Ash Wednesday has rolled around again…and in the last few days I’ve actually found myself looking forward to it.
Last year, I posted a reflection about ashes — the everyday kind that we dig out of our fireplace. The ashes build up and build up, and slowly reduce the amount of space available for burning wood. It’s a gradual process, and we don’t think about it much…until there’s not much room for fire at all. Only when we clear all those ashes out can we begin again. Ash Wednesday is a wonderful opportunity to “clean out” the figurative ashes that have accumulated in our lives.
I thought about that this morning, as I was cleaning the ashes out of our wood burner. We got a new, high-efficiency unit this fall, and it’s a wonderful improvement over what we had last year. It produces so much heat, we’ve made it through this whole bitterly cold winter on just one tank of fuel oil in the furnace. Because the fire is going pretty much around the clock, we need to clean the ashes out every day or two. This morning, as I shoveled them, I couldn’t help thinking about the dead material and bad habits I’d be shoveling out of my life this Lent.
And I think that’s why I’ve been looking forward to Ash Wednesday this year. I have a couple of specific things that I enjoy that I’ll be giving up as a sacrifice. But I’m also making a couple of “positive” resolutions for ways to be more disciplined and focused in my prayer life. As I prepared for Lent, it occurred to me that there is a common factor or “problem” that unites both the things I need to give up and the things I need to be more disciplined about: In these specific areas of my life, I have ceded control over my appetites. And at the root of it, the discipline of Lent is in many ways about regaining that control. Because it’s really hard to make spiritual progress, or to become the kind of friend or family member God is calling us to be, if we don’t first have control over ourselves. And I’m looking forward to being back in control.
For those of us who remember the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan, one of the most iconic images of that day was Secretary of State Alexander Haig, standing at the podium, and declaring: “As of now, I am in control here, in the White House, pending return of the Vice President and in close touch with him.” (An excellent description of the full context of the event, and what led up to Haig’ statement, can be found here.)
Lent is the time that each of us can declare, to our laziness or to our appetites, “I am in control here. I don’t need to indulge my body, and what it is demanding from me. I do not need to let my imagination run wild when I am supposed to be praying. I don’t need to watch that television program, no matter how interesting it looks. I will give my kids the full attention they deserve from me right now. I will read that book I’ve been putting off reading, and not give in to procrastination. I am in control.”
Go ahead and say it, using your best Alexander Haig voice.