Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day in our Season of Lent and a moment to reflect not simply on our mortality and our sinfulness, but on the joy of confessing — and living out — our utter dependence upon God. In today’s devotional, I invite you to give yourself extra time to reflect on the scriptures, to enjoy the special music put together just for today, and then, in response to the call of God, to participate in your own moment of confessing just how dependent we all are on something truly above and beyond ourselves.
God of Forgiveness and Grace, come alongside of us today with mercy and strength. Lead us by your Word and your Holy Spirit, so that in your light we might see light, and in your truth, we might find freedom, and in your will, we might truly discover joy and peace through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Therefore let all who are faithful
offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters
shall not reach them.
You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.
Lord, let me know my end,
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight.
Surely everyone stands as a mere breath.
Surely everyone goes about like a shadow.
Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;
they heap up, and do not know who will gather.
And now, O Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in you.
Deliver me from all my transgressions.
1 Timothy 6:6-11
Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.
“With These Ashes” — Kathy Douglass, performed by Jamie Evans and Leah Bartlam (YouTube video for in-home worship: Click here for Video)
With these ashes
What we’re made of,
What we’re made of.
With these ashes,
We are made of dust.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,
So it has always been.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,
We return again.
Of any year in living memory, this is one when we do not have to remind ourselves that we are dust and to dust we will return. For more than a few of us, last year’s Ash Wednesday was the last time we all worshiped together in a physical space. Since then, we’ve learned a lot about ourselves, not the least of which is that we truly are finite and fragile creatures. It’s a sort of confession we’ve all had to make as we’ve donned masks, traveled less, registered for swab tests, and unfortunately attended far too many funerals. Maybe it should come as no surprise, then, that this year’s Ash Wednesday feels a bit like adding insult to injury. That our ashes come in the shape of a cross doesn’t make it any better.
So, why do we still do it? I think it’s because we hope beyond hope that death and dust are not our final end. When we confess that we have real limits, we’re saying something as much about God as we are about ourselves. We can’t go this alone. We are dependent on so much that is not in our control, from the breath we breathe to the magic that goes into creating extraordinary vaccines. As a people driven by the motto “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” such deep dependance isn’t easily recognized, much less confessed and enjoyed.
And yet, the Old Testament psalms are full of it. What’s more, they assume a much stronger connection between our spiritual and physical life than we do today. “While I kept silence, my body wasted away,” the psalmist cries in a resigned moment of confession, “for day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (Psalm 32:3-4). The physical and the spiritual are wrapped up together in the psalms in a way that echoes closely God’s earliest covenants with his people. To be faithful to God meant a long, flourishing life, one that went far beyond the mere individual. God promised Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all their descendants that if they would continually “walk before [him] and be blameless,” he would make them “exceedingly numerous” (Genesis 17:1-2). No wonder the psalmist confesses a little later on that since his hope lies in God and God alone, it is surely God who must “deliver me from all my transgressions” (Psalm 39:8). Fast forward a few thousand years, and the confession of our mortality which we make this Ash Wednesday looks to be a way to lean into this same ancient promise.
But our deep dependance on God goes far beyond the physical as well. So much of our talk about sin and forgiveness focuses on our quality of life after death, but from the Old Testament with its psalms to the New Testament with its parables, an equal if not greater amount of emphasis is placed on the quality of life we live now. And, it more often than not has little to do with material wealth or riches. John Stott, who once made it onto Time’s list of the top 100 most influential people and who is rumored to have slept on a mattress so ragged its springs poked through, drew a straight line from joy and contentment to dependence and simplicity. Riffing on Paul’s first letter to Timothy, Stott noted that the simple life of dependence upon God “concentrates us on what we need, and measures this by what we use. It rejoices in the good things of creation, but hates waste and greed and clutter. It knows how easily the seed of the Word is smothered by the ‘cares and riches of this life.’ It wants to be free of distractions, in order to love and serve God and others.”
Stott was onto something. Without ignoring the great material and physical needs of our world, the Bible insists that righteousness is our true source of contentment and that confession is our first step toward experiencing it. After all, that’s how Psalm 32 begins: “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” Holiness and happiness are inextricably linked.
I take it that the Season of Lent is a ready opportunity for us to return to just this vision of contentment. So, as we confess our mortality today, let’s not do it out of resignation but out of anticipation — anticipation of the joys that come with a life lived in utter dependence upon God.
Holy God, we confess that we are dust and to dust we will return. Give us the grace to discover contentment in dependence. Amen.