Ash Wednesday: Remember you are Finite

In just a few moments the congregation will file up the center aisle of Holy Communion to receive ashes. We will disfigure our faces, just as Jesus encourages us NOT to do. Still, the invitation stands. I encourage you to approach and to hear the words: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I invite you, in just a moment, to come forward to hear those words, but to hear in them the implicit grace, the freedom, the joy.

Joy may seem an odd word to use on Ash Wednesday. As the preacher William Sloane Coffin used to say: “Many people have just enough religion to make themselves miserable.”

Back when I was in seminary, Lent was awful. When people ask me what seminary was like, I often reply: “any time you put 200 people in a room who are convinced God is calling them to do something, well, you end up with a lot of crazies.” That statement is only partly true, but seminarians tend to be a dreadfully serious bunch. Lent brings out the worst in serious Christians.

During Lent it became almost impossible to prepare a meal for folks. Someone had given up gluten, someone else had given up sugar. Half the seminary was vegetarian year, but suddenly in Lent a huge number became vegan. Dinner parties regularly featured quinoa and kale, as the main dish. Some seminarians even took to wearing their black cassocks, the long black robes, not just to chapel but all day to class and to meals. This dressing up would have been normal at the Roman Catholic seminary across town, but for some of the more Protestant Episcopalians the black robed seminarians gave cause for much eye-rolling. When you compare fasting practices, when one-upmanship enters the game, well Lent can be problematic.

Thankfully, most Christians don’t spend three years at seminary. But for Christians, Lent can make faith busy work. We give something up, or take something on. We become serious about our faith. What if all that work isn’t what Lent is about? What if Lent is more simple?

In today’s Gospel, I wonder if Jesus isn’t trying to simplify faith. Don’t make it too much work! Don’t use too many words. Don’t disfigure your face. Don’t worry about how others perceive your faithfulness. Pray simply:

“Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.”

What if your Lenten Discipline this year was simply to pray as Jesus taught. Find 5 minutes of quiet each day, and simply say the Lord’s prayer? Could Lent be that simple?

Father J.J. O’Leary, is a Jesuit priest who used to teach at my college, the University of San Diego. JJ preached perhaps the most memorable homily in my history of Ash Wednesdays. A prolifically brief homilist, his reflections seldom lasted over five minutes, something I can’t promise you today. J.J.’s homilies were short, and they often concluded with the direction to “go into your hearts” and consider some spiritual truth he had shared.

That Ash Wednesday Fr. J.J. said simply that when we give something up for Lent, God doesn’t want us to give up things that make us happy. If we enjoy chocolate or a martini at the end of a long day we shouldn’t give them up. God wanted us to give up something that made us sad. He then said. “I invite you go into your hearts to consider what you might give up that makes you sad.”

Disciplines are not meant to be muscular expressions showing what ascetic lives we can live. Often, I think, we treat Lent as an exercise in control. We give up something, or take something on that is too difficult. We try to control an aspect of our life, an aspect of our time.

But discipline, in Christianity, is not about control. Discipline has the same root as “disciple.” Discipline is about letting go, not taking control. Discipline is about surrender. We don’t encounter God through self-control. We find God when we let go. After all, you don’t seize love, you fall in love.

I am aware that sometimes preachers get caught up in nuance. Why does it matter if my Lenten Discipline is about self-control. Isn’t self-control a good thing? Well, sure, it can be. But our society is addicted to control. Ash Wednesday is about knowing our limits.

Some time ago, I had dinner with a friend who works as a therapist. We have the kind of friendship that allows us to cut through the usual pleasantries. When we ask one another: “how are you?” we don’t expect the usual, “oh, I’m fine.” So early in the conversation my friend shared that a longtime client had completed suicide. “I’m so sorry,” I said. My friend continued saying he was dealing pretty well, but couldn’t shake that old gnawing sense: “maybe I could have said something, done something, and my client would still be alive.”

I was surprised to hear this from a friend with a background in psychology, training in therapy. In his graduate program, just like in my seminary program, you hear over an over again: “you are not in control of outcomes” especially in the arena of mental health. Still, it is hard to accept our limits.

My friend’s reaction to death is common. Oftentimes for months, even years, after someone dies, close family members will ask: “should I have gotten her to the hospital sooner?” or “could I have known his heart was failing?” Grief often manifests as guilt.

Into those questions: “could I have said something?” “should I have done something different?” comes the reality of Ash Wednesday: “Remember you are dust.”

We are all finite. We have limits. We won’t ever be able to say all the right things, do all the right things. No matter what we do, eventually we will die. Our time on this earth is relatively short. “To dust you shall return.”

Being finite is not a cause for alarm. In life, as the old saying goes, there are only two sure things: death and taxes. We all go down the the grave. We all have our limits. In Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief, the last step is acceptance. Until we accept the loss, until we accept our limits, we cannot fully move forward.

The sense of regret, of course, is not limited to literal death. Many of my activist friends lately have been caught in questions related to guilt: “Could I have done more?” “Could we have persuaded more voters?” Some are moving from a place of dis-illusionment. But disillusion isn’t bad. It means losing your illusions. Knowing your limits means knowing that progress doesn’t often shoot straight out like an arrow. Progress swings like a pendulum. For my activist friends, we need to know that we’ll have to take on some small causes, find small places to buld consensus these days. We’ll need to build momentum first, and that can feel like loss.

If you try to muscle your way through loss; if your faith is all about regret, about “would have, should have, could have;” if you try to overwork yourself through life, you will make yourself miserable. And you’ll make everyone around you miserable as well.

Lent is a season of atonement. Slow that word down a bit: at-one-ment. Lent is about honestly confronting our limits and our failings, but not getting stuck there. When we accept the things we cannot change, when our discipline allows us to surrender, we are set free to encounter God. When we acknowledge that we are not in control, we can encounter the God who helps us to stand in love.

Lent is simple, deceptively simple. Lent is about accepting our limits. Lent is about giving up what makes us sad. Faith is about falling in love, and following Jesus. You don’t need to make a big show of fasting, or compare your practice to others. You don’t need to have the right answers. You just need to let go, to let yourself fall in Love. When we act out of love, we have a much greater chance of helping God’s kingdom to come, God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven.

You will return to dust. We all return to dust. But when we do, we also return to God. When we accept our limits, we can sense our ever-present connection to God. We know our destination. In the end we return to the One who creates us, who redeems us, who sustains us in life. Our life has limits, yes, but when we accept our limits we can encounter the limitless life, the limitless love of God.

Standing on your head for Lent

Sometimes Jesus doesn’t make a lot of sense.  In today’s Gospel reading he exhorts his followers to fast, but also tells them not to make a big deal of it.  Though the Old Testament reading from Joel tells us to “Blow the Trumpet.  Sanctify a fast.”  Jesus says specifically, “Do not blow a trumpet.”  Confusing.
I grew up thinking of Lent kind of like a Christian version of New Year’s resolutions.  It was a time to start a diet, give up caffeine or chocolate, stop smoking or swearing, or doing something else unproductive.  This understanding existed alongside  the traditional understanding of giving up something we loved as a sacrifice to God.  It saw Lent as an invitation to self-improvement.  God would be our helper.  Both of these images of Lent are important and beautiful.  They help me to understand the places in my life that need work and to invite God into those spaces.
Lately though another image of Lent has become compelling.  A few years ago Trinity Wallstreet, an Episcopal Church in New York, had a series of Lenten audio/visual meditations on their website.  One in particular focused upon a staff member at the Church who had chosen to take a different route to work on his bicycle as his Lenten discipline.  He saw Lent as an invitation to change perspective, to shift his daily commute to work initiated a process of examining his usual assumptions.  Lent became not simply a time of abstinence, but an opportunity to look at life through a new lens, to start each day with a new route.
This is the original meaning of the word “repent.”  The original word (metanoia) translates literally: “a change of mind:” a shift in perspective.  Our world can become flooded with ordinariness.  We can be so caught up in the ways we usually see, our everyday patterns, that we miss the strangeness, the particularity, the holiness present in our daily lives.  In the midst of this, Lent becomes an opportunity to allow God to jar us out of the ruts we run in, the well worn paths we know by heart, so that we might discover newness, fresh perspective, and glimpse the divine in ways we might otherwise miss.
Barbara Brown Taylor talks about it this way.  “In order to to discern the hidden figure, it is often necessary to cross your eyes or stand on your head so that all known relationships are called into question and new ones may be imagined.  When earth and sky are reversed and it seems entirely plausible that lawns may grow down instead of up, then you are in a good position to glimpse the hidden figure, because you are ready to approach it on its own terms instead of your own.”  (from The Preaching Life).
I’ve never been particularly good at standing on my head.  I was always clumsy and awkward, and I have what a friend once described as “sturdy legs,” which draw themselves quickly toward the earth when they are raised in the air.  But the times I have managed to stand on my head, the world has seemed more alive.  Whether due to the blood rushing toward my head, or the disorientation of balance, being upside down is always a thrill.
What Lent asks of us, what I think Jesus is saying through his contradictoriness in the passage for today, is to practice fasting while standing on our heads.  Disorientation can become reorientation, inversion can become a practice for discerning truth, for discovering the God surprisingly present to us.  Out of the wisdom of thousands of years of spiritual practice, the Church invites us into a holy season that is wholly different from the ordinary.  Whatever we decide to do for Lent, whatever we give up or take on, let it be for us an invitation to shift our perspective, to see things upside down.  Because standing on our head we might just catch a glimpse of God.