t may be the first week of spring training for most professional
baseball teams, but for us this is the first week of Lent. Lent throws us a curve, changes
cadence, moves us in quite a different direction from our culture. For most of the year we
Christians follow our culture, listen to the same news, watch the same movies, read the
same bestsellers, see the same mannequins at Boscovs. But when we come to Lent, we come to
a cultural parting in the road. The Lenten journey asks a different question of us than
does our pop culture. Culture asks us, "How do you look today? How do you feel
today? Not too good? Well, we can change that. So thanks to Rogaine, Viagra, tummy tucks,
health clubs, Clairol, tax-free investments, retirement, loving the Flyers-and 76ers, and
of course, by using Garlic tablets, we hang on to our eternity just a bit longer.
But Lent, on the other hand, just sits there like some monk, chanting Psalm 51. Asks us
quite a different question: Is it well with your soul? Feeling and looking good is
important -- I have some hair coloring stuff in the bathroom closet, too. But Lent reminds
us that beneath the cosmetics, the hair coloring, the nice threads, our job, salary,
family, and cat, there is a soul that needs grooming and care. That beneath all of the
layers of our activities and commitments, and leisure and work is a soul that has been
damaged by sin. The chanting in Psalm 51 this morning asks us point blank, "How is it
with your soul?"
Three years ago this week, I stood before a chapel door at Drew University and read the
sign that said, "Ash Wednesday service today, imposition of ashes following the
sermon." I entered and prepared to worship. I dont remember the hymns that
we sang that morning or the sermon. But I can still remember reciting with my colleagues
an eternally long litany of confession. Following that , we were invited to go to the
front and receive ashes on either forehead or hand. Well, my tradition as a Pentecostal
had never celebrated Ashes, Lent, or mortification of the body. We sang nice choruses,
though. In fact, in my tradition, the only thing I know about marks on the forehead or
hand came right out of the book of Revelation. Where those who had rejected Christ and
were left behind to face the Beast could get food if they took the mark of the beast.
That, I was taught, was not a good thing to do, for those Christians who had missed the
first boat to heaven.
"All those who wish to receive ashes please come forward." Well, I certainly
could identify the coming forward part of the invitation. I had sung "Just as I
Am" enough times to make sure that every soul could get saved. But it was the ashes
and the smearing of them on my head or body that really threw me for a loop.
Though I was probably the most shy come-forwarder in the chapel service I made my way
to the front of the church. I couldnt bear to have the ashes crossed on my forehead
-- that was too close to the stuff I had been taught in the Book of Revelation, but I held
my hand out quickly and received this sign of the cross in ashes and then returned to my
place. I dont know why but those ashes seemed to sear an indelible mark on my hand.
No matter where I went that day, I discovered other persons with this black cross smudged
on. I observed it over finely featured faces, over rough, wrinkled foreheads, on hands
that extended from suit coats holding mega ram notebooks and cell phones.
No matter where I went that afternoon, I discovered other persons with the sign of the
cross. Persons I had never known, custodial workers, waitresses, store owners, professors,
poorly dressed persons I passed along Madison Street. And I felt that together we shared a
common experience, a shared moment of faith. We were brothers and sisters sharing a
moment, reminding each other of our fallenness, of our mortality, and that through the
cross of Jesus, that we were ultimately, Gods property. The cross formed with ashes
on our hands or foreheads is a visual way of saying with our African-American friends that
"Its me, O Lord, Standing in the Need of Prayer."
Like me, some of you may come from a tradition that hasnt participated in a
service of repentance. I appreciate this psalm because it is honest. Gut level honest. No
beating around the bush. No gentle segues that lead us to the discovery that in some small
way we might be sinners. Just gut level honesty. If we want to enter into conversation
with Psalm 51, we must also be honest. Honest to ourselves. Honest to God. So Psalm 51
keeps our halos ajar, tilted downward toward the earth. It has our name on it.
The first thing that strikes me is a confession--the uses that three-letter word,
"sin." Calls it a lot of things, iniquity, sin, transgressions, doing what he
calls "evil," and death. If sin--this three-letter word--is the size of a June
bug in our vocabulary, then its the size of sperm whale in the Hebrew language and
thought. Our three letter word required eight or nine Hebrew words to completely describe
it. Ill just give you a few of the pieces of what I discovered about sin.
To sin, was to miss the bulls eye of an archery target. King David had
several Annie Oakley kind of archers who it was said, "could fling a stone within a
hair-breath of the bulls eye, and not miss." That image came to describe what
sin was like: to miss the bulls eye of Gods will for our lives. To fail to
live up to the fullest intent of Gods plan.
Another Hebrew word for sin described it as not doing what we shouldve and
doing what we shouldnve. We call such sins in church language the sins of
omission and the sins of commission. Such sins, it was believed, poisoned the soul, and
could infect the entire community. Running around bad-mouthing someone, for instance,
could poison and entire community. Enough church splits have convinced us that sin is a
poison that is highly contagious.
Yet another Hebrew word describes sin as being unfaithful to the covenant between
neighbor and God. All life is upheld by covenant; when we attend a wedding, we are
watching covenant-making in action. When we worship on a Sunday morning, there is an
unwritten covenant between us and God that we honor. To break covenant is to sin.
Thats why committing adultery is so wrong--because in taking anothers spouse,
one violates the sacred covenant of marriage. And to injure a neighbor is to injure the
covenant with God. Every time we come to that part in the Lords prayer where we say,
"forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us"
were praying for forgiveness of this kind of sin, for breaking our promises to God
Finally, the ancients had a word to describe the kind of sin that gets front page
coverage in the newspaper--deeds that are so violent, senseless, destructive, and evil and
we cringe and draw back.
Whats behind all of these words that describe sin? Behind all of the types of sin
was the belief that sin poisoned the soul from within and led to its complete
destruction. Sin is chaos that mars and destroys God image within us--our soul. It
threatens the order and parameters of our community and nation. And its lethal!
Spreads like gangrene numbing and destroying those who are infected by it. The opposite of
sin is contained in the three volumes of Chicken Soup for the Soul. The belief that
good actions and words will lead to good results. The power of Chicken Soup for the
Soul is in the stories of warm-hearted, brave, self-giving people who, by their
actions, set in motion good results. Someone is loved and that person, in turn, expresses
that love to the next person. But sin might be better described as Strychnine For the
Soul or Ant Poison for the Soul, for sin aims at the souls demise, so
that given enough of the poison, the soul--that inner person of mind and spirit--ceases to
I want to suggest three things that we can do today that will empower us to nourish our
soul, rather than starve and fragment the soul. First, be honest to God. Remember the
ashes of Lent that remind us that we are all of us sinners and in need of repair.
Secondly, Remember what ashes stand for -- from dust we came and to dust we shall
return. So what are we doing with our lives between the dust? Look at your life from the
stand point of dust! From the standpoint of eternity. Take a friend of mine. This person
lived a tough life no doubt. Made some bad choices. Five years ago, he started listening
to that strange chant of Psalm 51 and now he is a Christian. A Christian who is well-aware
of dust. He recently was given less than a year of life. So what does he do? He enrolls in
college; wants to learn how to preach the gospel. Wants to give the hours that remain in
his life to sharing Gods good news with others. Sometimes he makes it sometimes
hes too ill, but he reminds me of what Psalm 51 and the season of Lent says, from
dust weve come and to dust well return. So be sure that youre spending
your energies in the right places, with the right people, doing the right kinds of things.
Thirdly, Psalm 51 and the ashes of Lent remind us not only that we are sinners, that we
are from and return to dust, but that we are Gods property. God is the healer who
begins to change us from the inside when any sick soul cries out for help. The Gospel
doesnt guarantee your physical well-being, or slow the aging process, but it does
something much more. Our confessions and Gods forgiveness begins the healing process
in our soul. Ashes in the form of the cross remind us that were Gods property.
So this week take a piece of Psalm 51 -- say the part where the psalmist says,
"Create in me a Clean Heart O God. And pray that again and again. Make it a soaking
prayer that permeates your being. Then begin to walk in newness of life that has begun.