Ash Wednesday Promises

When I was a kid I was a part of a street gang. We called ourselves the Jets. How sad is that? A tough group of suburban 8 year old thugs whose name came from a Broadway musical. Don’t mess with the dancing Jets of Temperance, Michigan. Anyway our leader’s name was Danny. Danny was charismatic and a little scary.

We would get to our bus stop early and play around, football, tag, four square, that sort of thing.  One time he convinced us to climb on his roof using the antenna pole.  He had to badger us to do it, because frankly we were all kind of terrified. Not of getting caught, but of falling off.  Well, his older sister heard about it and she told her mom. Danny’s mom cornered him and he told his mom that it was my idea. She marched over to my house and told my mom. My mom told my dad when he came home and let’s just say it didn’t end well for me that evening.

Danny selling me out did not surprise me.  Danny lying was a common occurrence. It was an excepted fact by me at the tender age of 8, that Danny couldn’t be trusted. I played with Danny nearly every day, but I pretty much knew to take everything he said with a grain of salt, and to watch my back if we got in trouble together. Danny’s promises meant nothing to me.

In the season of Lent, we are going to explore promises.   Promises God makes to us. Promises we make to God or should be making to God. Asking questions whether God can be trusted and whether we are more like Danny than we care to admit when it comes to our promises to God.

Tonight we start the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday.  The ashes are meant to remind us that we are the created, made from dust in the great Genesis story and in death we will return to dust. We are not the creator. God is the one who formed us from dust. God is the one who will reawaken that dust in the resurrection. We put ashes on our forehead to say aloud to each other, to ourselves and to God that everything that has ultimate value in our life depends on God. If this relationship is out of whack, if we believe that we don’t need God or that God is not the boss of me, than our entire life gets out of whack.

The promise we are making tonight when we come forward is to straighten out this relationship. The fancy church word for promising to fix the relationship with God is repentance. Repentance simply means that we are going to change, turn around, and do things differently than before.

In the church rituals of repentance are centered on a confession and tonight is no different. In moments we will share this confession together. The point of the confession, and this is important, is not to itemize all of the things that we have done wrong. We are not being asked tonight to pull out a list of misdeeds and mumble those to ourselves in our pew. Instead, we are being asked for something even greater, to change the motivation that led us to those misdeeds. Tonight, we are making a promise to trust God with our life and no longer ourselves.

You see if Danny would have came to me and said, Karl, I am sorry that I lied to my mom and told her it was your idea that we get on the roof, I would have been appreciative, but I likely would not have trusted him in the future. What I needed to hear from Danny, although at eight I couldn’t have known this of course, was Karl no longer will my primary concern by my own well being.  From now on Karl, I will worry about others before myself.

Do you see the difference? Just admitting that he lied in that one instance, just confessing a single simple sin, would not indicate a larger hope to stop the lies that had become a part of his life, to right the wrong direction that he was on that had made him a person who could not be trusted. The first is simply confession, the second is repentance, a promise to change who we have become.

Danny’s proclivity for lying, his wrong direction ended up leading me to find a new best friend when I was nine. His lying broke our relationship. This is what Sin does, break relationships. More troubling, Danny ended up in jail when he was nineteen. When we keep going in the wrong direction, eventually we find ourselves so far from God and our lives so distorted, returning seems impossible. Continuing on the wrong path becomes the easiest way to go. Tonight is the night we change course. Tonight, we make a promise to move closer to God.

Then what? What promise can we make that lived out in the next forty days will draw us closer to God?  What could we add or take away from our life that will help us trust God completely again? What promise could we not just make, but keep that will help us remember that God is in control, not us?

Let me tell you mine. Last Friday I went to hear some lectures at the seminary. They started in the morning and I drink a lot of coffee in the morning. This means that I am going to have to get up often to take care of business. The older people in the crowd tonight know what I am talking about. The only seat that was near the door so that I could leave while the guy was talking without causing a disruption was next to this pretty young woman. There were a lot of seats available, but only one near the door. I didn’t want this young woman to think I was a creepy old guy hitting on her or anything. So, I candidly told her my problem with mornings and coffee and such.

She laughed, said she understood and held out her hand introducing herself as Laura.  Now, I just wanted to tell her why I was sitting there. I didn’t want to talk to her or visit with her. I wasn’t here to make friends. So, I shook her hand mumbled my name was Karl, then picked up my Dispatch and turned my back to her, giving her the obvious signal, that our conversation stops here. She was a smart woman, got the hint and didn’t say another word.

Everything was fine I thought, until at the break, this other woman came over to greet her. I recognized the other woman. She is one of Thadd and Laura’s best friends. When I saw her, I immediately made the connection that the girl I had rudely turned my back too was their good friend too. I was mortified, but I wasn’t upset that I had been rude. I was upset that she was going to go back and tell Thadd and Laura what a jerk I was. I was upset that I had been revealed by this spy in the seat next to me, to be a pompous, unfriendly creep.

So, for the next forty days I promise to treat all people as if God, God’s self was before me. So that I am held accountable, I promise every evening before I go to bed to consider at least three people I was with that day and evaluate how I did in a journal. I tend to act Christ like when I am on stage, when people know me and have expectations of me. Left alone, when talking to the waitress or the receptionist at the doctor’s office, those Christ like actions slip away. Somewhere within me, I have forgotten that all my actions are accountable to God, not just those that others hold me accountable for. I have forgotten I answer to God, my creator. My journey has gotten just a little off kilter. I need to repent and right the ship.

Come forward tonight and simply promise to begin the journey, your own journey back to God. Go home then and consider what promise you can make to draw closer to God in these forty days. What promise will right your relationship between creator and created? Bring that promise with you on Sunday, we will have a special and unique way for you to offer it to God for Lent.

One thought on “Ash Wednesday Promises”

  1. This is absolutely, positively the clearest, best explanation of Ash Wednesday I have heard in my life. I’ve always struggled with the passage about “wash your face,” and (paraphrased) ‘don’t dramatize your fasting for the sake of attention from others’ — while simultaneously putting ashes on your face.

    P.K. has an EXCELLENT way of explaining things!!

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