I experienced a heart-warming sight on Ash Wednesday night which made me feel right with the world. In the din of the sanctuary lights, I looked out on the congregation during the Eucharistic prayer and was struck by what I think the meaning of Ash Wednesday really is. There you were on your knees, pressing forward on the pew in front of you, your faces somber and your foreheads smudged with what looked like the sin of the world—sin extracted from your hearts and bruised on your forehead as a testimony that you want to let it go for the sake of humanity.
I don’t know about you but my body and soul desperately need the 40 days of Lent. This is actually my favorite time of the church year because it is a time when I want and need to be deliberate about getting my act together. Like every other fallen celebrity or politician, I’m checking myself into rehab—spiritual rehab. Randy and I were interviewing a seminarian candidate for the assistant position on Monday, and the candidate had the gall to ask me how my prayer life was. Randy cocked his head at me, curious to hear if I’d be frank with him. I fudged an answer that was partly true, knowing full well that I should come clean and spill the whole truth, that, in fact, my prayer life is in the toilet! I feel like the living embodiment of the Prayer of Humble Access, “I am not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.”
The season of Lent is like working a 12-step program for me because it is a time when I’m more willing to honestly examine my shortcomings and come clean about my own ugliness, but more importantly, it’s a time when I’m more gentle and forgiving of the shortcomings and ugliness in others.
Today, the first Sunday in Lent, we join Jesus in the desert, where he spent 40 days wrestling with the devil’s temptations. In the scorching heat and sand, Jesus was trying to figure out, as Frederick Buechner writes, “what it meant to be Jesus.” The Devil put before him these three temptations: if you are hungry, change stones into bread; if you are the son of God, leap from a tower and rely on angels to rescue you; and if you bow down before me, all the kingdoms of the world will be yours. What I hope you notice is that these temptations have come to represent things all too familiar for us. Satan’s temptations represent magic and a quick fix, co-dependency and rescue, fame and power—and they beckon to us every day of our lives. We think: Just around the corner lies happiness, if I only had more money, if only he or she would love me, if only I could lose 20 pounds, if only I could get accepted into that school then things would work out. You get the gist. Often these thoughts are nothing but fantasies, illusions, that suck the life out of us and keep us trapped in the suffocating tents of our own self esteem.
Lent calls us to discern what is fantasy and what is reality, what is entertainment and what is news, what is dead and what is alive, what is a narcotic and what is food, what are stones and what is bread. It is dangerous, wrenching and unavoidable. In the desert, Jesus fought for his life. What do we do? We go on Spring Break. What was asked of Jesus is what is asked of us, that we give up our delusion, its false promises and its addicting stagnation, and “come to our senses,” come to living bread.
I want to mention two words that might cause you to bristle, but first, I ask you not to tune me out. Some of you might even be relieved to hear that they are not “capital punishment” or “death penalty.” They seem almost blasphousmess words to preach from this pulpit but here goes: “Britney Spears.” Please, just hear me out. I watch the Today Show religiously as I get ready in the morning. Last week I found myself angry and appalled that it, and other media, spent an inordinate amount of time focusing on the fact that Britney had shaved her head. (Good for you if you do not know what I’m talking about.) This was a typical teaser: “American officials claim there is mounting evidence that Osama bin Laden has been steadily building an Al Qaeda operations hub in northern Pakistan, but stay tuned because the world wants to know why Britney shaved off her locks.” Gimme a break! In one segment, I watched a line-up of psychologists, doctors and women’s magazine editors dissecting and projecting on her mental state. The consensus was that Britney (like other celebrities) suffers from lack of confidence, low self-esteem, the fact that she never had a childhood, and more importantly that she really needs to be loved. Even the hairdresser who handed her the shears for the shaving (a woman who refused to be responsible for her baldness) said in an interview that Britney just needs the love of her momma.
You know what occurred to me? Britney needs Lent! That child needs to remove herself from the spotlight of her tabloid world and focus solely and privately on God’s love and not the paparazzi trailing her car. She might find healing if she can focus on what are stones and what is bread. She might find healing if she accepts that the angels she expects to rescue her from her fall are not fans but the sacrifice of Christ; she might find healing by bowing down in surrender to God’s kingdom rather than the fickle kingdom of celebrity. For that matter the American public needs to prostrate itself for the next 40 days in repentance for feeding on the mentally and emotionally disturbed life of both Britney and the death of Anna Nicole Smith. As Bob Herbert wrote in The New York Times last week, “Instead of turning away chastened, shamed, we homed in like happy vultures.”(1) It was reported late last week that Britney checked herself into a rehab program—for the third time that week. I pray that the rehab she seeks will restore her spiritual sense of self and ground her to the things that matter most. I pray that she and her publicist will see this latest episcode as a new beginning and not the perfect time to “reinvent” Britney.
God forbid we sound self-righteous by pointing the finger at poor Britney and not looking in at ourselves. It’s not easy to face our own darkness, our own ashes. We are all going to come up short. I know I will. I’m sure most of us have from time to time called in sick to work needing a “mental health” day. I heard it said recently of a woman who wanted to take a day off from work saying, “I’m just going to call in ugly.” We’re all going to have to call in ugly during Lent, that’s why we’re doing this together. Here are some ideas we should consider during our 40 days of rehab—how we can counter the devil’s temptations. If, instead of waiting for stones to be changed to bread, we share the food we have and work to be better stewards of God’s creation; if, rather than waiting for the fantasy job or relationship, we engage the people and work of our lives now to the mutual betterment of humanity; if, rather than waiting for our own rescue, we lay down our lives for others.(2)
May your Lenten desert be holistic and connected, bringing body and spirit into order and proportion. Jesus was the quintessentially balanced human being. He would go off alone to pray. And then he would go teach and heal and cast out demons. He would fast and then he would eat with tax collectors and sinners. He would engage and disengage in proper balance. Allow yourself this Lent to catch your breath. It speaks to the right ordering and the right rhythm of life that we should strive for all year long.
1. The New York Times Op-Ed, page A23, Thursday, February 22, 2007.
2. General idea taken from a guest essay by Nora Gallagher on Textweek.com.