To dust we shall return

Ash Wednesday is upon us, and that means it's time for the joyous celebration of... Lent.

Yeah, there's not a lot of joy or celebration in traditional Lent. Just check out the hymns and psalms, acknowledging and bewailing our manifold sins and wickedness. Whenever we start chanting in Lent, I hear Monty Python's papier-mache God complaining, "It's like those psalms, they're sooooo depressing."

In years past, and often today, many Christians have chosen to interpret Lent as a season of scourging, of punishing yourself, carrying the woe of humanity's murder of the Christ, etc. "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

Not me, ashes notwithstanding.

To me, Lent is a season of reflection, a forty-da period of meditation and self-improvement. I don't think it helps God or anyone else for me to wear the (metaphorical) hair shirt for seven weeks. I believe that if you give up something for Lent, there should be an actual reason for it beyond, "I'm giving up something for Lent." Otherwise it is a hollow exercise, a public self-flagellation that serves no real purpose.

In fact, Jesus tells us not to engage in public displays of religious faith, that only the hypocrites give alms before an audience and expect accolades for their great sacrifices. For that reason alone, Ash Wendesday used to make me a little uncomfortable. It felt like the physical sign of our faith, literally stamped on our foreheads, was an attention grab for our devotion.

In St. Louis, Catholicism is the dominant faith, so very few people wonder about the ashes. When I lived in Tennessee, where Baptist and other Protestant churches tend to dominate, I tended to stand out on Ash Wednesday. Frequently someone would say, "You've got something on your forehead, you know."

(My father used to call it, "getting your ashes hauled," which makes me snicker inappropriately at the service every year. Thanks, Dad!)

Lent is supposed to be about inner reflection, to make yourself better able to do what it is that you're meant to do in this world. It's not really about punishing yourself. If you choose to deny yourself something, it should be because you believe this thing interferes with your life and purpose, holds you back from your calling or is somehow detrimental to our relationships.

For example: if you give up chocolate, it should be because your fondness for chocolate has taken on a disproportionate weight in your life. That sounds silly when applied to your habit of a couple of Hershey bars a week, doesn't it?

Now replace chocolate with too many beers in front of the television at night, or huddling on the back porch with a cigarette, or endlessly ranting and fuming about ignorance on the internet, or any habit/obsession/addiction that draws you away from health, away from your loved ones, and denies you the peace that I truly believe God wants for us.

"To dust we shall return" is not an admonishment. It is a reminder that life is precious, and short. We should make the most of it, and eliminate the things that distract and disturb our lives.

What is it that weighs on your life?

I don't mean money problems or work issues, unless you can identify something in you that is causing them. What problems do you have that you know, in your heart of hearts, you are creating for yourself?

This is not about condemning or punishing yourself for your natural humanity. It's about finding the crazyman running around in your head screwing up your life and putting him in harness, to paraphrase Stephen King totally out of context.

It can be something simple. In the past, I focused on my family's habit of eating out too often, particularly fast food. It's expensive. It's unhealthy. It happens because we get busy. We are all on staggered schedules and I fall behind in the planning. Can we stop for forty days, or at least limit it to once per week? We would feel healthier and our bank accounts would take a definite improvement.

It is not denial simply to punish ourselves, because our manifold wickedness means we don't deserve a restaurant dinner. It's identifying the source of a physical and financial problem, and attempting to solve it.

It would be easy to say that I'll give up Facebook for Lent. I recognize that it has a disproportionate weight in my life, and while I am trying to do better, I still end up drawn into stupid, nasty discussions that eat up time and emotional energy. But it would be impossible to actually do it: my presence there is required for my job. Even without my job it would be difficult; it is needed for my writing career and promotion, and important to maintain contact with family and friends who are far away.

But does it have to have that disproportionate weight? Does everything have to be about Facebook and what is this going to sound like online? Is there no balance to be found between the positive connections it brings and the negative weights?

As a friend of mine once said: "The hardest thing about explaining the future to someone from the past would be, 'In my hand I hold a device that allows me to access the sum total of human knowledge. I use it to start arguments with strangers and look at pictures of cats."

I follow the rituals and customs of my faith because in all their traditional and sometimes strange ways, they remind me on a daily or weekly basis of the kind of person I strive to be. A person who leaves the world a better place than she found it. Of course I often fail, because I am human. But the key is not perfection; the key is constantly striving to do better. Lent is part of that.

On this Ash Wednesday, as in each year, I aim to take a look at myself and see a way to improve, mentally or physically. A way to improve my life and my family's life, something practical with measurable results, to make me into a better, healthier and happier person - and therefore better able to go about doing the things I'm meant to do in this life.

Not an arbitrary self-denial that merely punishes me without actually improving me; something that makes my life or someone else's life better in the end.

The idea, I guess, is that if you can do this one thing for forty days and forty nights, it should be that much easier to keep doing it.

A blessed and holy Lent to all who observe it, and to those who do not, I hope I have helped you to understand what it means to me and to many others who bear the cross of ashes on their foreheads today.

A version of this post first appeared in 2014.