I was driving home on the afternoon of Pancake Tuesday and had on one of my favourite radio stations, The Edge. Josie Dye was the host and she noted from somewhere in her childhood memory bank that there is a connection between pancakes and penitence. In the spirit of the occasion, she declared this would be Confession Tuesday and she encouraged people to call or tweet in with their true confessions. I was in the car long enough to hear two people respond to her summons. The first person confessed that her husband had an annoying habit in the bedroom and she didn’t know how to tell him that she didn’t like it. The second person confessed that she had been secretly taking time off work to go on other job interviews while claiming that she had doctors’ appointments. The second confession ended with a summary sentiment which I wouldn’t assume necessarily follows from the description of a life where one has the choice to seek new employment when current conditions are no longer satisfactory: “Yeah. My life sucks.”
This radio snippet highlighted what I was already feeling: when it comes to the Christian season of Lent, we are a seemingly insurmountable chasm apart from the everyday business-as-usual assumptions by which the rest of the world operates:
- Lent invites deep and honest self-reflection, a willingness to name the brokenness and need of our own lives. Confession Tuesday represents the norm of masquerading inconsequential complaining as so-called truth-telling.
- Lent invites a posture of prayer, training our eyes to see God’s presence and blessings at work. Confession Tuesday upholds the culture of dissatisfaction, it is emblematic of the relentless encouragement to see our lives as not having enough, not being enough.
- Lent invites repentance, a willingness to encounter the demon of despair, to wrestle with the darkness at work in our lives and our world, and in response, to name the promise that there is a place of love and acceptance into which we can always turn our lives. Confession Tuesday trivializes despair and darkness with a joke-like punchline that makes it clear that our society requires no wrestling, no confrontation. These three words strung together become an example of the most ordinary and dismissive profanity: my life sucks.
If we take the particulars of this one radio segment and extend our perspective to more general observations, the disconnection deepens. It feels alien to declare a communal fast, to issue an edict which claims the coming weeks as a time of repentance for all. We are a militantly individualistic society, committed to the idea that religion should be a personal choice practiced firmly in the private sphere. The ancient witness of the Israelites being called by the prophets to collectively repent and turn their lives back to God describes a nearly inconceivable time and place in which prayer, the strengthening of divine relationship and favour, was seen primarily as a corporate act. The individual could accomplish nothing alone. The Christian faith upholds this wisdom—this life is designed in a way that I cannot love God without learning to walk with my neighbour, that I do need to commit to the challenge of communal faith in order to receive the blessing of a deepening personal faith—but does anyone have ears to hear?
Likewise, talk of wilderness and reward in the Christian faith can sound like the strange pronunciations of a foreign language. While we continually receive the message of “go on, you deserve it!” and the central question, “what’s in it for me?” the Gospel invitation is instead to devote ourselves to ‘our reward in heaven,’ which if we look at Jesus, turns out to have a lot to do with the surrender of self and the discovery of our true identity as Loved and Loving. Likewise, the wilderness with which we are most familiar is the one that leads us to ‘find’ ourselves at the nearest big box store, consuming an identity of carefully crafted image, brand, and with-it-ness; the Lenten wilderness claims that it is in the way of the cross, the way of searching and sacrifice, which actually leads to the fullness of life.
Perhaps the chasm between these so-called realities, secular and Christian, business-as-usual and Lenten, is insurmountable. Despite the truth we experience in finding our lives joined to Christ, in imperfectly saying ‘yes’ to his invitation, it is easy to conclude that the common ground that might allow conversation between our two worlds has eroded.
And yet, despite this widening disconnection, or perhaps because of it, some of us still look with expectation, or at least hope, for how our attempting to accept this Lenten invitation will be meaningful and even life-giving. Our Lenten walk may be at odds with the norms at work around us, but if for a moment we can pay attention to what we actually experience, not just what we believe, but what experience reveals as real, then we know that these forty days might feel shadowy and strange compared to the bright lights, blaring music and petty nattering of the world around us, but that we are nonetheless encountering undeniable truth about who we are and what this life is for.
Thankfully, we start with the ashes.
Before we can even speak of the cross, or Jesus, or Lent, or why we do what we do, or how we have come to make the strange choice to join our bodies to the body, there is this truth that marks us. Marks all of us. The ones who skate along the surface of life; the ones who try to go deep; the ones who give their lives to newer, better, faster, more; the ones who remember (here and there, and now and then) that there is another story that claims us.
You are dust, and to dust you shall return. First and finally, our lives are in the hands of the creator. And for whatever period of time we are granted the gift of the breath of life, we can choose. We can choose to live as if our beginning and ending matters. We can choose whether to live for ourselves or as if our lives are from and for someone.
Maybe the talking points between these two very different world views are few and far between. Maybe the jokey complaints of Josie Dye’s Confession Tuesday, which breeds the dissatisfaction on which our society feeds, is today’s exclusive language. Maybe there is no room for the foreign babble of faith. And yet, whether we can talk or not, I have to believe that the truth of the ashes is stronger. If this Lent we can start with living closer to that human truth, the truth of the dust, the truth of gift and return, then something about our lives might speak across the chasm.