Kathleen Norris is one of my favorite writers of faith. In her book, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Norris writes about the experience of working with a class of grade school children who were writing their own psalms. Psalms are essentially poems on the human condition; the honest expression of our hopes, our fears, our anger, loss and search for God. Children are often better than adults at writing these kinds of things. They have an uncanny ability to speak the truth in ways that we adults hold back from doing. One little boy in Norris' class wrote a psalm titled, “The Monster Who Was Sorry.” He begins by admitting he hates when his father yells at him; he gets so angry that he pushes his sister down the stairs, and then wrecks his room, and finally wrecks the whole town he lives in.
At the end he writes: “Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself: ‘I shouldn’t have done all that.’ ”
If he hadn’t been a fourth grader and instead had been a novice in a fourth century monastery, his elders might have said: “You’re not so much a monster, just human. And if the house is messy, why not clean it up and make it a space where God might wish to dwell?”
Lent, among other things, is about looking around at the messes we’ve made, cleaning up, and making space in our lives for God to dwell. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of that journey.
Perhaps for people the 40 days of Lent will be about giving something up. When we deny ourselves of something that we love, one or two of the comforts of life, if accompanied by proper reflection, can be a way of helping us realize more clearly our dependence on God whose grace and providence and love is what truly sustains us.
For others perhaps the 40 days of Lent will be about adding something to your life that makes space for God in new ways. It can be a good time to commit or recommit to that time of prayer in your day that you always mean to get to but somehow gets pushed out of the way by schedules and to-do lists. Maybe it’s a time to read a passage of scripture each day, asking with intention what might God be saying to me in this? Maybe it’s a time to take your family to do something together in service of others as a regular practice.
As a part of the worship service on Ash Wednesday, worshippers receive ashes on their foreheads. The ashes are meant to be a sign of mourning and repentance. In Biblical times, dusting oneself with ashes was a way of expressing sorrow for ones sins and faults. The words that accompany the placement of the ashes are, “Remember from dust you came, and to dust you shall return.”
In the book of Genesis, the word for human, adam, is derived from the Hebrew for ground or dust, adamah. It’s a beautiful connection — God created the adam from the adamah. God made a dirt person, a dust creature and called it God’s own.
They are powerful words: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Ash Wednesday is the beginning of our journey of saying sorry, cleaning house and returning to the God who created and sustains us.