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Lent Reflections @ CEC: Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday:

Reading Scripture, Sabbath Poetry, Life

Scripture context:

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

It’s a pretty sure bet that guidelines for reading poetry today come from the thousands of years people have learned to read the Holy Bible—and life.


1 – Go slow. 2 – Ponder the puzzling parts. 3 – Embrace what you do “get.”


Let’s start with reading a few times through the Scripture our CEC Lenten devotional gives us for Ash Wednesday. Matthew 6:1-6 and 16-18 show us Jesus talking about how NOT to “practice your righteousness.” Hmm—that means there’s a WRONG way to do the right thing. Let’s ponder that.


Jesus speaks to giving, praying, and fasting in these verses. Nothing wrong with these, right? But to give in a showy way, or pray while I’m patting myself on the back, or to brag about giving up something—that way to do good things can put down other folks, make them feel bad. Such an arrogant way of giving, praying, or fasting might only shrink human hearts and spirit. After all, HOW I do good things either does or does not point to the One who gives to me. There’s a way I could do better, and it’s to “not let your right hand know what your left is doing” (v. 3). God still knows. But otherwise, Jesus says giving, praying, and fasting can be—and should be—secret. Well, embracing that Scripture is not so mysterious. Hard to do sometimes, but not unclear. How about the Wendell Berry poem for today?


In the same slow, pondering way, reading more than once through “I would not have been a poet,” I see two parts. The first is about why Berry writes—he’s been “in love / alive” and “bewildered and afraid” and “wakeful at night,” all unsettling states! So he tries to capture “stories passing to me through the air” and also to put down on paper the meaning of “words… out of their deep caves.” There are a lot of things he still just doesn’t “get.” He’s beside himself. He’s in the dark. Berry writes to puzzle out life.


For me, part two of the poem begins with “But…” Berry finds that on other “days I am lucky / or blessed, I am silent.” This too is weird, so let’s think about it. In this section, he’s oddly NOT being silent about being silent. Reflecting on this, I think the poet is trying to give words to “a world unnamed, / complete, unanswerable.” Here are things I can embrace. On Valentine’s Day when there are so many words about love, maybe it’s good to find the deeper love that has no words, real intimacy beyond the chocolate hearts. (I still like chocolate hearts.) Also, “solitary work in field / and woods” makes Berry happy. Using our hands, making something, coming face to face with Oregon salamanders and moss on trees, the buzz of early hummingbirds, a little sunshine through the rain. Humans try put words to these great gifts and mysteries, but Berry says they are all truly aspects of spiritual “life beyond words, / silent and secret.”


Finally—both pondering and embracing—there’s a lot I do not “get” about my own life. Today’s crossroad between the ash of Ash Wednesday which is a sign of death to our old selves and of repentance—and the new life Jesus offers to us because he died and rose again… I certainly do not always understand this intersection. For me, the accidental overlay this year of our commercial Valentine’s Day with Ash Wednesday deepens complications of love and sacrifice and God’s new life. I’m still pondering these, too. Some of you falling in love right now, or pregnant, taking a new job, hanging on in a job you don’t love to support people you do, raising little ones, caring for a loved one sick a long time, or grieving hard disappointments—all these “serve that triumph” in real ways, as Berry puts it. You live at a crossroads of hands-on persistence in love and sacrifice. By God’s grace we can all embrace and get better at this.


What area of life might Jesus call you to pause and ponder, reflect on today? Who needs you to show love, maybe in secret? May God bless us with His power and perspective in these mysteries.

Wendy Johnson

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