If my sin has been cast as far as the east is from the west, why should it be reapplied to my forehead?

05 Mar

It was over a decade of being a Christian before anyone told me about Lent – the longstanding tradition of cordoning off the 40 weekdays prior to Easter Sunday as a time of focused mortification of our sin.

Imposition cartoonTo this day, Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent have become important to my spiritual rhythms. From the imposition of the ashes to “Black Saturday”, this season more than any of the others seems genuine, honest, and practical … where some serious spiritual work gets done.

Still, every year, there’s an old reflex within me that comes from my early days as a believer. A voice from my Christian past whispers to me, “Isn’t this stupid? Why wallow in your sin? It’s been paid for and forgiven … why focus on it? Is this just an old Medieval ploy by the church to try to make me feel guilty, so it can manipulate me?” 

(I know I’m not alone in harboring some of these thoughts. We celebrated Ash Wednesday at the independent Evangelical church where I recently served as pastor. The first time we imposed ashes caused at least one member of our congregation to leave. For her, it was just too morbid, too negative, too … “Catholic”.)

guilty dogsYes, there are some unhealthy Lenten practices out there, spawned by unhealthy Lenten theologies. Some turn Lent into a self-help season, or a weight-loss program. Others attempt to overcome sinful habits by their own power, which is futile. Some, believing God is mad at them for their sin, use the season to beat themselves up, thereby beating God to the punch. Still others act like angry dog owners, grabbing their spiritual lives by the scruff of the neck, and sticking their noses in the doo-doo of their sin, believing that, if we really see and smell how awful our lives are, surely we’ll stop making such messes in the future.

But, as David says, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Ps. 51:3).  I don’t need a church calendar season to promote my sin-awareness (though some litanies help me take stock of some areas that have gone unattended, which is helpful).

Ps 103-12

So … should I go to the Ash Wednesday service tonight? Is there a way to enter into this classical family tradition in a healthy way? If my sin has been cast as far as the east is from the west, why should it be reapplied to my forehead?

Yes, I’m going. And I’m entering into Lent. More on why as our journey continues…

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Posted by on March 5, 2014 in Lent


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5 responses to “If my sin has been cast as far as the east is from the west, why should it be reapplied to my forehead?

  1. Jake Belder

    March 5, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    Good reflections, Bill. I hear a lot of myself and my own journey in what you’re saying.

  2. Tom Fundaro

    March 5, 2014 at 8:35 pm

    I don’t know Bill, this seems like a reach to me. Pining for liturgy and tradition seems to lead to things like “fat tuesday”, with beads, bourbon and coeds. How does this point us towards a relationship to our maker, which to my understanding is the the whole point of the gospel? I understand the desire for richness in the worshiping of our Lord. I also understand the anguish in the man kneeling at the western wall pounding his chest crying “forgive me God, I am a sinner “. Tell me how ashes on the forehead and denying myself cheese or meat or chocolate speaks to either of these sentiments. I am here for the journey. No judgement only accountability.

    • Bill Hartley

      March 5, 2014 at 9:22 pm

      Come one, Tom, don’t mince words. Tell me how you really feel!

      Thanks for jumping on board. A few initial thoughts.

      — I don’t want to pine for liturgy and tradition. I want to pine for God, and perhaps some liturgy and tradition can help me get there.

      — The ashes on the forehead are a man-made device to remind us of a truth. Words can do the same thing. As can silence. As can art. As can things sacramental.

      — As for fasting, you’ll have to take that up with Jesus. It was His idea. 🙂

      We’ll see how your questions and concerns play out along the way…bh

      • Tom Fundaro

        March 6, 2014 at 4:31 pm

        Fasting I get, I guess I didn’t consider giving up a small part of one’s diet as fasting. But in theory I recognize it is. Jesus went 40 days without food. That is a Fast! I understand denying oneself as a way of discipline to draw on the the Lords strength, all to lead us to a mature relationship with God. It seems though, that most people use it as a way to gloss over the daily dying to oneself. Much like using Sunday as a religious pill to take once a week, Lent seems like a store bought colonic taken in between year long dietary abuses. Ill walk with you on this, in fact now i am trying to figure out something to “give up”. Maybe i can give up sarcasm, that would be a sacrifice and probably an inroad to spiritual maturity. Ha!

  3. Bill Hartley

    March 6, 2014 at 4:36 pm

    I am laughing out loud! “A store bought colonic” … that is such a good (though disturbing) image! Before you “give up”, read today’s post. Maybe our dietary abuses can be resolved by good proactive choices rather than abstention.

    “Story bought colonic” … awesome!


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