“Momma” was a comic strip, written by Mel Lazarus, that ran for years until 2016. One of his strips shows Momma entertaining her perpetual suitor, Mr. K. To be honest, he is not much of a catch, but he is persistent. As the two sit stoically on the couch, Mr. K. says, “Mrs. Hobbs, I am at a low ebb, psychologically. My ego is flattened.” Mrs. Hobbs responds in an affirming way, “Mr. K., let me hasten to state that you’re a fine, interesting and attractive man.” Mr. K. perks up at this and asks, “Oh, Mrs. Hobbs, is that the truth?” Mrs. Hobbs says, “No. There will be plenty of time for the truth when you’re emotionally stronger.”

Unlike Mrs. Hobbs, Ash Wednesday, which is next Wednesday, doesn’t sugar-coat the truth. Neither does Jesus, who says, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” Neither does Harry S. Truman, who says, "I never give them hell. I just tell the truth and they think it's hell."

The truth sometimes is hell. It is hard to hear. It is not always easy to tell the truth. Sometimes the truth hurts. Sometimes it disturbs. Sometimes it dislocates.

Often with couples, I will use the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator as part of their pre-marriage counseling. It is basically a psychological profile that reveals how an individual interacts with others, makes decisions, and carries out the tasks of life. One aspect of Myers-Briggs looks at how an individual makes decisions. Some people make decisions using their head and some make decisions using their heart. Those who tend to use more of their head or logic are labeled "T" or "thinking" individuals. Those who use more of their heart or emotions are labeled "F" or "feeling" individuals.

Well, I am an "F," a "feeling" individual. And one of the characteristics of an "F" individual is that they value "tact over truth." As opposed to a "T" individual who values "truth over tact." An “F” individual will go out of his or her way to be tactful, and thus sometimes it makes the telling of the truth very difficult.

Ash Wednesday is thus a very difficult day for me. Ash Wednesday does not permit me to value tact over truth. Ash Wednesday is one of those days that forces me to tell the truth. It is a truth that many struggle with.

Children do not know this truth.

Youth struggle to comprehend this truth.

Young adults spend much of their energies challenging this truth.

Middle-aged adults suddenly awaken in the night to this truth, and then spend great expense and even destroy their lives trying to cover up this truth.

Older adults are constantly surrounded by this truth, and yet still refuse to talk about it; and when they do talk about this truth, they almost always are forced to use euphemisms.

But the truth is still there. This truth will not go away. No matter how hard I can try, Ash Wednesday will not allow me to…avoid it, soften its blow, or paint it in beautiful colors.

This truth…It startles our cool and collect minds. It shocks us our calm hearts. It jolts every fiber of our being.

Yet, next Wednesday many pastors will be forced to tell this this harsh truth as people come forward for the imposition of ashes. Through our actions of smudging the ashes on foreheads in the shape of the cross and from our words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we will clearly and directly and blatantly tell you this truth.

The truth is this: You are going to die. You are not going to live forever. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

But, why does the church insist on telling this hard truth every Ash Wednesday? The reason is that telling of this truth is a door to grace.

When we are finally willing to say, "I am going to die," we are finally able to acknowledge that our days are limited. And in saying this, we finally are forced to say, "Well if my days are limited, then I better examine the way I am living my limited days." "Am I living my limited days how I really want to live? The way God is calling me to live and love?”

“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is a truth that can set you free!


The Rev. Dr. Ron Shive is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Burlington. Contact him at rshive@fpcburlington.org