Looking down to look up: the gift of Lent

Sometimes you can only look down. But even that can help you see up.
On Wednesday, someone will smile into my eyes as they touch the cross-shaped ash onto my forehead, one creature handing another the truth that sets free. “From dust you have come; to dust you will return. Live in grace.”
I grew up in a tradition that didn’t practice Lent. We had other ways to remember Jesus’ death, week by week. But somewhere along my journey, I discovered that the discipline of Lent extends to me the great grace of being a creature. His creature.
During this forty day journey, we don’t look down to stay there, floundering in the quick-sand of our clay beginnings with all their heavy frailty. We look down to look up, notice our weakness to love His strength, see our sinfulness to revel in His forgiveness. We let ourselves feel our dustiness to turn and live more deeply in grace.
This year, Ash Wednesday coincides with Valentine’s Day. I love that. It points me once again to the truth that the crowning reality of life is love. Love, not my frailty or failure, has the last word. And Lent’s purpose is to help us pause, to provide space to notice our frailty and failure so that we can then, with more dependence and delight, look up and see and savor and settle more deeply into that life-giving love.
It’s not painless to become aware of our creatureliness. When we slow enough to pay attention, most of us know the ache of emptiness in one way or another: empty arms, deep places where longing carves great caverns, bodies emptied once more of strength. We wrestle with our inability to rest, feel failure at returning again to the same struggles. But right in this place there is gift, for we can discover once more that weakness is not sin. Nor is the need to be held and loved and strengthened again and again. On the contrary, dissatisfaction with being a dependent creature lies at the root of all sin. And, where we do sin, there is grace great enough to swallow that sin, trading it for his all-sufficient love and righteousness.
And so I turn back, free to be small, and ask my Creator to return to me the joy of being His creature. (It’s a big weight off not to try to be God!)
Isaiah helps, offering many grace-gifts to us creatures. (Just have a look at chapter 40, or 41, or 42.) He frames the first seven verses of chapter 43 with the twice-spoken reminder that we are created, formed, made. The verses between offer joy-gifts of living as creatures of our loving Creator:

  • We forever belong  (“You are mine.” v. 1)
  • We are known (“I have called you by name.” v.1)
  • We are accompanied (“I will be with you.” v. 2)
  • We are protected by His presence  (We don’t get to skip the troubles; we’re sheltered in them.  v.2)
  • We are treasured (“since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you. . .”  v.4)
  • We are being made whole, all the parts gathered together, healed and restored in loving relationship with Him (v. 5-6)

It’s here, small and safely held, willing to be fully human rather than trying to be our own God, that we’re finally able to offer our bodies—these fragile, treasured, vulnerable bits of clay—back to the One who asks us to rest in His hands.
My Creator, at the start of this day—Your loving gift—I offer my body to you again. All its strength, and all its weakness.
May I not draw back from its weakness but allow the full force of its weight to press me into your hand.
May I not withdraw from its strength but let each breath, each word, each step become a gift of love to You.
Teach me how to live the rest of surrender to being held while I pray, play, and do the work given me.
Help me learn that the way to take up my cross and follow is to let myself be taken up and carried.

An edited repost from the archives.

Related posts:
The real call in Ash Wednesday

Joined for life


I’ve never made much of Valentine’s Day. But this year I want to break my recent rhythm of blogging on Saturdays with a special post to celebrate Valentine’s Day.


I could write about the things I love most about my Love. His pursuit of my heart that still surprises me at every turn. His fierce, fiery love that puts Himself between me and everything that might separate me from Him. His patient gentleness.


But the prayer on the bathroom mirror catches me once again, God awakening me a little more to the wonder of the words. “I am no longer mine own but thine. . .” They open into a world of possibility, but I often trip on the threshold  before I can more than glimpse the marvel that lies beyond. What treasure hides beyond the words? What gift that I fail to see?


1)   I don’t have final say in my choices.

When I trip over the prayer, it’s over this step that I stumble: I no longer have the final say in my choices. “Thy will be done.” This is where the fear grabs. What if God’s will is different than my own? (It often is.) What if the road I have to travel hurts? (It often does.)


But what if God loves me and doesn’t just want to use me? (Isn’t that the real question beneath our fear of releasing control? “Is God really for me?”) When I see, for a moment, that He truly loves and wants me, not just space in my life, then His perfect love begins to replace the fear with wonder. Then I discover that, though I often still wrestle to release control, I don’t struggle alone. Even in the fight to surrender, I belong to the One who whispers, “I just want you to trust me that it’s okay.” It’s okay to offer the still-struggling heart to the God-man who once sweat blood in His own agonized wrestle to surrender to His Father’s will. He always welcomes the heart that knows it can’t surrender on its own, and cries over it, “Blessed!” 


And when He does in me what I can’t do in myself and gives me grace not to run from His love, I realize again that I never want to be anywhere but in the place to which He is drawing me.


I hear it in her voice. She has experienced this. In the midst of chemo and infections and 48 hours of no sleep, she has had the most incredible two days of God touching one person after another through her. She speaks it straight: these years of this cancer journey, too many broken bones to count, two unthinkably horrible stem cell transplants – these have been the best years of her life. She would not trade them. For in them she has learned to dance with Jesus, His life flowing into her and through her, loving her and loving others through her in ways she had not dreamed possible.


This is where the hard news becomes the great news. It’s true, we’re joined to Christ in his death, and that means both receiving his death died on our behalf and entering into it through trading our own will for the will of the Father. But though we’re joined in death, we’re not joined for death. We’re joined for life. (John 10:10) Not having final say in my choices is a wonderful thing when the One who has the final say is the One who loves me more perfectly than I can fathom. “He whose heart is kind beyond all measure
 gives unto each day what He deems best. . .”


2)   I don’t have final responsibility for myself.

“The protection of his child and treasure is a charge that on himself he laid.” He promises provision (Ephesians 5:29-30; Matthew 6:25-34), protection (“I am yours; save me!” Psalm 119:94; Isaiah 41:10), and perfection that doesn’t depend on me (Hebrews 10:5-18; Ephesians 5:25-27; Philippians 3:9). Each of those needs a book. I’m not even going to attempt a sentence.


3)   I am securely and eternally loved.

I am known completely. This is a such a comfort when I realize again that I don’t understand the first thing about myself. It doesn’t matter. I am known. (Psalm 139) And in the context of that total knowing, I am loved perfectly, without having to strive for it or earn it or cling to it in fear that the love will let go. I have been chosen forever (Ephesians 1, especially vv. 11-14). And in Christ, I am given fullness (Colossians 2:10). In this world where death and life cling close together in the already-not yet, the fullness is experienced as less than complete, the aching beauty of the intimate now mingled with the longing for final and forever consummation. But it’s a taste that makes us sure: The LORD is good, and we are loved. The invitation is open and the promise given to all who will taste and see. How can we run from this?



(Hymn quotes from the wonderful “Day by Day” by Karolina Sandell-Berg. Savor the full text here while you soak in the music here.)