When I was 23, my father was told he had 12-18 months to live. He had glioblastoma multiforme — a particularly dastardly cancer. It is like an octopus in a person’s brain — it wraps itself around brain cells, disrupts the brain’s ability to communicate and — most fun — if you cut a limb off, it just grows another one. If you have a GBM, you will die sooner rather than later. A few days after Christmas, he had a new understanding of the phrase, “You were made from dust, to dust you shall return.” And, with that, he went into the wilderness.
In the Bible, wilderness is a place where people are lost, isolated, afraid, and grieving terrible losses. It is also where the people find hope for a new and better future and are transformed into a new people. The people in the wilderness have seen horrific things — war, murder, death, destruction of their temple and all that they knew. The prophets words guide the people through their grief, doubt and fear. They express anger at God, the pain of the people and envision a new world for the survivors of mass atrocities. The people have to grieve and deal with their past transgressions before they can come to a place of hope and construct a new society — this is what they do in the wilderness.
Jesus goes into the wilderness after he is told by God, in front of a crowd of people, that he is the son of God. He is compelled to go into the wilderness, where he is taunted by the devil (face his demons, perhaps?) I would imagine he did some introspection as well. After all, this whole Son of God thing just got real. He emerged from the wilderness to heal the sick, preach to and teach the lost and, ultimately, to walk towards his death on the cross.
My dad had an amazing sense of humor, a quick wit and impressive way with words, as well as a passion for serving those in need. He loved those close to him with fierce devotion. He was also deeply angry. He had a temper. He seemed to blame the world for his life not turning out the way he had dreamed it would. He held grudges for long periods of time (like, forever). After his diagnosis, my father spent about 40 days in the wilderness of his head. At the beginning, he was resigned to death. He sat in the darkness of our family room, watching court TV. It was like he said, “Fuck it. Death, you can come and get me right here, in my comfy chair.”
I don’t know what happened for him in those days, but sometime in April, he came out of the wilderness transformed. He let go of his anger. He became loving to people he had previously hated. He had a new sense of gratitude for life and those around him that I had never seen. He looked at everything and everyone like they were amazing and beautiful. With the knowledge of his impending death, he took a close look at his life and decided that things needed to change if he wanted the last bit of his life to be as full and fulfilling as possible.
This is Lent.
On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that we, too, will die. We don’t know when. Really, it could be tomorrow or 90 years from now. If we really take in that knowledge, if we really believe what is said when the ashes are put on our foreheads, then Lent is not about giving up chocolate or Facebook or having fish on Fridays. Lent is about looking deeply into ourselves and making room for God to dwell in us. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t give things up — I’m not you, you could be giving up something that will be a part of your transformation. But it needs to be about so much more than that. Lent is a time to go into our own wilderness and look at our brokenness — our sin. With God’s help, we examine the ways in which we are not living into the amazing people we were created to be. We look at our idolatry, the grudges we hold on to, the prejudices and habits that we cling to for dear life and we put them all in front of God. God will still love you. That’s what she does, and she already knows about all of it anyway. God will help you look at all of the ways you and I are broken and take us in with a huge hug and say, “I know about all of this. I love you, and I want you to be what I created you to be. Now, let’s work together to fix it.” Some of these changes may be incremental, things no one else will notice. Some may transform your outlook on life and who you are day-to-day. Every bit of effort at Lenten introspection will bring you that much closer to the grace-filled, compassionate, smart, funny, forgiving, grateful, patient, loving bundle of wonderful God created you (and me) to be. So, why not give it all we’ve got? Most importantly, why wait for a terminal illness to realize what is and isn’t important in life or to connect ourselves with our creator? Most of us don’t get to know when we are going to die. And yet, we all will die.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
For each post, there is a song: Awake my Soul