Ash Wednesday, March 9, 2011
I have this recurring dream: I have been asked to give a speech, I am standing at the podium, an auditorium full of people are watching and waiting, and I can’t find my notes. I am frantic — they were right here, I know I brought them. I search the pile of papers stacked carelessly in front of me, I dig through my attaché, but my notes are not to be found. I am desperate. And then it strikes me – now they all know, I am just not good enough.
How easy it is for us to slip from “I made a mistake” to “I’m not good enough.” The danger of Lent is that we will make “Not good enough” our starting and ending point.
The Church is pretty clear that Lent is a penitential season. The Ash Wednesday liturgy invites us to “the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance . . .” (Book of Common Prayer pg 265). But the psalmists had a clear understanding about penitence – God’s forgiveness is a right to be claimed — a promise upon which we can rely with confidence: “I did it, I’m sorry, you said you would forgive me, and so you must.” End of negotiation. In one of the great Christian ironies, it is almost more sinful to dwell on our sins than to accept the forgiveness given freely. Who likes to have his gift rebuffed? Certainly not God.
We see this in the great penitential Psalm 51 that opens Lent when the psalmist appeals to God’s nature of “loving-kindness” and “great compassion” (vs 1). Then the psalmist puts it in right context: every sin against others is a sin against God (vs 4). The only thing to be done is to make a clean sweep of it — “I know my transgressions,” (vs 3) — and plead for mercy. In fact, God, let’s just make a whole new me with a “clean heart” and a “right spirit” (vs 11). You can do that, God, and in my rejoicing I will “teach your ways to the wicked” (vs 14) and “sing of your righteousness”(vs 15). We pray the penitential psalms fully aware that the only grounds for human appeal is the righteousness and faithfulness of God.
None of this is to make light of sin. The psalmists were graphic about its effects: “My days drift away like smoke, and my bones are hot as burning coals. My heart is smitten like grass and withered, so that I forget to eat my bread” (102:3-4). Indeed, unrepented sin can fester like a boil, make us physically and mentally ill, and destroy relationships with God and others. The Church and God do not call us to repentance to merely tick off one more thing on our “get into heaven” bucket list. Sin separates us from God, from others, and from the wholeness of life whose seeds dwell within us.
It is in the act of repentance and the acceptance of God’s always-available mercy that we find that part of ourselves that God has declared “good enough.”
1. Seven psalms have traditionally been categorized as “penitential psalms”: 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143. Read as many of these as is comfortable for you – perhaps one each day during the first week of Lent – and put yourself in them. Do particular instances come to mind in which you might seek forgiveness from God and/or others? Are there those whom you have offended and whose forgiveness you might seek?
2. As you read the penitential psalms, note the elements of each psalm often incorporated by the psalmist: an appeal for God’s attention, a recognition and confession of sin, a reliance upon the mercy of God, an ending vow of praise. Adopt this pattern as you consider those things for which you stand in need of forgiveness.
3. Church of Reconciliation, San Antonio, is hosting “The Art of Reconciliation” during the month of March. This special show will convey the concept of reconciliation through artwork and photography. Featured are the works of E. Gordon & Joan West, Edwin & Patsy Sasek and Jeff Hull.
The exhibit may be viewed on Sundays in March and by appointment. For more information call the church at 210-655-2731 or visit www.churchofreconciliation.org or www.contemporaryartmonth.com. Church of Reconciliation is located at 8900 Starcrest, San Antonio, TX 78217.
Notes on the Psalms:
The Psalter as we know it, comprising 150 psalms, dates from the 3rd or 4th Century B.C., although psalms had been in use by the Hebrew people in various forms for centuries before that. In the ancient oral culture, the psalms were likely a way of telling and re-telling the story of God’s people through persecution, deliverance, and hope of the coming Kingdom.
In their more modern history (the 500 years prior to the birth of Christ), the psalms were used during temple worship services and were likely sung. We find this tradition carried on in our worship services today, particularly in Morning and Evening Prayer which derive from the Hebrew synagogue service.