And so it begins

A new term – a new blog post – and Lent.

We observed Ash Wednesday yesterday, the first day of the 40 of Lent.  The root word of “Lent” means to lengthen, and in the Northern Hemisphere that makes sense, as our days are literally lengthening:

As the sun with longer journey melts the winter’s snow and ice

With its slowly growing radiance warms the seed beneath the earth,

May the sun of Christ’s uprising gently bring our hearts to life.

(John Patrick Earls, OSB, b. 1935)

This winter in the west, however, we find ourselves longing for a little more winter.  Our snowpacks are historically low, and the spectre of water rationing looms large for us in the coming summer.  We’ve already seen the “slowly growing radiance” warm the seed – my meadows and those of my neighbors have already required mowing, and my citrus trees are in full bloom a month ahead of schedule.

But I think it’s the last line of this verse that speaks to us.  Such images there!  The gradually rising sun, and its light literally breaking into and dispelling the thick fog is what I’ve watched this morning.  But the idea that such is the pattern of Christ enlivening our hearts is counter to what we may have heard of a sudden, immediate event.

This is one of the great aspects of Lutheran theology – that daily we die to sin and rise to new life.  It’s an ongoing process.  Lent reminds us of that process, and gives us a specific time to focus on the process in community with others, to walk the road to Calvary – but remembering that we already know how the story turns out – it doesn’t end, but continues on to Emmaus and beyond.

Scrolling through my Facebook feed last night, I found post after post from my colleagues across the ELCA and from some of our ecumenical partners, relating stories of how they had done “Ashes to Go.”  This has gained ground in recent years.  Instead of waiting inside our church buildings for people to come to us, we go to them.  An Episcopal colleague related how after coverage of the event by a local news station, they were flooded with calls asking where one could go to receive the ashes.

Wait a minute – haven’t we been told over and over that no one is interested in church any more?  What happened to the “Nones” – those who claim no religious interest?

What I read last night told me that this statistic may be true, but it doesn’t mean that people aren’t still hungry for a word of grace, a reminder that while our time on earth is finite that God loves us.  That mark of ash on our foreheads is a nudge to us to live into the lengthening – take a deeper breath, a little more time.

On my way home last night, I stopped for gas and a cup of coffee (late night reading!).  I went into the mini-mart at the gas station and brought my cup of cappuccino to the front counter.  “Is it Ash Wednesday?” the man working the night shift asked.  “The forty days begins.  I was raised Catholic, though I haven’t been to church in a long time.”  He paused.  “I try to remember that all Jesus asked us to do was love our neighbors as ourselves.”

I didn’t get the impression that this man had a lot of money or education – probably not much of either.  What he did have was a word of grace for me.  A reminder that at our core, in our heart of hearts, we want to believe that the things Jesus said are true.

“Bless you,” he said as I headed back to the car.  “Thank you, and bless you too,” I replied.

What a gift it is, to be called to be Christ’s hands and feet in this world.  May our eyes be opened this Lent to new places of such walking and working.

As the deer runs to the river, parched and weary from the chase,

We have come from hurt and hurry, thirsting for your healing grace,

Jesus, source of living water, may we drink of you and live!

(Herman G. Stuempfle, 1923-2007)