Ash Wednesday – Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
That’s the last line of Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day.”
I had never thought of my life as wild and precious until I read her question. I love the invitation, freedom, and curiosity it expresses. It’s expansive. It opens my heart. It makes me want to dream, go big, and imagine the possibility of the impossible. It asks me to consider and take responsibility for what really matters.
And I think it’s the perfect question for Ash Wednesday. I hope you’ll carry it with you throughout the season of Lent. You might even let that question be your lenten discipline and practice this year. Ponder what it means to live a wild and precious life. Give up the things that domesticate and devalue your life. Recognize and recover what is of ultimate value and importance. That would be a holy Lent.
Here’s why I think it’s the perfect question for Ash Wednesday and Lent. Sometimes it feels like Lent gets overly focused on our past, the things we’ve done and left undone, the life we have already lived. But what if Lent is really about the life yet to be lived? What if we gave as much or more attention to where we are going as we do to where we have been or come from? What if “worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness” (Book of Common Prayer, 264) – some harsh words from our opening prayer – are really about the urgency of reclaiming and treasuring what is wild and precious about our life?
I’ve begun to think that maybe our greatest sins are the ones in which we tame and impoverish our own lives and the lives of others. So I want us to come at Lent in a different way this year. I don’t want us to do Lent as a project for self-improvement or a program for sin management. I want us to discover, and uncover, and recover our one wild and precious life.
Have you ever thought of your life as wild and precious?
What does it mean for your life to be wild? Wouldn’t you like to live a wild life? I am not talking about doing crazy stuff, being disobedient, or living an unruly life. I am taking about being open, unbounded, and free – not so much to do whatever you want but to receive whatever comes to you, to stay open to what you can neither control nor foresee. I am talking about not letting the past define or domesticate you, and not letting the present moment close in on, capture, and cage you. I’m talking about exposing ourselves to the risk of an unknown future – a wild life – and “the possibility of something new, the chance of something different, something that will transform the present into something else” (Caputo, On Religion, 8).
Sometimes we let fear, self-doubt, guilt, regrets, disappointments, or wounds tame our life. Every time we try to control life, guarantee outcomes, or live within the boundaries of what is safe and predictable we tame our life. And when our lives are tamed, regardless of how that happens, we live less than who we truly are and want to be. Something is broken. Something is lost.
Think about this: a horse that has been tamed and is rideable is said to have been broken. And a wild horse is said to be unbroken. I want to live an unbroken life, a wild life, don’t you?
In what ways has your life been tamed or domesticated? What parts of your life have been lost, taken, or broke? What do you need to do or give up to reclaim your wild life? What cages keep you from being wild? What freedom and opportunities would a wild life offer you? What dream might become a reality? What would it take for you to leave here today and live a wild life?
Lent is a time to choose a wild life over a broke life. There is something mysterious, beautiful, and sacred about the wild. Go be wild – wild with love, wild with compassion, wild with mercy, wild with forgiveness, wild with kindness, wild with life. We were born to be wild. (And yes, I hope that put a song in your head.)
Our life is not only wild, it’s precious. What does that mean to you? What makes your life so precious? It’s not about what you have or how much you have. And it’s not dependent on how others see you or what they think or say about you.
I can’t help but recognize that this year our Ash Wednesday is bookended by two funerals. We had a funeral on Monday, Ash Wednesday today, and we’ll have another funeral on Friday. Those three days demonstrate the preciousness of life in a graphic and tangible way.
The preciousness of life is found in its fragility and mortality. Life is short and uncertain. There are no guarantees. The future is unforeseeable. And, as Mary Oliver writes in her poem, “everything die[s] at last, and too soon” (“The Summer Day”). Most of us know about the “too soon” of death. That does not, however, negate the value and beauty of life; it intensifies them. It makes life even more precious. Everything and everyone matter. Nothing and no one are to be taken for granted. Not a minute of time is to be wasted or wished away.
This intensification of life and its preciousness get revealed in the things we are most passionate about; in the people we love and those who love us; in the things that give us meaning, offer us hope, and bring us the courage to live wildly. We could call them sacraments of preciousness. They are people, circumstances, and things to which we give all that we are and all that we have. We pour ourselves, time, and money into them and there is never buyer’s remorse.
The preciousness of life means that we are of infinite value. Do you see and believe that about yourself? Or are you devaluing yourself or another? We are the treasure chests that hold God’s heart. So maybe this Lent you divest yourself of everything that diminishes your preciousness. How would your life be different if you lived from a place of preciousness? If you saw others as precious?
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
In a few minutes I will say those words to you. When you hear them I want you to listen again, listen a second time, and hear Mary Oliver’s question. The ashes with which you are being marked are a symbol of “your one wild and precious life.” So when you leave here do not wash them off. Rub them in. Treasure them. And “tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”