Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sackcloth and Ashes

Yesterday morning's reading was from Jonah, about the fast observed by the Ninevites in an attempt to stave off the wrath of God. And I can't help wondering....

I understand the forty-day fast. The Ninevites were big sinners, mired in sinfulness and selfishness. I get that they would do something dramatic to stop ... and, hopefully, change... their behaviors, to turn their hearts toward God.

What I don't really get, though, is the sackcloth and ashes. What is the point of sitting in a pile of ashes for about 6 weeks? Is it particularly uncomfortable? Particularly messy? Wouldn't it be better to spend that same time caring for the sick or the poor? Or reconciling with family and neighbors? Or in worship?

A quick Google search on the topic focuses on the humility expressed by the wearing of sackcloth and the sitting in (or dusting oneself with) ashes.


One virtue that I desperately lack, and frequently ignore, is humility. Humility requires me to recognize how little I am, how ineffective, how not-in-charge. From this lens, I can see why I thought the sackcloth and ashes were a waste of time. I would prefer to "prove" my usefulness, my selflessness, my "holiness" even, through acts, rather than acknowledge that I am merely creature, not even close to being in charge.

Humility is uncomfortable; at least, it is for me.

I think about the sackcloth and ashes some more. What would the equivalent be today? Dressing in drab, shapeless clothes? Not washing my hair? Not dyeing my hair? (Now that would be a lesson in humility... having to face all those grays in the mirror!)

Perhaps I could set aside my own agenda. That's what the Ninevites did, right? They stopped all work for 40 days, to repent and fast. I can't do it exactly as they did. I can't stop all work and sit in a pile of dirt. My family needs food, clean clothes, an education, clean bathrooms. They need a wife and a mother.

But, what I can do is set aside my agenda. I can (try my best to) let go of my insatiable need to control every moment of our lives. I can take a deep breath and offer a prayer for humility when my agenda gets sidetracked by squabbling kids, by broken appliances, by crunched schedules, by missed appointments.

I can offer God my quashed frustrations, my swallowed scream, my bitten-back sarcasm as a sign of my repentance.

Patience can be my sackcloth. Kindness and gentleness my ashes.

And these forty days, I can turn my heart toward God once more.

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