I’m writing this the day after Ash Wednesday worship services. “Remember that you are dust,” the worship leader intones, “and to dust you shall return.” Ash Wednesday is the first day of our annual Lenten journey. It is a meeting with mortality, a festival of finitude, a date with death. It’s not quite the trumpets and lilies of Easter, bringing in the crowds and sending us forth happy. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of what is supposed to be a hard journey.
I am encountering the latest attempts to make Lent less, well, “Lent-y.” After all, this self-denial stuff is demoralizing and depressing. We (White, western, privileged) Christians have had quite enough of limits and losses over the last two years, thank you very much. This year let’s talk about fullness and resilience and bouncing back better than ever. That’s much more fun.
I will show my age by noting how much this sounds like the popular acronym for Lent from Robert Schuller. You can still find Schuler’s 1996 study on Lent available for sale if you like. He declared that “LENT” should stand for “Let’s Eliminate Negative Thinking.” At the time, the study sold like hotcakes (a great thing after a Shrove Tuesday pancake supper), and Americans were happy to be done with the doom and gloom of traditional Lenten thinking and devotion.
The cultural context for Schuler’s work was, of course, quite different from our own. The Berlin Wall had fallen just a few years earlier. The “end of history” had been announced. Neoliberal capitalism and politics had won the day. Bill Clinton was well into his presidential run of promising that everyone could have everything if only they would like him enough. The case for eliminating negative thinking was empirically visible. We can forgive poor old Bobby Schuler for his irrational exuberance.
It’s one thing to be so deceived by success that contemplating failure seems to be a waste of time. It’s another thing to be so immersed in limits and loss that we just can’t stand one more minute of it. Just as we are suffering from economic inflation in some part due to two years of pent-up consumer demand, so I think we are suffering from emotional and spiritual inflation in some part due to two years of pent-up happiness demand.
In the face of this longing for Lenten positivity, I needed a spiritual and emotional palate cleanser. So, I am turned this morning once again to Kate Bowler’s great book, No Cure for Being Human. It didn’t occur to me the first time I read it, but a point is obvious to me now. That book title would be a great Lenten worship theme, and hers is a book that could deeply inform congregational study groups during our forty-day journey – especially at this moment. Too bad I didn’t think about that sooner. And I must point out that Bowler has co-written a Lenten devotional book called Good Enough (I like it).
Bowler is an academic historian who has looked deeply into the development and current life of the American “Prosperity Gospel.” Her first trade book was called Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. It’s an excellent description, analysis, and critique of the American theology of prosperity, the “name and claim it” school most clearly represented by Joel Osteen. A paragraph from the preface of No Cure for Being Human offers a synopsis of her work in the previous book.
“American culture has popular theories about how to build a perfect life. You can have it all if you just learn how to conquer your limits. There is infinity lurking somewhere at the bottom of your inbox or in the stack of self-help books on the bedside table. It taunts you as you grip the steering wheel in traffic, attempting your new breathing practice, or in the predawn minutes when you could be working out” (p. xiv).
Bowler was moving along through life with relatively few troubles when she received a cancer diagnosis. At that point, the academic study of relentless American toxic positivity became an existential reality. She was forced to contemplate and confront her own mortality and a life that would at some point continue without her. Human existence is finite, and Bowler could not escape that reality.
“Nothing will add up to enough,” she wrote of her dawning awareness. “I wish someone had told me that the end of a life is a complex equation. Years dwindle into months, months into days, and you must begin to count them. All my dreams and ambitions, friendships and petty fights, vacations and bedtimes with a boy in dinosaur pajamas must be squeezed into hours, minutes, seconds. How should I spend them?” (p. xvi).
This is the reality of the Lenten journey. We begin by remembering that we are dust and to dust we shall return. The first Sunday in Lent we come up against all the ways that this life tests our faith, hope, and love, and all the ways we (I) come up short. We will end this Lenten journey at the foot of the cross where all seems to be lost. There’s no amount of positive thinking, no amount of wishing for fullness, no theological alchemy that turns my dying dust into gold dust.
Once or twice, I’ve described Ash Wednesday as the Christian Feast of Full Disclosure. It’s no wonder most people avoid it like the plague.
“The trick to losing,” Bowler writes, “is to do it all at once” (page 39). I don’t know if that’s a trick or just the nature of Reality. Bowler’s husband helps her to think about this losing in terms of laying things down. He talks about a secret he learned from hikers on the Appalachian Trail. Novices always bring way too much crap to carry. After a while, the weight is more than the crap is worth.
“This will be a hard journey,” Bowler’s spouse says after she has gotten her diagnosis. “Is there anything you can set down?” (page 40).
That’s the Lenten question, as far as I’m concerned. Is there anything you can set down? And it’s a question that many of us have faced over and over in the last few years. I’m not sure, however, that we’re ready to answer it with action. Instead, I think we find ourselves, at least culturally (and in most churches) asking ourselves how much of the crap we laid down we can pick up again. We don’t want a new life. We want our old lives back.
Let me quote Bowler again. “We worship at the altar of plenty. Our heroes are corporate titans, fitness-empire builders, grinning televangelists, music legends, and decorated athletes whose gilded lifestyles and totalizing success hold out the promise of more. Twelve-car garages and infinity pools and walk-through closets and red-bottomed heels. Despite the boom and bust of the American economy over the last fifty years,” she continues, “we cling to stories of more-than-enoughness, believing the future is full to the brim for all of us.” (page 44).
Masking that desire for fullness with “spiritual language” doesn’t change the deep-down desire to claw back what we feel has been “taken” from us.
It strikes me that the Diabolical One tries to prey on a sense of entitlement in the Wilderness Testing. Since you’re the Son of God, Satan says, you should certainly have these pretty things. That’s part of the deal, after all, isn’t it? The Diabolical One never argues about Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. Instead, that identity is a given. The temptation comes in converting that identity into the assumption that Jesus is entitled to being full, powerful, and invulnerable. If that assumption is accurate, then there’s no limit to what Jesus ought to do in order to achieve fullness, power, and safety.
The really deceitful part of the Wilderness Testing is that the Diabolical One promises Jesus things that Jesus already has. Satan offers nothing to Jesus that is beyond what it means to be the Son of God. I laugh sometimes at those junk mail pieces that trumpet on the envelope, “You may have already won!” Who can resist that? That’s the test Satan gives to Jesus. You may have already won, but why take the chance that you haven’t? Name it, claim it, and have a nice sandwich while you fly around on your world-conquering throne.
That, unfortunately, is the problem, not the solution. “But no matter how carefully we schedule our days, master our emotions, and try to wring our best life now from our better selves,” Bowler writes, “we cannot solve the problem of finitude. We will always want more. We need more” (page 185). It’s terrifying to be empty enough to be filled with the Spirit. It’s horrifying to set down all our stuff and fill our hands with prayers. It’s nonsense to let go of our all our self-justification and fill our heads with good words from God.
And yet, that is the real Lenten task. It’s will be a hard journey. Is there anything I can set down? I can’t speak for you. But I can, with the Spirit’s help, set down my desperate needs for approval, belonging, and significance. Six decades and more of effort to wrestle these things from life have not been successful. Of course, when I stop for a moment, I know that these things are already mine in Christ.
If only I could stop for a moment more often…
References and Resources
Bowler, Kate. No Cure for Being Human. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Channing Brown, Austin. I’m Still Here. The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Gregersen, Niels Henrik. “The Extended Body: The Social Body of Jesus according to Luke 1.” Dialog 51.3 (2012): 234-244.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Louden, Caleb T. “The Chiastic Arrangement of the Lukan Temptation Narrative.” The Journal of Inductive Biblical Studies 4.2 (2017): 4.
Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.
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