On Ash Wednesday, Feb. 13, I joined millions of believers worldwide to receive ashes on my forehead in the sign of a cross. The pastor's voice that night, reverberating through the sanctuary, echoed God's word to Adam in the book of Genesis: "For dust you are and to dust you shall return." Standing in line to receive their ashes, the people looked fragile, as I must have myself.
Lent reminds me that this grand enterprise called life is not about me. In fact, I am not in charge. God is. Job learned this long ago. After being questioned by his friends about all his suffering, God himself asked Job, "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!"
Job, like saints down through the ages, was brought to his knees, realizing that life did not center on him. Thus, Job responded, "My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes."
Even when I submit to God I often think of the words of Jeremiah the prophet: "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?"
Left to my own devices, I wonder what I would really be like. Would I be kind and benevolent and completely just in my dealings? Would I really be the man I purport to be?
In fact, early this week I read a story of the millions of lives lost in war in just the 20th century and how so many leaders — often claiming to be wise and discerning — failed miserably. Sadly, what lay behind nearly every war is the deceitfulness of the human heart. The book of James makes it clear: "Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves."
Think of the price of war in the last 100 years. During the Vietnam War the U.S. averaged 150 dead a week for seven years. In World War II, we lost 200 people every day for four years. The losses of the British, Chinese, Japanese, German and Russian militaries rose into the millions. In the Civil War, 400 Americans a day, Union and Confederate, died from the battle of Fort Sumter (April 1861) to Appomattox (April 1865 when the South surrendered to the North at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia).
Or how about the other genocides of the 20th century — very recent history when you consider there have been 20 centuries since the time of Christ? Turks killing Armenians in 1914-1915 (1.5 million). Stalin killing millions of people (3 million, maybe 4 million). No one really knows, so pervasive and horrific were his policies in Russia during his Communist regime in the 1930s and 1940s. The Khmer Rouge killing Cambodians from 1975 to 1979 (2 million). Saddam Hussein's troops killing Iraqi Kurds in 1987 and 1988 (100,000). Serbs killing Bosnian Muslims from 1992-1995 (200,000). Hutus and Tutsis killing each other — most of them Christians — in tiny African Rwanda in 1994 (800,000). And this in barely more than two months, often with machetes. And yes, in a country largely Christianized by well-meaning, hard-working Western missionaries.
You might look back on the horrors of recent decades and ask, "How can God allow such things?" or, "How can there be a God if such complete moral anarchy reigns?" Would any argue that the Nazi death-camps and Soviet Gulags were utterly anti-God? And though Hitler was born and brought up a Roman Catholic and Stalin was once a Russian Orthodox apprentice-monk, it is hard to imagine any two men in history who were more bereft of basic Christian instincts or more systematically committed to the destruction of Christian values.
And yet, experience shows that very few people do actually ask the above questions. Most people react to the horrors of war by turning to God for protection. When I think of the terror of the last 100 years alone, it sobers me and makes me tremble at the prospect of living a trivial, self-serving, comfortable, middle-class, ordinary, untroubled American life.
As I think about the deceitfulness of the human heart and the casualties of war, I wonder why it is that God hasn't destroyed this world yet. How can he not? II Peter chapter 3, as a matter of fact, announces that the destruction of the world by fire is coming. Still, the text insists that God is patient, not wishing to destroy anyone, saying that a thousand years to us is just one day to God. God apparently understands how fragile and how infinitely valuable a human life truly is.
As we prepare to celebrate Easter once again in this broken world, is life any less fragile, any less valuable? Could it actually be that the delay of Christ's return is an act of mercy and patience?
For many, Lent actually heightens their awareness of God's mercy toward them and their family, and they respond with a deep thankfulness. That's why it is with profound joy for God's unfathomable love and mighty power that I join the hundreds of millions across the globe rising on Easter morning to sing Charles Wesley's "Christ the Lord Has Risen Today":
Christ the Lord is risen today
Sons of men and angels say
Raise your joys and triumphs high
Sing ye heavens and earth reply
We feeble pilgrims everywhere — all of us living by faith, not by sight — are joyfully proclaiming "He is risen. He is risen indeed."
Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 34 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via pastortopastorinitiatives.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow him on twitter at @donfollis.