“Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding.
When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure—‘playactors’ I call them—treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.
And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat?
Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.
When you practice some appetite-denying discipline to better concentrate on God, don’t make a production out of it. It might turn you into a small-time celebrity but it won’t make you a saint. If you ‘go into training’ inwardly, act normal outwardly. Shampoo and comb your hair, brush your teeth, wash your face. God doesn’t require attention-getting devices. He won’t overlook what you are doing; he’ll reward you well.
Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse!—stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.” (Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21. The Message)
Progressive Lutheran theologian, Nadia Bolz-Weber says, “If our lives were a long piece of fabric with our baptism on one end and our funeral on another, and we don’t know the distance between the two, then Ash Wednesday is a time when that fabric is pinched in the middle and the ends are held up so that our baptism in the past and our funeral in the future meet. The water and words from our baptism plus the earth and words from our funerals have come from the past and future to meet us in the present.”
Friends, Nadia’s words form the point of the ashen cross we bear, form the point of Ash Wednesday.
Don’t be so quick, after you’ve received that cross, to wash it off as though you think it violates proper practice of piety—as if it’s somehow more about you and less about God.
On Ash Wednesday our baptism and our funeral occupy the same time, the same space. So this business of Ash Wednesday, of Lent, of life and death, of mortality and immortality, it all has to be about so much more than ashes and such, so much more than where, when, and how we pray, so much more than where, when, and how we fast, so much more than who does or does not see us as we do or don’t do some part of it all.
On the sobering night when baptism and funeral meet as lovers entwined, surely the words of Jesus point past surface trifles to the various and sundry ways we make things more about us and less about God.
Aren’t the words of Jesus pointing to our self-preoccupation, self-absorptive living, self-fulfilling lifestyles, and self-importance? Isn’t Jesus pointing at all the ways we pander for attention, seek more than our share of affirmation, find ways to preen and to show off?
On the night when an ashen cross is traced on our forehead, aren’t the words of Jesus calling us out on all the ways we persistently contrive to compete against others for whatever we can get? Calling us out on all the ways we’ve compared ourselves to others in our ravenous quest for validation? Calling us out on over-valuing self thus under-valuing God?
Isn’t death at the heart of our self-importance game? Don’t we hear those Ash Wednesday words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” feel that oily ashen cross mark us, and instantly find ourselves with mounting terror? Aren’t we in such a hurry to dive into the wash pan, to pounce with rapacious fervor into soapy lather, with all haste, to get that reminder of our death off of our crown?
And what’s behind that rush? Fear of what others think? Fear of looking too Christian? Or does it go deeper? Isn’t the abysmal root of every fear the fear of—–DEATH?
It’s the latter. Own it.
We are so scared of death. Whether it’s death of reputation, death of community standing, death of peer perceptions, death of our physical being, it makes no difference—death scares the heaven and the hell out of us!
And at the heart of our fear is a single word—LOSS.
What do you fear losing? What do you fear dying?
I’m not shaming us for these feelings, but I am asking us to consider the possibility that these are taking us away from the life that Jesus offers us. For isn’t it true that to the degree in which we fear loss and to the degree in which we fear death we cede away degrees of joy to be had in life and degrees of hope to be had in being made new?
Isn’t it true that to the degree in which fear of loss and fear of death lay hold on us, we avert living into the full life offered to us in Jesus the Christ?
Isn’t it true that living in this fear-rich way somehow makes matters more about us and less about God?
Isn’t this an awful condition? It’s living life with held breath, watching others dance while never stepping ourselves on to the dance floor, watching the waves lap sand while never standing ourselves in the lapping foam. It’s a sad condition—and I’m afraid it’s endemic to humans. It makes us maddeningly rampant doesn’t it?
So what’s the cure for our condition? Our rampancy?
It’s death. We have to die before we die. We have to be given into loss before we are given into loss. Loss cannot take what we’ve already released. Death cannot take that to which we do not cohere.
Isn’t it true that when we release, when we no longer cohere, death and loss lose their power? Lose their punch? Lose their control? Lose their sway over us?
And that which remains is what? Own it. It’s freedom. The cure for our rampancy is freedom. And Lent is the avenue that takes there if we choose to observe.
Lent is our intentional time for release. Lent is our intentional time to no longer cohere.
Release opens the way to freedom. No longer cohering opens the way to trust. And these together open the way to being made new, to finding deeper, richer life than we know; in reality, to finding our freedom.
And to think it gets its start in oily ashes, in the moment when our baptism and our funeral are lovers entwined, consummating the new in our midst. And through their union God invites us to receive, to take hold, of the gift their union bears. And God prepares us to receive by the act of release and by the act of no longer cohering. These together open us to hold a trusting, full life that is so very much about God and so precious little about us. For those whose lives are full and trusting, loss and death are only doors—let’s give ’em no more power than they merit.