when these ashes aren’t magic

by Preston

Screen Shot 2013-02-12 at 23.34.14

I have been making lists lately.

There are two sides within me, this part that wants to speak grace like cool water unto every person, to run hands across ash-smeared faces and whisper ancient promises; this part that wants to bring fire to the paradigms of oppression, to burn the institutions of false gospel down.

I have recorded and scripted out the slip-silver transgressions and sins, the scatterings of self that litter my awkward gait, the fumbling steps I make in this world trying to be this person—these two persons?—who is both now and not yet, who is still being made into an Image, who does not know upon waking some mornings if he is truly a temple of the Holy Ghost or a temple of a bastard god with no name, dancing to a song of Dionysius that no one else seems to hear.

I have been making lists lately.

If I don’t publish this post now, someone else will say it before me.

Another email saying that I write about sex because it gets hits. Maybe it gets hits because it’s a conversation the Church needs to be having.

Without numbers, without hits, you can’t convince a publisher to publish a book.

Maybe if I give up this, this, and this for Lent, things will right themselves.

I want to scream sometimes, I want to scream that the flippant comments, the disregard for human life, the women left marginalised, the whole community of the Kingdom that has been ignored because they don’t fit the traditional mold, that all of this is nothing but horses*** and not worthy of the Gospel.

I want to promise sometimes never to swear again, because it’s wrong. … Isn’t it?

Why can’t we be both fiercely angry over injustice and fiercely broken over the oppressors?

I wish I could sit John Piper and Mark Driscoll and the Gospel Coalition down and bake them pie, the very best pie, and listen to them until they had nothing more to say, until all the words were spent, and then maybe, well, maybe, I could speak some small fragment word that would awaken by Holy Ghost something true deep within them. Maybe. I do believe in the prayerful power of good pie.

Today is Ash Wednesday. Each high holy day I come to in the Church year, there is a part of me that wants to name it as the turning point.

I’ll pray more, starting today.

I’ll read my Bible more, because this is the season.

I’ll make this gracious self be known always, speak no ill word, seek goodness in every person, because ashes on foreheads mean grace.

But.

The ashes are not magic.

Our Faith, for all its wonder, is not magical.

The rituals are empty without the heart to receive them.

And here I kneel with this heart, this two-natured heart of water and fire, and I want to pound this sword of self into a ploughshare, I want ashes to be conversion, finger of priest on forehead to be the imposition of Holy Ghost, a sudden and Damascus-road realisation, light blinding power and mercy—I want Jesus but I don’t want Jesus.

What will He ask me to give up?

Grace may be free, but grace is not cheap.

He asks for everything.

Every post.

Every doubt.

Every movement of water and fire.

Lent lasts forty days because it mirrors the time Jesus spent in the desert before His public ministry, right after His baptism.

Lent is about following Jesus into the desert.

These ashes aren’t magic.

These ashes are a sign.

A sign, like baptism, that it is time to go into the desert.

Come what may.

Come what may.

So this awkward temple, this place of bastard god and Image, this heart of sword and ploughshare, this life of fire and water, is going into the desert.

What will He ask me to give up?

He asks for everything.

Maybe, this Lent, I’m learning to give up me.

I’m learning to stop making lists.


26 Responses to “when these ashes aren’t magic”

  1. Ariana February 13, 2013 at 5:04 am #

    You’re beautiful.

  2. melissa February 13, 2013 at 5:27 am #

    yes to this. all of this.

  3. Caroline Starr Rose February 13, 2013 at 6:59 am #

    Not magic, for sure, but one more opportunity for grace. I have spent so much time these last few years angrier than I realized at how God works and how different it is than what I’d do if I were in charge. I don’t always like His ways. I don’t understand them. I want to fight them. (And I’m a pastor’s wife).

    My hope is this season will allow me to focus on the mystery and find some peace. I am not in charge. I will never fully understand (I used to think this mindset was such a cop out; now I’m thinking there’s more maturity there than I ever realized). So I go again, before Him, to try and trust, to give my broken self.

  4. Courtney February 13, 2013 at 7:15 am #

    So, so good. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Tamara February 13, 2013 at 8:07 am #

    At the risk of sounding too Anne of Green Gables, I am so deeply grateful for your kindred spirit. You so often put to words my own heart, and it can be such a relief not to have to go digging up my own words for it.

    You know why “thy will be done” is the best and most terrifying prayer? Because when Jesus prayed it, he was crucified– and then *raised.*

    Stepping out alongside you this Ash Wednesday to seek God’s will, in all its fearsome glory. So much love to you, my dear friend.

  6. kelliwoodford February 13, 2013 at 10:13 am #

    So you’ve written my heart, Preston.

    And I feel less alone in the struggle that defines this life.

    Thank you.

  7. Margee February 13, 2013 at 10:37 am #

    Very well said! Love this post for Ash Wednesday or anyday….

  8. Sarah Bessey February 13, 2013 at 11:14 am #

    I love this so much.

  9. Tara Owens February 13, 2013 at 11:20 am #

    Thank you for articulating a heart cry that I feel. Oh me, and my god of lists. Thank you for the wrestling and the real.

    Ashes to ashes.

    Glory to glory.

  10. Jane Barlow February 13, 2013 at 1:08 pm #

    In reading the blogpost, “when these ashes . . . ” I was saddened by the general train of thought occurring here. Only recently did it become a trend that Christian journeys are suppose to all look like yours. Regarding the statement, “I wish I could sit John Piper and Mark Driscoll and the Gospel Coalition down and bake them pie, the very best pie, and listen to them until they had nothing more to say, until all the words were spent, and then maybe, well, maybe, I could speak some small fragment word that would awaken by Holy Ghost something true deep within them. Maybe. I do believe in the prayerful power of good pie” that you want to speak words to awaken by the Holy Ghost. . . I am very confused that you would think the Holy Ghost is not in them.Those are clever words, and I see you have some cheerleaders, but where in the Holy Scripture does it say that their walk has to look like your walk? This is a new breed of piety that seems to contradict the very core of open-minded liberalism. You are allowed to have your faith practices as long as they agree with mine. Very confused!

    • Preston February 13, 2013 at 2:13 pm #

      Well, a few things.

      I have never claimed to be an open-minded liberal, so there’s that.

      Also, it’s because I believe the Holy Ghost actually *is already* in Piper, Driscoll, and TGC that I believe these conversations need to be had. Do I believe they are totally, completely backward on women? Yes. And I’ll sing that freedom song at the top of my lungs from every little corner of every little space I am ever in. Until every chain is loosed. I’m not nit-picking in that statement over whether or not they do liturgy, which ultimately doesn’t matter, what matters is how they treat others, what they claim is the Gospel, and what that ultimately means for the Church. So in that sense, in the sense of “can women be equally called as men?” I’m super closed-minded on that issue. The answer is one big in the name of Jesus Christ YES.

  11. Jamie Wright Bagley February 13, 2013 at 2:01 pm #

    It seems like we all go through those periods of joy and sorrow, wrestling and relinquishing, faith and doubting. Maybe even as cyclically as the church calender goes through those high holy days. It hurts to be misunderstood, misquoted, or worse, ignored in our quest to bring Kingdom reality to our planet. It is a struggle to give up our need to be right or first or recognized or notably influential and effective. To have all those neat little lists torn away… When we give up ourselves, what are we left with? Only this: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; the power of God; the communion of the Spirit. A blessed hope.
    Thank you for your words of truth today.
    I really want some pie now!

  12. sette February 13, 2013 at 2:12 pm #

    love this.

  13. Grace Elizabeth February 13, 2013 at 3:50 pm #

    Oh gosh! All so speechless, what a constant battle it i! And I just wish the voices in my head would SHUT UP and I could just be that Kingdom-building, Jesus-like person I want to be.

    And so I am applauding you and thanking you and feeling blessed and I’m just going to sit here and relax in this wonderful feeling of not being on my own. THIS is Church, because if this isn’t I don’t know what is. Thanks Preston. You are awesome. Keep Dreaming bigger.

  14. Janis Cox February 13, 2013 at 4:04 pm #

    Regarding people who speak “bad words” – they are people. We are not to listen to people but to God. I am sure that if we all listened to His Voice; stayed in His Word; took everything to Him every minute of every day – then we would all be at peace… keeping the unity of Christ. Not making unity.

    So when you write – write what God is speaking to you. It may rankle some people but we are to please God not people.

    May you continue in your journey with God, listening to Him and speaking what you hear.

    Blessings,
    Janis

  15. Gary Ware February 13, 2013 at 4:07 pm #

    “What will He ask me to give up?

    He asks for everything.

    Maybe, this Lent, I’m learning to give up me.”

    Learning to give UP ourselves is a continual course. Giving up is a constant strain causing all the emotions you named. We experience frequent Oasis’s in His Holy Ghost to encourage our journey’s. I have only recently recognized my anger toward God and am asking his help and healing and forgiveness.
    Great post.

  16. Pilar February 13, 2013 at 5:19 pm #

    Thank you Preston. Thank you for the truth. I happen to agree with you about your commentary on Driscoll,Piper etc too. I have tremendous respect for their love of Jesus. But as a woman, who is an Anglican priest (and who struggled tremendously with being “called” to ministry because I was raised RC) I can say that I feel saddened that their view of God seems to be somewhat narrow – in that God can only use certain people to do certain things – as if God was not creative enough to use anyone – in any way He wants. (never mind the copious numbers of women who lead in the Old and New Testaments)

    Aside from that – I love lists. They keep me organized, efficient, generally happy and satisfied… and totally unfocused on God. :-)

    Anyway – thanks.

    I’m giving up “busy” for Lent. :-)

    Peace and Grace to you,
    Pilar+

  17. Jane Barlow February 13, 2013 at 5:56 pm #

    I, too believe that women should be in ministry, and do not agree with many other Christians. That is an issue I address at every opportunity. But, my “scream to the top of my lungs issue” is abortion. Why we think someone gets to choose murder is beyond the scope of my understanding. But that doesn’t give me the right to judge or condemn other Christians. It’s no wonder non-Christians are confused, the way we treat each other. So I say this in love . . . may God richly bless you, and may you continue to grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

  18. Jett Superior February 13, 2013 at 6:55 pm #

    This is a pretty fair approximation of what rattles around my insides, as well.

  19. Bethany February 13, 2013 at 8:19 pm #

    This was beautiful and just what I needed to help me make my decision about Lent.

    You always write straight straight to my heart Preston. Every time.

  20. Libby February 14, 2013 at 10:26 am #

    Preston this was so great. I got to bring a few girls from our college ministry to the Episcopal Cathedral for the Ash Wednesday Service last night and we had a great conversation about what Lent means and the idea of a season of penitence and this was great to be able to share with them! Thanks!

  21. the life artist February 15, 2013 at 5:02 pm #

    I would just like to say “amen”. That is all. <3

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