09 March 2011

Ash Wednesday - Giving Up

"Create in me a clean heart, O God,
     and renew a right spirit in me."  Psalm 51.10

Gerhard Forde, one of my professors at seminary, was famous for saying, "Whenever I get the urge to do a good work, I lie down until the urge passes."  I've been thinking about that a lot this Ash Wednesday.

Over the years I've taken on many disciplines to commemorate the season of Lent.  I've given up meat, ice cream, fast food, beer, smoking (only successful the one time, but as it was the last it's the only one that matters, I guess), Facebook and vulgar language (spectacular failure on the last one - I stubbed my toe five minutes after getting up Ash Wednesday morning and obliterated my discipline with an extended stream of f-bombs).  I've taken on reading Lenten devotion books, writing a daily devotional, running, eating my vegetables, and sleeping more.  This year, however, I'm not sure any of those things will do.

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know the litany of struggle from our past 18 months or so.  If not, trust me: we've struggled.  Given that history, and given that at the moment we feel like we're hanging on to our faith by the skin of our teeth, I have to ask myself, "Will adding more stress, especially the self-inflicted kind, contribute anything to our lives at the present?"  The answer for me, today at least, is a resounding "No."

Understand, I'm not criticizing any of you who do elect to take up a Lenten discipline.  I hope that around this time next year, things have stabilized enough that a discipline feels the right thing to do, that I might have had enough good news for a while that I've grown spiritually lazy.  I'm not there today, though.  Honestly, right now it feels like I'm running a marathon with cramping legs; why add ankle weights on top of it?

A few friends pooh-poohed the language of "Lenten journey" on Facebook this morning.  I get what they were saying, but I'm not ready to make the same leap.  If there is a Lenten journey, it begins today in ashes, with an acknowledgment of our own limitations, and it ends at the cross, where the death of Christ imputes on us the death of our hopes to improve or transform ourselves.  If there is to be transformation within us, it is God who works it, and God begins in death, in nothingness, in the place where only God can operate and we can't get in the way.

This is what Dr. Forde was talking about: good works can be dangerous because they create in us that sense that we, not God, are the ones in charge.  So, I'm just giving up this Lent.  I will take each day as it comes, with no expectations other than the next breath and the work that has been placed in front of me.  So much over the past year has been taken out of our hands; I'm not sure what benefit would come from forcing myself to choose yet another sacrifice.  I will drink beer and be thankful; I will pray and be mindful that this is a life-practice, not a seasonal ritual; I will place myself in the loving hands of my Creator and trust that all will be well.  Most importantly, I will be marked tonight with ashes, a sign of my futility, my mortality.

"O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise."  Psalm 51.15

Christ bless you all this Lenten season,


  1. Thanks, Scott. It's good to remember that our efforts to "be better" during Lent are just for us. We can feel holier, but if it's just a "Lent thing," it just an exercise in piety. God will work in us at all times (sometimes we see it and go with it, sometimes He works despite us) and any changes are God working in us - not us working for God.

    You're right, if there's something God is going to call us to sacrifice, we don't get to chose it or say no.

  2. My pastor (too) was a student of Forde. And I thank God for it.

    Forde knew full well what we do if you let us get a foot in the door.

    Nice site! I'll be back.

  3. I thought that name sounded familiar; have Forde's "On Being A Theologian of the Cross" on my shelf. Your giving up seems perfectly appropriate to me. Never have been very good at doing Lenten disciplines myself.