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.
That's what's special about a prayer from childhood: It’s always there inside you, ready to be called to your lips when you need it.