Blessed with Ashes

Still
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When someone asks what I plan to give up for Lent, I often can’t help flashing a self-deprecating smile for the fleshly me, who knows anything she selectively surrenders will probably not be much of a sacrifice. I do believe in the discipline of fasting. But, for me, I think the greater discipline is not in choosing to give up something but in gracefully bearing the loss of that which I did not choose to lose.

Last year, on a Sunday morning a week before Christmas, I stumbled around what used to be my home, picking through the blackened rubble, muddy ash, and charred, soggy plaster that covered the remnants of my personal possessions. I was too dazed to think clearly, to organize this hurried salvage. The fire fighters wanted me out of the way so they could finish what the fire began—gutting this destroyed apartment building. In a matter of hours I’d gone from a woman sleeping soundly in what she thought of as her own space, surrounded by comforting objects she thought of as her belongings, to a homeless trespasser on condemned property, scrambling for scorched shreds of the life she’d known.

 OK, that’s a bit melodramatic: yes, I was uninsured; but I had a job, family living not far away, co-workers and fellow church members quick to offer me temporary lodging, and leads on a new place to live. But that December morning, hours after being burned out, the knowledge of how far I was from being truly destitute could not assuage the bitterness or vulnerability I felt knowing that all my illusory security could go up in smoke overnight.

Later that afternoon, under my parents’ roof, I gave in to the tears, hiding my face behind my hands and groaning the question that had been throbbing in my temples all day: “What am I going to do?” Hearing that, my mother scolded me. “Oh, baby, you’re going to be all right. Just pray,” she said. But I didn’t feel like praying. I felt like wallowing, and I did so for quite a while.

It took days, weeks really, before I began to recognize how blessed I was and to thank God in earnest for all the ways he demonstrated his providence, love, and presence during that incident and since. For starters, I wasn’t injured; and frankly, I’d lost little that was irreplaceable or of real consequence.

 Honestly, I made out like a bandit. Before the fire I’d been going about my life as a self-sufficient, independent-to-a-fault single plodding along in workaholic isolation and seasonal despair. But upon the advent of my “disaster,” I was suddenly ejected from my fortress of solitude and forced to depend by default on others. I found myself enjoying an unaccustomed luxury of neighborly affection, sociability, and goodwill that I hadn’t any prospect—or intention—of accessing before I became “homeless.” I also got some really nice things for my new apartment.

In the economy of God’s kingdom, even our losses can be counted as gain; but first we have to be willing and able to do the math. What we lose, whether we choose to sacrifice it or it is taken away from us by force, can richly bless us in the losing—if we hold fast to the knowledge of where our true treasure lies, in one who is himself a consuming fire but who is able to give us “beauty instead of ashes” (Isa. 61:3).

About the Author

Jennifer M. Parker is a freelance writer based in Jackson, Miss.

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