I'm starting this blog-- too late, mind you, for as early as I need to get up in the morning-- as I sit and try to wind down from our Ash Wednesday services this evening. Our church is really digging deep into Easter this year. Easter-- or "Resurrection Sunday", as I prefer to call it-- is the most important holiday of our faith. Christmas gets all the attention-- the glitz and glamor. We observe "Advent"-- which in this culture has become something even "bigger" than it was originally intended, starting (culturally speaking) the day after Thanksgiving, and ending sometime after the football games are over. But it is actually Easter, not Christmas, which is the anniversary of our faith. The empty cross and the empty tomb are where it all started. This is when we should be truly celebrating CHRIST.
Anyway, as Ronn (my pastor and confidant and friend) said tonight to open the services, it seems that every year Easter is over before we even knew it was approaching. The true advent and very focal point of our faith seems to be overshadowed by things like Spring Break and Tax Season. Sure, we throw a great party on a "special" Sunday morning in March or April, with the band and the choir and the cheery sermon and the bright colored clothes. Maybe we even have enough committed members in our church to drum up a few dozen attendees-- maybe even a hundred or so-- for our traditional "Good Friday" service a couple evenings prior. But we (especially we "Protestants" in the crowd) tend to simply "observe" or "celebrate" Easter... we don't really experience or honor it... at least, not the way we should.
Well, this year, our little congregation is changing all that. We kicked off our "40 Day Journey to the Cross" this evening with our first ever "Ash Wednesday" services. Before my staunch protestant and jilted Catholic friends in the house start to tune me out... Let me give a brief, "un-churchy" history. Circa 300-400 AD, the early followers of Christ started observing "Lent" (which simply means "Spring") in order to "dig deeper" into the Easter story... to better prepare their hearts for the mourning of the death of Jesus and the proper celebration of Resurrection Sunday. Even in those early days, it would seem, the "routine" of the Easter holiday was already losing its weighty impetus, at least in the human hearts of the early "Believers". So, they decided to put some extra effort into preparing themselves for the celebration of the miracle of this sacred day. It all started with Ash Wednesday, exactly 40 days (a significant number, biblically speaking) prior to Easter Sunday. Mathemeticians in the crowd may dispute this... you'll count 46 days from now until Easter. Well, "Lent", as we know it now, ends on Saturday, "Easter-Eve". And, the early Church, not wanting to dishonor the celebration in worship that is (or should be) Sunday morning (every Sunday is "Resurrection Sunday", after all), didn't count Sundays. That leaves us with 40 days of Lent, until Easter Sunday. Ash Wednesday kicks it all off with what is traditionally a day of "heart-rending" introspection, confession, and self-sacrifice, traditionally marked with a commitment to "fast" or give up something of personal importance, preference, or pleasure for the 40 day observation. The thing you give up is not a means to salvation. It's not something to "gain favor with God". It is something simply to prepare oneself for Easter. It is to be a daily reminder of the sacrifice that Jesus offered. This year, for instance, I'm giving up red meat. Next time that bone-in ribeye catches my eye on the menu or in the freezer, (at least, between now and April 12), just as I start to truly desire that gigantic slab of mouth-watering goodness, regretting my commitment to "abstain"... I will laugh at my own self-centeredness. How foolish!! I can't give up a single piece of animal flesh, when The Almighty gave up HIS OWN flesh, on my behalf!!?? Anyway... that's what Ash Wednesday is about. That's what we celebrated tonight, in 3 very small, intimate, candle-lit installments, at the offices of CrossTown Church in Bolingbrook, IL. I played guitar. Just closed my eyes and worshiped my guts out. Didn't really worry about "leading". It was so good. Ronn spoke and read scriptures. There was a lot of silence. Private, heart-rending prayer of confession. And of course, the crossing of ashes on our foreheads.
Interesting story... The ashes were originally reserved for those "caught" in sin, in the public eye. (ie, an unmarried woman who had become pregnant; a petty thief who had been caught in the act at the market, etc...) It was a way for a "sinner" to publicly confess their guilt, repentance, and the subsequent (or prerequisite, more accurately) grace of God which they required for their forgiveness and atonement. It had become, over the years of history and routine of the early Church, more a sign to be scorned than anything. But somewhere around 600 to 800 AD, a very cool trend caught on. "Righteous" people began going to the priests and asking for the ashes as well. "We need Jesus, too," was the public outcry. "We are sinners just like the thief and the fornicator. Let us publicly bear the mark of our need for grace, as well!" And that is what the ashes depict-- an individual's need for Christ. Their public confession of their own sin, and their reliance upon the grace of God and nothing else, in full view of that sin.
Okay... enough of the Church History lesson. Why this rant, you ask?? It's all about perspective, my friends.
The main reason I haven't posted in the last 2 weeks is that I've had no access to a computer. (GASP!!! The HORROR!!! ) We had to "evacuate" the house last week (yes, all week) so the wood floors on the main floor of the house could be restored and refinished. (Those of you who know the drill can empathize. I had no idea it was this big of deal.) (But MAN, do these floors look NICE now!!!) So TJ and I moved in with Dana and Curt and the boys last week. On Monday morning of said week, my laptop (work computer) croaked. Crashed and burned. Hard drive issues. Lost EVERYTHING since my last archive... which was... I don't know... 18 months ago. (So sue me.) It was under warranty, but the problem was apparently much worse than our friends at Dell could navigate me through over the phone, even with multiple shipments of replacement parts... so I just gave up and took advantage of the liquidation sale at my local Circuit City. (The recession has its upside, I suppose.) (Although, I'd gladly pay full price if it meant my buddy could have his job back.) Anyway, I'm back up and running with a brand spanking new laptop now. I am back at home tonight, (although not without a few more gray hairs than I had 2 weeks ago), with TJ, who is asleep up in his bed.
He just returned this evening from a mini-vacay at Gram's house. I've been here since Friday night, trying to "get my house in order", literally speaking. I had some PHENOMENAL help from my bro's from church getting things cleared off the main floor for the hardwood contractor, and then moved back in. But now I've got stacks of boxes, packed full of things which are awaiting to be dispatched to their new homes. And I've also now got a refrigerator with a busted water line-- no ice or filtered water... again... GASP!!! THE HORROR!!! Apparently, it got cold that week we were at Dana's... The fridge had been moved out to the garage, where we plugged it in to save what little food was in there. That turns out to have been a bad idea. The water filter and water line literally exploded with the expansion of the freezing of the water that remained in the line. That one's gonna cost me...
Anyway, add a few stacks of junk packed into boxes, a dusty house (left-overs from the aforementioned hardwood restoration project), and a VERY frustrating sequence of events surrounding my friendly neighborhood IKEA store-- for the record, I'm never shopping there again... not for furniture, not for fixtures, and DEFINITELY not for ready-to-assemble TV/entertainment wall units, like the one I TRIED to buy last weekend, which I finally gave up on and returned last night-- and you get a VERY frustrated man. It was just starting to settle on me... Or more accurately... it was starting to dominate my thoughts: There was absolutely NO way I'd EVER be "settled back in" to this house. EVER. I mean... when was I going to get "caught up"? It's all I can do to keep from falling asleep with TJ when I put him to bed. In the event that, after a "normal" work day, I CAN drag myself out of his bedroom prior to falling asleep-- sometime around 9pm, usually-- there's laundry and dishes and cleaning and bills to attend to. So, when am I going to get to finding a home for all the stuff in the boxes? If not for the sheer fact that there are certain personal relics and memoirs-- photos of Leslie and TJ, favorite toys of TJ, etc...-- sprinkled throughout the boxes in question, I'd just take the whole bunch of them to Goodwill and bid my good riddance. The thing is, this isn't something I can ask for help with. It's something I've got to do on my own. Only I know the stuff I want to keep and the stuff I want to get rid of. Only I know WHERE I want to put the stuff I want to keep. It just is astonishing to me, actually, looking at all the boxes of STUFF that had piled up on the counter, in the corner of the room, on the coffee table, the kitchen table, in the old entertainment center, and so-on, over the last year and a half, since anyone has really had much time or strength to "manage" such things. And now it's all in boxes. Waiting for me.
Hopefully you start to see where the frustration had been setting in this week... I was neck deep and sinking fast. I just can't do this alone.
And then tonight's services...
One man (God as He was, He was still a man) took on the cross... alone... that I might not have to. Boxes and broken fridges and dust and poorly engineered entertainment centers... Flooded houses and damaged hardwoods and a recession... Who am I kidding??!! What am I anxious about? What is MY struggle? What is MY burden? What am I trying to bear? On my OWN??? On MY schedule??? To MY liking??? Some burden! And daily in my frustration, in my loneliness, in my greed, in my pride, in my insecurity and selfishness... I drive the nails that He invites with open arms. The blood flows daily. He offers it all, in the hopeful event that, on a night such as tonight, a drop might land on me, and awaken my soul to the foolishness with which I have again encapsulated myself. A mark of a cross-- drawn in ashes-- on my forehead... The reminder that, indeed, I can't even unpack a freaking cardboard BOX on my own... How am I going to LOVE another? How am I going to be a DADDY!? An EMPLOYEE? A BOSS? A FRIEND? How am I going to bring ANY good to this world on my OWN? Let alone save my own SOUL!? Heal the sick?! Feed the hungry?! Be a light amidst the darkness?!
Indeed I don't have to do these things alone. (A good thing, because I can't.) Because I am not alone. That blood-- this cross of ashes on my forehead-- is the proof.
Proof, once again, that God is indeed in the business of raising up beauty from ashes... Making sense of chaos... Bringing strength to the weak... Healing to the sick... And blessing us with peace amidst the mess.
Praise God for His grace tonight. I am not alone. I am forgiven. And I am being redeemed.