Ash Wednesday is upon us, sparking the beginning of the season of Lent. During this season we invite the congregation to come together on Ash Wednesday and receive ashes upon their forehead. This is done as a reminder that we have come from the dust, and we will return to dust when our bodies fail us. One of the key parts of this reminder is the challenge to turn away from sinfulness, and behaviors that cause us and others harm. We do this during this time because Christ promises that the better way to live these short days is in a way that follows after God, instead of a way that follows the path of sin. In more modern Christian culture, this practice has morphed into one that focuses less on deep acts of repentance, and more on acts of self-help and minor correction. So now people begin a 46 day period of dieting or exercising, adding new acts of piety such as Bible reading and prayer, or engaging in acts of mercy like supporting a mission, saving money, or doing something for a neighbor.
While these behavior adjustments are always helpful for people, and can always improve us in life, have they become a cheap substitute for the call to truly turn away from sin? The primary nature of repentance is to turn away from our deepest sins. Yet people often choose somewhat simpler acts to devote themselves to, all while telling themselves that this is the start of a new pattern of change. In all reality, those changes get reset after Easter Sunday, and any progress made on eating better, exercising more, or being more faithful gets reset as well.
But to turn completely, to change completely from sin is an entirely different way of seeking transformation. What would it mean to do something truly harmful one day, call out for repentance for that thing during a long Lenten season, and then spend the rest of your life never once falling into that particular trap of sin ever again? How would it feel to use a season like this to make permanent, yet difficult transformations away from behaviors, thoughts and actions that cause harm? What would it look like to truly give up the things that cause us and others around us the most grief? Here are some suggestions that might help you make this season of Lent one that truly changes your life.
First, seek to identify those sins that are embedded deeply within you. While everyone can probably stand to lose a few pounds, speak a little more kindly, read the Bible more, etc; Those are likely easier changes to make during Lent than the things that really matter. Often times, people intentionally close themselves off from truly addressing the issues within themselves that seem the hardest to deal with. Addictions that we've rationalized as manageable. Feelings of hatred we hold towards another person or group that we have justified. Ideologies or religious beliefs we've accepted that cause great harm to others, but don't affect us so we don't worry about supporting them. Some sins require change so deep that we not only don't realize they exist, we ignore them as problems when we're confronted by them. Seek to identify something deep within yourself that you've been too afraid to tackle.
Secondly, turning away from something difficult is much harder if you do not know that you are also turning towards something profound. Again, its easy to measure the risk/reward of a diet, or adding some exercise. The worst sins within us often linger because we don't see how much better our lives would be if we fully turn away from them. Many people even test what it would be like, but don't see enough results to become convinced. The key thing to remember, is that when you truly and fully repent, it is God's wisdom to do so. God's wisdom is timeless, and true. This means that often times change of this magnitude requires patience, perseverance, and even struggle. Despite this harsh reality, know that God does seek to use us, to call us to a better life, and to ensure us that when we turn towards the path God calls us to, there is always greater abundance, even if its not abundance the way we define it. Sin so often disguises itself as rewarding, handing out a sufficient enough prize to keep us coming back for more. But God's way leads to much greater reward over the long haul, even when those rewards can't often be seen up front.
Finally, repentance of this nature often requires accountability and community. While I would never ask a church member to come forward and confess their sins before the entire church, I do know that often times, once we are open and honest with another person about our problems, it can be the act of resistance to sin that begins the process of healing and turning we so desperately need. We are not meant to go through life alone, and we are not meant to deal with our sin alone. We need Jesus, and we need to experience the light of Christ coming from others around us. This can be a spouse, a pastor, a friend, or a counselor. But it needs to be someone you can trust. Someone who can truly help you work through the issue. They need to avoid judgement, but offer compassion. They need to avoid enabling you, but still have the ability to be patient with you. They need to truly love you, but also be able to put you to task. This is not always easy to find in all of our companions, but it is one of the most important ways to work through change of great magnitude.
Taking on any work of repentance and transformation is difficult. Even the smallest changes can feel like we're climbing a mountain to make them. Yet, Christ calls us, during the season of Lent, to not just give up a few cosmetic changes. We're not just called to do a little bit more and call it a year. Christ calls us to turn fully towards him, leaving everything else behind. It should not surprise us then, why we're called to do this while receiving the ashes of Ash Wednesday on our forehead. The reminder is, that life is short. We will all someday return to the dust. If we don't begin that process of transformation now, if we don't turn towards Christ now, if we don't let the Spirit of God work in us now, when will we? This is the deeper meaning of this season. This is the deeper preparation we are all called to when we gather to receive the ashes that were once Palm branches last Palm Sunday. This is the beginning of another opportunity to turn. I pray you'll take this chance to stop turning in circles, and begin turning back to God. Amen.