February 17, 2021

“Beauty for Ashes,” Shane & Shane

Beauty for ashes
A garment of praise for my heaviness
Beauty for ashes
Take this heart of stone and make it Yours

I delight myself in the richest of fare
Trading all that I’ve had for all that is better
A garment of praise for my heaviness
You are the greatest taste


I love that song, because it’s a reminder that ashes are only half of the story. Our heaviness is only half of the story. Our brokenness is only half of the story. The rest of the story is the exchange that God gives us. An exchange so unequal, we can’t really ever know the full disparity. 

It’s especially appropriate for Ash Wednesday, because today is a day we take time to reflect on our half of the story. We remember that we are dust, and that our physical bodies will return to dust. We remember our sins, and repent. We reflect on the things that separate us from God — bad habits, idols of indulgence,  or straight up sins — and we commit to fasting from those things to rededicate our hearts and minds towards righteousness. We do this to symbolically and literally pursue purity in preparation for the Easter celebration. 

But as we begin a period of fasting and self denial, I want to remind you that ashes are only half of the story. We see that reflected in these verses from Isaiah 58:

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? – Isaiah 58:5-7

Subtraction is only half of the story. Humbling yourself is only half of the story. It’s an important half, but these verses from Isaiah remind us that it’s not only about what you take away, it’s about what you add in. 

The first several verses, culminating in verse 5, basically say that the people of God were going through the motions of fasting, yet they were also doing things like exploiting their workers, fighting with each other, and living selfishly. They compartmentalized their behavior and seemed to think God wouldn’t catch on. But God said — look, you can’t check off a few religious boxes in order to live horribly everywhere else. That’s not what God means when he calls us to fast. 

You see, the other half of the story is that the Kingdom of God is moving forward — and God wants you to be a part of that movement. His desire is to bring justice, freedom, and beauty to the world. How you choose to fast this season can be a significant part of seeing those things come alive.

I want to encourage you, this Lenten season, to avoid the trap the Israelites fell into. If you are planning to give to the poor so you can justify an extravagant expense for yourself, you’re missing the point. If you serve in a soup kitchen but practice gluttony the rest of the week, it’s a pointless exercise. If you take up a cause, but create strife and division online, you’re not engaging in the spirit of the law, only the letter. Our whole being — our mind, body, and soul should be engaged during Lent. We have to remember both sides of the story.

How can we do that? Well, in this season leading up to Easter let me encourage you to do three things in order. 

First, abstain from things that distance you from God. That’s going to look different for each of us, but I know people who focus on limiting sweets, facebook, gossip, criticism, course language, TV — the list is endless but the motivation should be the same. Remove barriers to intimacy with God. 

Second, in that space you’ve created, add in something that brings you closer to God — whether that’s an act of service, repairing a relationship, spending time reading the bible, or praying. If you fill up the space of a bad habit, it’s much less likely to reinstate itself in your life. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, let your closeness with God seep into all the areas of your life. If you practice generosity, look for new ways to be generous. If you pursue worship, see God in new places in your life and be thankful. As you pray, let your life become a living, breathing prayer. That’s how you can honor God this season. That’s how we can fast and tell both sides of the story.

Now, I wish I could be with you – to put ashes on your head and bless you. But although we’re not physically together, we are together in spirit. So in the spirit of togetherness, receive this Ash Wednesday blessing.

Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel. Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit will be with you all.