Tonight I stood before a pastor in a dimly lit cathedral participating in a centuries old ritual. As he rubbed the oily residue of last year's palm branches on my forehead he made a pronouncement over me. "From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return," he said in solemn voice. I walked away, returning to my seat, joining the other similarly marked worshippers. We were all marked for death.
Having not grown up in a church that observed Lent or Ash Wednesday I am enriched to worship in a church that recognizes all of the liturgical calendar. Now, after being here for several years, the passing of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Ordinary Time, Ash Wednesday, Lent, the Triduum, Easter, and Pentecost all seem as rhythmic and as necessary as breathing. Each leans and leads into the next, each preparing the church to encounter the gospel. And perhaps most significantly, each reinforces the reality that the narrative of scripture is alive and that we are participants in it.
A few days back I heard some mind-blowing statistics about the state of the American family. Within a certain demographic almost three out of four children were born to single mothers. Within another, almost one out of three. There was no demographic that had a birthrate of lower than one out of four for single mothers. How could this be? What had happened to the American family?
As I heard the radio show host ask questions similar to those above I sensed that, although, yes, it is complicated and a multi-faceted issue, essentially, I propose, it comes down to narrative. Who we are, where we come from, what our role is - all are elements of story. We are not static. We are not isolated islands. Our character is not random, nor is it merely a clumped together bunch of facts or belief statements about the world. Rather, who we are individually and corporately as persons of narrative is paramount.
On the level of the individual, Carl Rogers proposed the Triangle of the Self (perceived self, ideal self, real self). I would expand on that and propose that those categories apply just as well to our sense of narrative. Just like Rogers' triangle, we experience life in keeping with how we perceive our narrative. Unequipped to understand ourselves rightly, we perceive inaccurately. Discontent with (the inaccurately perceived) reality we dream of an ideal. Which story we live in is largely a function of our proximity to (and willingness to stomach) reality as it truly is.
Although I gave the example above of the erosion of the American family, narrative extends far beyond the issue of family. The way we live is a direct result of which story we believe we are living in. If the family erodes, it tells us something about narrative. If hate-crime is on the rise it tells us something about narrative. When Jews and gypsies were being rounded up and sent to concentration camps, those actions tell us something about the narrative of the time, place, and persons acting in concert to bring about those events.
All this to say, my chief problem is a narrative problem. Learning to see through my false perceptions, having courage to look into the mirror of reality, and knowing who and what is the true ideal is good medicine for my narrative problem. My only guide through these waters is the Messiah of the bible, Jesus Christ. Knowing the narrative of the Narrator, who spoke the world into existence, is the only anchor to reality, revealing over and over again where I am from, of whom I am from, who I am, what I am, what I have and what I lack, what I need, and where I am going, etc. Though it is about so much more than me, it includes me, too! Not knowing our narrative - this is the individual and corporate, gender-neuteral, all-inclusive, age-transcending, national, and global, dilemma.
Last week on a news website there was an advertisement for an exposé on the hottest grandmothers of Hollywood. I was shocked and not shocked at the same time. This is normal for our culture - we despise age, have plastic surgery, inject our skin with chemicals that alter and mold our appearance. Why? Because we live in a culture whose narrative teaches us to praise youth and beauty but despise old age. Why? Because old people are dying - and we want nothing to do with death. In fact, we live in a cultural narrative that teaches us we can elude death. Somehow, through advancements in science and technology, we will find a way to cheat death. And if we can't, we'll make ourselves look as young, beautiful, and healthy for as long as possible.
But we all die.
This was the purpose of the ashes, the ritual, the somber music, the solemn oaths. Regardless of our cultural narratives, Ash Wednesday was an opportunity for narrative realignment.
If I were to go through my days denying death through my self-deluded fantasy and rejection of reality, when death came knocking there would be no time to prepare. I would not have considered the mortal terms of the existence clause of my life contract. What a shock.
If, however, I lived, knowing I would die, I will have lived an unconventional life. And if I lived informed not only of my impending death but also knowledgeable of the death of one who lived in order to die, conquering death, and giving everlasting life to those who trust in him, well, my life might yet become even more unconventional.
Thinking of Ash Wednesday and this season of lent, I am thankful for Scripture. Praise God for inspiring it, preserving it, and giving it to us, allowing us to know him, to know ourselves and each other, and to know our savior.
But I am also convicted that I have not examined my heart thoroughly enough, that the light of Scripture, the word of God made flesh, the Illuminator, has not yet revealed entirely all the ways I see myself wrongly, understand the gospel narrative incompletely, and have yet to trust in him.
Praise God that, as he has done so much and is the author of our salvation, he is faithful to be the finisher of our salvation. Praise God that his narrative changes everything. Praise God that we can gather together to reflect on our frailty and his sufficiency.