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Ash Wednesday: Bloom Where We Are

Blessings dear people of God on this Ash Wednesday!

Today is a day set aside for truth telling -- for proclaiming that no matter who you are, what you’ve done, what you hope to do, what your dreams for the future are, we all will die.  From dust you have come and to dust you shall return.  

It’s the truth and speaking it out loud confronts us on so many levels.  YES!  We know that death like birth is an absolute -- guaranteed to happen.  But society, our families -- even our faith families -- and we ourselves don’t live like we know this deeply in our inner being. 

So, we often live listening to other messages -- lies that the world shouts at us.  Like everything is possible.  That we are capable of anything.  We are perfect.  That life is just a series of unlimited choices.  Just conquer your limits, try harder, do better, or just commit to doing a new series of habits….  

But what happens when circumstances challenge that?  When we get sick.  We get old.  We can’t have that baby or keep that relationship.  When our kids suffer from mental illness or addictions, or we do!  Or the financial pressures are too much to bear.  Or, we lose people before we can learn to live without them?  Well, we have to learn to live inside of a life that may not be perfectible.    But is still so beautiful.

Back in October I read two books by Kate Bowler.  In them she tells her story -- how at age 35 she was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer, 6-months postpartum.  That wasn’t her plan!!  

She had just had a baby, had her dream job at Duke School of Divinity, was married to her high school sweetheart and was loving life and suddenly she realized she was terminal!  And she found herself falling into this hole where people said (not only in words) that if you "can't do" and succumb to illness or misfortune, you are a failure.  

But no amount of positive thinking or pulling herself up by her boot straps would shrink her tumors. What does it mean to die, she wondered, in a society that insists everything happens for a reason? Kate was stripped of this certainty only to discover that without it, life is hard but beautiful in a way it never had been before.  

Her first book, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved and the second, No Cure for Being Human: And Other Truths I Need to Hear, spoke to me...not only because I too have been struck with a horrible terminal cancer but, because she shares her faith in such beautiful and witty, really funny prose.  

Kate had to do the work of claiming that life is hard, isn’t fair, logical, predictable, easy.  But it is beautiful.  And absolutely, GOD meets us even there -- at our limits, our places of deepest hurt and suffering, at the margins of our carefully crafted lives.

God has used Kate’s wisdom to speak grace and love into my world.  I read her books, even referenced her in a sermon in November and then wouldn’t you know it, the Holy Spirit lifted up a Lenten series based upon her books, blogs, and podcast:  GOOD ENOUGH.

Our Lenten theme can be boiled down to the truth that our faith, and we too, is enough!  Enough for God and these lives we have.  

The image of the ladder reminds us that climbing endless rungs through life is not what God wants for us but it is how we can sometimes feel, especially when we look around to the “rungs” that we perceive others are standing on. 

And if you notice our ladder (here at the front of the sanctuary)'s old, covered with paint, beat up with rickety hardware, but also it’s a perfect pedestal for these plants at various stages of growth, from the seedlings in water to the mature peace lily.  They are to remind us that we are to grow, to bloom, where we are and with whatever we are facing:  ceasing to striving for some unattainable ideal and instead choose to embrace our current state, even if it’s a little grubby, exposed, or uncomfortable. 

This Lent let’s all be truth tellers, letting go of the lies and embracing the truths we need to hear.  And we ALL need to hear them.  Because let’s be honest:  we are facing a lot!  

This morning I read Nadia Bolz-Webers Ash Wednesday message and I laughed because she was preaching the same thing.  But her take was from just a little different place:  it’s because we are trying to pretend that ‘you are dust and to dust you shall return’ is NOT true.  So, we give our hearts away to everything else because we are afraid of the limits of our self-hood, as she says.  We’re afraid to die. 

But (and here’s a great line) as a giving-our-hearts-away, afraid-to-die people, upon hearing you are dust and to dust you shall return, instead of being bad news, its great news!  

She reminds us of the story of creation from Genesis 2:  God formed humans from the dust of the ground, breathed into them the breath of life and humans became living beings.  The dust and breath formed to create us out of Divine love!  A divine love which mends the pieces of us back together whenever we’re striving so hard to have a perfect life…..

People of God, I don’t have a perfect life.  And you don’t either.  And that is the way it should be!  

This Lent let’s give up the fallacy that life, that WE, can be perfect.  People we can’t be perfect or anything close!  Let’s embrace the joy of our imperfect lives, our imperfect bodies, our imperfect world.  

Let’s bloom where we are!  And instead of working hard during Lent to practice your faith ‘the right way’ (that is part of what Jesus was challenging in our Matthew text), I want you to find a way that brings you into a closer relationship with the Divine, with God!  

It’s not about one certain spiritual discipline that you can check off of your to do list daily.  It’s about the true treasures of heaven -- being in relationship with the one who created us, loves us, accepts us and promises to meet us where we’re at, and from there love transforms us.  

Come Easter Sunday we should definitely find ourselves closer to Jesus than we are right now on Ash Wednesday. Indeed, these 40 days should change us as we practice greater spiritual discipline. But let’s take ourselves off the hook for perfection. And simply realize that being one in whom Christ dwells is good enough.    

Thanks be to God.