An Ash Wednesday Reflection

1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
(Psalms 51:1-2 ESV)

I am late to mass. I am late because … because I am late. Because I have never been to this church before. Because I’m taking time out of work, a work schedule that is harried and hurried and busy. Because I had a hard time finding a place to park.

The church is Catholic, and priest wears a chasuble of deep purple, reflecting the color of the day. He is preaching — ten minutes and I’ve already missed the readings — a heavily accented South Asian English. It’s a simple sermon about the meaning of the Lent, about fasting and sacrifice and following Christ to the Cross.

Lent has begun.

And I need this place. This mass. These words. This forgiveness.

I’m a mess. A far bigger mess than usual. My job has left me … gasping for air. I have found yet one more thing I am not good at — the world seems to insist upon finding me things I cannot and should not do, seems to enjoy sticking me in places and among people I should not try to belong to — and I’m addled, desperate, sad, overwhelmed. I waver between a fragile confidence that I can, in fact, do this job, a tremendous desire to pack the car and go anywhere that isn’t here, and the urge to crawl under my desk, curl up in a ball, and weep.

I feel broken. Shattered. Like the glue that holds me together has stopped bonding. Or maybe the atoms inside me are about to fly apart, and I will simply disappear in a blinding white flash of atomic fission, replaced by a tiny mushroom cloud and a burst of lethal radiation. Or maybe — the quarks holding my particles together will simply go their own way, and I will become a naked singularity, benefit of mass, my presence marked solely by what isn’t there and what it destroys.

I’ve not felt like this in a long, long time. And I don’t like it.

So, I need words of forgiveness. Yes, it matters to me that the priest tells me

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

as he smudges a cross on my forehead. It reminds me that no matter how much of a failure I am — and oh, but I am a failure — I face the same end, the same fate, as any successful regional manager, author of books, or real estate speculator. I will die.

It matters that on the night in which he was betrayed, he took bread, and he broke it, and he gave it too to eat, and he told them: “This is my body. It’s yours, given for you, and you eat it when you gather and maybe you will remember me.” It matters that the priest hands me a piece of that broken body, a body no less human and no less broken and desperate than mine, and tells me, “The body of Christ broken for you.”

The saving body, broken for me.

And after mass, after the priest has awkwardly dismissed us all, I kneel before a giant crucifix and I weep. I grasp the nailed feet of Jesus and I weep. This is my Good Friday ritual, a few weeks early.

He knew failure too. Yes, he told everyone he would go to Jerusalem and be betrayed and would be killed and then rise again on the third day. But then … he had to actually face it. He had to actually face betrayal, feel the blows of his accusers, the lash of his torturers, and then … he had to die. Maybe he would rise and maybe … he wouldn’t. Jesus wouldn’t have been fully human if he wasn’t torn by doubt in those last several days.

No wonder, in the garden, he wanted it to end so very differently. Take this cup from me…

In the last several years I have dreamed big dreams. I followed the call of God. I wrote a book. And I failed. At everything.

I feel his feet. I grab hold. I do not want to let go of this dying man. He is dying, this man hanging here. He is dying so that I may live.

Yet he knows failure. He must have wondered, on the Cross, if this was all there would ever be. Pain and suffering and slow death. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

He must have felt like he failed. Utterly. Completely. Spectacularly. For all the world to see.

Are you not the Christ? Then save yourself, and save us!

I want to say I have nothing to show for myself right now but panic attacks and bills I cannot pay. But that’s not true. Five people depend utterly on me. My wife Jennifer, who loved me into this and made it possible for me to meet this Jesus dying in front of me. My foster daughters Molly and Michaela, who both have looked me in the eye and told me, “I hate to think where I’d be if I hadn’t met you.” And “Bethany” and her brother “Adam,” who have started calling me “dad” even though they have good and proper adoptive parents of their own. (Please don’t hate me.)

I am not a failure in their eyes. Because they don’t judge my accomplishments, or my position, or my wealth, or my power. They just love me, because they know I love them. A love like that … cannot fail.

As I set out on the lenten journey with Jesus into what I’d rather was glory but is really the stunning failure of all sorts of hopes and dreams, I want to remember that God’s love is the kind of love that must die first. Must face fear and terror and uncertainty and not flinch. It must be willing to walk into death and not look back.

We dream of glory. I know I have. But Christ died first before there could be any glory.

And so … failure that I am, I go on. Out of love. Out of hope that from love comes resurrection. Because I know how it ends. Because I know what I have to go through to get there. That there is a cross I must bear. Suffering, and sorrow, and fear, and terror. And death.

But I am not forsaken. No matter how alone or lost I feel. Christ is with me. Christ suffered. That gives my life meaning.

And I remember the words of the other priest, the Indian priest, as his thumb traced ashen crosses on foreheads:

Repent, and believe the gospel.

7 thoughts on “An Ash Wednesday Reflection

  1. Hi Charles,

    Wharever you do, never stop blogging & writing. Personally I believe you have the gift of prophecy as did various people & monastics in the past. I’ve been reading your book & its amazing. You see things the clergy & leaders need to see.

    For the few of us around the world who have faced alienation in a deep fashion, your insights bring hope.

    I grew up in a family with a schizophrenic brother this meant not a lot of friends were brought home. I also had asthma which stopped any fun childhood activities early on. When God found me I had to sort through the tangle of competing theologies. Later in my work life I faced bullying from managers & had to leave 2jobs & am now unemployed as a 51 year old. On top of this there are marriage problems due to cultural differences.

    So all you write about in terms of failure resonates with me. I also have been feeling that I’m about to spiral down into an abyss I can’t escape from.

    But ae you write, Jesus has been there before us. I was meditating on how he assumed in His body every act of rejection., evil & sin. Everytime people sought to cast him away, he experienced the rejection millions experienced. Everytime somone spat in his face, all rejected humanity was present. He. Took it all & suffered with us. & then destroyed these fallen powers. Whenever we suffer He has already been there.

    And we need to be there for our brothers & sisters as His sacrament reminds us we are one body & involved in the same work of healing.


  2. Thanks Charles, I appreciate that. You’ve been in my prayers for a while now.

    Any luck with the CEEC ? Also, couldn’t some Lutheran churcbes pool their resources & allow you to run a mission ?


    • I’ve contacted several groups, including the Anglican group you posted about. No one returns my emails.

  3. You know. I wonder how God puts up with this stuff. I had the same problem with a missionary friend in the Philippines. Emailed various denominational leaders around Asia-Pacific. I would have been happy to get a response of, sorry our resources are too stretched”. But nothing !

    There will be a lot of surprises at the end of time when Jesus will reveal himself in the “least of these”… a lot of grovelling too.

  4. Hello Charles!

    I can relate. Just today I got the email from leadership at my church asking me to not be part of a singles gathering I had signed up for, because some people in the gathering were uncomfortable around me. This has brought me face-to-face with my failures–on a very basic level–as a human being in community with other human beings.

    I greatly appreciate your writing. It means a lot to me to know that there is someone out there who, like me, knows what it is like to not fit in, to not belong. Whatever you do, don’t give it up.

    I am not going to lie to you and say that it will get better. I don’t know that. No one knows that. But at the end of the day, Christ experienced alienation and rejection. He suffered. He died. And therein lies our strength.

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