“Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Joel 2:12-13 (NIV)
There’s a tall lady, with typically English features, who is often seen walking the streets of the Orillia (Ontario, Canada) neighbourhood where I live. She always carries a bag in one hand and what looks like a walking stick in the other. Wherever she goes she picks up garbage and places it in the bag, sometimes even meandering up people’s driveways to pick up a piece of paper, a pop can, or whatever. Occasionally there’s a man walking with her, possibly her husband, and he too scours the streets for garbage. Now they’re not street people and they’re not employed by the municipality. They live down the road from me, and picking up garbage and helping keep our neighbourhood clean is their way of being neighbourly.
Walking to work on the morning before the afternoon when I wrote this piece, I passed the “clean up lady” and exchanged pleasantries. Continuing on to the SGM Canada office in the downtown core I thought about how I appreciate the way she helps to keep our streets and sidewalk clean and how there’s a deeply relational aspect to what she does.
Cleaning up . . . some of us aren’t very good at it. Now I’m no longer talking about cigarette butts, old newspapers or discarded coffee cups . . . I’m referring to the angry words, selfish actions, dirty thoughts and all the sinful things, both those of omission and commission, that, over the course of weeks, months, or even years, litter our lives and leave us soiled.
Ash Wednesday is about confronting our mortality and confessing our sins. In bygone years the Jews would pour ashes on themselves as an outward sign of repentance, a practice continued by the early Christians (though discontinued by many of the reformers). Some Christians still take the mark of ashes on their foreheads as a biblical sign of humble penitence. Whether we put ashes on our foreheads, or not, is not as important as whether we do or do not repent of our sins.
The word “repent” is a significant word on this page. It comes from the Latin re for “again” and poenitere meaning “to be sorry.” To repent is therefore to feel regret or dissatisfaction over what we have done or failed to do and then to decide to change our actions and attitudes.
Deciding to change . . . I like living in a clean neighbourhood and I like being clean on the inside too. Both start with recognizing that the trash needs to be removed . . .