“You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). This cheerful sentence was part of last week’s Ash Wednesday liturgy; I went from person to person, dipping my finger in the ashes and tracing a black and messy sign of the cross on each forehead, looking at each one in turn and assuring them that yes, one day they were going to die.
They knew this was going to happen, and yet they still came to church. Because life can’t always be happy-clappy. Life is serious, and life is hard, and life as we know it is also inescapably terminal.
My friend Joe Walker (who died of cancer at 46) used to say “Have a miserable Lent!” Please understand, Joe was not a miserable person. But he knew that there are times in everyone’s life where we have to stop ‘cheering up’, look into the abyss and see if we can find God there.
I’m currently reading Kate Bowler’s brilliant book ‘“Everything Happens for a Reason” and Other Lies I’ve Loved’. In case you haven’t heard of it, Doctor Bowler teaches church history at Yale. She is in her thirties, and a couple of years ago she was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. She is married, with a four year old son, and the long-term prognosis is not good.
In one of my favourite chapters (the one in which she talks about taking up swearing for Lent), she describes the annoying experience of having people, over and over again, refusing to let Lent be – well – sombre. I’m dying, she says, and for forty days the church says everyone has to join me in that, and stare down death. But they won’t. “Everyone is trying to Easter the crap out of my Lent!” she complains.
Yes – of course Christianity is a joyful faith. But parts of life are not joyful. So Lent is not a happy-clappy part of the church year. It’s a time in which we reflect on the fact that we’re all going to die eventually, and when that day comes, lots of the nonsense we’ve devoted ourselves to won’t actually mean a thing. This is what I call an ‘Eyes Wide Open’ kind of faith. Don’t turn away from the hard truths. Don’t drown them with platitudes. Life can be a mess, but God is still our Rock. He is called by that name many times in the psalms, which do have a tendency to be rather gloomy.
So don’t let anyone Easter the crap out of your Lent. For these forty days, we’re going to acknowledge that the dark night of the soul can be real, the desert can be lonely, bad things do happen to good people, and sometimes things don’t make sense. And we’re going to cling to God our Rock anyway.