I typically don’t think much about ashes except for Ash Wednesday.
Last week, I participated in a strange, ancient ritual in which I smeared some ashes in the shape of a cross on peoples’ foreheads and said something like, “Turn from your sins and follow Jesus” or “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.”
I’ve realized that we could use some more ashes in our lives – a traditional sign of penitence, humility and mourning.
These are virtues for which we don’t seem to have much use today. Much of the Christianity I encounter has very little penitence, humility and mourning. We come in contact with them about as often as we do ashes.
Yet, Jesus was acutely aware of the human propensity to see other peoples’ sins so very clearly while being blind to one’s own.
We see the splinter in other people’s eyes while being blind to the plank growing from our own (Matthew 7:3-5).
We all have an amazing capacity to delude ourselves. This is why we judge other people by their worst actions and ourselves by our best motivations.
We also judge other religions by their worst adherents and our own by our highest exemplars.
President Obama learned the hard way that we don’t want to think about our own sins following his comments during the National Prayer Breakfast.
Some people said it was because he was bringing up ancient history (although some of it wasn’t very ancient), but I suggest it was because we want to believe in the superiority of our religion over others.
This is the mindset that keeps the fires of conflict raging, and some people’s identity stems solely from their conflicts.
These people have little use for contrition, introspection and confession because these virtues make for poor ammunition in the culture and religious wars.
We all want a religion that inflates our pride rather than one that challenges our ego.
We don’t want to confess our sins because that would demand we actually see them.
We live in an age in which humility is hardly a virtue. We rarely hear anyone say that they don’t have all the answers.
In fact, one of the most threatening and dangerous things one can say in our religious milieu is, “I don’t know,” as if uncertainty is equated with unbelief.
We demonize anyone who disagrees with us on any issue. Furthermore, we are frequently shocked that someone does disagree with us because our news sources insulate us from anyone and everyone with a diverging viewpoint.
We are an age marked by pride and arrogance. Rarely does anyone change their mind about anything of importance, and any new thought is quickly banished to the hinterland of heresy.
Oftentimes, our religious practices only serve to concretize our egos and confirm our current beliefs.
The greatest pleasure of all is when we discover the Bible (and thereby God) shares our views. Who needs repentance or humility when one is certain God sees it the same way we do?
There doesn’t seem to be much mourning in our Christianity either. Worship has become little more than therapy for the saints, an emotional pep rally to charge the troops.
When was the last time you confessed your sins before God in worship? Or intentionally made time and space for the broken people in the world? Or acknowledged the very real brokenness in our own lives?
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn,” but you wouldn’t know it from much Christian worship.
What if ashes are the antidote to this expression of faith?
I’ve heard that ashes are vital and essential for some life on this planet. Forest fires often clear out the underbrush of the forests in the great northwest so that the giant redwoods have room enough to grow.
Some types of seeds only open due to the intense temperatures of fire. Some weeds are only eradicated by fire. The ashes contain the necessary nutrients for the soil, ready for decomposition.
In this way, the ashes are symbols of newness, carrying God’s tomorrow in their very presence. The ashes are the means by which the future arrives.
Perhaps we could all take this season of Lent to allow the ashes to have their way with us, leading us to take an honest look at our own lives.
Perhaps we could tame our pride, name all the other gods that have diverted our attention and claimed our allegiance, and identify the fear and ignorance, which dehumanizes us and others.
Perhaps we could make friends with someone who is other.
Perhaps we could remember our own frailty, so that we can easily distinguish between serving God and being God.
Perhaps we could remind ourselves that we now see through a glass darkly, so we dare not confuse God’s truth with our truths.
What would rise from those ashes would be a version of Christianity that is much more humble, gracious and compassionate. What would rise from those ashes would be a Christianity much more like Christ.
Preston Clegg is the pastor of Second Baptist Church of Little Rock, Arkansas. He blogs at The Bright Field, where a version of this article first appeared. You can follow him on Twitter @CleggPreston.