by David Sisler

The liturgy said, "This evening we celebrate Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday allows worshipers a chance to reflect on the dual themes of death and sin in light of God's redeeming love in Christ. We use the ashes as a sign of mortality and penance, and their imposition upon the forehead is a means of participating in the call to repentance and reconciliation."

An hour or so after I read those words, I walked silently out of church wearing a black cross in the middle of my forehead. The cross was made with a mixture of the ashes of last year's Palm Sunday leaves, index cards on which the congregation had written the sins of which they were repenting, and olive oil.

In that solemn atmosphere, I departed wearing a smile as I remembered my first Ash Wednesday service three years ago. Until 1996, I had spent almost 30 years following Jesus through the ministry of one Pentecostal church or another, and we Pentecostals did not do Ash Wednesday (too ritualistic, too formal, too High Church). I left that meeting and hurried across town to another church where my daughter, Amy, was leading her first "Praise and Worship" service at New Life Christian Center. When I walked in, one of the celebrants looked at me, leaned over to my sons, Michael and Matthew, and asked, "What's that on your Dad's forehead?" One of the guys (neither will take responsibility for the remark) said, "Oh, it's a Methodist thing."

This year I did not write out the sins of which I was repenting. I put only initials on the card, lest the eyes of an unwary worshiper stray to my list of personal misconduct and be taken aback by my catalog of corruption, my index of infamy. I did not wish to place a stumbling block into a brother's or a sister's way. The initials were safer, I felt.

Also, for no reason I can fathom, I was, at that moment, thinking about a story Ben Haden, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, TN, told about a woman who came to Christ under unusual circumstances. After Ben had prayed with the woman and she had made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ, the two were discussing the woman's life.

She told Ben that she was living with a man, without benefit of clergy, and had been doing so for five years.

Ben asked her if she planned to continue that relationship. She assured him she had every intention of doing so. Then Ben told her that a relationship of fornication excluded her from membership in God's kingdom.

"If I had known that," she said, "I might not have kneeled."

"You know it now. Do you wish to unkneel?" Ben said with characteristic honesty.

And the thought crossed my mind that if I wrote only the initials of my sins on the card, as a sign of my repentance, if I ever returned to them, or wanted to return to them, it would be easier to unrepent of initials than of the whole sordid list. My strength in this Christian walk is, you see, the Lord Jesus Christ. My weakness is me.

I understand, and wholeheartedly applaud, the writings of the Apostle Paul to the Roman believers: "The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God's commands, but it's pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge."

Maybe you will understand then, in my very reflective mood, my hesitation to sing the closing hymn of the evening, "I Surrender All." The first verse of J. W. Van Deventer's powerful anthem to prevenient grace says, "All to Jesus I surrender; all to him I freely give; I will ever love and trust him, in his presence daily live." I could easily that night have sung with gusto, "I Surrender Almost All."

Simon Peter would, I think, have joined me in that version. One morning at breakfast Jesus asked Peter, "Do you love me with the devotion due to God?" and Peter was able only to affirm, twice, "I love you as a friend." When Jesus asked Peter if he was sure his devotion was that of a true friend, the former fisherman said, "Lord, you know my heart. You know that much is certain."

It is not that Jesus is satisfied with second place in our lives. He demands first place, but he is willing, graciously so, to take us where we are and to start with that level of commitment.

Understanding that, isn't Jesus worth the risk?


Published in the Augusta Chronicle 2/27/99

Copyright 1999 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.

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