Dust

A beautiful poem for Lent: Blessing the Dust, by Jan Richardson.

All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners

or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial—

Did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.

So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are

but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made,
and the stars that blaze
in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

You can find more of Jan Richardson’s poems and drawings here.

Fasting for Lent

Ash WednesdayLent begins tomorrow (Ash Wednesday), a season for focusing on Jesus as we prepare to celebrate the climax of his life and his mission—his death and resurrection—and also for remembering Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness before he began his public ministry. It lasts for 40 days (excluding Sundays), and ends on Easter Sunday (April 5 this year).

One of the traditional Lenten practices is to fast. You may have already seen posts on social media announcing that your friends will be off Facebook until Easter; others give up chocolate or caffeine or alcohol; still others fast from meat or candy. In the Bible, though, fasting is understood narrowly as abstaining from food for spiritual purposes.

Interestingly, there are no laws or commandments in the Bible about fasting. You don’t have to do it, though it may be helpful. Moses certainly found it to be (Ex 34), as did David (2 Sam 12), Jehoshaphat (2 Chr 20), Elijah (1 Kgs 19), Esther, Ezra, Daniel, Anna the Prophetess (Luke 2), Paul and early church (Acts 13, 14).

Jesus did it too, but there’s no sense that he did it regularly—he had a reputation as “a glutton and a drunkard,” partly because he didn’t make a big deal out of fasting and he didn’t command his disciples to fast (Matt 9). Presumably, as a devout Jew, he followed the traditional practice of fasting on the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:27); and there are instances recorded of when he fasted, most notably in the wilderness, preparing for public ministry. But he never commanded it.

What he did say about fasting comes from Matt 6:16-18:

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Here, Jesus assumes that it happens; he doesn’t command it. (And we should always be careful of making assumptions into commandments!)

In the context of the passage, Jesus is talking about doing religious things for selfish reasons. Fasting is meant to be done as part of a life devoted to pursuing God, together with praying and simplicity and seeking justice (see Isaiah 58).

The point of fasting is to draw near to God, to help us focus on God by denying ourselves. We might also fast in order to become more like Jesus, understanding that we do not “live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4). As I wrote last year:

The point of fasting can be to give up luxuries, to remind us that we don’t need the things that the world tells us we can’t do without; it can also about giving up some so-called necessities, to remind us that we don’t need the things we tell ourselves we can’t do without. But ultimately, the point of fasting is to remind us that there is only one thing we can’t do without—and that’s God.

As I mentioned earlier, fasting has become more broadly practiced—it no longer only applies to food. Some of the guys in my small group are challenging each other over the next six and a half weeks of Lent to fast something or to pick up a habit that we’ll encourage each other in and be accountable to one another.

See, traditionally, people fast but we also need to remember to fill that space with something positive. You can give up food or social media or coffee, but if you don’t fill it with some sort of positive engagement with God, it’s kind of missing the point.

So it can be helpful to think of this in two ways:

  1. What you want to give up and then what you want to fill that space with.
  2. What rhythms or habits you want to add to your life and then how to make room for it.

The goal is not to focus on the habit but to focus on Christ and how we are becoming more like him in the process.

We took time to brainstorm some ideas, through the lens of:

  • Work, friendships, romantic relationships, money, time, habits;
  • The District Church’s core values: worship (connecting with God), community (connecting with each other), justice (connecting with the needs of the world);
  • Fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5): love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

Here are some ideas that we came up with, in case you need help brainstorming:

  • Fast
    • Unplug: no electronics 2 hours pre-bedtime until after time with God in the morning
    • Snooze button
    • Eating out
    • Buying anything new (not including necessities, e.g. food)—fasting from consumer culture
    • Swearing
    • Gossiping
    • People (not all the time, obviously, but rather in order to practice solitude)—Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Let the person who cannot be alone beware of community.”
    • Social media (learning to focus)
  • Pick up
    • Exercise to care for the body
    • 30 mins of reading to cultivate stillness
    • Pray for the same thing or the same person every day to cultivate perseverance
    • Listing 10 things we’re grateful for
    • Sending an email to someone catching up
    • Setting aside time to reflect on the cross
    • Reading the Bible
    • Pray for a few minutes

Remember, if you decide to do anything this season, your Lenten practice is not about legalism or drudgery. It’s not about turning disciplines into laws. It’s not about feeling like a failure if you miss a day.

It’s about freedom from self-interest and fear. It’s about joy. And most importantly, it’s about learning how to walk more closely with God, learning how to listen more carefully to God, and learning how to be more like Jesus.

A Lenten Lesson: We Can’t, But God Can

[Adapted from the message at last night’s Ash Wednesday service, jointly held by The District Church, Church of the Advent, and National Baptist Memorial Church. Listen to the sermon here.]

Ash Wednesday

At Lent, we take time to remember the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness before he began his public ministry. At Lent, we prepare ourselves for Easter, the time when we celebrate the most important event in history—Jesus’ death and resurrection. At Lent, we are brought back to and reminded of the truth that forms the foundation of our faith; and that is this:

We can’t, but God can.

On Ash Wednesday, we have ashes placed on our foreheads in the sign of the cross, and as that happens, these words (or something like them) are spoken over you, from Genesis 3:19:

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.

Those words, which God spoke to Adam, are reminders of our mortality, our finitude, our limits. Those words encapsulate that truth that we can’t, but God can. 

I have loved ones who are struggling with health issues, friends who are stuck in jobs that swing from great one day to abysmal the next, or are just difficult; I know people who are wrestling with addictions to alcohol and pornography, folks who are fighting to keep marriages together or raise their kids well, or who are feeling the weight of the aging process in aching joints and sore muscles, faulty memories and slower processing power. I wish I could take their burdens on myself and make everything well, but I can’t. I can’t even do that for the things that I have to face.

And that’s true at the most basic, fundamental level of the soul as well. As I’ve written before:

the presupposition of the Christian faith is that we can’t; the prerequisite for trusting in Jesus as Savior and Lord is the acknowledgement that we need a Savior and Lord, and we need a Savior and Lord because we can’t. We can’t save ourselves, we can’t rescue ourselves, we can’t pull ourselves out of our own sins, heal our own sicknesses, free ourselves from our own addictions, repair all of the damage we cause other people or all of the havoc that’s been wreaked on our lives. We can’t.

There are a few practices that Christians throughout history and all over the world have done during the season of Lent; three of the key ones are fasting, praying, and giving to the poor. In Matthew 6, Jesus says, “When you fast, when you pray, when you give to the poor,” not “if”—he assumes that we will do these things. These practices, just like the season of Lent, bring us back to that truth—bring us back to both sides of that truth: we can’t, but God can. So hopefully these practices aren’t restricted to six weeks during the year.

Think about giving to the poor. Giving to the poor reminds us that we can’t but God can. Giving to the poor speaks incisively into the mess of voices that tell us that our money and our resources are our own: It’s yours to do with as you please. Giving to the poor is the action that says, “No, we are but stewards, called to discharge our responsibilities with the resources that God has blessed us with.” Even more than that, giving to the poor reminds us that money does not own us, but that we belong to God, that we are engaged in his mission of bringing freedom from materialism for ourselves and investing in the work of justice and compassion for others. But even more than that, giving to the poor reminds us that our Lord, for our sakes, became poor. And not just poor in comparison to being God—actually, literally, socioeconomically poor. So giving to the poor reminds us that Christ is in every face we see, in every person we encounter. That’s why we give to the poor.

Think about praying. Prayer reminds that we can’t but God can. What other activity is there that looks like it accomplishes so little, and yet can bear so much fruit? What other activity is there in which we seem to be doing nothing but talking to air—and not even that if we’re just listening to God—and yet proclaims the truth that our God can? William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury in the mid-20th century, was challenged by his critics, who said that answered prayer was just coincidence. He replied, “When I pray, coincidences happen; and when I don’t, they don’t.” Prayer is where God gets us to stop talking and instead to listen to what he might have to say; prayer is where we bring our agendas to the Almighty and he gives us his better one instead; prayer is where our words—our wise, persuasive, compelling smooth talk—meet the reality of a good and loving God, and we are reminded that in so many things, in so many things, we can’t but God can. Fuller Seminary president Mark Labberton says,

In Washington, D.C., it is said that power is measured by access. Prayer is about access to the God who reigns over all.

That’s why we pray.

Think about fasting. Some of us are fasting social media because we need a detox—how many folks are giving up Facebook for Lent? Others of us like to tie it in with a health kick, or some sort of dieting goal: I’m going to give up chocolate because I need to lose some weight; I’m going to fast candy because I don’t want to get more cavities; I’m going to cut back on this or that because I ate too much on Fat Tuesday and now I need to make up for it! And while that’s a nice sort of killing two birds with one stone, I’d humbly submit that if we miss the larger point of why we do these things, we miss out on the point of Lent. My friend Eugene Cho, who pastors a church in Seattle, wonders if God sometimes looks at us and says,

Umm, I didn’t ask you to give up coffee. I asked you to give up your life to me.

The point of fasting can be to give up luxuries, to remind us that we don’t need the things that the world tells us we can’t do without; it can also about giving up some so-called necessities, to remind us that we don’t need the things we tell ourselves we can’t do without. But ultimately, the point of fasting is to remind us that there is only one thing we can’t do without—and that’s God. Jesus didn’t eat for forty days and the gospels tell us that at the end of that time, he was physically weak but spiritually strong. He was physically weak because he had given up food for forty days, but he was spiritually strong because he had given up his life to his Father.

That’s what matters: whether we are spiritually strong, whether we have been fortified in our spirits by time with God, whether we have given our lives over to the Father. See, you can be physically weak or mentally weak or even emotionally weak, but if you’re spiritually strong because you’ve given your life to God, you’ll be okay.

You may be feeling physically great, mentally sharp, emotionally okay, but spiritually weak. And when you’re spiritually weak, you’ve forgotten the truth that we can’t. We live in a country whose primary narrative is the American Dream, the notion that if you work hard enough, if you try hard enough, you’ll succeed; and if you aren’t succeeding yet, just work harder, just try harder! You may be facing some troubles: pressures at work, challenges at home, financial issues, relationship difficulties, addictions and destructive habits. If we’re spiritually weak, we will try to will our way to a better future. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we can’t—and if we’re not honest with ourselves, sooner or later, our experience will tell us the same thing. We can’t …

But God can. Jesus was spiritually strong, even after forty days of fasting, because he had been reminded that “man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” He had been reminded that in his own strength he could do nothing, but in the strength of God he could withstand the devil himself. He had been reminded that God can, and so what better way to face the challenges—and the joys—of life and death and resurrection than to give himself over to this God.

One last thing I want to say: I’m fairly certain those forty days in the wilderness weren’t a walk in the park for Jesus; probably not much at all like a Holy Land vacation. And yet it was in those times of being without, of being tested, of being stripped of the so-called necessities of life—it was in those times that God was strengthening him by the power of the Holy Spirit and preparing him for a work and a ministry that would forever change the world.

You may be going through a season of wilderness—or you may be about to begin one—a time when it feels like all around you is desert, a period where you feel like things that were central to your life are being stripped away. Maybe, if you’re willing, the God who can will bring new life by the power of his Spirit; maybe, if you spend time with him, the God who can will make you spiritually strong; maybe, if you give your life over to him, the God who can will turn your life right side up.

As we go through this season of Lent, as we remember Jesus in the wilderness, as we prepare ourselves for the great celebration that awaits us in a few weeks’ time, as we engage in those practices of praying and fasting and giving to the poor and whatever else you may choose to do during the coming weeks, may we be reminded that we are but dust, and to dust we will return; but also that the God who created the universe, the God through whom all things are possible, wants us—invites us—to live life with him. May we be reminded of that foundational truth of our faith:

We can’t, but God can.

Lent

In case you weren’t aware (or aren’t liturgically-inclined), the season of Lent begins tomorrow on Ash Wednesday (which means today is Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday). While Lent has become, in pop culture, a time for simply giving up unhealthy habits, the tradition is to take this time to humbly and thoughtfully prepare our hearts and lives to commemorate Holy Week, which begins on Palm Sunday and culminates with Easter Sunday; it’s supposed to be a focused time of self-denial, just like Christmas is a focused time of celebrating the birth of Christ–not that we don’t do these things every day, but that we take seasons during the year to elevate and examine particular aspects of our faith.

I didn’t grow up in a church that was particularly liturgical, and so didn’t really mark Lent at all (beyond gorging myself on pre-Lenten pancakes) until I moved to the UK. And in recent years, I’ve begun not only giving something up, but taking something on. Not simply for the purpose of ditching unhealthy habits and collecting healthy ones, but because these are beneficial for me–mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. The journey that we are all on as Christians is to be more like Christ, more of who God made us to be, both in our own lives (bodies, relationships, habits, practices) and in the ways that we relate to God and others. (I talked about some of this in a Lenten post from two years ago, too.)

So my plan this Lent is twofold:

  1. To give up my time first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I’ve already begun implementing the practice of spending time with God before I start my day (even before checking email!) and before I go to bed, but I want to double down on this.
  2. To pick up working out every day. Since last summer, when I got injured playing soccer, I’ve been recuperating. And then recuperating turned into relaxing. And relaxing turned into indolence. And that’s just not a good feeling for someone who’s naturally inclined toward activity! So this in itself serves the dual purpose of being a physical manifestation of what I’m hoping is going on spiritually (training!) and getting me ready for the next season of soccer as well!

And as we think about what it means to deny ourselves, I hope this word from John Stott is as challenging and encouraging to you as it was for me this morning:

We need to rescue this vocabulary [of self-denial] from being debased. We should not suppose that self-denial is giving up luxuries during Lent or that “my cross” is some personal and painful trial. We are always in danger of trivializing Christian discipleship, as if it were no more than adding a thin veneer of piety to an otherwise secular life. Then prick the veneer, and there is the same old pagan underneath. No, becoming and being a Christian involves a change so radical that no imagery can do it justice except death and resurrection—dying to the old life of self-centeredness and rising to a new life of holiness and love.

(Through the Bible Through the Year, 210)

P.S. If you’re in the DC area, please join The District Church, Church of the Advent, and National Baptist Memorial Church as we hold a joint Ash Wednesday service tomorrow evening at 7pm at NBMC (on the corner of 15th St and Columbia).