As a Protestant, and Baptist at that, I have only participated in an Ash Wednesday service where I received the imposition of ashes one time. It was a sobering event. The minister shared the words of Genesis 3:19 as she put the ashes on my flesh, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return”.
Could any verse more fully capture the morbidity of our condition? And that’s the point, isn’t it? To be reminded, as we begin the Lenten journey, of our humanity and it’s limited length of days. We are to be reminded of our complete and total dependence upon a Savior who provides us with both a newness and wholeness of life, even as he prepared to lay down his life for we dusty disciples.
Do you know the children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, written by Laura Numeroff? It was one of my favorites to read to our kids when they were little. The premise of the book is that giving a mouse a cookie will set off a chain of events. First he will want a glass of milk. Then a straw. Then a mirror to look in, to make certain he doesn’t have a milk mustache. Then a pair of scissors to give himself a trim . . . . . . And on and on it goes in domino fashion, one thing very much leading to the next.
The humor of the book, beautifully illustrated by Felicia Bond, is found in the pictures and rather unpredictable twists and turns those dominoes take. The truth of the book is found in an adult reader’s real life experience that often has seen one thing lead to the next.
Often the clearest messages from God come to me while I’m doing something mundane or routine. Such was the case at the close of last year as I was helping paint our newest grandson’s room. I was simultaneously listening to the Christianity Today podcast, Quick To Listen and moving my hands and arms in rhythmic motion from paint bucket to wall. I cannot tell you what the topic of the podcast was because I tuned out of the interview early on to focus on one comment made early on by the interviewee. Mark Galli, recently retired editor for CT, commenting on his forth coming book , shared the following:
After years of working in this world, (I) believe that evangelical Christians’ strong suit today is the love of neighbor, be it prayer gatherings to evangelism to social justice to acts of mercy. We talk about God a lot and worship him and pray to him regularly.But on the other hand, relatively few Christians take with equal seriousness the command to love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength. If we do talk about the love of God, it is said that we love God by loving our neighbor. (From the introduction to the Jan 2, 2020 Quick to Listen podcast)
The month of December has been full in our household this year – full of varied events, concerns, prayers – full of waiting, as is typical of Advent. But the waiting this year has felt more complex and stirred a different response than many an Advent time of preparation. It’s been the waiting of sleepless nights and early mornings and days so full you find yourself living in the moment. It’s been a mixed-bag season of waiting and preparation – of prayers offered and answered. Perhaps it’s best explained through the metaphor of the muddled messages in my December inbox.
December has long seen an increase in the volume of mail one receives in his or her inbox. Whether we are talking about your literal USPS mail box, your email box, or the varied other means by which persons communicate these days (instant messenger, text or other Social Media); inboxes are generally stuffed during December. They contain a myriad of sales advertisements, the usual bills, flyers from local businesses, year end political reports, holiday event notices – and then there are the Christmas greetings. Yes, we still receive a number of cards each December and send several ourselves; even though the trend in Christmas card giving has decreased overall. Picking up the mail on a December afternoon, at the end of the drive way or through one’s email provider, can bring a smile to your face as you read greetings, view pictures and reconnect with friends from miles away to right next door.
Have you ever known someone who has a “giving” nature, but also needs to let you know they are “giving”? I mean, they’d give you the shirt off their back, or the remaining groceries from their pantry; but they would also groan or moan, sigh and fuss all the while. Know anyone like that? In vocabulary terms these folks would be called oxymoron’s – the pairing of two things that don’t appear to go together – giving & hurting while you give. They practice a form of martyrdom giving. It’s a bit confusing when you are on the receiving end of such giving. “Do they want to give this, or don’t they? I’m getting mixed messages!”
“Giving” is the fourth topic of the Red Letter Challenge – a deep dive into the words and teachings of Jesus intended to help us “put his words into practice”. Jesus had a lot to say and model about giving. He talked about it quite a lot and gave us some terrific examples, with the gift of himself being the ultimate one. Jesus’ giving was accompanied by hurt and pain. He gave until it hurt. He gave his all. He gave his life. But Jesus didn’t allow the hurt or pain of the gift to surpass the purpose or love behind the gift.