Monday, February 15, 2021

Reflections on Ash Wednesday, 2021


Last year at this time..?

 Even though Lent was approaching, we at Faith Lutheran were preparing for our own little Mardi Gras. Our congregation was about to celebrate sixty years of ministry in Northeast Philadelphia with a spectacular dinner dance soiree which would include greetings from our bishop, recognition of outstanding members of the congregation, a sentimental family reunion with old church-goers who had moved out of the area, an open beer and wine bar, and a colossal raffle with more prizes than a week’s worth of episodes of “Let’s Make a Deal.” And why not?  For Lutherans, nothing says “Thank you to God” like a little booze and gambling! I tell you, a grand time was had by all.

 And then came COVID-19.

 We may not be rending our garments and sitting in ashes, but the ubiquitous facemasks—to say nothing of the shuttered businesses, stores, restaurants, and churches—are a testimony to our fragile mortality. Over 470,000 Americans have lost their lives to this disease and the economic impact has been devastating. Faith Lutheran closed down for almost three months, and our average attendance dropped by about 60%. A year after the first closure, we are still staggering from the impact of this disease and wondering if things will ever be the same again.

 Will they?

 Yes and no. Even without COVID, the worshiping life of Americans has been changing. There are more kids today who are raised outside of the church and more working families who are not free to choose how they spend a Sunday morning. We will never go back to those glory days we celebrated at our 60th Anniversary party—those days of single-income families, stay-at-home moms, ethnic allegiance to religious denominations, and assumed piety. Those days are gone for good. The churches which sprang up during that bygone era will have to learn to tighten their belts and find new ways to create meaning and reach out to a religiously illiterate public.

 But there are some things which do not change at all. In the Ash Wednesday text from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21), Jesus warns his disciples (that would be us) against practicing their piety in public. Spiritual exercises are not given so that we may win praise from others of from God for observing them. They are given from God for our own benefit. Even in a time of pandemic and great sociological change, generosity is still a virtue. Prayer is still necessary—perhaps even more necessary. Self-denial is still essential, and the acquisition of wealth for its own sake is still futile. If the current pandemic has taught us nothing else, it has taught us to center our lives on things that really matter and will truly endure.

 I understand how frightening it is for us not to have a public place in which to exercise our piety, but now is the time when we must walk by faith and not by sight. Our Father sees in secret, knows our hearts, and rewards our faithfulness. COVID-19 has already forced us to fast-track our efforts into cyber evangelism, and I’ve noticed that some who have not worshiped with us when we were public are now doing so in the privacy of their own homes.

 All of life is change, and that can only mean that all of life means losing some things even as we gain others. It also means we will constantly be sifting out the ephemeral from the eternal. But whether we are together or apart, we practice the disciplines of Lent—generosity, self-denial, forgiveness, and prayer.

   Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;

   Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;

Change and decay in all around I see;

O thou who changest not, abide with me.




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