This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Get Real.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays out three primary practices that define fruitful spirituality: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.  There is no point to doing Lent unless it is to strengthen these central areas of our spiritual life.  

Regarding all three Jesus criticizes “hypocrites,” that is, people who superficially go through the motions of pious acts, but whose main concern is the benefit they believe they will receive from being seen doing them.  In other words, they are doing these things, not out of a sincere trust in God, but for show.  They think other people will see them and admire them.

Jesus insists that we keep to ourselves with our spiritual life, not letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing.  By rejecting any notion of receiving recognition or reward for our behavior in this existence, Jesus says our reward is a treasure “in heaven.”   

It makes me think of how much we do “for show,” from choosing what to wear in the morning to deciding what purchases to make.  Indeed, in America a lot of what we do is an expression of our inner fantasies about ourselves.  We don’t just do things for other people to see, but “for show” to ourselves, to convince ourselves we are really living this or that dream.  Like when we buy a car that is designed to travel over the open landscape, thus feeding our fantasy that we are adventurous wilderness explorers, when in reality the car will never leave pavement. 

Jesus wants us to get real.  The false, superficial, public narratives we tell ourselves need to be relinquished.  We need to get to the bottom of who we are.  That’s what’s going on when we reflect on the ashes of Ash Wednesday.  Ashes are basically carbon, the primal element of all life.  The phrase that is spoken when ashes are imposed is: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”  This may serve to oppress us with guilt, remorse, or feelings of worthlessness.  But this is not an exercise in self-abuse of self-hatred.  Rather it is about honesty.  We are reminded of what we are at our most basic and physical.

Our false, old, ego-driven, small self doesn’t want to remember this.  It projects delusions of grandeur about ourselves.  Just like we don’t want to be reminded of our own death, or even our aging.  

But dust and ash are more than reminders of our mortality.  They also represent our connection and integration into all of life and all that is.  I believe it was a Joni Mitchell song from the 1960’s that included the line, “We are stardust.”  The elements of which we are made are created and used by God in the beginning to form life.  They were taken on by God in becoming flesh in Jesus.  Dust is what God speaks to in creating each one of us.  It is not bad, it is not neutral; it is explicitly and exceedingly blessed!

Lent is about getting back to basics and fundamentals.  It is about clearing out the clutter and silencing the noise of our existence.  This means abandoning what we do because of  what we calculate we will get out of it, and instead emptying ourselves so that God may use us as raw material of a new creation. 

Lent is therefore a joyful time!  To be connected back to our original nature is to realize that we are made in God’s Image.  It is a time to discover who and whose we really are, and to embrace that as the priceless gift that it is.  For while the dust is what we are reduced to after our bodies give out, dust is also what God breathes life into in creating us.

In actual practice this means taking on tasks that return no profit, gain no reward, and accrue no earthly credit.  Indeed, it means taking on tasks of selfless service that society frowns on or even punishes.  For in these we quietly affirm a common humanity with each other and with Jesus.    


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