This week marks the beginning of the Lenten season, with ashes serving as an outward sign that “through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies” (2 Cor. 4:10 NLT). This year, the symbolism of ashes has personal meaning as I reflect on the path God’s chosen for me over the last several years. You see, like most people, I have desired comfort, acceptance, and security. If we follow our human desires, most of us will probably spend our lives in pursuit of these things by default. Who doesn’t want to be comfortable, accepted by others, and financially secure?
But this morning, God reminded me of the prayer of a desperate mother 5 years ago, begging God to do whatever he had to do in her life so that her 5-year-old, angry child would grow up following the Lord. In brokenness, that mother decided that no pain would be worse than that of raising a rebellious child, and so she surrendered everything to the sovereign hands of the Almighty. Of course, that mother was me. At the time, I had no idea what lay ahead of me. I had no idea that God was inviting me to a bonfire where I would be asked to surrender everything I held dear to the flames. All I knew was that I had heard God whisper to me, “He’s going to be alright. It’s not going to be easy, but I will be with you.”
Fast forward a few years to December of 2008. My son, husband, and eventually my daughter were all diagnosed as gluten intolerant. I knew that the change in diet would help my son with some of his issues – and it has! But I also knew that it would cost me dearly in terms of the time I would spend relearning how to cook with new flours, giving up convenience foods, cutting back our expenses in other areas to make up for the more expensive gluten free products, and bearing the burden of providing our own food everywhere we go. I stepped up to the bonfire and tossed in my comfort.
The following December of 2009, it became apparent that the most loving and merciful thing we could do for our son was to pull him out of school and begin the journey of homeschooling. The next fall, my daughter joined us. With fear and trembling, I stepped up to the bonfire and tossed in my desire for acceptance. As the weirdos who homeschool and don’t eat wheat, how on earth would we ever have a “normal” life, much less one that was accepted by others? My dreams of being like everyone else turned to ashes.
In the fall of 2010, my husband lost his job as a casualty of the economy. We had already cut our expenses the year before so we could put money into savings in case he lost his job. When his job ended, I knew in my heart that we were going to be unemployed for a long time, and carefully rationed out those savings over the next 16 months. God miraculously provided a job for my husband that fits him perfectly – praise the Lord! But taking that job meant a huge pay-cut from what he’d been making at his previous job. I had pinched pennies for a year to fill our savings, and pinched pennies for another 16 months to make our savings last, but I’d always had in mind that God would restore us in a way that would allow us to get back on track with our financial goals and do responsible things like save for college and pay down our second mortgage. I had to face the reality that penny pinching will be my lifestyle from now on, and God was not going to provide a paycheck for us until every last penny of our savings was gone. With tears and groans, I crawled on my knees to the bonfire and tossed in my security.
Much of the last few months has been spent sitting in the ashes of that bonfire. The enemy spent most of the holiday season rubbing them in my face. (“Look at all the traditional holiday foods you can’t eat or afford. Your kids are missing out on the parties that school kids have, and you can’t even afford to give them many presents.”) But every time I opened my Bible and came to God during the last few months, he met me in a mighty way. He revealed truths to me about himself, about myself and about my children.
Habakkuk 3:17-18 says, “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.” I finally came to the decision that if my only joy comes from Jesus, that is enough. My version of the verse above could go something like this: Though our clothing may come from hand-me-downs and the thrift store, though my toil and effort to teach just 2 children brings me no prestige or paycheck, though our daily bread must be made from scratch by me, though our days of trips to Disneyland are but a faint memory and college is a fast-approaching terror, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in the knowledge that the God of the universe wants to be in relationship with me. This time, I surrendered my whole body to the fire of the Holy Spirit, so that the ashes could be consumed as well.
Then something amazing happened. I almost missed it until God brought it to mind during my devotional time this week. Earlier in the week, my son announced, “Mom, when I grow up I hope I marry someone like you.” Thinking back to a comment he’d made the night before about his concern over how he will eat as an adult, I asked him if it was because he wanted a wife who will cook gluten free food for him. (My son often expresses gratitude for all the effort I put into finding ways to make gluten free versions of his favorite foods.) He said that his comment wasn’t related to cooking, but rather to my character. I laughed when he said, “It’s because, you know, you don’t care about things like fashion…” I knew what he meant, because he and his sister had been watching a Veggie Tales earlier about being beautiful on the inside and not worrying about how you look on the outside. He was saying that he was thankful I’m not trying to gain acceptance by looking a certain way (after all, acceptance went into the fire a long time ago). But what he said next stopped me in my tracks. He stumbled and stammered a bit over how to say it, but told me how he wants to marry someone like me who doesn’t leave when money is tight and life gets hard; someone who will always stand by him.
There, next to the grocery carts at Fred Meyer, Jesus gathered up the ashes I’d surrendered to him and made a crown of beauty. To those who repent and turn to God, Jesus bestows on them “a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor” (Isaiah 61:3). The ashes of my comfort were used to teach my son about loving others, even when it costs you dearly. The ashes of my acceptance helped him see that seeking to be like God on the inside is more important than how we look to others on the outside. The ashes of my security have taught my son to trust in God’s provision and tithe his own money, even when it hurts. My now 10-year-old little boy has a tender heart toward God and a genuine desire to obey and do what’s right. God answered that long ago prayer of a desperate mother through ashes turned to beauty when my son rose up to call me blessed (Prov. 31:28).
May we surrender completely to the all-consuming fire of the Holy Spirit, so that we may be a “planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.”