Invitation to a Holy Lent

Ash Wednesday Meditation on Psalm 51

Pastor Karen Crawford

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

Feb. 22, 2023

Audio of Pastor Karen’s Ash Wednesday message:

Pastor Karen shares her Ash Wednesday message, Invitation to a Holy Lent. Bird photo by Jim Crawford, used with permission.
Photo by Jim Crawford, used with permission

A few weeks ago, I shared how I have rediscovered my joy in backyard birdwatching.  

I find myself smiling and laughing out loud when the birds do something surprising—or if there is a new kind of bird come to visit and eat suet or seed at our feeders.

I couldn’t believe it on Monday when Jim and I saw a Northern Flicker! I had never seen one before! I kept saying, “Look at how handsome he is! Isn’t he cute?!” The “he” turned out to be a “she,” one of our birdwatching friends told us.

Northern Flickers are a large bird—12 to 14 inches tall, with a wingspan of 18 to 21 inches. They are a kind of woodpecker found throughout woodlands of North America. They have a joyful call of “wicker, wicker, wicker!”

She was perched on a shepherd’s hook for the longest time—just looking around, turning her head this way and that, posing for photos not far from our kitchen windows. She had black polka dots across her white chest and a black “collar.” She looked as if God had painted a red Y on the back of her grey and tan head with a blue beak. She had a large yellow and black tail, which is rare for Northern Flickers. The common coloring is with a red tail.

She was lovely and precious and rare—and she lifted my spirits on a day when I was still under the weather with COVID. Seeing her and her staying long enough to allow us to take her photo was truly a gift from the Lord.

The birds that visit our backyard and eat at our feeders remind me of how God watches over and cares for each and every one of them, just as God watches over and cares for each and every one of us.

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” Jesus asks in Matthew 10:29-31. “And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Later on the day that we saw the Northern Flicker, the squirrels returned to raid our feeders. This is a daily frustration. A whole gang of them – 5 or 6 aggressive creatures—come to eat as if there’s no tomorrow. They frighten the birds, make a mess, and leave very little for other creatures to eat.

Which leads me to confess: Sometimes, I hate the squirrels. Well, I don’t hate them exactly. I don’t wish them harm. But I would be pleased to never see them in my yard again. I have tried just about everything to keep them out of the birdseed. I have bought squirrel resistant feeders. We have used baffles. We have greased poles. Nothing works.

Check out this photo from an article in New England Today: Living from July 2022:

Let’s face it. The squirrel has nothing to do all day except try to eat the food you are so generously offering him. He might think it’s fun figuring out your new squirrel proof feeder, like those of us who do the New York Times Wordle or Spelling Bee.

At the same time, the Spirit has been convicting me that the squirrels are one example of how I can justify having bad feelings about a creature God has made– because it goes against my purposes. I want to feed birds. The squirrels are bothering me and getting in the way of my goal. I want them gone.

This is what we do as human beings. We label people as acceptable or unacceptable, interesting or uninteresting, desirable and undesirable. We friend and unfriend on Facebook. We find ways of avoiding those who make us uncomfortable or unhappy. We see the world through our own wants and needs, rather than recognizing that human beings, as do all Creatures, belong to the same God and Creator. Psalm 24:1 and 2 says, “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it, for he has founded it on the seas and established it on the rivers.”

In Genesis, with the language of dominion and not domination, the Lord charges the first human beings to care for all Creatures, till the Garden and “keep it.” The Hebrew word for “keep” has the same root that Cain uses defensively when God asks him where his brother Abel is, after he has killed him.

Cains says, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?

On this Ash Wednesday, we cry out to God with the writer of Psalm 51 for truth in our “inward being” and “a clean heart.”  We seek “purging” with God’s “hyssop.” Gardeners may recognize this evergreen herb with purple flowers in the mint family. Long ago, it was used in the ritual cleansing of lepers.

Psalm 51 begins:

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy,
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
    and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
    a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being;
    therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
    and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing spirit.

I invite my flock to join with me in observing a Holy Lent this year, not only by going into your secret indoor place to pray but going out to experience the Wonder of God in nature, if you are able—alone and with friends or family. I invite you to go humbly and expectantly, with an open heart and mind, that you may be filled with the joy of God’s everlasting presence and knowledge of God’s generous grace for sinners. May the Lord slow us down and lead us out to pay attention to the amazing diversity of the world around us, the world we are called to love and keep as kin, just as Cain was called to love and keep Abel.

May we recall God’s limitless supply of hyssop that purges us from sin and heals fresh wounds and old scars. And how we are being made whiter than snow. And what is broken in us is being made whole.

May we talk and listen for the Lord as the birds sing sweetly in the trees. From the seemingly insignificant common sparrows to the rare and beautiful yellow-tailed Northern Flicker: we belong to God.

Let us pray.

Holy God, we praise you for the Wonder of your Creation! How amazing is the world that you have created and charged us with tilling and keeping. Thank you for your love. Have mercy on us. Create in us a clean heart. Forgive us for the sin of failing to love all Creatures great and small, and especially our human neighbors. Purge us with hyssop. Cleanse us from sin. Put a new and right spirit within us. Amen. 

Published by karenpts

I am the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, New York on Long Island. Come and visit! We want to share God’s love and grace with you and encourage you on your journey of faith. I have served Presbyterian congregations in Minnesota, Florida and Ohio since my ordination in 2011. I am a 2010 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and am working on a doctor of ministry degree with Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I am married to Jim and we have 5 grown children and two grandchildren in our blended family. We are parents to fur babies, Liam, an orange tabby cat, and Minnie, a toy poodle.

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