goes it with your soul, John Wesley might ask if he were sitting among us here today.
Today we begin the season of Lent. This is that time in the church year when we recognize our humanity—when we admit that we as a people have fallen short of God's desire for us. In some respects, it brings us to a common place, a place where we can finally see that we're not alone. Because it's true for all of us; we all have fallen short of the glory of God. Not one of us is exempt from times of failure/moments when we would like to have a do-over. Sometimes we feel alone in our sadness and sorrow and feelings of failure: we perceive our own sins to be so much bigger than anyone else's, and though we might be able to excuse someone else's failures, we're less inclined to do that for ourselves. But during this time of Lent we're reminded that we are human. We each have failed. But there's a bigger story, and it's good news. God's love remains constant. God is never tempted to let go of us, but hangs tight onto us…all of us...no matter what.
But there's even more to it than this: Not only do we discover that we're not alone in these difficult moments, and that God's love for us never waivers during those difficult moments, but through the gift of this season of Lent—even as we walk alongside Jesus as he approaches the cross—we discover that there are blessings along the way. Unexpected gifts. Moments when our faith can be strengthened and our vision expanded. Times of difficulty don't necessarily point to more difficulty, but gifts can be received, lessons learned, skills acquired, faith strengthened and companionship or community gained, that wouldn't necessarily have happened during sun-shiney days when everything is going right with the world.
On the Sunday's during Lent we'll be talking about the gifts of the Dark Wood, the name of a book by Eric Elnes that identifies those dark moments that our preference would be to avoid, but we never can, because they're just a part of life. The Dark Wood is that place where we would prefer not enter at all, where we're afraid to move, aware of the snap of every twig under the weight of our feet, aware of every sound, thinking of it as a potential threat, aware of the darkness, even as we realize that our eyes are beginning to grow accustomed to the darkness and we can begin to see again. In the Dark Wood, even during these times of uncertainty and fear and emptiness and failure…there are opportunities that can draw us closer to God…that can invite us into a new way of living…in a fuller, freer, experience of life and faith.
In the scripture I read a little bit ago from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has just learned of the death of John the Baptist. He sets off by boat on his own to pray and to grieve, but as he gets out of the boat, he sees that the crowds have anticipated his move and have gone ahead to where he sets ashore. He takes compassion on them and heals their sick. When it comes toward evening, the disciples suggest he send everyone home because they don't have anything to feed them, but that's what they do with two fish and five loaves of bread.
After that, Jesus sends the disciples out in the boat and he goes up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Very early in the morning , Jesus comes down the mountain and walks on the water toward them. They see a figure approaching them in the middle of the sea and are understandably terrified.
Jesus calls out, it's me! Peter challenges—if it's you, tell me to come to you. So, that's what Jesus does. Peter begins walking, and then reality sinks in, and that's what Peter does: he begins to sink. "Oh you of little faith," Jesus says to him.
Later, we remember how Peter again allows his fear to take over. He denies knowing Jesus, 3 times. And yet Peter becomes the ROCK upon which Jesus builds his church.
Out of the Dark Wood, moments that Peter would most likely prefer that everybody forget, Jesus meets him, uses him, trusts him, gifts him…gives him what he needs to be what Jesus needs him to be.
Can we trust that Jesus will give us what we need to be what he needs us to be?
(So,) where do we find ourselves today?
We find ourselves in the midst of a community of faith.
We may be feeling good and blessed. Or maybe we're not.
We may be feeling ready to take whatever lives brings us, embracing it by the horns, knowing we can handle it no matter what.
Or maybe we're not.
But Christ is with us.
His love holds onto us.
And he has gifts to give us.
Perhaps gifts that can only come to us when we're in the dark wood.
So, press on.
We can do this.