By Rick Hamlin
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, a perfect time for spiritual growth, a natural time for prayer. But let me be honest with you: I’ve resisted going to our church’s Ash Wednesday service for years.
Quite frankly, it sounded too penitential to me. Not that I mind getting honest in prayer. I try not to edit my thoughts when I’m talking to God. I mean, he knows what I’m thinking, so why should I hide anything? And of course, I ask for forgiveness every time I say the Lord’s Prayer. It’s there in the text. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” (Or “debts” or “trespasses.”)
But a whole service dedicated to contrition? I feared it would be too dreary.
Finally after years–and I’m serious, it’s really been years–I went to the Ash Wednesday service for the first time last year. I felt pretty awkward, as though it was the first time I’d ever stepped in a church. What were they going to make me do? What was I going to say? Would anyone notice if I slipped out?
As a congregation we prayed all of Psalm 51, which seemed OK. It has one of my favorite lines of prayer: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (verse 11). I’ve prayed that one a lot. Renewal is something that I look for daily.
But then we went into a long litany, praying aloud, confessing our sins, and our pastor’s guiding words made me think more carefully about my failings and our wrongs than I had ever done. Our anger, self-indulgence, negligence, prejudice, pride, hypocrisy and one of the phrases from the Book of Common Prayer that really stuck, “our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts.”
Halfway through it stopped being a chore and felt like a blessing. Like a good talk with a friend when you finally open up about something that’s been on your conscience for too long. I’d hear a phrase and take an internal inventory, then let go of a nagging guilt, sometimes one I didn’t even know was there. It was liberating. To feel God's forgiveness of everything. Everything.
By the end of the service I felt more ready for Lent than I have before, my mind open, my heart restored. I’ve done a series of videos on prayer tips for Lent, one a week. I hope they’re helpful. But I really hope in your prayers you can experience something I did last Ash Wednesday. It’s available any day of the week. Let God clean the slate. Today is a new day to become that person we know God wants us to become.
I’m going to Ash Wednesday services this year. I’ve surely got some stuff to unload.