A millennial theologian, Erin Lane, has a written a book: Lessons in Belonging: From a Church-Going Commitment Phobe. For her and others that means she belongs to God, but hesitates – no, fears joining a church. Her group is disillusioned by the church. We don’t live up to our hype. Lower church attendance these days indicates something is not working so well for us. Maybe we need to pay attention. So this Ash Wednesday we’ll take a page from Joel’s book. “Sound the trumpet. Gather the assembly, invite your neighbors.” Not just individuals, but us as the church – Repent! Admit it, we tolerate sloppy clergy, apathetic members, half-hearted governance and lose sight of what matters to God. To recall initials from the past: WWJD. What would Joel do?
Disillusionment: Once a visiting couple told me they would never join our church. “Why not?” I asked. “You people spend more time debating carpet color and wall paint, yet fail to notice children who need tutoring, and their families living in the shadows of this church. Is God more concerned now with church decorating than the poor?” Thom Schultz, church consultant says we go through motions with little output. Many church members seem listless and indifferent. We claim to love everyone, yet we really don’t know each other or address the pain and questions of those around us. Some are disillusioned with the church.
So today let’s join the disillusioned. Actually disillusionment can be a good thing. Disillusioned people are freed from their illusions. Individually and corporately Ash Wednesday calls us to examine, take stock, assemble, fast, repent of our illusions and return to God. That’s hard work, too.
The church adopted Israel’s symbol of ashes to remind them of sin, repentance and mortality, an emblem of grief and mourning. They also call us to examine our condition – that we live an illusion that we are in control, and we don’t even notice it – that we are above average people, that we’ve been faithfully obedient to God and graciously loving to others, that we are concerned with God’s concerns.
Joel now warns the Lord is coming and it’s not going to be pretty. He says we have one option. Gather the people. Tremble – darkness and gloom is coming. It’s apocalyptic. Joel employs dark, scary language to awaken the complacent, the indifferent who hold to the illusion the church and our lives are a pleasing offering to God. So, “What” they ask, “do we do?” Since you are here, I imagine you’d like to know too – right?
A second trumpet blast: “Now pay close attention: fast – sanctify yourselves – gather everyone.” We can become so comfortable we fail to notice the kettle is starting to boil. Offering God complacency and indifference doesn’t cut it. Come to your senses. Turn back toward God and return to God’s mission. Business as usual cannot continue, says Joel.
We turn back because we are so far separated from God, we forget God’s nature. That’s the course Israel was on. Let’s be disillusioned and give up the illusion we haven’t strayed. When we stray our lives – our relationships with others – our politics, economics, and values things get distorted and disordered. Let’s admit it so God can quickly begin rescue operations. We need the divine forgiveness and intervention that God wants us to receive.
Today God is pretty much done with these people. But return to God anyway. He may relent. All this threatening talk is another way to know God is so committed to loving us back that he’ll even show the terrible hand he could play. His anger is the backside of his faithful love for us. That’s something to take seriously – and not presume upon, as Joel also warns us. He is gracious, full of mercy, patient, overflowing with love. So, yes, coming close to God, is safe, healing. We are safe to confess our sin. God already knows how we are – we’re the ones with the illusions we can hide. Don’t fake it, or go through motions minus your heart. Don’t do it out of fear. Conforming is not the same as being transformed.
Today, we’re not here to ward off an impending disaster as in Joel’s day – I don’t think. Ash Wednesday calls us to be disillusioned. Do whatever you need to turn and receive God’s mercy, love, forgiveness and healing. Receiving ashes means you are committed to doing that. Don’t receive them as merely an external sign. If you’re not ready to commit and be serious with God, receive your ashes anyway – as a sign, you’ll keep trying. Receive your knowing that when you screw up, God still loves and wants you. The good news for this day, the cross of our sin, grief and mortality has been changed into a cross of eternal life we receive in baptism. We are mortal, but God loves us enough not to leave us that way.
 Erin S. Lane, Lessons in Belonging From a Church-Going Commitment Phobe. (IVP Books, Downers Grove, IL., 2015) p 14.