I wrangled my youngest two children to noontime Ash Wednesday services today. The 7pm service was in the middle of the Wednesday night gymnastics/dinner/bedtime shuffle. An infant and pre-schooler who are still jet lagged and out-of-sorts do not belong at church during their lunch and nap hours. But they don't really belong at 7pm, either.
I can tell you that it felt like penance. It was painful. The floor looked like a war zone when we were done. And anyone looking for a place for peaceful reflection and worship should not be sitting anywhere on our side of church. Peaceful it was not.
But I truly appreciate Ash Wednesday. The Lenten season has become an increasingly important time of the year as I journey through life. It is a time to focus on weakness. We don't typically like to do that in our society. But as I get older, I feel my weakness and frailty more. No, not just the physical stuff. (Actually, my back is better than it used to be, and I enjoy exercise more than I used to.) But my weakness to control my world, to control myself. With every passing year, I become more aware of my failures, my incompetence, and the miraculous grace of God that puts the good stuff in my life and gets me from one day to the next.
A Bible reading from a few Sundays back really stuck with me: The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians that he would boast about his weaknesses, in order to point more to God's power. Because despite pleading to God 3 times to have the tormenting thorn in his flesh removed, God refused. "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."(2 Corinthians 12:9) No one really knows what his thorn, "a messenger from Satan", really was. I suspect it was much worse than my laziness and niggling character flaws. But it reminded Paul of God's power and grace in his life.
So recently I have also come to appreciate my flaws as a reminder that I'm not in control, and never will be. I'd love to be better. More disciplined, more patient, more self-controlled... But these are fruits of the Spirit. They only come from God. I can't manufacture them by sheer will and effort. They are gifts I need to ask for and receive. And when I get them, I need to acknowledge where they come from.
The girls came to the altar rail with me to receive ashes on their foreheads. LittleFritter was a moving target for poor Pastor. But the effect of his dark smudge of ash on her little forehead was striking. Her little round, cherubic head with little blonde locks was a sharp contrast to the blackness of the ash. But it was a reminder of our sinful nature that we can't escape. Even at that age.
I've always been told that you don't have to teach a child how to sin. It's born into us all. I know I certainly didn't teach HurricaneDebbie the shenanigans she attempts these days. Nor did I teach her sisters before her. But children are also born with the ability to receive what they need and depend on their providers. Children bring such little ability and skill into the world. They must receive everything they need. I like to say that God knows what he's doing when He makes them cute. They need a lot. All the time.
But as adults, so do we. LittleFritter has the gift of a simple faith that all that she needs will be provided. And as a loving family, we haven't let her down. But we adults have the burden of a faith corrupted by our own need for autonomy, independence, and the pride that comes along with it. Our emotional and spiritual needs are so much more complicated than a child's. Because we think we can satisfy so much of what we need by ourselves, that we forget the ability to just receive. And we wonder what went wrong when we weren't able to do it on our own.
To me, this is the gift of Lent. It is a horribly depressing season of the church year that reminds us just how depraved and evil we humans are. And how helpless we are to fix ourselves. But it also focuses our minds on how to escape the evilness of our world. And it's only through God.
So I'll try to be thankful for my petty little thorns of the flesh. Giving up chocolate or Facebook this Lent won't help me this year. I know how much I struggle with my appetites and how much pride I feel when I abstain. I think I'll just wallow in my neediness. And try to approach the days like a child, completely aware of my need and dependence on the Giver.
May your Lenten season be a blessing, and may the cold of winter quickly melt to the warmth (or promise of warmth!) of spring.