Daily Encouragement - February 16

Psalm 51:1-2,10-11 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right[b] spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Today is Shrove Tuesday - Mardi Gras to some, though it’s hard to find much Mardi Gras in the breaking news today. The pandemic has pretty much shuttered traditional celebrations of the day. Not so with Ash Wednesday, coming up on us fast tomorrow; Ash Wednesday is still going strong. This is my first pandemic Ash Wednesday; no doubt it’s going to be a bit different, but something tells me that the basics of the service are going to survive the changes necessitated by Covid. Tomorrow, as always, we’ll gather in the sanctuary to hear the ancient words of the Scripture readings appointed for the day; there’ll be a sermon, and an invitation to observe a holy Lent, complete with self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial, and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word. Best of all, we’ll get ashes imposed on our foreheads. The words of the service indicate that the smudged crosses on our foreheads are meant to be a mark of our mortal nature, and also to signal the beginning of our Lenten repentance, all of which has always struck me as a kind of spiritual reality check: Yes, you’re a sinner, just like all these other people with crosses on their foreheads, and like them, you need even more than forgiveness; you need transformation. You need what the prayer book calls “newness of life”...which only the Holy Spirit can make happen. But Ash Wednesday is more than just a reality check, however badly we may all need one. Ash Wednesday is not just the beginning of Lent; it’s the beginning of hope. Bearing a smudgy cross on my forehead is a sign that I’m not in this alone, that the Jesus who loved me enough to die for me is the same Jesus who has claimed me as his own in baptism, and who plans on claiming me as his own not just in this life (which would be miracle enough) but in the life of the world to come. The good news: the same is true for you. You’re not in this alone either. The One whose sign is on your forehead is in this with you, and He is the One who has overcome the world. “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.” (UMH, #883) To quote Pastor Jon, a Lutheran colleague from Ellsworth, Maine: “In the past, I sometimes saw Ash Wednesday as a rather grim focus on death coming to us all. In more recent years (perhaps an aspect of aging...) I have come instead to hear it as a reminder that all things do not depend on me, that the struggles and losses of this life are not eternal. To be reminded that I am created out of the dust of the ground is to be reminded that God is the one on whom all things depend, and that when my time comes, the Lord has already prepared a home for me. There will be peace.” Thank you, Pastor Jon; you hit the nail on its proverbial head. The prayer of thanksgiving over the ashes puts it a little differently (though it means the same thing): “...so that we may remember that only by your gracious gift are we given everlasting life.” Thank you, Jesus; we are the recipients of the everlasting life only God can give! It doesn’t get any better than that. Welcome to the season of Lent, friends; it’s the beginning of hope. “Sunday’s Palms Are Wednesdays’ Ashes”, vs.1, Sunday's palms are Wednesday's ashes As another Lent begins Thus we kneel before our Maker In contrition for our sins We have marred baptismal pledges In rebellion gone astray Now returning seek forgiveness Grant us pardon God this day Pastor Susan Pate Greenwood

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