Ash Wednesday (February 18, 2015)

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I did not know what a creature of habit I had become until after my mother died last November.

It happens when I least expect it, a sudden urge to call her and chat a minute.  Then I took the time to think about when these urges came and realized there was a pattern, a pattern that started when I worked for Hinton Center and continued while I worked for the Lutheran Bishop’s office.  I spent most weekends on the road, consulting and preaching in churches all over the south. I usually left Hayesville early on Friday mornings and came home on Sunday afternoons.  And sometime on Friday morning I would call Mama as I drove down the Interstate and inevitably she would say, “Where are you going now?” And on Sunday I would ask her, “How were things at Hatcher’s Chapel this morning?  How was church?”  Now, every Friday morning and every Sunday afternoon I feel it before I think about it; sometimes I reach for the phone.  Time to call Mama.  Then I remember – she’s not there.

The questions Mama and I asked each other are important questions for all of us.  We need to ask them often, personally and as a community of faith.  “Where are we going?” and “How is church?”

One of the constant themes in our scripture lessons of the last few months has been the word “repent.”  John the Baptist called people to repent, Jesus announced his message as “the Kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the good news.”  We’ve even heard, in the story of Jonah, about God repenting of the evil he had intended.  To repent means to change one’s mind, to completely re-orient one’s life direction.  In order to repent in the true Biblical sense, one has to take a good look at one’s life in relationship to the life we feel God has called us to lead.  It is not an easy process and it is never really finished.  The regular “examen,” is a necessary part of a healthy spiritual life.  On an individual basis, a simple way to do it is to read over the Ten Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer and ask yourself how you’re doing.   “Where am I?” and “Where am I going?” and, most importantly, “Where is God calling me to be and to go?”  Making the necessary life adjustments as a result of those questions is the true nature of repentance.

“How is church?” That is another important question that all of us need to ask on a regular basis.

Not in a critical manner, as in, “I wish they would do things differently,” but in a contemplative, communal way; “Where are we as a church?”  “Where are we going?” and, most importantly, “Where is God calling us to be and to go?” Church communities that go years without asking those questions often find themselves wandering around the desert in circles, stuck somewhere between leaving Egypt and arriving at the Promised Land.

Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, a time for us to think and pray about these questions of life and vocation.  We are invited to “return to the Lord,” to “rend our hearts and not our garments,” to be, in the words of 2 Corinthians, “reconciled” to God.  You have to stop before you turn.  If not, you’re apt to spin out of control.  Ash Wednesday is the time for us to stop.  Stop dead in our tracks.  Stop and breathe, stop and think about who we are and the direction our life has been taking.  It is time stop so that we can prepare to turn and start out in a new direction, returning to the Lord.  But first we stop.

Amen and amen.

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