Willpower and Ash Wednesday

Grace Church in New York / Ash Wednesday / February 22, 2023

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 

Do you know the characters Frog and Toad? They’re from children’s books from the 1970s written by Arnold Lobel. Each book tells five short fables about the friends Frog and Toad. One of them is called “Cookies.”

In the story, Toad makes some cookies. He shares them with Frog and they both eat a lot of cookies. “We have to stop eating these so we won’t get sick,” says Frog. “We need willpower!”

Toad hides the cookies, but with every place Toad hides them–even up where you can’t reach–or however he tries to protect them–tying them up with string–Frog can still get to them. “We can use a ladder,” he says! And eats some more cookies. “We can use scissors to cut the string,” he says! And eats some more cookies.

“What we have to do,” Frog decides, “is put the cookies outside.” When he does this, the birds come and eat them.

“Well,” Frog realizes, “we have no more cookies. But we do have lots of willpower!”

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent, and on the face of it, we might think it’s a day all about willpower. I often find myself setting out on the season of Lent thinking about what I can do for the next 40 days that will be really hard, really impressive, and use the most willpower. 

But, I never actually make it 40 days doing any of the tough things I set out for myself. Sometimes, I make it barely a few days. Some past Lenten disciplines that have failed:

-turning the settings on my phone to black and white. This is supposed to make you look at your phone less. But I tried this one in 2020 and then COVID came and I had to turn it back to color to keep up with all the Zooms.

-fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays. Turns out, fasting all day during the busiest season of a priest’s year is not very easy.

-writing a letter every day. Days go by really quickly, don’t they? The unwritten notecards started to pile up.

-one of my personal favorites, many years ago, back when I was a childless 20-something year-old, I decided a perfect Lenten discipline would be to get up every morning at 7:30am. I usually had trouble getting out of bed before 10am back then. I thought, this will be great! I’ll have so much time to read the bible and make a good breakfast and catch up on my correspondence! 

My then-girlfriend, now-wife Caitlin and I were texting and she wrote, “what are you giving up for Lent this year?” And I wrote back, “I’m getting up every morning at 7:30am.” She read it wrong and thought I said I was giving up every morning at 7:30am. 

Which basically was what ended up happening. I think I made it about three days that year before hitting the snooze button every morning, giving up on my discipline entirely. 

What’s very funny is that now that Caitlin and I are married, and we wake up every morning together, we have a new alarm clock, that being our sons Harry and Gus who are 3 and 1. Guess what time they wake up every morning? It’s before 7:30am, I’ll tell you that! 

So like Frog, I find myself thinking, “I may not have time to read the bible and make a good breakfast and catch up on my correspondence, but I do have willpower!”

Is it really willpower, though, if the obstacle, the temptation is gone? Of course not. 

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

At the beginning of this season, let’s think about what God is really asking of us, here, as we set out to prepare for Easter, and as we listen to the Gospel directives from Jesus. Does God want us to muscle through, white knuckling it, through some fast or some discipline? 

Let me be very clear: God does not–God would never want–you to take on a practice that is bad for your health. For me, that actually was fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays–an idea, which though based in early church tradition, for me triggered disordered eating. When I step down from this pulpit and you hear the Invitation to a Holy Lent, please know that when the prayer book talks about fasting, the prayer book is not talking about disordered eating. God does not want you to starve, God does not want you to restrict your calories or increase your exercise, or decrease your waistline, or in any other way put stress or strain on your body. God loves your body, your body which God made, God loves your body, no matter the things about it you sometimes wish you could change. 

Lent is not about changing your body. So what does God want for you? What does fasting mean, when it’s not about our modern notion of wellness or weight loss?

Well, I actually think Frog is on to something, but it’s not about willpower. It’s in his solution to the cookie dilemma, which was to share the cookies, to feed the birds. What if God wants us to release our temptations, fears, blocks and anxieties–let them rest with God–while we share our bounty, our treasures with others? 

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

To not eat the cookies while they sit tied up on a high shelf is not what God wants for us, to stare at a piece of cake but not eat it is not what God wants for us, but rather to give freely so that space is made, spiritual space, which may be filled with God. 

Where in your life can you carve that out, and what method–like giving away the cookies–will make that a life-giving experience for you? 

In this month’s Harvard Business Review, the cover article is “The Busyness Trap” — about how Busyness has become a status symbol. People consider those who exert high effort to be morally admirable. 

The author tells the story of a man who immigrated to the United States and soon came to believe that the word “busy” meant “good” because when he asked people, “How are you doing?” they often responded, “Busy.”

This gave her the idea to do the experiment herself. For a few weeks she recorded people’s answers to the question “How are you?” By her count, nearly eight out of ten people responded, “Busy.”

But busyness, willpower, determination, and success are not what God is desiring from you this Lent.

The same is true with my family–it is not that God cares what time the clock says when I wake up each morning, but rather that God desires for me time with my children and the space in my heart, mind, and soul, to love them. 

And unlike work, or the things that make us feel busy, the deadline looming for Lent is Easter, and no matter what we do, no matter how we behave for the next 40 days, Easter comes. Easter comes anyway, just 40 days from now. Easter always, always comes.

So what if, my friends, this is actually the point of Lent? Not success, but failure; not self-improvement but rather coming face to face with death and God’s defeat over death? 

We walk around every day trying to face down death, trying to ignore it, trying to be the best, trying to win, trying to be thinner, stronger, smarter, somehow younger? Trying to be the busiest. Impossible feats of willpower.

We try to be perfect, all on our own. We try to get in to the best schools and get the best jobs so we can live the best lives. And if we fail, then it must be our own fault. This is exhausting. 

On this day, at the beginning of the season of Lent, Christians say: remember that you are dust. You are the same as this pile of sooty scraps, and one day this will be you, again. Actually, it’s a relief. 

Because once we accept the reality of death–our own fragility, our own brokenness, our own failings, our own humanity–what waits for us is God’s promise of victory over death. No matter what we do these next 40 days, this is waiting for you. Rather than a time for willpower or the pursuit of perfection, the season of Lent is a time for us to try to live more fully into God’s reality, God’s dream for us. 

We begin today, not with a fresh start, but a dirty and dusty beginning, and that is ok. Amen.

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