The Paradoxical Adoration of Misfits and Wretches
I stood by the organ that day, snapping frame after frame. I zoomed in, finding the baby — round and pink with wonder. And I moved the Nikon to find his beaming mother, with her soft eyes open wide. The pastor asked the Daddy to help sprinkle the water. I clicked the shutter, fighting to see through a blur of my tears. Pastor Rich lifted high the christened bundle, and carried him down the aisle. He cradled a tiny prince with a damp forehead.
The farmers and the mamas and the grandpas in the wooden pews applauded and smiled at this: a ten-pound reminder that we are all beggars at the door of God’s mercy.
Eventually, we grow up, and we show up at that door, like paupers dressed in our rags. God in His mercy twists the knob, and says: “I knew you’d come.”
Fast-forward to Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. The same farmers and mamas and grandfathers file into wooden rows, opening green hymnals on their laps to sing Beautiful Savior under a country steeple.
“Jesus is fairer,
Jesus is purer;
He makes our sorrowing spirit sing.”
The baby bounces on his mama’s lap behind me. The christened prince wears a bib with the words: “This is what handsome looks like.”
We sing hymns, read ancient texts, then rise to confess to the whole communion of saints that we have sinned in thought, word and deed — by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
Then, we file forward. Look at us, would you? We’re a shuffling line of paupers approaching the altar of startling grace.
A hush falls over the room. No music. No whispering. Just the thundering repetition of words as the pastor rubs black crosses onto foreheads: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
I shuffle to the front, with my family. The pastor presses a cross onto my skin. I close my eyes, remembering what a sorry mess I am. I bring nothing to the altar but my wretchedness. And merciful God offers perfect remission.
What a lopsided relationship, this one with my Savior.
Thomas Merton said that a “saint is not someone who is good but who experiences the goodness of God.”
Tears blurring my vision, I am experiencing goodness. I mouth these words to the Father: “I got nothin’.” He responds with unstoppable grace.
I don’t receive forgiveness by rights or gold-star performances or pretty prayers or by thrashing about to impress God. I don’t pull myself into heaven. I’m carried there.
I know the depth of my sin, and as painful as it is, I need Lent to remind me that I am the iron spike in the wrist, the thorn in the temple, the mocking spectator, the criminal, the one who deserves to die. I am a thief, a wretch, wearing my horrid choices. I return to my old compulsions more often than I should. I need Jesus to rescue me. I need Him to love me.
Strangely, Jesus is attracted to the whole lot of us. We’re misfits, adored. The only hero in the room is Jesus.
At the front of the church, I open my eyes as the pastor continues the imposition of ashes.
And there, he is, down the line: the tiny christened prince in the crook of his mama’s arm. The pastor dips fingers in ash, and rubs a cross onto the sweet wonder of a baby’s face. Where water was sprinkled only weeks earlier, the ash cross appears — both life and death on the same patch of smooth skin. I see it there, the paradox of our humanity, our terminal nature and the relentless pursuit of grace. And we’re all headed toward eternity before we take our first wobbly steps.
A baby cries. Flecks of ash fall on my nose.
And His grace,
it still amazes me.
Looking for helpful resources to help you on your Lenten journey? Here are some of my favorite finds this year.
Michelle DeRusha has collaborated with artist Deb Paden to offer this gorgeous Lenten devotional free to you. Click here to find the booklet, “Grace Changes Everything,” online.
Ann Voskamp has a gift for you, too … a free Easter devotional book, “Trail to the Tree.” Click here for the beauty.
40 Ideas for Lent? Rachel Held Evans has put together this list. Click here to read her thoughts.
A poll … Christianity Today asks “Are you giving up anything for Lent?” Click here to answer the poll question.
Oooo … I love this idea. Karen Ehman is writing a note of encouragement to someone each day of Lent. One note per day. Read her story by clicking here.
Still curious about this whole Lent thing? Mark Roberts offers helpful words at his blog. Click here. Pastor Mark writes: “Lent is not a requirement for Christians. Dallas Willard has said that if a certain spiritual discipline helps you grow in God’s grace, then by all means do it. But if it doesn’t, don’t feel like you must do it.”
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- The Hardest Thanks (On Being Broken Bread) | Getting Down With Jesus - [...] at our 125-year-old church — where gray-haired farmers and glad grandmothers share pews with diapered princes and their mamas.…
Jennifer I love your story of Ash Wednesday, I share similar thoughts in a post this week called Remembering the Dust and have enjoyed sharing Lent with those for whom it is new. Thank you for all the resources. I did encouraging words one year for Lent and was actually asked to write about it for HomeLife magazine. It is in this month’s issue. I just related to so much of what you shared I just wanted to sit down and chat.
““saint is not someone who is good but who experiences the goodness of God.” gaaah. love this.
Jennifer, the observance of Lent is new to me (I’ve been an Evangelical/Protestant/Charismatic Christian from the get go–not too many traditions).
I wish we did more to observe them. I looked up Lent in my Encyclopedia and found it is short for the word Lenten–Spring. Spring, a time of new birth. it is good to think of these things.
thanks for sharing.
p.s.your title “The Paradoxical Adoration…” etc. was inspired!
oh, oh, oh, so many good things you have brought together in your post, so much to think about through Lent. I’ll be clicking on a few of the links you kindly provided. Thank you 🙂
Such a powerful post! And Thomas Merton is one of my favorites . . . love that quote. Fighting a cold, I wasn’t able to make our Ash Wednesday service. Lo and behold, you brought one to me. I have been humbled by the idea that I bring him nothing and he graces me with love and forgiveness. Ah, sweet Lord!
You just summed up why I love Lent and especially Ash Wednesday.
I didn’t notice the babies on Wednesday, but all the youth were there, helping lead the 8 a.m. service (the singing, the reading). All these kids, preschool through 8th grade, going forward and receiving ashes. It undid me.
Oh Jennifer – you have such a precious heart. I am right there with you – staggered by His grace. I have, all of my life, tried so hard to do enough to be worthy – to do something to merit such astounding love. And He simply stands there with such love and open arms.
This was simply beautiful.
We do not really observe Lent, but what a beautiful picture you have given it.
Ah yes. And yet we dare not forget that because of Christ living in us we are not just dust…but loved and cherished heirs made for divine appointments with our Savior. Wow.
This was lovely how you juxtaposed the truth of the baby (very cute btw 🙂 with how God loves us despite ourselves…thanks, Jennifer…our church doesn’t have an Ash Wed. service so it was so nice to read about yours…have a blessed weekend, my friend 🙂
i got nothin’ too, friend. this is grace. love you, so much.
I went to my very first Ash Wednesday service this year. The beauty of it split my heart wide open. And this? Well, my heart will never be the same again…
The only hero in the room is Jesus.
Oh, Jennifer, so much truth here. And beauty. And hope. Thank you. I’m with Deidra: my heart will never be the same.
Much love to you.
Wow, what a great analogy. You have touched my heart. Blessings,
The Lord works beautifully through your talent. You honor Him and it feeds my soul.
I some how discovered this today…from your mom’s post, but saw this baby distorted on my phone’s little screen and I have now read over it 5 times. I am now on my laptop, however it is still so compelling… I have cried 5 times today…not because I am sad,but am so moved. Thanks for bringing this Iowa girl/ California girl home.