Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Ash Wednesday Words

photo by gocycloves / flickr

"Never place a period where God has placed a comma."
--Gracie Allen

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and I keep remembering something Gracie Allen said one time. “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” The ashes we take on our foreheads on this first day of Lent—are not periods. But they sure don't look like commas, do they?

Often when something hard crashes in on us we have the feeling that this really is an end—or a permanent stop. Paul understood this feeling. He was an old man with thinning hair when he wrote: " For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

On this first day of Lent we think of all the false starts and stops. We recall all those prayers: "Help me! Help me!”  we keep sending up. We remember how nothing, it seems ever changes within us—or without us. Who would have believed in 2015 we would still be fighting over voting rights. Or still wed to our old love of money—and still burdened down, like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress—with some other hard load on our backs. Personally and socially.

Old gloomy Housman expressed this:

“Oh never fear, man, nought’s to dread,
Look not to left nor right;
In all the endless road you tread
There’s nothing but the night.”

And so, Epiphany with its promised light is behind us. And now—again—we stand in the glimmering darkness. We hold all this heavy stuff in our hands. Rage, shame, fury, grief, disappointment, regret, hopelessness or just boredom. And some of us have been stuck here for a long time. Paul knew that when he wrote: it just goes on and on--these things I wish I did not do.

So on this first day of Lent we stand in a long line. Do we think we are the only ones who carry so much? No. Each one of us is really the same. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And these ashes we mark on our brows remind us once again of our finitude, our failures but also our common humanity.  We Republicans and Democrats, we white folk or people of color, we rich and poor, we Christians and Muslims and atheists too.  We really are all the same. The labels just don’t stick.

We shuffle away from the Ash Wednesday altar knowing full well our own burdens and sins. And yet—Paul says some amazing words which follow his litany of shame and regret.“ Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks are to God through Jesus Christ our Lord”. In the next chapter he will then give his readers a further word of comfort: “The spirit helps us in our weakness...” And if that were not enough he added with a flourish: “No, in all things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

Gracie Allen was right. We should never, ever place a period where God has placed a comma. So let us, this Lenten season remember the mark on our foreheads. It is a comma—thank God—and this is not the end of our story.

So maybe this would be a good time to pray the prayer of the old slave:

“Lord I ain’t what I ought to be,
And I ain’t what I want to be—
But thank God I ain’t what I used to be.”

photo by Bowsk / flickr

--Roger Lovette / rogerlovette.blogspot.com

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