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Becoming Grounded

It’s been a few years, ten in fact, but when my eldest was just eight days old, we took him to a noon-hour Ash Wednesday service at St. James Church in Vancouver. That morning, the priest marked each of our heads—all three of us—with ashes, saying “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” Eight days old. Brand new. You too are going to die. 

After the service we stopped for coffee, and then to pick up a few things from the new kids’ consignment store across the road. We had much of what we needed, but there were a few things we were looking for, for this new life. Checking out at the cash register, the owner stared at us and eventually said, “you have something on your forehead.” 

“We do,” my wife answered. “It’s Ash Wednesday.” 

The store owner said, “oh yeah, my neighbour is Jewish, she’s always telling me about that stuff.” 

Which is one way of saying that few people have any cultural reference for what we’re doing here today. Later this afternoon you could head out to the doctors, or the thrift shop, or to pick up something at the Kootenay Market, or to grab a coffee next door, but if they even notice the smudge on your forehead, its symbolism likely won’t register. If you’re lucky, it’ll be categorized as something generically religious. Likely not. But, if they’re neighbourly, maybe they’ll speak up and mention the smudge. The Ash Wednesday equivalent of “you’ve got Broccoli in your teeth.”

There’s another way that what we’re doing today is foreign to the world we live in. Taking time to consider our mortality is something that our culture—as much as is possible—tries to put to the side. As Christians, Death and Resurrection are central to our faith. For Christians, this reality is nothing to shy away from, for in all of it we are beloved of God. From before the beginning of time. We live in a world that wants to hide from the reality of creaturely existence. And yet as those who walk in the way of Jesus, our beginnings and endings, and everything in between are gift. 

This year I was wondering where our youth-obsessed culture leaves those of us newly contending with the loss of our hair, for example? I was planning on making a joke about how I’d given up hair for lent, but was not-so-subtly reminded that my hair gave up on me long ago. If I’m to give up on anything, it’s the illusion that the hair is coming back. 

Back before Christmas, I went to drop off a gift at a neighbour’s house. As I walked up the front steps, he opened the door saying “thought you could sneak up on me, eh?” I looked at him, shrugged it off and said, “Actually, I was just going to ring the doorbell.” He invited me in. 

We had a conversation about the holidays and life and our various spheres of work. And then, perhaps testing out a new coaching technique we has going to try, he asked, “do you know what your purpose is? What’s your why?”

I stumbled and stuttered, mumbling a bit of a “yes, and well it’s complicated, but generally yes, a sense of my call and purpose, I’ve got that.”

He jumped on that immediately, saying, “What you’re telling me is you don’t know. You don’t have a purpose. You don’t know why you do what you’re doing. You should be able to tell me without even thinking about it.” I sat there stunned. I’d come to drop off a gift and now found myself under some sort of military interrogation. “It sounds to me,” he said, “like you’re living a pretty mediocre life.” And then he went on. 

“Let me put it this way,” he continued. “You’re walking down the street and a guy jumps out of the trees. He jams a gun under your chin. How do you respond?”

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust…Sort of. 

What I had to remember on the walk home from this bizaarre encoutner was that this imaginary gun-toting self-help guru isn’t God. Instead, the assassin of the story was conjured up by an active imagination and a misguided sense of human worth. I’m all for thinking through my purpose, and under such pressure, I might be able to spit something out. But my starting place isn’t threat. It isn’t violence. It’s the God of all Creation who we first meet in a garden with dirt under her fingernails. 

The story of the Bible starts in a garden and ends in a gardened city—a global garden cultivated and tended with love and with care. Because of this, it is a mistake to start with violence. It is a mistake to start with fear. 

Our starting place is the place where God starts—declaring all Creation good. When God creates humans from the humus, breathing life into dirt, what does he say? You are good, you are good, you are good. 

Lent is not a threat. Nor is it a diet or self-help program, as my friend, the Rev. Jesse Dymond—chaplain at Bishop’s University in Quebec—reminded me this week. It’s not about strength or self-improvement, or even our accomplishments. 

At its heart, Lent is about re-establishing a right relationship with God, with others, and with ourselves. 

It’s about coming to terms with our selves as we are. We are beloved and we are finite. 

It’s about coming to terms with our reliance on God’s grace. We are finite and we are beloved. 

It’s about coming to terms with our relationships. We are interdependent with God, with the Creation, and one another. 

In some ways, Lent can be disorienting. Perhaps in the same way that stepping into this space today was disorienting for some of us. 

And yet, if we let it, Lent does something else, too. In our lives, our relationships to others, our relationship to stuff, our prayer life, our life of service…If we give ourselves over to it, Lent can reorient our whole lives towards the Jesus we follow on this Lenten journey. As we humble ourselves and walk with Jesus, we experience healings and miracles, and listen to incredible stories, and then we join our Saviour and our Friend on the Triumphal Entry, the Last Supper, The Garden of Gethsemane, The Betrayal, The Trial, The Denial, The Crucifixion, The Tomb. And then, unexpectedly, the new life that awaits him—that awaits us!—on the other side of death..

As I thought about these things this week, I started to think about the ways in which the disorientation of Lent helps to reorient us towards God. 

Perhaps Lent can disorient us from our habits of self-reliance, helping us to reorient ourselves to our mutual interdependence: our reliance on God, on each other, and on the earth from which our life comes. 

Perhaps Lent can disorient us from our habits of conceit, those times when we think of ourselves more highly than we ought: and with God’s help, to reorient our lives to understanding that all we have received is received by the grace of God

Perhaps Lent can disorient us from our habits of self-neglect and negative self-talk, reorienting ourselves to the reminder that when God thinks of us, it is a thought of gleeful delight. 

When we remember that we are beloved creatures of the earth, and to the earth we will return, let us not forget that when God created us out of beloved dirt, the triune God breathed into living soil, fashioning us in their image, and when we came to be, God celebrated with joy. 

The invitation of Lent is an invitation to ground ourselves in the Creator’s love, and to reorient our lives so that we might embody this truth. The invitation of this season—in the practices we take on and the practices we let go of—is focused on one reordering our lives in ways that bring God to the centre.  

This is no easy feat. Which is why it’s nothing we can do on our own. We’re going to need to rely on God and one another to do this. I said earlier that Lent can be disorienting. It is disorienting precisely because it seeks to reorient us towards Jesus at the center of our common life. The one we meet on the road, at the table, and at the heart of Christian community.

And so this Lent, may we respond to God’s invitation to repentance, to reorderingn, to reorientation. May we turn away from illusion. And as we do so, let’s turn towards God with one another. That we might bear witness to God’s loving kindness and compassion, a love that goes all the way down, a love that will never be extinguished, a love that can not, will not let us go.