When I became a minister at South Main, I shadowed Gene Vickrey around for some time. Gene was the pastoral care minister at our church for many years. The first graveside service I attended with Gene was at Forest Park Lawndale, one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the city. The contours of the green grass roll pleasantly through a series of winding creeks, and being a distance from the city, it's quiet but for the lovely chirping of birds and the sound of the gentle swaying of old oaks. There, as his voice carried over the meadow, Gene demonstrated to me anew not just the beauty of the 23rd Psalm, but the importance of one?s tone in conveying God's Word in such a setting.
The 23rd Psalm spoken in the King James into the open air in a deep baritone conveys a deep sense of power and grandeur. However, if you are the parent of a kid at South Main, you might be familiar with another version of the 23rd Psalm. Our Family Ministry provides young families with a book called Jesus's Storybook Bible, and, in regard to this well-loved Scripture?in terms of tone?what it might lose in majesty, it gains in tenderness.
Here, at the beginning of Lent, the tone of this particular translation makes explicit something we often miss on Ash Wednesday. It's something that, while it might be okay to miss in a regular year, is important to attend this year. The Lenten experience is surely meant to convey a great many things: an imitation of Christ's journey into the wilderness to face temptation; a season of confession and penance for sinners hoping for restoration; the facing of mortality itself as ashes are imposed with the words??From dust you were made, and to dust you will return.? But let's face it, none of these messages are a picnic. To be honest, there's a sort of dreadful pall over Ash Wednesday because it is meant to call up all these tough spiritual concepts in a visceral, event tactile way. But here's where that notion concerning the importance of tone comes in? especially in the context of this difficult week in an already extraordinarily difficult season.
Yes, we are to look inward during Lent and realize we?re lacking as human beings, sinful, and in a real predicament. However, if we head into the trial of Lent believing that God is forever angry at us, ready to pounce upon us in harsh judgment, as if God's true nature is the bad cop to the resurrected Jesus's good cop, then we've got it all wrong. This is a serious season, but there's nothing that obligates us to remain darkly separated from our God either on Ash Wednesday or during Lent.
The word for wilderness in Hebrew is midbar which can be understood as a place of silence. But here it's a place of silence from which all speech and all meaning is born; a place from which God's voice is heard somehow with clarity in our moment of need. A voice which, when we hear it in the midst of trial and a season of great difficulty, we'll hear this if we?re listening closely:
God is my Shepherd and I am his little lamb. He feeds me. He guides me. He looks after me. I have everything I need. Inside, my heart is very quiet. As quiet as lying still in soft green grass. In a meadow, by a little stream. Even when I walk through the dark, scary, lonely places, I won't be afraid because my Shepherd knows where I am. He is here with me. He keeps me safe. He rescues me. He makes me strong and brave. He's getting wonderful things ready for me. Especially for me. Everything I ever dreamed of. He fills my heart so full of happiness I can't even hold it all inside. Wherever I go I know God's never-stopping, never-giving-up, un-breaking, always and forever Love will go too!
As we enter into Lent in this unusual week in this unusual year, help us hold to the meaning of Ash Wednesday not in part, but in all its fullness. That while, yes, it concerns a journey into the desert, our sin, and our mortality, You walk both with us and before us to keep us safe, through the wilderness, through the chaos, through the unknown, for You are Love itself. Amen.