Create a clean heart for me, God; put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!
I sit in the dimly lit chapel on this early Ash Wednesday morning, reflecting on what the day means. As hospital staff wander in, I carefully place a cross of ashes on the foreheads of those who enter, and I say the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. Amen.”
For those who haven’t practiced Lent, my actions probably seem a bit odd. The Lenten season is really about reflection, and the ashes are a tangible way to begin the journey of reflecting. It’s a time to ponder what the Forty Day journey to Easter really represents. To contemplate what it means to be a living human being who straddles a world where we were once dust and will be once again.
As a chaplain in a Catholic hospital I find myself sitting between two crosses, literally and figuratively. One cross hangs behind the altar with the crucified Jesus upon it to represent the time before the resurrection. The other, in the back of the chapel, is ornate and without Jesus' body, representing the resurrected Christ.
If Lent is the time of straddling those two worlds, I find that my life is much the same. There is the desire that my heart and life reflect the Risen Christ. The longing to shed the sinful habits that can make me feel separated from God.
I think of parts of Psalm 51 that reassure me of God’s mercy:
“Have mercy on me, God, according to your faithful love!
Wipe away my wrongdoings according to your great compassion!
Wash me completely clean of my guilt;
purify me from my sin!
Because I know my wrongdoings,
my sin is always right in front of me.
I’ve sinned against you—you alone.
Create a clean heart for me, God;
put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!
Please don’t throw me out of Your presence;
please don’t take Your holy spirit away from me.
A broken spirit is my sacrifice, God.
You won’t despise a heart, God, that is broken and crushed.”
I am invited again and again to repent of my sin and return to the God who loves me even when I tend to stray. God never ceases to coax me back into God's presence. Regardless of what I have done, God’s arms are always open to me.
This lifelong process of struggle and growth is met by a God who loves me so very deeply. The thing is, God is quick to welcome me back into the fold even when my sinful behavior takes over. Even when I find myself wandering away.
Between the day-to-day tasks of life that demand my attention and the foothold into the divine, there are occasions when I lose my way. I am constantly holding tension between these two worlds. To separate the two is to place God on a shelf, only to seek access when I deem it necessary to engage God. It is to live an incomplete life with the Creator. And Psalm 51 reminds me that God wants my whole life, not just part of it.
Lent also reminds me that the things I try to do apart from God actually further separate me from my relationship with God. Gossiping about others causes me to drift from the Creator. Overindulging in food, alcohol, and material things places my priorities away from how God would encourage me to live my life. And these DO NOT satisfy, either. Not like the intimacy I have found with the Creator.
So instead I seek to live always connected to God. To offer prayer throughout my day in small and tangible ways. With a single word of prayer, or maybe a specific name. Or even a desired outcome or a word of thanks. And instead of over-indulging, I will use time and resources to serve those persons whose lives have been pushed to the margins of society.
I can only do this if I prioritize my agenda in a way that invites God's guidance. It’s important that I continue to keep my life rooted in God while I go about my day. The more I stay in step, the more I experience the divine—peace, joy, love. And it is on this hope I reflect today.
FOR FURTHER THOUGHT
On any given day, I find myself straddling two worlds. Most days I try to stay grounded in the present with one foot going about my day, working at the hospital, managing a household, and enjoying times with friends and family. The other foot vacillates between being rooted in the past and stepping into the future.
Try as I might, having both feet in the present is difficult. In the future I long for the dark and cold of winter to turn to the warm, green of spring. I ponder what a partnered life might be like while still pining for the love I lost to my husband‘s death; to the life we once shared that no longer exists.
It’s heavy in this place straddling two worlds. And just like my life of faith, when I invite the Lord in, I don’t have to carry the weight of it by myself. And while God does not take away the hard things in my life, God does offer peace by coming alongside me.
So, with God’s help I seek ways to navigate the two worlds in which I find myself. I unpack my heart in a journal, which makes moving forward just a bit easier. I offer prayer as I embark into the world of dating. I seek guidance from faithful friends who will speak the truth to me about the direction of my life. It’s these tangible acts that allow me to connect with an intangible God.
Where do you find yourself straddling two worlds? Have you invited God into your life to help you navigate these spaces? I invite you to do so if you have not.
Try journaling as a way to connect with and reflect on how God is working in your life. It’s pretty simple to start. Find a notebook or treat yourself to a journal that represents where you are in your life. Pick out your favorite pen or pencil.
Start by writing the date and a question or statement about what things you find you are straddling in your life. Sit with those words, and then ask God for clarity on what you have written. Write whatever comes to mind. Draw a picture if you like.
You may only have a sentence or two. That's okay because it is a starting point. Reread Psalm 51. Write any words or phrases that jump out to you. Whatever you write, remember it is just for you and God. No one has to see it. No one will judge it, not even you. It’s just a place for you to work out some of the things that you struggle with, or the things that bring you joy.
Intentionally try to write each day. Believe me when I say that my first journal entries were one or two sentences long about a scripture or a thought. Over time, my writing expanded. In the 5+ years since my husband’s death, I have filled more than 14 journals. The more often I write, the more the words seem to flow.
One of the cool things about journaling is that when I look back over my entries, I see how God has been guiding me in my life. And I see how far I have come from week to week and month to month in my journey of grief.
Why not give it a try? Feel free to respond below or ask questions. I am here to help and guide you if you need it!
God of Love, please help me not to let the struggles from the past cloud the present and taint the future. Show me ways to better connect with You in order to live a life that honors You in the here and now. Some days it is a challenge to live in the present as the past tugs at me. Help me, especially in these difficult times. I love You, Lord, and am so grateful for Your never-ending presence in my life. Amen.
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