I confess, I’m struggling with the idea of Lent this year. It’s likely the onslaught of news right now, from deportations to Jewish cemeteries desecrated. My early morning ritual of reading the news is no longer a pleasant way to wake up. If I’m completely honest, though, that’s why I need the ashes.
On Ash Wednesday, if I’m preaching, I tell the story of the ashes. Fresh palm leaves, dried palm leaves, and ashes are placed in a box. Kids are invited to come stand at the front so they can see, too.
It’s a terrible story and it’s a beautiful story, this story of the ashes. I’m sure you know it: the leaves were once green and beautiful, used to welcome the future king. We used them on Palm Sunday, shouting out, “Hosanna!” By the time Ash Wednesday rolls around, the leaves are faded, dry, brittle, and long past the time to be thrown out. In fact, one year, the landscapers did throw mine out before they could be burnt. Assuming the palms survive the landscapers, they are, indeed, burned just as trash is (or used to be). We put trash on our bodies to remind us of our mortality, and as a sign of repentance.
Yeah, the story I tell in worship is a bit more elaborate, but you get the gist. I reread what I use in worship to tell the Story of the Palms. The story’s simplicity and profundity get me every time. This year, though, a few lines that I wrote several years ago now hit especially hard: “But, God told Joel, as bad as this all is, it’s not too late. Come back to me—repent, is usually what we say. Repent, God says; you can always come back to me.”
It’s God’s truth, not mine. It’s God’s truth, “You can always come back.”
The hope in that truth remains deeper than any other I carry; it’s a truth we don’t experience in human relationships. I could sing a country song about “when you leave that way you can never go back,” but that would reveal more about my misused brain space than anything else. I do remember a children’s sermon by a lay leader in the church I was serving at the time. She took a hammer, some nails, and a piece of lumber. She talked about the things we do to hurt each other. With each thing she named, she hammered a nail into the wood.
Then, she talked about forgiveness, and pulled the nails out one by one. Of course, the holes were still there. Of course, even with forgiveness, the scars are still there.
Some days, I am so aware of the scars. Some of them I caused. Some of them I didn’t. All of them might end up a little more tender, a little less healed, than I thought they were.
There are scars from the break-up with the person I later ended up marrying. There are scars from the girl who commented on the size of my butt in high school. There are scars from the man who hit on me while his wife and baby were sleeping in a nearby room. There are scars from neglecting to give a woman food as she sat in my office crying about her poverty; I had forgotten there were bags of food for the food bank just outside the door.
How long could we sit and name our scars?
No matter how well adjusted we become, no matter how many hours of therapy we participate in, the scars remain. Maybe, in our human relationships, we have a few places we can always return to, but they’re not the same. Often, they’re not as good as we remember. It’s a lot like sleeping in your childhood bedroom when visiting over Christmas; the return isn’t as sweet as you hoped. In our broken humanity, we can never fully reclaim what we lost.
A deep hope remains: God gets it right. The tenderness of the scars disappears. The pain caused by what was broken dissipates. This forgiveness is deeper reaching, more thorough than we ever experience from each other.
That is the story of the palms: our lives are caught up in God, from beginning to end. And we can always return to God—no exceptions.