A Place of Stillness + Ash Wednesday by The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver


Joel 2:1-2,12-17

Psalm 103:8-14

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

There comes a time for stillness. A time to stop. To assess. To look around what is on the outside of us and what is on the inside. A time to focus. A time to peer into with intention.

It is a time of awareness.   When we have courage enough and allow ourselves to truly act as witness to our own thoughts and actions toward ourselves and toward others. To go into a place of quiet, where there is just room enough for one’s self and God to ask a question to which the answer will always be true.

Who am I? Am I whom I perceive myself to be. Am I truly who others think I am. Just as Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say I am?” Jesus is asking us to ponder the same question.

It is not an easy one.   The answer to the question cannot truly be found in easy conversation with a group of friends over dinner, no matter how long you’ve known one another. It cannot be found by reading books, or even, may I say, listening to sermons. All they can do is lead to you find your own quiet place…a place of stillness, where all can be asked, all can be heard, all can be explored and where truth is given perfect freedom. As we find ourselves bowed down by the transfiguring light of that truth, we might, if we have the strength, the courage and the will to do it…..change.

What is it we would change? We can probably think of much we would change about ourselves and the world. We all wish we could change the world in some positive direction. But we are fooling ourselves if we think we are prepared to do that, even in a small way if we have not yet created positive change in ourselves?

And so….we have a need to stop and ask ourselves, how much are we influenced by the world in which we live? How important is it for us to be seen succeeding by all the politically correct, to conform to the latest trend in order to be viewed as au courant? Why do we need to be the first and the best?   If this is what the system under which we live demands, then to fly in the face of it is to bring about great disappointment in us by others, and in ourselves and we become angry, frustrated, or judgmental, blaming and bitter. Sadly, when we don’t believe, or when others don’t believe that we have measured up to the demands of the system, we are hardly in a position to create positive change in ourselves or in the world.

To give the outward appearance of creating positive change purely for the reason to be typecast as “good,” in order to satisfy the system, is probably to reach the highest form of sinful arrogance in God’s eyes.

We hear God’s remedy for such arrogance in Jesus’ words to us today. Before you can bring about any kind of change….in yourself or in the world….. go inside. Go into a place of stillness and meet God there. And not just once, but more and more until the place of stillness becomes familiar….like home. All that you find there, you know well.

You can probably picture your home now and know where all those pieces of yourself that you treasure are located. A piece of driftwood from the beach, a rock from the side of a mountain where you prayed early one morning, a feather, a lock of hair. They are where your heart is, and you know where they are.

And so it is in your place of stillness. Perhaps it is harder to locate all that you treasure there. Perhaps it is harder to acknowledge that the treasure there is real….and really a part of you…..for good or for ill.  Yet, just like any other activity that is difficult at first, the more you visit it, the more familiar it becomes and the easier it will become for you to recognize that which does or doesn’t belong there.

I have a Tai Chi teacher and I tell him, I’m too busy to practice every day. He looks at me in response and I see the eyes of Christ and hear his voice in my teacher’s gentle words…..just a few moments a day will bring the change you seek. This will be one Lenten discipline I will undertake in order to bring about positive change in my life.

As Brian McClaren points out in his book, “We Make the Road By Walking,” [1] if you suddenly decide to run twenty miles but you haven’t even tried running round the block, no matter how good your intentions are, it isn’t going to happen. But you can do it if you practice. You can start out running a little bit each day and before you know it, you will be running twenty miles. As McClaren states, it’s not that practice makes perfect, it’s that practice makes habit.

In order to change from a way of being that we know is displeasing to God toward a way that may be less pleasing to the system but worthy of God’s pleasure and praise, we have to practice stillness, practice searching for reality and truth in that place. And we discipline ourselves, with God’s help, to go to this place more and more, until going there is habitual….. and our hearts become welcoming and hospitable toward our presence.

Beware if we don’t, Jesus tells us. Beware of your own brand of personal hypocrisy – it can, like a spiritual cancer – kill your own spirit and your capability for positive change.

Whether it be piety, good works, charitable giving, prayer or fasting, we are called to approach each with humbleness of heart, to offer these as truth from a place of stillness, from an encounter with the holy. Jesus asks all this of us, but asks us to find the motivation for our prayer and fasting, our giving and doing from a place deep within. Jesus asks us to be who we are outwardly as a result of who we are inwardly. To make an outward show of these solely for one’s own appearance is to lose a holy opportunity for change.

One might ask, if Jesus asks us to hide our piety, why is it that on this day we wear ashes out into the world? After all, it’s a wildly countercultural act, isn’t it? Or is it? Or, according to the world we live in, just how countercultural is it?

Some of us received ashes earlier in the day. Were the ashes left there on their foreheads all day long? And if so, why? And if not, why not? Here, in Portland, the system is such that we are allowed to display our piety in such a way or not. To do so, however, proclaims to the world that we are part of a radical faith tradition. We are Christians. And Jesus is urging us to go into a place of private stillness, to ask ourselves what it means to be a Christian.

There are fellow Christians all over the world, part of the body of Christ to which we belong that will receive the imposition of ashes today. They live in places where it is dangerous to identify themselves as Christians, living in fear of violence and persecution, in places like N. Korea, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, parts of Africa and more, most recently Egypt, that is as real and terrifying as it was for the early Christians under Roman rule.

Knowing this, perhaps the first question we must ask ourselves is, what is my commitment to Jesus Christ? What does my Christian faith mean to me and how is it made manifest in the world and in the eyes of God. What is the strength of my courage and my desire to be faithful in the face of a world that demands a different order?

What do you desire more than your desire for God? What do you long to be in the eyes of the world more than in the eyes of God? What is the meaning of living for you?

As we still ourselves more and more in order to listen God’s direction, our awareness of God being at the heart of all creation….of all God’s people and thus at the heart of all we are called to be as part of ………. the easier it becomes for us to freely acknowledge God as at the heart of the holy mystery we call life…..at the heart of our coming in and our going out…..into a place of stillness…out into the world at peace.

With time and with practice, what we desire becomes more and more attuned to that which God desires for us and for God’s creation. We desire more and more to change the world, not for our own interests but for God’s.

Today, on this Ash Wednesday, we come face to face with the urgency to listen to Jesus’ words. It’s not about a quick forgiveness fix…not about momentary absolution. God wants us in for the long haul…wants us to go into the wilderness of our own heart and soul to find the path to true forgiveness so that we can become instruments of reconciliation, working to create an atmosphere of forgiveness and reconciliation in an angry world.

With time and practice we begin to understand our sins….and are able to openly identify and name them….even as God already has. We are able to ask God directly for forgiveness and pray for the strength to seek reconciliation with God and our neighbor.

Ash Wednesday brings us to the threshold of Lent …..the point at which we must choose the path we will take to make our way through the maze of our foolish and false self-perceptions. Our goal is to find a way to work in our corner of the world…., a world filled with destructive ideals, knee-jerk reaction, punishment, misplaced judgment….. to reconcile our faith journey with hope.

It is the work of Lent. With unabashed faith in God….to go into a place of stillness …seeking the strength to change…..seeking the strength to face all our iniquities…..seeking strength to hope…… for ourselves, for our daily living and for our suffering world.

Ash Wednesday is more than a reminder of our physical mortality, it is a reminder of our spiritual life.  God said, “Be still and know that I am God.” It is in the place of stillness…alone with God, that we glimpse the entrance to a path that will take us through our personal Lent to a place where we can experience a particular freedom of recognizing the treasure of our own truth. Then, having found it… we can live to enjoy it…….presenting to the world through the eyes of God the good news of renewed hope and joy.   And from deep within this secret place of stillness…… we are propelled into an exciting newness of spirit…not just for one day….or for 40 days…but for a lifetime.

Written to the Glory of God
The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver+
February 18, 2015

[1] Brian D. McClaren, We Make The Road By Walking, Jericho Books, New York, NY. 2014. p137-9.

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