Tag Archives: Ash Wednesday

Nothing is going to get better…without your work.

I find the way sinfulness and repentance is portrayed in the readings today problematic. Here I go again arguing with centuries of tradition, but it seems offensive to have to appease and angry and tantruming Lord, to consider ourselves condemned unless we humiliate ourselves- that seems to go against the idea of a loving God that wants us to thrive and grow.

But if I assume that a loving God wants us to thrive and grow, what am I left with of these readings?

  1. It’s not too late to repent. In terms of the extreme sins of society that we are entangled in. In terms of our personal investment in those sins (lifestyles reliant of environmental degradations, disgusting inequalities, consumerism, cowardice, addictions). In terms of the lack of hope in humanity’s future if we don’t repent quickly the readings have a few things to say.

“Even now…return to me with your whole heart…” Don’t just despair that it ought to have been done a decade ago, get busy saving the earth now. “Let your hearts be broken…” repentance is an emotionally honest process, not a performative one. The second reading tells us that “now is an acceptable time…a day of salvation”. The time we need to be doing any work of repentance is NOW. Not despair over a past when we “should have”, not wishy-washy trust in a nebulous future but the hard yards need to happen “now” (there is a promise that we will feel joy).

  1. This is urgent. The business of fixing the values that we live by as individuals and demanding better from our society is urgent- more urgent than getting married, or other cosy lifecycle practices of human beings. At the same time I realise that this reading was written many centuries ago for quite a different time, so the universal call to leave family and celebration and make a serious and urgent event of repentance comes around again and again and again. Hence we have lent. It’s exhausting to live in a serious-minded lent frame of mind for long, so we can’t blame ourselves for needing other parts of the liturgical year, however lent has a sense of urgency- we need to change how we relate to ourselves, each other and the world, therefore improving our relationship with God.

 

  1. This needs to be real. Performative holiness, looking like the person who prays more and fasts more and does more for the church or good cause does not fool God. God wants a deep commitment, that other people don’t even always need to be aware of. Having said that, recently a young man confided in me that because he has not got any children he uses a truly staggering part of his salary each week (which he works hard for) to support a cause he believes in. I did not feel he was telling me this to make me approve of him or admire him (though it did have a positive effect on my opinion of him), he was telling me as part of his need to share his journey and his fierce hopes and looming despair. I felt inspired and connected by him trusting me enough to tell me- so I don’t think giving ALWAYS needs to be a secret. It can be a model, and inspiration for others we may have all sorts of good reasons to let people see our light. It is just that the gospel is picking up the theme of the first reading.

 

The point of generosity and goodness is not to appear holy or admirable, it is to make an actual difference within ourselves and the world. Reading smug parenting blogs with a passive-aggressive judgemental tone has taught me to look for my motivation in sharing something I am good or successful at. Am I really trying to be “good news” when I talk about something I think I have got right? Sometimes the answer is “yes”, and I truly appreciate the young man’s confession of how generous he is. Other times all I am doing is trying to look better than others or shame them. God is not impressed.

Ove the years I have seen some unhealthy tendencies in my own relationship with God. One is dependence, this is the one that is often encouraged in some churches- where God’s role in the relationship is to know everything and order everything and fix everything for me from my economic woes to my mental health. This is a seductive idea because it takes the responsibility to act and grow away from me, I am simply a victim of the divine and need to trust more or surrender more to be fixed.

In my experience, no matter how hard people pray and believe they don’t always magically get what they need. Then people will try to tell you it must be “God’s will” that you suffer. I reject that idea also. What is the good of life if God plays creepy, psychotic mind-games with us to “test” us or something? Theologies like that give rise to unhealthy power-structures and all sorts of abuses.

So my final point about repentance, and it springs out from these readings is that it is an active verb. We repent, change our ways, “turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel”. We take radical responsibility for ourselves, including the responsibility to separate what is “sin” and what is “me” and not confuse the two. I can turn away from sin but I cannot turn away from myself (and in fact self-hate of various sorts has been a consistent and toxic sin that I have had to battle for many years). A measure of self-compassion needs to blend with our repentance, like that drop of water that brings out the flavours of a good whisky.

Repentance is not about holding myself to a higher and higher impossible standard, forbidding myself human weakness and moments of being trivial. But it is about trying to move away from “victim narratives” where the world is too awful to be born, or escapist and addictive behaviours and overfocus on the wrong things. God is calling us “now” to a fuller, deeper, richer, more meaningful life. We must care for ourselves AND others. This is not a chore but a fulfilment of our true nature in God. Look deep inside and allow yourself to care. Feel compassion for the child you were, the adult you have been, the adult you are currently and all the great and flawed things you will be tomorrow. You have been hurt. You have been harmed,

Then compassion needs to flow outwards as well. Who is suffering more than you? This is not to belittle the validity of your pain and scream of anguish, but simply to find solidarity and compassion for them, your God-given vocation. What do we all need for the best possible future? How do we look beyond our own private good to a “kindom of God” approach to life?

Rest up and heal if you need to but also stand up for things and give generously to others. Demand a world that does not crush your light (my light, your light are connected to every other light that God has put into creation). I won’t give words for a prayer today, it is too easy to hide behind words. I will look for my awareness of where my potential is to turn more fully to be facing God in the dance of life. I will look at where my understanding and compassion are needed. I will forgive myself for not being better, but I will do it with a joyful spark of knowledge that the “not better” is only a “not yet”.

I will work for the things that matter, giving up escapism (in my case dumb computer games) for the duration of lent and stop avoiding the deep reflective time that is needed for my growth. I will light a candle and contemplate without words (or try to).

 

 

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not” (Dr Seuss, The Lorax)

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Dust and remembering

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” I don’t think they say that on Ash Wednesday anymore and in many ways I guess the change is progressive. I do remember the first time I came across that particular statement. I was new to English speaking and there was a very tall priest in a red chasuble (I am sure it was red though usually they seem to wear purple)…he looked like a scary wizard to me standing there so aloof and severe looking with his little grey bowl and I had to go up to him, it felt like all by myself though considering I was 5 or so years old I am sure my parents would have accompanied me.

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” he said, he sounded utterly forbidding, even angry. I felt “told”. I knew lent was all about thinking about how sinful we all were and how much we deserved God’s punishment and I was already feeling unworthy. But he could dismiss a little five year old girl as “dust” without even eye-contact. It shocked and frightened me. Now of course I know he was telling the truth because that is exactly what this world does to little girls. They are dust, stripped of a name and identity and incarcerated in Manus. They are dust, targets for marketing practises that clearly see them as less than boys and potentially always less than men (but pretty), or as nonentities. The patriarchal church was quite honest in reminding me that I am always and necessarily dust and to dust I shall return.

So what is dust?

I was interested some years ago when my children got into this series by Philip Pullman. He had one interpretation of the possibilities in “dust”. Going back further I remember bus-rides to Broken Hill and the willy-willies, the little spinning pillars of dust. Dust there was something that could dance. Dust is dry earth, being material, being here, belonging to this planet. We live our material lives and our bodies decay and return into the earth- rich dust, plant food, the stuff of life. The star-dust that our earth was originally made of, transformed into living, breathing, hoping, loving but transient beings.

Remember then that you are stardust and to stardust you will return.

So there is star-dust also gold-dust. We dust our cakes with sugar or cocoa for sweetness and to make them look prettier. Are we dust in any of those ways? Can I choose what I am “fine, dry, particles” of? What if I can be God-dust, little particles of a greater reality? What is the dust that is my true essence and to which I shall return?

What sort of dust I am will affect how I begin and keep my lent. If I am a meaningless entity, “dust” in the sense of useless or waste matter (like I used to think) then I should probably ignore lent and just be as hedonistic as possible, for the short time I am. A willy-willy is no good for growing things in, so it doesn’t weigh itself down with water, it simply dances and dances without care for the others it is useless to.

This I think is the path many despairing people have gone down in our first-world “sty of contentment”. There is no longer any sort of certainty or meaning to be found anywhere so we may as well eat, drink, be merry and keep our “different” people. You make yourself pretty unpopular if you ever say anything that is biased or political. Being “apolitical” means living in unexamined privilege, it is a luxury we have convinced ourselves we can finally afford. There the authentic Christian becomes dust in a different way, we may have a conscience that clings to the surface of things and makes it impossible for the luxurious escapism to be pure and gleaming. Our dust is the awkward questions we bring to our society, not “can we afford the refugees?” but “what gives us the right to even consider not taking them in?”

As Isaiah has pointed out, there are a lot of very religious people caught up in this wilful ignorance. We can all spend one more Ash Wednesday “humbling ourselves” but not noticing.

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

So it’s not just a case of giving up chocolate for a slimmer waist-line (worst luck). God is actually holding me responsible for the state of the world. This is where it would be easy to give up because it is all too big and too hard and anything grandiose I attempt is doomed to failure.

So in all honesty, I will break it down and make a lenten commitment that I hope I can actually stick to.

  1. In my leadership positions at work and elsewhere to consider “my” workers and be a consultative, considerate and nurturing leader who shows a lot of patience toward the children and adults I work with. This includes being more careful not to let my frustration against them turn into nasty talk about them.
  2. I will actually give up buying books and takeaway coffees for lent AND USE THAT MONEY for an organisation that tries to redress imbalances, particularly imbalances of race, class or gender. I will also attend at least 2 protests or send at least 2 emails (it is all too easy to make excuses)
  3. I won’t give into the temptation to think badly of myself and adopt a sackcloth and ashes attitude toward my failures, incapabilities and weaknesses. I will seek more constructive ways to redirect myself into a purposeful life (I have been so depressed lately but wallowing in self-hate is NOT what God asks of me)
  4. I will share as generously as I can with people who are in my life who can benefit from my generosity especially if I discreetly help them without them having to feel grateful or indebted. I know how that is done because I have had people do it to me. At least once a week I will contact either my great aunt or my grandmother both of whom I neglect.

I won’t do any of these things because I feel guilty, or because I am a “bad” person or because I link the way I am “dust” to worthlessness. I will do it because it is a way of empowering myself to repent from my unhappiness and be filled with life again. I will be happy at the opportunity to give these gifts to God knowing they are really appreciated. This is my light breaking. This is my ruins being rebuilt.

So publically “bragging” about my Lenten discipline, not such a good thing to do in light of the gospel? But I hope it is obvious that I am not attempting to be particularly holy or try anything too immense. I hope that by being open about the weaknesses I struggle with and my attempts to move back toward God, I will be kept honest, I will feel I have to follow through and actually do these small things.

I am dust, I am fine particles of earth I am embodied and dependent on my physical substance. I return to dust, constantly, to the small interactions and physical moments of every second of my transient embodiment here. Perhaps there is something in me, a “soul” dust also of God. My body will return to the dust of the earth, my soul yearns always toward reunification with the star-dust of eternity, of meaning, of right relationship. Omnipresent dust which calls me to return.