I grew up ambivalent about religion and cynical about religious people. I was born in West Michigan, a culture deeply shaped by Calvinism, evangelicalism, and conservative values. My mother's side was Dutch and Reformed back generations. I was born into the Dutch culture that brought Holland its well-known annual Tulip festival - complete with wooden shoes and windmills. From Grand Rapids west to Holland on Lake Michigan's shore, West Michigan had a Reformed church on nearly every corner.
Family, business, and Christian values were deeply entwined around me. Between Calvinism and Dutch culture, the world I knew in the 70s and 80s was a textbook example of Weber's Protestant work ethic and spirit of capitalism. People worked hard and long. Idleness was a biblical sin. Between blue-collar work or small business, a middle-class thrived. It wasn't uncommon for male-headed households to spend pennies on the dollar, go to the same church every Sunday, save religiously, and buy cars with cash. Tidy post-WWII eight hundred square-foot houses had manicured lawns even in fall. Every street had curbs and sidewalks.
In the Calvinist churches, pastors preached that the bible was Truth, God was sovereign, everyone needed salvation, and Jesus saves. Hell was real, and there was no way to really know who was among God's elect. Sins of the heart were just as bad, if not worse, than visible transgressions. Therefore, individual morality was important. With sinful nature and God's sovereign grace absolute, no one could ever do enough or be enough. God, alone, could save us.
In this religious environment, I grew up RLDS. My father's side was RLDS for generations. My mom joined the church, but she was alone. The neighborhood churches taught that we, like Mormons, worshipped Joseph Smith, a false prophet, and were a cult. We didn't talk about religion at family gatherings growing up. Weather and sports were safe topics.
The RLDS church I grew up in didn't really acknowledge or talk about Ash Wednesday or Lent. Frankly, neither did the Calvinist churches I grew around. It was a Catholic thing. When I attended Catholic school from seventh to tenth grade, this aspect of the Christian tradition opened up to me. I began a love affair with Ash Wednesday and Lent that grew through years of seminary.
What struck me about Ash Wednesday and Lent is the pathway it opens out of a culture of death and back to God.
In the popularized Calvinism I grew up around, the gap between humanity (you and I) and God is infinite. Sin was an abyss that swallowed us whole. It is coded in our human nature as described by Paul (see Romans 7). Only God, in infinite and sovereign grace, could move toward us in our lost and depraved state. This depraved state is what it means to be human. It is the state of life in this world. It is also what the Good News is about: Jesus Christ, the cross, and bible. The sovereign God reaches us in sovereign grace. What is life-giving to me is that Ash Wednesday and Lent symbolized this brokenness differently. Both open a pathway back to God that starts with death and journeys to new life in Easter. The entire journey is taken on trust. That is why it is practiced every year. We need that trust in God in our lives.
True, sin is a constant problem. Yes, we experience it as separation from God and one another. Sin affects even our relationship with ourselves. Lent embraces all of that, and Ash Wednesday begins it all affirming it through ashes.
Ultimately, we are dust. The emphasis is not our helplessness or hopeless depravity, but our essential dependence on God for life. Instead of hopelessness and helplessness, we embrace death. We are unable to save ourselves. And, the pathway back to the God of Life is through embracing this dependence and death. The ashes begin our journey to a seemingly unapproachable God and new life. In Lent this is a symbolic journey made through ashes, fasting, making room for God once again in daily life, and what will fill that void Easter morning.
In the end, there is enough. We are enough. God is enough. And, death is not the end. I love Ash Wednesday because it holds a counter-cultural message about the path that leads to life.