21 Lenten Study 01 – Ash Wednesday

20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 6 As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. 2 For he says, “In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.” I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation. 3 We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. 4 Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; 5 in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; 6 in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; 7 in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; 8 through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; 9 known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; 10 sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10 (NIV)

“As we work together with God,” “putting no obstacle in anyone’s way,” we truly fulfill God’s will in our world. Our Ash Wednesday observance launches our journey through wilderness time, and we know it is a journey of ups and downs. We will see the jubilation of Palm Sunday, the confusion and betrayal of the disciples, the acts of friendship in foot-washing and the celebration of the first Lord’s Supper, the despair of trial and judgment, and the horror of the crucifixion. The eternal question of why arises: Why did it have to happen this way? Why did it have to happen at all? Why would someone voluntarily go through what Jesus did? Why can’t we just jump to the joy and glory of Easter?
Ash Wednesday is a day to set these questions aside and simply be present. It is a day of contrition and confession. It is a day for humility and repentance. It is a day to refrain from judging others as we self-reflectively judge ourselves. It is not a time for defensiveness, but it is a day to ask—even beg—forgiveness. It is a time to admit we are not the people we need to be. We fail to do all the good we can; we fail to refrain from doing harm; and we confess that we are not even aware of the many ways we have yet to grow and change. We ask God’s grace and guidance. And we acknowledge that there is no such things “cheap grace,” but that much will be required of us if we truly seek to become like the Christ.
On this Ash Wednesday, I want to raise the idea that perhaps one way we are “putting obstacles” in the way of others is through an unconscious and invisible normativity of our own perspective. Many people find the word racism to be offensive, judgmental, condescending, and unfair. From white, Western, United States cultural normativity, racism conjures up images of violence, terrorism, brutality, rage, and hatred. The vast majority of us do not support or engage in such activities, and so we feel that we are not racist.
But at a fundamental level, we are all racist. Ibram X. Kendi, in the introduction to his excellent book, How to Be an Antiracist, speaks eloquently of the universal and inclusive nature of racism. And it is essential for Christian believers to understand a simple but powerful fact: Racism is sin, and all have sinned and fall short of the desire of God.

Normativity—an individual’s or group’s perspective on the world that assumes everyone sees things the same way, benefits in the same way, thinks the same way, should act the same way, shares the same values, and should receive the same treatment. Normativity tends to judge difference as an aberration, and often difference is viewed as inferior, defective, or threatening. Normativity employs “either/or” thinking; things are right or wrong, good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable, just or unjust according to the definitions embraced by the individual or group.

How are you feeling at this point? What is going on in your head and heart? Are you uncomfortable, defensive, angry, or upset? This is an indication that our normativity is being challenged! Don’t deny, resist, or reject the discomfort you feel right now. It is alright to be upset as long as you don’t let the upset rule you. If possible, step back emotionally and psychologically for a moment and assume that we all possess a measure of racism and that racism is sin, just as any act of harm or exclusion or division and injury is sin. What does this mean for us?
On this Ash Wednesday—this day of confession, repentance, and humility—ask God for forgiveness for any racist thought, word, or deed; conscious or unconscious; intentional or unintentional; and for any hardness of heart that makes this confession difficult for you.

Questions for Conversation

  1. How does it feel to be called a racist? How does such labeling impact our sense of community, relationship, and unity?
  2. What are the benefits of normativity? What are the potential problems and negative impacts of normativity?
  3. What is the relationship of normativity to diversity? What impact do cultural, ethnic, social, and racial diversity have on normativity?
  4. When you reflect on God’s vision for Beloved Community, who belongs? Who is excluded? Who should decide who is acceptable and who is not?

Questions for Personal Reflection between Sessions

  1. What does God look like? Do I have a race, ethnicity, color, or appearance in mind? Do I look like God? Does God look like me?
  2. What do I need to be forgiven for?
  3. How will I prepare my own heart and spirit for the Lenten journey?
  4. What might I give up emotionally, spiritually, psychologically in order to make room for God’s grace and guidance?

Closing Prayer (or one of your own):

God who meets us in the ashes, forgive us. We are not yet the people you need us to be, but we are here to ask that you rescue and redeem us from those thoughts and actions that separate us from you and your beloved creation. Let us seek to see the Christ in every other face we meet, no matter how similar or different they are. Make us one, Lord, make us one, we ask in the name of Jesus, the Christ. Amen.

Recommended Resources for Deeper Learning and Understanding:

The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby. An excellent yet troubling survey summary of racism in our nation’s history and the role Christianity has played.
The Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith. This 2015 silent film depicts the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and southern cultural resistance to racial inclusion. It is important to understand this as part of our American cultural narrative that still has impact today.

Pastor’s Message

Please join our Lenten Service on February 17 at 6PM.

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