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The Pastor’s Pen

“Come, follow me.”                                     - Jesus

It happened again today. Over a cup of soup with a new friend in the village, we got to talking about the glory days when we skied more often. The conversation brought to his mind a poster he had nearly forgotten of a skier crouched and laboring, in a cornfield. The poster read “Ski Nebraska”. He had no way of knowing of course, that I grew up in the Cornhusker State, or that joining the high school ski club meant learning to navigate a t-bar at Crescent, Iowa, on a river bluff overlooking the Missouri River. Yes, I really did learn to ski in Iowa.

It struck me over lunch how oddly people look at you if you’re from Nebraska. Few people have ever actually been there. Unless you’re on a coast-to-coast road trip with no particular time frame or destination, you think of Nebraska as a fly-over state. People from Nebraska seem a little peculiar, unless you happen to be our most famous resident Warren Buffett.

More and more often, people look at you just as oddly if you say that you’re a Christian. I live in one of the four most secular states in the country, with less than 50% of the population describing themselves as religious in any way, let alone Christian. Fewer yet take seriously the lifetime commitment to follow the way of Jesus, engaging in the transforming work of God in the world. Religion in secular states like my own can seem more akin to civic duty than to redeeming and transformative work.

Yet here we sit, talking with one another about God stuff on this first day of the oddest of all Christian seasons we call Lent. Fewer and fewer folks know that last night’s Mardis Gras means Fat Tuesday, the night of revelry and indulgence that historically preceded Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. Believers in past generations cleared the pantry on Fat Tuesday, throwing out the sugar and chocolate and locking up the liquor cabinet as the season of reflection and prayer began..

Today we use different language but the invitation is the same. We release bad habits that get in the way of authentically loving God and neighbor, and we embrace new practices that support our intention to live more faithfully. Christians tend to read the Bible more often, attend church, and dust off practices of prayer, while the spiritual but not religious folk see Lent as a time to give up bad habits in order to be better humans. Whether we’re religious or not, we get it that every once in awhile we have to hit the re-set button. Our lives have spun out of control.

So whether you’re in the 52% who still say they’re religious in this part of the world, or part of the 48% who are not so sure, today is Ash Wednesday. Tonight we’ll gather in churches and chapels and priests like me will place the sign of the cross in ash on the forehead of all who come. We’ll participate in God’s incredibly freeing invitation to do-over. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. From dust you’ve come, to dust you will return. Go in peace you are forgiven.”

Prayer: Forgiving and renewing God, we thank you that we can fumble and stumble our way into your presence, messed up, unsure, humbled by what we thought we could accomplish on our own and discovered that we could not. Sharpen our focus in Lent, that our lives may be renewed in your image. Amen

God’s grace, mercy and peace,

Pastor Anna V. Copeland