Thursday, February 14, 2013

Beauty for Ashes

To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified. Isaiah 61:3

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. The Via Dolorosa or Way of Grief; a forty-six day journey to the cross. Easter—new life is awaiting those that wish to partake. 

Ash Wednesday is observed with the cross etched on one’s forehead with ashes, a reminder of how small we are in the shadow of great, big, God. A God that loved us so much, that He sent His one and only begotten Son to die a brutal, torturous death. For me. For you. Small indeed. 

Like the waves of the ocean to the shore, I am compelled to travel the Way of Grief over the next forty-days; not out of obligation, or religiosity, but to practice abiding in Him; to know Him deeper on the other side; to encounter the Lord of Glory. The ashes used to engrave a cross, come from the burned palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. I did not have the foresight to save them to burn; so I improvised. I will be saving this year’s palms. 

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

I scribbled this on a sticky note to pray; I read it in a Brennan Manning book, and was moved when I first read that small, yet beautiful prayer scripted on the page; I carried that sticky note with me for days-like an appendage. How fickle we humans are and how quickly we forget; I may have prayed it once or twice. I pulled out a devotional today I began months ago and had not finished, and there, fastened to the front cover; Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. That sticky note has evaded me all these months. What did I do? I tore it from its home; it was imbedded for its long rest on that book, it did not leave easily, and threw it away. I thought, “That’s old.” 

Then I began On Broken Legs, by Wendy Murray Zoba; I read it in one day. If you have not read it, consider yourself deficient. Her brokenness is heart wrenching, as one reads the pages of her Dark Night, you cannot help but to feel the darkness she describes. Though I have not suffered the loss that she suffered, my journey is full of hurt and wounds and betrayal; my own dark night, I could relate to her pain. As she wrestles with God, one can feel her struggle; for we all wrestle, Jesus Himself was not immune to wrestling:

“It was the picture of my predicament: I was in a wilderness where the Devil prowled, a country of madness (as Thomas Merton called it). It was the same place the Spirit had driven Jesus: to the wilderness to confront the kings of demons.” [1]

Let me be content with whatever darkness surrounds me, finding him always by me, in His Mercy. Thomas Merton

I had not read one chapter through, when a hammer hit me square between the eyes. Jesus met me just a few moments from my encounter with the lost sticky note, to remind me what he spoke months before; Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. That phrase jumped off the page and lodged itself into the flesh of my heart. I felt the piercing of the arrow.

In J.D. Salinger’s Frannyand Zooey, Franny encounters the Philokalia, a book of prayers to pacify her desire to pray. Not knowing what to pray, Franny clung to that prayer book, and specifically that prayer. Had I only clung to that prayer the last few months, when the Lord first gave it me, perhaps my journey would have had a few less rocks. Many times I have found myself before God, groping in the dark for words to pray. I left it neglected, stuck to a book I had not finished, due to my father’s stroke. I have been engrossed in helping he and my mother, and the book went unfinished…until today. I pulled the sticky note out of the trash; to remind myself how callous I have become in my dark night.

“To pray ‘have mercy’ suggests that for the petitioner there are no names to drop, nor anything to bring, no hopes or dreams, no claim to stake, no honor to defend, no project or plan or intent to explain. Only nakedness and madness or queerness, things that typify the human predicament. Fatigue perhaps, perhaps, regret, perhaps collapse, that is all. It is opening one’s mouth wide and asking for nothing, waiting to receive whatever is given.”[2]

As all this transpired today, I decided it was best to follow my sudden desire to observe Lent. I would not toss it into the trash like the crumbled sticky note. I did not have last year’s palms to use for ashes, so I put pen to page and listed what I need to let go, and commenced burning them;  Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me: You laid down your life for me, I now lay down;

My plans. My expectations. My paradigms. My insecurities. My fears. My failures. My hurts. My wounds. Unforgiveness. Disappointments.  Shame. Regret. Deferred hope. Unbelief. Doubt. Wrestling. Restlessness.
After I burned them, I scoured the back yard for a rock to crush the ashes, without success. I found a broken piece from a pot that did not survive the winter; it seemed apropos. A broken vessel to crush the ashes of things which long ago needed to be severed. A picture flooded my mind of Job, agonizing on the ash heap, scraping his boil-infested skin. Complete surrender.

I did not sketch a cross on my forehead; I scratched it into the ashes.  

I eagerly anticipate this season of Lent. Though it is meant to be a solemn observance, I will walk through it with joy. Joy and expectation of what God has spoken into my spirit—His promises, His expectations. I gladly exchange mine for His. I gladly accept His beauty for my ashes.   

[1]Wendy Murray Zoba, On Broken Legs: (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2004), 51.


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