A Reflection for Ash Wednesday by Julia Styles

Today's lectionary reading: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-2

Selected passage for reflection: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 (The Message)


Read


Joel 2

1-2 Blow the ram’s horn trumpet in Zion!

Trumpet the alarm on my holy mountain!

Shake the country up!

God’s Judgment’s on its way—the Day’s almost here!

A black day! A Doomsday!

Clouds with no silver lining!

Like dawn light moving over the mountains,

a huge army is coming.

There’s never been anything like it

and never will be again.


12 But there’s also this, it’s not too late—

God’s personal Message!—

“Come back to me and really mean it!

Come fasting and weeping, sorry for your sins!”


13-14 Change your life, not just your clothes.

Come back to God, your God.

And here’s why: God is kind and merciful.

He takes a deep breath, puts up with a lot,

This most patient God, extravagant in love,

always ready to cancel catastrophe.

Who knows? Maybe he’ll do it now,

maybe he’ll turn around and show pity.

Maybe, when all’s said and done,

there’ll be blessings full and robust for your God!


15-17 Blow the ram’s horn trumpet in Zion!

Declare a day of repentance, a holy fast day.

Call a public meeting.

Get everyone there. Consecrate the congregation.

Make sure the elders come,

but bring in the children, too, even the nursing babies,

Even men and women on their honeymoon—

interrupt them and get them there.

Between Sanctuary entrance and altar,

let the priests, God’s servants, weep tears of repentance.

Let them intercede: “Have mercy, God, on your people!

Don’t abandon your heritage to contempt.

Don’t let the pagans take over and rule them

and sneer, ‘And so where is this God of theirs?’”


Reflect

I am not the best at changing my bad habits. Even when I think I have conquered a demon, I find that months later, it rears its ugly head in a new way. This is a repeated pattern, but it doesn’t stop me from trying to improve…


I have often approached Lent as an opportunity for self-improvement. I resolved to be good for God; to read more, pray more, eat less, or buy less. I was determined to change from the outside-in, no matter how difficult. I figured if I do the work myself, then I will be more pleasing in God’s eyes. I often pictured a God that sounded like my own inner critic, “Hurry up, let’s go, do it better, what’s taking so long!” The God in my head was a task-master, with little patience or compassion. I wonder if the Israelites thought similarly. Feeling forsaken, they imagined God saying, “This is what you deserve.You created this mess; you’re on your own!


The prophet Joel rebuked the Israelites, “It’s not too late—God’s personal Message!—‘Come back to me and really mean it! Come fasting and weeping, sorry for your sins!’ Change your life, not just your clothes. Come back to God, your God. And here’s why: God is kind and merciful. He takes a deep breath, puts up with a lot,this most patient God, extravagant in love, always ready to cancel catastrophe” (Joel 2:12-13, The Message).


Whether we are in the middle of a catastrophe, or have simply grown lukewarm in our desire to follow God, God asks us to return to her, not so she can punish us, but because this most patient God, extravagant in love, is always ready to cancel catastrophe, to seek what’s best for us, just like a parent with their child.


When I read this passage from Joel, I was drawn to the phrase, “this most patient God.” The word patience has been really important to me this past year. As a mom, I have felt the need to be patient with my toddler and also with myself. A friend recently remarked, “Patience is choosing to move at the speed of the one you love.” This phrase helped me to picture God as a mother with her toddler, slowly walking down the street, stopping to notice sticks and pebbles, knowing that the destination is just one part of the journey.


God, in all her tenderness and extravagant love, is patient with me, and moves beside me as I learn to walk in her ways. I have a God that is kind and merciful, that takes a deep breath and puts up with a lot. Not only does God “have all day,” but she has all of eternity. Unlike the impatient critic in my head, God is patient, and puts up with my stubbornness, thick-headedness, procrastination, and bad habits, so there is no reason to hide who I am from God; instead I can walk with freedom, curiosity and compassion for myself and for others.


Joel’s call to the Israelites is not just for individuals, but for the entire community, In verses 15-17, Joel pleads that the Israelites stop what they are doing and intercede on behalf of one another, “Have mercy, God, on your people!” Joel’s communal call to the Israelites, is the same for us today, “Come fasting and weeping, sorry for your sins.” We are in the midst of some major catastrophes right now—a global pandemic, an economic recession, climate change, blatant racism and political vitriol, not to mention the catastrophes within our own households. Just like the Israelites, Christians have set aside a day—Ash Wednesday— to fast and pray, and call out to God for mercy. “Who knows? Maybe he’ll do it now, maybe he’ll turn around and show pity. Maybe, when all’s said and done, there’ll be blessings full and robust for your God!” (Joel 2:14


Respond


During Ash Wednesday, as the priest or deacon implements ashes, you often hear, “Repent and believe in the Good News.” Today is an opportunity to repent—to change your mind of how you see yourself and others, and reconnect with your patient, compassionate and kind God. Do whatever is necessary to reconcile with God—fast, weep, confess your short-comings, admit your hurts and pains—lay it all out there. Your holy Parent, extravagant in love will be there, and is quick to cancel catastrophe.



Rest


God we acknowledge that you “take a deep breath, and put up with a lot.”

Most patient God, extravagant in love, help us to take deep breaths as well.

Help us to exhale our own impatience and condemnation, and inhale your kindness and mercy. (Take as many deep breaths as you need to feel at peace.)

Amen.



About the Author


Julia Styles is a Spiritual Director and Diversity & Inclusion Consultant living in Atlanta, Georgia. Julia has a Masters in Christian Ministry and Certificate in Spiritual Direction from North Park Theological Seminary, and a Masters in International Public Affairs from the University of Wisconsin. With over 20 years of ministry experience in cross-cultural environments, Julia is passionate about creating welcoming spaces for people to authentically pursue their calling. Most days you can find Julia at one of the beautiful parks in Atlanta with her husband, Derek, and son, Jakob.


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