Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Often this is what a minister or a priest says when a body is being buried or cremated. It is a sobering proclamation that is supposed to remind us of our frailty as human beings. As we hear this reminder, we are faced with the reality of the human condition. The words are stark but they also gently invite us to reflect on where we have come from and where all of us are ultimately heading.
They are also words that we recite and ponder when the Christian calendar comes to the season of Lent. Tomorrow, especially as it is Ash Wednesday, many traditions have a ceremony where a leader will smear some charcoal on a person’s forehead in order to remember this proclamation “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” or “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Practicing Lent presents a serious challenge, especially in today’s culture which is so often overconfident.
We live in times of hubris where pride, self-assertion and arrogance are modeled to us from our leadership. Our national leaders are moving towards an “us-first” mentality that comes from a “me-first” ethic.
Moreover, many of our church leaders run conferences on how to grow churches faster and further than we have ever imagined and so we salivate wanting to know the formula for success in order to make our churches big and influential…all for the kingdom of course. Deep down we still long for the glory of Christendom from back when the church asserted itself more confidently in the public sphere..
We could rationalize all of this by saying that we are promoting our work all for the growth of the kingdom of God, and I don’t doubt that we are. However, Lent reminds us that the heart is more deceitful than we know and that our motives are always mixed.
Lent welcomes us to allow the Spirit to search our hearts to see if there is any twisted way present, and then know that as we repent, we can be confident that the gaze of a loving God will forgive, transform and bless. We are loved beyond measure, yet we are also flawed and in desperate need of turning to God who slowly makes us whole again as we turn and return to Him.
We are also particularly digital. I often worry that my use of social media is making me more impatient, less able to focus and giving me more excuses to avoid meeting with people face to face. We read in articles that study our social media age, we are in fact becoming more distracted and restless due to the overload of information that we constantly access on our newsfeeds.
Who hasn’t felt the frequent twitch to reach and check the smart phone at regular intervals? Yet this is counter to the spirit of Lent which calls us to focus, pay attention to the heart, check for signals of death which then move us to return to life. How do we pay attention to the complexities of the heart when we are persistently bombarded with new information thrusting itself into our spheres with increasing speed?
We desperately need to observe Lent today.
There are many practices we can engage in over the Lent season. Here are three simple ones that help us live counter to a distracted, disembodied and arrogant world.
Humility- Become aware that it is the grace of God, not us, who moves the world
Our “platforms” often encourage us to believe that without us the world would not move. Without us, we secretly think, the kingdom stops advancing. This is hubris. Instead, what are some activities we can engage in to remind ourselves that we “return to dust”?
One way is to spend some time in the slow rhythms of nature to notice that the world continues just fine even without our frenetic activity. I think this well-known poem called The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry sums this practice up nicely:
When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
As we spend time watching and savoring God’s active grace in the world we realize that God’s presence is all we need in the midst of a world of platforms, promotion and drivenness. As we spend time savoring God's active grace we realize his God's presence is all we need. Click To Tweet
Cruciformity- Promote others on forums like social media
Often people will give up social media for Lent. Lent is a time that many practice fasting and instead of giving up something like food, many take a break from Facebook, Twitter and the other forms of social media that we have become used to living with today.
However, what about practicing cruciformity in the midst of our social media usage? Instead of, for example, promoting our material, what about giving that up for the 40 days of Lent and only promoting the resources, blogs and material of others?
We could identify those who are marginalized in our world and need the help of a person who is more influential in order that their material might become more widely recognized and promoted.
Hospitality- Spend more time in embodied interaction.
The season of Lent is not only about observing humility, confession and attention to God. It also is a time to allow the Spirit to shape us into a service-oriented, redemptive community that embodies the alternate reality of the kingdom.
What does it look like to live a life of sacrificial service to God? We move towards doing that in the season of Lent. Instead of connecting with people over emails, texts and messenger, what about taking the 40 days of Lent as a time of investing in face to face interaction, especially with those who we know are struggling?
Instead of texting someone “r u ok?” perhaps we could ask them out for a cup of coffee and actually spend time in the flesh with them. If we believe in a God who put on flesh in order to show us his love, we also must flesh out the gospel by showing up and being present to people.
These are just some simple suggestions for observing the much needed season of Lent in our world today. As we model this, hopefully, a watching world will ask us why it is that we do these strange yet evocative things and then they too might be tempted to join us on our journey in the presence of the Risen One.