Used to Zero – Ash Wednesday, 2014


I am in San Diego this week on vacation with my husband Gary and youngest daughter, Hannah (who is on spring break from her Freshman year in college). We are staying with my sister Lynn and her husband, here to have some family time and to find some California sunshine, a respite from the horrible winter we’ve been living through for the last six months in Chicago.

At noon yesterday Gary and I walked down to the neighborhood Episcopal Church for an Ash Wednesday service. It was sparsely populated, but to be fair, it was one of three services they were holding that day, so I suspect the 7 pm service last night had a better showing.  The congregants at this one were mostly older, the 60 and 70 year old crowd primarily, people who don’t get out much at night, or who don’t have much to do during the day.

We were all there for the official opening of the Lenten season. As I lined up, waiting for the priest to dip his thumb into the soot and give me a cross-shaped swipe on the forehead, I thought about the millions of people, in churches all over the world, being smeared with a cross of ashes and oil on their foreheads. All, voluntarily lining up for a smudge, with a cricket of hope chirping through them that this dark mark would be the start of something, a signpost leading them to something better.

Some may have done it out of habit, of course, to belong, to show their membership in the godly club, or because of duty, obligation, coercion from parents. With a roll of the eyes, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, with cynicism barely squelched.

And there were many millions more who did not do it at all. Who had an Ashless Wednesday like any other Wednesday.

What was I doing in the “ash me” line, I wondered, standing there in the sun-filled sanctuary next to a bunch of white-haired California Episcopalian strangers, with my full contingent of questions and doubts? Why had I shown up to buy a ticket for this year’s Lenten journey?

And what’s with the whole “journey” imagery anyway?  A journey sounds so quaint, so leather notebook and walking stick, C.S. Lewis-y. So pretty and romantic and under control… so point-A-to point-B-to-point-Z dependable. It presupposes you know where you are and where you want to get to. Which I don’t.

I don’t know much of anything.

I barely believe in God.

OK, I believe in God, I just don’t have that much involvement with him. God is like my mother’s great aunt who I visited with once when I was five and who, as I remember it, was very nice to me, in a squishy hugs, house dress kind of way.

But who I can barely picture. Who has very near-zero involvement in my daily life.

Which is the way I pretty much want it to be with God, most of the time.

Honestly, the idea of being known and loved by God, being in a close, personal relationship with Anyone who you feel obligated to capitalize the H when you refer to them as Him (or Her) makes me uncomfortable. It interrupts my life, when I’m just trying to keep my head down and get things done that I’m supposed to get done, that I need to get done, to keep the bills paid and the heat on, and the occasional TV show watched.

Not to mention, I grew up with people who told me God loves me AND has a wonderful plan for my life. God’s love came with the PLAN. With conditions, consequences, expectations. So it’s hard to shake the feeling that if I actually let myself feel God’s love, or be closer to God, my life is going to be…let me see, what’s the word I’m looking for…oh yes, RUINED.

Totally friggin ruined.

I mean look at what happened to Jesus. God’s wonderful plan for his life landed him in jail, tortured, betrayed, and finally dying on a cross.

The plan I’ve got going for my life right now is very… workable. I have a life that works. It’s a workable life. Nothing’s totally broken. It’s maybe bruised a little here and there. It’s maybe not exactly wonderful, but I’m also not destitute living in a rusted out car under the expressway viaduct, either.

I have a family, a job, a warm house, a nice car, some friends, enough food. More than enough food.

Yeah, sure, I wake up every morning ready to snap someone’s head off. So angry I feel like my head could explode. And for no reason. For absolutely no reason I am aware of. And yes, I feel sad too much of the time, and there’s a lot of shame, a lot of the “I’m not good enough,” tune playing in my head at low volume, ALL THE TIME. Sure, there’s that. But I’m skilled at hiding that stuff, for the most part. Medicating it with work and busyness and sugar and diet Pepsi and helping others.

And isn’t that just the way life is for most people? You make do, and you make it, and you have the kind of life that when people ask how things are going you say, “Fine.” And you’re not lying, exactly.

Why would I want to mess with that?

This winter in Chicago has been the coldest ever. The weather service will back me up on this. I just read an article in the Chicago Tribune confirming we’ve had more days at or below zero than ever before in the city’s history. And I hate, hate, hate the cold. But here’s the scary thing. When we have gotten the occasional day in the 20 degree temperature range… it’s felt practically balmy to me. Like it was time to go jacketless and break out the flip flops. How is that possible?

Because I’ve gotten used to zero.

We can get used to anything. Almost anything can become normal and workable to us crazy humans.

So I guess that’s why I showed up for ashes yesterday. To see what has become normal. To hold that up in a sunlit sanctuary inside of me and see if workable is all I want.

One of the main traditions of Lent is to give something up for forty days…sugar or tv or Facebook or alcohol or texting or shopping, to live for forty days in the wild scary place that we find ourselves in without our usual things to dull the pain, without the stuff that makes our lives seemingly manageble.  This is what Jesus did, after he was baptized. Went into a wilderness for forty days without any of his usual stuff. Just to see what would happen.

We do this “giving up” for Lent, they say, to bring us closer to God. And I wonder if we also do it to bring us closer to ourselves, to help us see ourselves a little more clearly. To invite disruption into our fine little lives.

So, Disruption is the image I’m going to embrace for Lent this year. I’m tentatively raising my hand and asking for it. Upset my equilibrium. Throw things out of wack. Mess up all the pieces of the puzzle I’ve so carefully constructed. Blow up my workable life.

And I’m afraid. I’m very afraid.


One comment

  1. I find that of all my prayers, asking for my order to be turned into chaos is one God faithfully answers…

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