My husband lost his job early summer and it's easy to pin things on that; but in retrospect, the kindling was lit long before. Now, I stand among embers, still smoldering. So much has burned down. God has stood back and allowed it to burn, the dead branches, the excess, the unfruitful. And there are heaps of ash in every corner to remind us. Our livelihood, marriage, and faith have been reduced to a mere framework. Utilitarian. Raw.
It was shocking when we moved here to Montana, from California where the smallest strike of a match in public sends the authorities flocking to your side with rules and regulations. Southern California is fire country, and any spark, firework, or tossed cigarette feels like a threat. But in Montana, I watched our neighbor burn a massive pile of trash in the yard behind us. It produced twenty-foot high flames no more than 100 feet from our house. And in an agriculturally centered community, widespread burning of land is common; a good fire purges, starts things over. Rebirth starts in the ashes.
But there is a space of time before things regrow, a hush of activity after the fury of the fire has died down and licked up the last bits of brush. In this quieter space, God is calling me to kneel and listen.
In Bible times, people mourned by scooping ashes over their heads. Think of the smell of a latent fireplace or your clothes after a campfire. Imagine handfuls of that ash in your hair, on your face, in your mouth. We tend to avoid mourning in our culture. Back then, people got intimate with the concept that things burn; they knew there was a time for grieving in the ash.
Tonight, with a heavy heart, I shared with my kids how twenty-one Christians were killed this week for their faith. My son said, "My heart just almost broke." My daughter made a comparison to something in Mockingjay. And both were silent for a while. I then shared with them that tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, a time to think about sacrifice and repentance.
I told them I was going to church to do some of my own repenting. Frankly, at first I wanted to go in order to cry out for our country, for our world, and for believers. But the darkness isn't "out there." It's here, in my own heart. I need to bow my face to the ground and scoop the ashes over my own head, for my selfishness, for foolishly neglecting my relationship with God, for my grumbling over serving my family, for my impure thoughts and motives.
I need the ashes in my hair and on my face, and to taste the burning with my ever-harsh tongue that casually lashes out at my loved ones. How can I be a passionate disciple in our lost world when I can't even go a single day without misrepresenting Jesus to my own family? Well, grace. But first, mourning.
I read something yesterday that stuck with me. That the gardener stops pruning those vines from which he expects nothing. But he diligently works on cutting back those from which he expects more fruit.
There's a promise in the ash: God believes in me. He's shaping me, washing me with hope, anticipating the rich fruit to come later on.
But today, He's whispering that it's time to kneel and wait. It's not a time for sweeping up the mess, but resting in the middle of the devastation, clinging to the truth that He is in control, He is good.
On Wednesday, take some time. Bow you head; picture the ashes. Mourn for yourself and your own heart.
But don't ever, not even for one day, forget: God has a habit of trading ashes for beauty.