Ash Wednesday on the Doorstep of War

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 8:23 PM

It’s 3 a.m. and I’m on Twitter impatiently refreshing, looking for news from Ukraine. I check over on Ukrainian President Zelensky’s account, too, looking for signs he’s still alive and Russia hasn’t managed to find him yet. Probably a lot of you reading this are doing the same. Death looms large this Ash Wednesday, situated amidst the first global-level conflict of the Internet era.

I talk to so many who find themselves struggling to focus on other tasks because of how this is unfolding before our eyes. Heartbreak over the hurting people we see in Ukraine is hard to even process. And, unlike other crises we’ve witnessed in the present age, there is also the nagging question of how the war might spill out beyond its present scope.

With Cold War level nuclear saber rattling, I make those early morning checks wondering if all the world is still there.

There have been regional wars, of course, and significant ones that even involved my own country, but I think everyone knows this is something different. As in 1914, it is deadly apparent that a single stray bullet could turn this into a World War. The bullet to Franz Ferdinand took not just his life, but triggered a complex web of alliances and the vast scale of death that was “the Great War.”

Today, a single confrontation between NATO and Russia could similarly ignite the world, but with nuclear weapons in the midst. As Jim Geraghty put it, “our futures depend upon Russian military forces knowing exactly where the borders are.”

How do we make sense of our place in this disquieting moment?

Most of us are neither world leaders who can make the decisions that affect the situation at the world stage level nor trained soldiers who can go join the Ukrainian “International Legion.” Instead we sit and wonder and ache for the present victims of Putin’s wickedness and wonder if we, too, might be victims of the same down the road.

Whatever illusions we have about a world that was largely a canvas for our personal intentions and aspirations, they have been ripped away these last years.

Do we think our technology can save us? A pandemic disabused us of such notions — it helps, but COVID ended the notion that we have the upper hand on disease. Do we think people will largely act logically and caringly? Irrational, destructive anger from our political sphere on both sides certainly rules that out. Do we think at least we have risen above the barbarism of centuries past? No, as we watch the onscreen horrors this week — and wonder what might come next — we’re reminded that precious little separates us from that time a century ago people also thought they’d risen to a better humanity and also were proven wrong.

All these things remind us of the words we return to on Ash Wednesday. God told Adam, “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19 ESV).

Our present disasters ground us; we are as we have been. Our best attempts to rise above the dust-to-dust consequence of sin prove illusory. As King Solomon observed “How the wise dies just like the fool! So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecc. 2:16-17).

As disheartening as much of what Solomon observes in Ecclesiastes can be, it is a productive purging of our sense of importance and control. Just a short time later, Solomon hints at the solution: turning to God, “For apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (Ecc. 2:24-25)

Global tragedies are unavoidable, but we all know the private tragedies in our lives that haunt us just as much personally though they never merit a cable news mention. The tragedies of ordinary life, the things that break our hearts and resolve, these too connect with Solomon’s words.

Those individual and global occurrences all are rooted in the sinfulness of our world and thus the ultimate quenching of our desire to see them righted is the same. Ash Wednesday is a time for reflecting on our sinfulness, but not so we recognize the inescapable tragedy of life. Rather, the day is an opportunity to look ahead toward Easter, when we see God’s great reversal of that tragedy.

The Apostle Paul remarked, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin […] much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many” (Romans 5:12, 15).

Scripture reveals God isn’t the least surprised that we find ourselves observing yet another unjust war. Jesus said it would be so. Disappointing as it is that we even see Christianity wrapped up in Putin’s blend of Christian nationalism, an abominable veneer over his cruelty, that too would hardly surprise the Prophets and Apostles who often faced opposition from alleged followers of the Lord who only wanted cover for their misdeeds.

So, what are we to do? The starting point should be as is every Ash Wednesday, and, really, every day. We ought to turn towards our God. When we see evil on this scale, may it show us the evil thoughts and actions we harbor in ourselves, lead us to repent and and guide us to receive God’s forgiveness through the Savior.

As we do that, we can start to show the light of Christ to the world, not because we are great, but because Jesus is.

Too often, we fixate on our selfish “needs” and our politicians stoke those self-serving flames, promising to vanquish the bad guys on “the other side” and give us more of what “our side” wants. We bend facts with incredulity to ensure our folks look even better and “they” look worse. This not only often means demonizing our neighbor next door, but it also opens the door to men like Vladimir Putin to believe we’re too self-involved to care what he does, for we are too busy fretting over our agendas.

Simply giving the sense that Christians in the Church around the world actually care more about others than themselves would offer a huge difference in the worldwide mood. It might not rid the world of evil (in fact, it won’t), but it certainly could put some evil on notice and even eliminate some.

More importantly, if Christians acted like this world and what we can extract from it for ourselves was not our ultimate prize, it would remind the rest of the world of where meaning is, in fact situated, when senseless evil breaks out and makes us question everything.

There will be wars until Jesus returns, but there will not be wars forever.

Solomon concludes Ecclesiastes thusly: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecc. 12:13-14).

That judgment will come for Putin and also for you and for me. In this moment, when fear of nuclear end of the world moments shakes us, let us remember that true end of the world. When I find myself on that 3 a.m. literal doom scroll, may I remember that no president or leader of this world is ultimately in control of the world’s fate or the world’s hope.

The solution, the only solution to the death that stares us down in that dust-to-dust progression comes from the One who ultimately give us peace: “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. He also serves as a pastor at Little Hills Church and FaithTree Christian Fellowship.

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