Seldom has a question caught my attention as suddenly and completely as the one I overheard on a busy street in Manhattan more than thirty years ago. I had spent the day in Midtown and was headed back to the Port Authority to catch a bus for New Jersey. It was shortly after 5:00 and already dark on that midwinter day. Fifth Avenue was crowded with folks making their way home or to dinner, so I decided to avoid the long lines for the bus by attending Mass at St. Patrick’s, just across the street.
As I turned and started making my way toward the cathedral, pushing against what seemed like a million people all headed in the other direction, I became aware of one man who stopped suddenly, paused as if to reorient himself, and said to the sky as much as to anyone else, “God, where’s everybody going?”
It’s the perfect question for today. We rush on with our lives, going to work, going to school, stopping at the market, stopping at traffic lights, hoping to find some hope to counterbalance the news that comes to us every day. And suddenly we become aware of one voice ringing clear: Where’s everybody going? Is this the best we can do with our lives? Isn’t there some choice we can make other than to wait this life out hoping for a better one later?
Ash Wednesday today begins a forty-day season when the best thing we might do is to live closely with such questions – forty days because that’s how long Jesus spent in the wilderness between the time of his baptism and the beginning of his public ministry. And when I ask that question deeply enough to make any lasting change for the better in my life, I usually find myself back in a wilderness where I don’t have any sure idea of where I’m going or what road to take to get there.
One of my colleagues, Doug Spencer, recently reminded me how many powerful things have happened in the wilderness. “The three great monotheistic religions,” he wrote, “all had their birth in the wilderness. I don’t think that’s accidental – there is something about the wilderness experience that is transformative. The wilderness, for example, was where God found Moses using a burning-but-not-consumed bush as a lure. It’s where for 40 years God took a disparate collection of nomads and shaped them into a community that would influence the whole world. It’s where Elijah heard the voice of God in the thinnest of silence. It’s where the Baptizer called a whole people to repentance. It’s where Jesus decided the course of his ministry.”
I trust the wilderness to be a good thing. When my habitual choices and orientations no longer suffice and I don’t know what to do or where to turn next, that may be the best opportunity to hear and experience something new from God, something truly life giving. According to Wendell Berry, “It may be that when we no longer know which way to go we have come to our real journey.”
So here it is the beginning of Lent, a season many people have come to associate with doing penance for all the bad things we’ve done, or with giving up things we like and probably overuse, like chocolate or electronic gadgetry or some other personal indulgence. But Lent is not really about giving things up; it’s about doing things better, or doing better things. It’s about asking ourselves the question, “Where am I going?” and trying to come up with a better answer. It helps me to think of it as a season of the three Rs: not “reading, riting, and rithmetic” but repenting, returning, and renewing.
Repenting is not about feeling sorry for mistakes or poor choices; it’s about turning attention again to what is truly life giving. I learned that a commercial airliner is on course only about two percent of the time; the other ninety-eight percent of the time it’s off course. But it gets to its destination because during the flight it is constantly correcting its heading, returning to the heading that marks its destination. That’s what Lent is about. Frequently, and probably not frequently enough, I ask myself: Where am I going in life? What course am I on? It’s an opportunity to repent, to get back on course, to reorient myself to the will of the God who has a purpose for my life.
Which brings me to the second R, returning. “In returning and rest you shall be saved,” Isaiah heard God say (Isa. 30:15). The secret of a healthy relationship with God is not to always get it right, to always be doing the right thing; the secret of a healthy relationship with God is to always be returning to God, to always be correcting course in life. Lent just provides a more intentional, focused opportunity for that. It’s less about choosing to give up things and more an opportunity to choose the best things, the things that make for a whole and healthy life.
And then there’s the third R, renewing. Despite the Latin theology so prevalent in our culture, we’re not broken, fallen sinners who need to be redeemed and restored to a relationship with God. We’re spiritually hungry, starving people who need to choose a more nourishing spiritual diet and be renewed in our relationship with God. Someone described it this way:
“We are not broken. We are not fallen. We are not flawed. We are simply fragile. We are beautifully distractible. We are human. It means we are real. It means that life has a relentless hold on us. The struggles, the stumbles, the seemingly endless short-fallings simply point to our humanity not to our unworthiness. They mean life is difficult – but they also mean life is vibrant, pulsing with potential, ripe with possibility, constantly presenting lessons from which to grow.”
The imposed ashes and the spoken reminder, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” are simply reminders that we are human, that our days are numbered and will come to an end, and that in the meantime we have some hard and beautiful choices to make about where we are going and what we will invest ourselves in along the journey.