Asses to Ashes: How to Rescue the Rest of Lent

We’re more than halfway through Lent. It began on Ash Wednesday, March 5th. It ends on Thursday, April 17th. And how’s that self-denial going? Have you kept up your Lenten pledge?

You know what I mean. Giving up chocolate was the choice for Lent among the Holy Family Catholic school kids I grew up with in Levittown, New York, in the 60s. This year, one of our Seattle Pacific University students has given up his cell phone for Lent. A few years ago, our daughter Chloe gave away one piece of clothing per day — 40 in all.

If you’re more than halfway to Easter and haven’t managed a healthy dose of abstention, a measure of self-negation, then I’ve got a suggestion for you — something different, something a little less demanding and daunting. It doesn’t negate abstention. Or generosity. Or simplicity. It will, I think, prod you to abstain more, give more, and live with less.

Here’s my suggestion: Visit some key places during Lent, all of them within easy reach, none of them in a church.

Visit a cemetery. Consider afresh a legacy that matters. We are, after all, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” A buddy of mine has done thousands of funerals in the course of forty years as a pastor. “Never at a funeral did I hear people talk about the person’s job,” he told me. (He did confide one exception: a Boeing test pilot who inverted jets over Lake Washington. How could that go unmentioned?) What did my friend hear at funerals? “This person taught me how to shake hands when I was thirteen.” Stuff like that. So visit a cemetery. Read the gravestones, peppered as they are with words like, “beloved” and “missed,” “good mother,” “dear sister.” As you stroll, while you muse, consider afresh the legacy you want to leave.

Visit a couch. Consider afresh the capacity to nap. Naps are totally underrated by people whom poet William Butler Yeats called “the noisy set/Of bankers, schoolmasters and clergymen …” Escape from the busy trap a little more often. The Roman philosopher Plutarch, who wrote just about the time the New Testament gospels were probably composed, believed that visions came during sleep or near death — when the body is disconnected from the soul. And the story of the Christian church begins with a quotation from the prophet Joel, who promised, “your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (see Acts 2:17-21). So consider afresh the capacity to nap — to step away from the rough and tumble of life, to slip away for even a few moments from “the noisy set” in order to see visions and dream dreams.

Visit a locker room. Consider afresh the capacity to face death head on. I do whenever I hit the gym — especially the locker room. There are guys in the locker room who have butts that look like overripe, wrinkled canteloupes squeezed together. Even the ones who are in shape. There they are, in the altogether, exhibiting the essence of Ash Wednesday, the crux of Lent — ashes to ashes, dust to dust. My son Jeremy won’t admit that he glances at these withered butts, but we were laughing about it the other night, so he must. We both think I should call this post — though I’d never be so completely vulgar, of course — asses to ashes, butts to dust. The bottom line? (Yes, that’s a pun.) Visit a locker room, and consider afresh the inevitable reality of this destiny.

So there you have it. I’m not telling you to give up chocolate or your cell phone for Lent. I’m not telling you to visit places that are hard to get to. Like a pilgrimage to Jerusalem or even a local cathedral or church. I’m not urging you to walk the labyrinth. I’m not telling you to attend a meditative Taize service. All of those would be great, but for this Lent, which is already half spent, carve out a few moments from the days that lie ahead between now and Easter to visit three must-see places.

Visit a cemetery, wandering through the gravestones — and ponder afresh your legacy.

Visit a couch, snoozing while “the noisy set” increases productivity — and ponder afresh your capacity to dream.

Visit a locker room, casting furtive glances at naked butts — and ponder afresh the certainty of your destiny: ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

 

(This post appeared in the Huffington Post last week. With a few weeks left in Lent, I decided to post it again here at spiritchatter.)