Ash Wednesday

It’s taken a few weeks to see the extent of the damage, but last month’s freeze has left my garden looking like a crunchy, brown wilderness. All sorts of plants – and even my beloved mango tree – were killed back, leaving me with a yard full of split branches and brown leaves.

I’ve spent hours in these last weeks pruning, trimming, digging and tossing piles of dead wood … because I have learned from experience that if I don’t do this, at least one of several things will happen. If I don’t yank out any dead plants, they will soon become protective arbors for canopying weeds and their subsequent seeds. And - if I don’t cut out the dead areas from anything that did survive the freeze - the plant will either continue to die back (because disease or insects will invade the damaged flesh) or it will continue to grow – only into deformed patterns which – significantly – only serve to further define exactly where the plant was frozen. Branches will soon grow around the dead zones, leaving hollow holes inside the plant, where rot and brittle limbs claim territory and distort.

The bottom line is that, if I want a healthy garden, I now have to examine each plant closely for damage and disease. Some were completely dead and have to be ripped out and discarded. Others were less impaired; but there, I’m finding, I must re-shape the plant, to allow sunshine and water to reach tender new growth.

That’s what gardening has taught me about who I am as a creature in God’s garden. I had to learn the same things any other gardener must learn: Dead wood and weeds must go – for the sake of health and the Good Garden. If I’m unwilling to do this needed work, my garden will not produce healthy, vital, productive plants – a healthy, vital productive life – as God has intended

Today starts the annual 40-day process of Lent, during which we are asked to weed our own spiritual gardens. We will give up chocolate, or caffeine, or wine. Or, for 40 days we will take on a more disciplined spiritual life, perhaps saying the Daily Office, or working an additional shift at the Thrift Shop. We encapsulate these six weeks before Easter to do our own, necessary weeding.

But, if I’m not careful - if I try to cut a weed off, without digging its roots out - I find that the “trimming” – my work is wasted. The same is true of our spiritual garden – especially in Lent. The spiritual activity I take on as a “holy” project during these 40 days can become little more than a diversion from the sin root that is the real source of the trouble in my spiritual garden. Cutting off the top-growth, without removing its root, only means that the weeds (in my garden, or in my soul) will actually  gain strength in my apparent “sprucing up.”

If we’re honest, the catch for us in Lent is that we are really Easter people, thanks be to God! It is easy to rush through these uncomfortable days with one eye at our ceremonial austerities and quaint-seeming rigors, because the other eye is eagerly focused on the gracious fact that Easter ‘s Joy is only six weeks away. My Christian knowledge that God forgives – has forgiven – through the dire events of Christ crucified – can shield me from the full Call and Impact of Lent.

It is all too easy to approach Lent as the “Yes, but…” season.

Have I sinned … daily? Yes, but … God forgives me through Christ.

Have I left undone those things I ought to have done? Yes, but God’s Love is so much bigger than my failures.

It is so easy for the Gift (yes, Gift) of Lent to degenerate into a sort of half-hearted dance with self-examination:

I overlook helping a stranger… yes, but I had a meeting to get to.

I snapped at my husband … yes, but I was just tired.

I withheld some encouragement … yes, but … I didn’t have time to talk.

I think that is a bit of what Isaiah is so exasperated by when he says to Israel:

… they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God. … Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers.

There is, unfortunately, in me and perhaps in you, an almost unconscious bent toward a shadow Lent, a sort of dance with my forgiven, Easter self – not the real self-examination and repentance that occurs in the stark, no-hiding-place, high-noon glare of a desert wilderness. All too often, Lent is less pruning and digging (less about acknowledging that my garden has become largely a dry wilderness) than about mowing over my spiritual landscape, so that my cropped, neat-looking spiritual lawn looks (at least from a distance) pretty healthy. But trimming the grass does not remove weed roots; it only fools the neighbors … until the weeds grow back – even stronger.

Sometimes, the easiest thing to do is to erect a big, thick window shade, from inside my safe, private dwelling, so I don’t have to look at my garden wilderness. If I don’t look at it, maybe I don’t have to think or do anything about it. Just keep mowing the lawn, and maybe that is enough. It is a Satanic trick that Lenten disciplines can be like that window shade, blocking our view of the real desert just beyond Lent’s austerities. We long to turn away, and we especially long not to be seen – by ourselves or each other – for what we really are.

Pretty stark stuff, but Jesus addresses this directly when he says:

Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your father who is in heaven. … But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

 The fact is that, my garden is predisposed to produce a bumper crop of weeds and, if I’m lucky, a few scrawny, freeze–sensitive shrubs. I don’t like knowing that about myself, and I don’t like seeing my own wilderness. I’d much rather draw the shade down (over the window into my weedy soul) … so I can hide behind some Lenten discipline “performance.”

Yet, it is not through some shaded window that Christ awaits me; HE is found out in the actual wilderness that was once a garden, especially during these 40 days. Beyond the potentially-diverting practice of simply giving something up, or taking something on, Christ and the Holy Spirit supply the real pruning of Lent. That is where Lent cuts into the diseased twigs of my damaged soul; that is where I can perhaps see how unable I am to heal my soul’s garden without Christ’s Grace and Mercy. That is where I see how desperately I need the pruning and repairing that only Christ can provide. I know of no other way to learn how much I need the Good Gardener to repair my wilderness, and restore my freeze-damaged soul.

In the high-noon glare of that desert damage – beyond the performance of some Lenten Disciple – I can perhaps see how deeply rooted – and costly to Christ MY sin is. He has chosen to walk into the wilderness … all the way to the cross – for me and for you – in order to carry away our diseased branches, our freeze-dried selfishness, and our weedy pride.

The Gift of Lent buds into color and flower in the moment I see – really feel – my own frost-bitten deadness of heart, mind and spirit. It is there that I begin to sense how dearly I am treasured and how undeservedly I have been nurtured.

I pray this Ash Wednesday, we begin – together and individually – the sacred, healing, pre-Easter pruning - the hard garden-work (not of ritual lawn mowing, but of weed digging) - that will finally allow Christ to restore our hearts, shape our ministries, and root us ever more deeply into the solid, pure nourishment of Christ’s Resurrected Love.

Lord, have mercy upon us.