Last weekend, I was walking up 72nd Road, here behind the church, and passed the site where the two apartment buildings are going up. One of them is finished, and appears ready for occupants.
But the other one is taking longer than expected. It is very much a construction site. Scaffolding is still up. There are signs warning you to be careful and wear a hard hat. It seems they’re running a little behind: one large sign proudly proclaims the building will be completed in Fall 2016.
If anyone is confused, three words on the sign sum it up:
“Work in Progress.”
It’s true of that building. It’s true for each of us.
If you want to know the prevailing theme of Lent, that’s it:
Every one of us is a work in progress.
We enter this season to undertake that work in earnest — to pray, to sacrifice, to fast, to devote ourselves to repentance and spiritual growth.
Each of us becomes, in effect, a construction site.
And like any construction site, after this day, we are covered in dust.
The ashes we are about to receive are the signs we wear to tell the world this fundamental, humbling truth:
We are a work in progress.
These marks on our brows proclaim that we are tearing down, building up, reconstructing the messy interiors of our lives.
They say: “I am incomplete. I have work to do.”
A teacher of mine in high school used to wear a button that sums it all up perfectly:
“Please be patient. God isn’t finished with me yet.”
That’s what these ashes say.
Of course, for the next 40 days, we are more than just walking construction sites. We are also the site managers, the plumbers, the carpenters, the electricians and the interior decorators trying to complete God’s work in us.
Our tools aren’t jackhammers, cement mixers or electrical wiring.
Our tools are so much stronger than that.
We use the hammer of prayer. The hard wood of fasting. The concrete act of alms-giving.
We seek ways to tear down walls of selfishness, indifference, pride and pettiness.
We try to build connecting hallways of compassion, mercy, generosity and faith.
This is God’s great human project. And it has a distinct purpose. This is his call to us, as we heard in the scripture a few moments ago:
“Return to me with your whole heart.”
The best way to do that isn’t just to skip hamburgers and go without chocolate. That’s the easy stuff.
This Lent, try something harder.
Try to be, as St. Paul put it, “ambassadors for Christ.” Be witnesses for him to the world.
Love one another. That means everyone. The bigoted neighbor. The angry teenager. The irritable boss who gets under your skin. The acquaintance you try to avoid because he asks too much.
Because, like all of us they, too, are works in progress.
And sometimes, the most valuable work we “works in progress” can do is, in fact, what we don’t do.
This Lent, don’t pick a fight on Facebook.
This Lent, don’t miss an opportunity to say thank you.
This Lent, don’t just step around that homeless guy with the cardboard sign.
This Lent, don’t miss a chance to pray.
This Lent, don’t act like you have all the time in the world. Because, as the ashes on our brows will remind us, we don’t. We are covered in dust not just because we are a construction site — but because “we are dust and to dust we will return.”
This Lent, don’t forget that.
And besides all those don’ts, try some “do’s.”
This Lent, do listen to those you would rather ignore.
This Lent, do treat with respect those you disagree with, even the most strident, for the simple reason that each of us is made in the image of God.
This Lent, do ask that homeless guy if he’d like a bagel and a cup of coffee.
This Lent, do put an extra dollar aside to give to a charity close to your heart.
This Lent, do give up something you love so you can give love to someone who needs it — whether it’s the gift of time, or the gift of respect, or the gift of a cheap umbrella to help keep someone dry.
As I say every Ash Wednesday: this season is not just about giving up, but about giving.
The purpose of it all, we need to remember, isn’t just to turn these 40 days into a self-improvement project, but to prepare ourselves for the greatest feast on our calendar, Easter. We do this to align our hearts, to focus our spirits, to turn our eyes toward the cross and, beyond, the empty tomb.
We do it with faith in God’s mercy and a desire to be more than we are — flawed, fumbling people stumbling toward the hope of eternal life.
So as we begin Lent, remember with joy, with humility and with hope, this painful but consoling fact of life:
Each of us is a work in progress. And we have so far to go. And so much to do.
Time is of the essence.
By the grace of God, and God willing, we have 40 days.
Break out the hammer. Raise the beams. Pour the concrete.
And, let’s get to work.