I’ve always been aware of the fact that I would die someday. Death is a morbid topic, but it’s a reality no one can escape. I am going to die. You are going to die. There are things we can do to prolong our lives, but we can’t escape the inevitable: we are dying.
In the church calendar, today is Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the day where we are reminded of our mortality and we’re told, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” Ash Wednesday is also known as a day of “repentance.” It’s important to know that in the Bible, “repentance” doesn’t mean feeling bad for what you’ve done wrong, it means turning your life around toward what’s right. When we repent, we re-prioritize our lives with God as the center.
Ash Wednesday is the first day of the season of Lent, which is a season of 40 days (plus Sundays) leading up to Easter. Most of us who observe Lent use it as a kind of second chance at New Year’s resolutions and give up things to help us meet those resolutions. (Here are mine. Come to think of it, I’m not doing so hot on a number of these.) If a resolution we had was to lose 10 pounds, we might give up chocolate. If a resolution we had was to spend more time with family, we might give up TV or Facebook.
I’ve always thought of Ash Wednesday as a real downer. Ash Wednesday reminds me that I’m going to die, and being “down” is a natural reaction to death. Faced with the fact that you’re dying, you can choose to be depressed, to sulk, to give up. But that’s not the only choice. I’ve also always thought of Lent as more of a “self-help” thing than a spiritual discipline, but what if Lent were more than that?
Instead of giving up arbitrary things for Lent, what if we asked ourselves this question: if I only had 40 days left to live, what would you do? Faced with the prospect of your own death, what would you change? Thinking that you might get to see God face to face pretty soon, how would you change your approach to God now?
Acts 7 tells the story of Stephen and his death. When faced with the prospect of his own death, Stephen turns his focus, energy, and attention on God and it leads him to do a few remarkable things:
1) Filled with the Holy Spirit, he speaks the truth directly. He pulls no punches in saying what he thinks needs to be said to the people to whom he’s talking. God’s presence allows him to see and speak the truth.
2) Not only does he speak the truth directly, he looks for God and speaks to other people about God directly. He talks about who he thinks God is, who he thinks Jesus is, how he thinks people (particularly the religious leaders) have messed it up in their relationship to God. He looks for God and when he sees God, he talks openly about it.
3) He forgives the people who have hurt him most, even as they’re stoning him to death. In fact, with his last words, he asks God to forgive them.
If you only had 40 days to live, what would you change? If “repentance” means turning your life around so that God is at the center, what would need to shift in your priorities? What would you need to do so that people saw love, grace, and forgiveness when they saw you? In what situations and to what people do you need to speak the truth? Who do you need to forgive and from whom do you need to ask for forgiveness?
You and I are dying. There’s no escaping that. And we can choose to do nothing (or to do everything the same we we’ve been doing it), or we can be inspired to be like Stephen, turning our energy and attention toward God in order to make the most of all the time we have left.
God, thank you for the gift of mortality. May it inspire me to run from apathy and complacency and instead to seek you in every area of my life.