Ash Wednesday Letter

Rev. Jon Jordan
I read the story of blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52) for the umpteenth time in my life a couple of weeks ago, and something new clicked. As those who spend regular time in Scripture over a sustained period of time can attest, this is a common occurrence. The familiar finds a way of becoming pleasantly unfamiliar again and again.

I can’t always pinpoint why this happens, but this time I could. It was precisely because of where I was reading this passage that I saw what I saw in the text. 
 
I read this passage aloud during Noonday Prayer on a Tuesday in a room full of Logic School students and their teachers. In this setting, I saw two things in Bartimaeus that I had never seen before, and that I also happen to see in just about every middle school student I have ever taught.
 
Here they are: Bart couldn’t stop talking even when powerful people told him to stop talking, and Bart was way more physically animated than most of us should be most of the time.
 
“Stop talking,” and “stop jumping on that table” are both things I find myself saying out loud more often than you would believe.
 
Bart would not shut up. It drove people crazy. (I don’t blame them.)
 
Many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more... (Mk 10:48)
 
And once he heard good news, how did he respond? He threw off his cloak and sprang up to run to Jesus. This is not very acceptable behavior when one is in the presence of such an important person.
 
But here is what fascinated me about St. Mark’s account of this interaction between Jesus and Bartimaeus: instead of being viewed by St. Mark as the problem, these two traits were actually part of the solution for Bart. The story reads as though these two traits were actually signs of Bartimaeus’ faith, the very faith that Jesus says “made him well.”
 
So why would I share all of this?
 
You, like me, might also find yourself yelling “stop talking” and “stop jumping on that table” far more than you wish you would. You, like me, might reach moments where you are pretty sure that the fact that your student can’t stop talking and won’t stop being a spaz is going to prevent them from being a productive member of society.
 
(That may be true, though it probably isn't.)
 
But it certainly won’t prevent them from being faithful disciples of Jesus. One thing we learn from Bartimaeus is that Jesus redeems all parts of us. We aren’t stripped of our personalities when Jesus saves us; our personalities are redeemed.
 
What appears in middle school to be an inability to stop talking may just be redeemed by Jesus into a boldness that God uses in mighty ways. What seems to be an uncontrollable energy may be exactly what God uses to sustain a life of your student’s service to him.
 
This sort of transformation is sometimes instantaneous and without our effort. But I have found this to be incredibly rare in my own life, in the lives of people I know, and in the lives of the saints who have gone before us.
 
More often than not, God transforms us in a way that involves our obedience. Transformation includes each of us responding faithfully to his grace. In other words, while all transformation is rooted in and sustained by God’s grace, it is not without any effort on our part. Dallas Willard once helpfully said that “grace is opposed to earning, not effort.”
 
I send this letter out as many churches begin the season of Lent with a celebration (if that is the right word?) of Ash Wednesday. It is on this first day of Lent that we are reminded that we were made from dust, “and to dust we shall return.” Recognizing our mortality is a fitting way to begin a season that asks us to focus on repentance before we focus on the Cross (Good Friday), the Tomb (Holy Saturday), and the Resurrection of Jesus (Easter Sunday).

Repentance and transformation go hand in hand. And while both are rooted in the Grace of God, they also tend to demand real effort on our part.
 
Amish Farmer David Kline tells a story about a bus full of Protestant tourists visiting Amish country. An Amish man is also on the bus, and so the tourists ask him about how his people are different from other Christians.
The Amish man asks: “How many of you have a television?”
 
All of the passengers raise their hands.
“How many of you believe your children would be better off without TV?”
 
Most, if not all, of the passengers raise their hands.
“How many of you, knowing this, will get rid of your television when you go home?”
 
No hands are raised.
“That’s the difference,” he says “between the Amish and others.”
May this season of Lent, whether we formally celebrate it or not, be for each of us a time of Grace-driven repentance that leads to transformation.
 
Rev. Jon R. Jordan
Ash Wednesday 2019
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