Ego to Ashes

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Today’s readings (click below to open in a new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Amos 5:6-15, Hebrews 12:1-14, Reading Luke 18:9-14


Ash Wednesday is the day Christians around the world begin the annual Lenten pilgrimage. Most of us will travel more spiritually than physically, and hopefully in a direction taking us closer to God in Christ. Our modes of transportation vary: prayer, fasting, giving something up, taking something extra on – the possibilities are limitless. And like physical pilgrims, we may find we need to carefully select which belongings will travel well to a destination we may not know much about.

Today’s parable from Luke highlights one possession it might be better to leave behind: ego. When we read about the Pharisee who thanks God he is not the tax collector praying nearby, we aren’t surprised Jesus says the tax collector (who is humbly praying for mercy) is more justified before God. Most of us – even religious leaders – identify more with the character of the tax collector than the Pharisee. But should we? Is it truth or ego that tells us we are appropriately humble?

The moment we thank God we are not the Pharisee (or one of the people at that church), we are guilty of his sin: pride and judgment. In Jesus’ time, the message of beloved sinners was revolutionary. People needed to hear it. Twenty centuries on, as a faith community familiar with Jesus’s teachings, we need to be careful not to wear the tax collector’s humility as the latest fashion of outward righteousness. Letting go of the idea that we have the right ideas about God can be scary, because it erodes our comfortable, Christian identity.

As we prepare for our Lenten journey, let’s unpack the thick cloak of ego to make room for humble uncertainty. This type of uncertainty isn’t so much doubt as an intentional loosening of our preconceived notions of God and self, so we can be open to growth. If we cling too tightly to who we are, we are closed to who God would have us become.

Sometimes we are the Pharisee. Sometimes we are the tax collector. Most often we are a mix of both. God will help us find the balance.

Comfort: Our Lenten journey to the cross may be frightening, but the promise of resurrection is certain.

Challenge: What person or group do you possibly feel superior to? Pray for the humility to love them without judgment.

Prayer: Merciful God, give me a heart humble and open enough to know your glory.

Discussion: How are you observing Lent this year?

God helps those…

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 51; 148, Isaiah 61:1-9, 2 Timothy 3:1-17, Mark 10:32-45


“God helps those who help themselves.”

Many people throw this proverb around like a Bible verse. It was popularized by Ben Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanack, but versions of it have been around for centuries. Its sentiment – that we should be self-sufficient where we can – is innocent enough, but it has also been corrupted to rebuff those who ask for help. Does it ever seem like we put more effort into making excuses why we shouldn’t help people, than for finding reasons why we should?

Some people learn to be so self-conscious about asking for help, that they won’t even ask others to pray for them. And like the disciples who grew angry when James and John had the nerve to ask Jesus whether they could sit on either side of him in glory, they aren’t comfortable with other people asking either. Jesus reminded the disciples yet again that those who would be great must become servants to all, but he didn’t fault James and John for asking. Servants don’t just do, they depend – on each other and on those they serve. Asking for needed help is no weakness, and we shouldn’t resent it in ourselves or others.  Often when, out of pride or shame, we “don’t want to be a bother” we end up causing more work, inconvenience, and/or injury than if we’d asked for help in the first place.

On the other hand, Jesus didn’t simply hand James and John everything they asked for. He told them they didn’t know what they were asking; could they follow in his steps and suffer his fate? When they said yes, he told them they would but what they asked was not in his power to grant. When we ask for something, we shouldn’t get upset if someone then in good faith questions whether we’ve already done what we can and should. An invitation to further conversation is not a rejection.

Whether we’re doing the asking or being asked, we are called to the same attitude of humble service. The least we can do … is the least we can do.

Comfort: You are allowed to ask for help.

Challenge: When you need it, ask for help.

Prayer: Source of mercy and grace, give me the heart of a servant. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been that person who won’t ask for help, then needs twice as much help later? If so, did you learn anything from it?

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