To my memory, the churches I grew up in didn’t have specific Ash Wednesday liturgical services. (They might have and we didn’t participate or I don’t remember because I was a kid and not yet obsessed with this kind of thing, meaning both liturgy and death.) In college, I mostly knew of Lent as the time when my Bible study friends gave up soda until Easter. Since joining the UMC, this season is one of several traditional “church things” I’ve come to understand better and really love. As author Erin Moon puts it, “Lent is a gift to us all: a chance to mourn, to cry, to understand, to reflect, to wrestle, to examine.”
That sounds pretty cerebral (and like kind of a bummer), but I think it’s actually one of the most grounded parts of the church calendar. I’ve mentioned before that I have a lot of questions and theories and what-ifs about my faith. I’m fascinated by atonement theories and resurrection theologies and I’m obsessed with basically any media that deals with the afterlife. I love all of that because I don’t know anything solid about any of it. That’s the faith part of my faith, the mystery, and it’s beautiful. But during Lent, we take time to dwell on what we know for certain: that I’m here, now, with you, and we’re here for a while and then we’re not. That’s all we know for sure. Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return. It’s also beautiful.
For the second year in a row, my husband and I have the honor of leading worship for our church’s Ash Wednesday service. I love doing this because it’s a specific thing I can do to help/participate: pick a moody Jars of Clay cover of a hymn and sing it with my church family. But in general, the doing something part of Lent is the part I struggle with. Remembering my mortality in a constant internal monologue is easy. Finding practical application for that, fast/feast or otherwise, is harder.
Psalm 51 is often read around this time, and verses 10-12 always resonate with me in particular:
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from Your presence
And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Your salvation
And sustain me with a willing spirit.
So the ball is in God’s court—nice. But say I ask for a clean heart, a steadfast and willing spirit, Holy-Spirit-joy. A dust-person who had those things would do something with them to try to make the dust-world a little better. And there’s so much to do. There’s such a wide world of problems and people who need help and causes that need support. If you’re sensitive/empathetic/a helper/a person with an anxiety disorder/whatever term resonates with you, it can be overwhelming.
When these feelings catch up to me is when I find it especially helpful to remember I am dust, and I’m comforted by the smallness of my life. Not in a self-deprecating way and not in a way that suggests it’s not good to care or try to help. But focusing on what I can do now, where I am, with my own talents and resources and connections, gives me some clarity and purpose. As Laura Jean Truman said today on Instagram, “Ash Wednesday isn’t a heavy burden on an already burdened people. Ash Wednesday is a gentle reminder from a gentle God that we are so small, Beloveds, and so loved.”
So my Lent practice this year is about deepening my awareness of where I am right now and what I can do from here. Who can I be a little friendlier to or cut a little extra slack? What local organizations can I donate to instead of buying another fancy moisturizer? I am attempting to fast, sort of, not from a tangible thing but from a habit, or an attitude, a tendency I have to dwell on the negative and worry and complain about [redacted personal situation]. I’m not sure that’s how you’re “supposed” to fast, but I know this is more of a vice for me and comes between me and Jesus a lot more than, say, sugar.
All of this to say that I have found that this season is a good time to reflect on where I’m being too hard on myself, where I’m cutting myself too much slack, and how close I am to being who I want to be, and to talk about all that with the God who made us from the dust but then came into the mess to be with us. Sometimes it’s hard or sad or uncomfortable, but it is a gift.
If you’re like me in that you want to observe/participate in this season but don’t necessarily know how or where to start, here are a few resources to check out.
- Rachel Held Evans’s 40 Ideas for Lent 2015, from questions to ask to disciplines to participate in (free)
- Sarah Bessey’s 40 Simple Practices for Lent 2020, full of cool things-to-do suggestions (free)
- Erin Hicks Moon’s Every Broken Thing ($20). Erin’s Lent guides include scripture readings, great mini-essays from her, and suggested meditations. (ETA: Last year’s guide also included a song and piece of art for each day, but it looks like this year’s does not.)
- BibleGateway’s Lent reading plan. A better version of me would follow along with this because it looks great! Actual me might give it her best shot.
- Biola University’s Lent Project. I’ve had this recommended to me by a couple of people I trust, and I’ll probably at least subscribe to the emails even though I’m planning to mainly focus on Erin’s guide above.
- This wonderful Lent season playlist made for you by a secret admirer!!! (Me)