A week ago, those of us who observe Ash Wednesday and want to encourage others to practice those things that give us a holy beginning to Lent were wondering how much of a shadow Valentine’s Day would cast over the beginning of Lent in the greater culture. What would people be thinking about Wednesday evening — hearts and flowers, or the beginning of our forty day wilderness journey? By evening, though, the nation’s focus was on yet another in a series of horrible acts of violence, this one a school shooting in Parkland, Florida that killed seventeen people. Once again, American children were killed at school. Once again, our nation’s leaders were big on thoughts and prayers but not so interested in talking about what substantial policy changes they proposed to help protect our children from deadly violence at school.
We are in the wilderness, and not just the figurative wilderness of our Lenten journey. We are lost in a place that is empty and disorienting and frightening. Taken as a group, the adults of our nation have forsaken our responsibilities to our children. We have said we love our nation’s children even as we allow greed and sloth and probably several other deadly sins to keep us from having policies such as those in other nations that would make our public places, including our schools, much safer places for children.
That we Americans allow sin to keep us from protecting our children is no new revelation, of course. We have been in the wilderness a long time, watching global temperatures rise along with concentrations of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere while greed and sloth and probably several other deadly sins keep our leaders from developing policies that could mitigate the effects of climate change.
Much has been made of the hollowness of “thoughts and prayers” without action after events like mass shootings. Prayers of confession and repentance, though, necessarily result in action. Truly changed hearts result in truly changed lives. Truly changed hearts in our nation’s adults would produce genuine love that would not let sin get in the way of protecting our children. That said, we as a culture are far from that point of conversion. So long as a short-sighted desire for a perceived private gain trumps any impulse toward the public good in the hearts of voters and the people they choose to develop our public policies, we will remain in the wilderness.
At its best, the wilderness is a place where so much is stripped away that we see ourselves as we are — our sins along with the gift of being beloved children of God — and repent. This is why many Christians choose some sort of discipline for Lent that echoes the wilderness experience; that wilderness experience can bring us closer to God when it results in penitent hearts. When we see clearly who we are and the things that tempt us and then choose to turn our backs on the temptations, we are ready to leave the wilderness.
But some of us won’t even acknowledge that we are in the wilderness. If we refuse to acknowledge the reality of our situation, if we pretend that we can continue living as we do and putting our sinful desires before our love of God and our neighbors — including our children — we will remain stuck in the wilderness, lost in a place that is empty and disorienting and, if only we would let ourselves feel it, frightening.
This week, much of our nation was shaken by yet another school shooting. This week also the Bering Sea lost a shocking amount of sea ice, something that should not be happening at all in February. The upshot of these big changes in the Arctic region is that changes in the Arctic create changes in weather patterns further south that promise to be very disruptive. An unstable Arctic means an unstable planet, and an unstable planet means a terrible legacy for our children and grandchildren.
We are in the wilderness. Some of us want to do what we must to get out of the wilderness, and some of us don’t care enough about ourselves or others to even tell ourselves the truth about where we are. Our work is to do our own work of repentance, and then take the news — both the news of the reality of our situation on earth and the good news of repentance and restoration — to others.
For everyone this year, not just observant Christians, Ash Wednesday revealed just how far astray we have gone. Jesus calls us back to the discipline of love that will make all the difference in how we live.