Ashes to Ashes

For the past few weeks, Leeman and I have been engaging in the on and off project of decluttering our house. By on and off, I mean one day I get really excited and toss out or give away a bunch of stuff and then forget about clearing things out for another month or so until the organizational inspiration strikes again. Neither Leeman or I have the time or inclination to be particularly organized people. But it has to be said there is a noticeable difference in the quality of our lives when we do at least get around to clearing out some of the unused junk taking up space around the house — whether it’s old, worn out clothes or books we have no interest in reading again. It is liberating simply to make space for everyday life, unhindered by the clutter of the last 5-10 years.

frontal-lentIndeed, I would have to say this image of “decluttering” is the best image I can image as we enter into the Holy Season of Lent (which began earlier this week on Ash Wednesday). Though quite widely known, thanks to the popularity of pancake suppers and ash-marked forehends, Lent is also perhaps the most misunderstood of the seasons in the Christian year. We often think of Lent as time to “give something up” — like Chocolate, Alcohol, or Facebook, as if the 40 days of Lent provide us with the perfect opportunity to go on that long-delayed post-Christmas diet. Or as if this is a season to exert our spiritual fortitude though six weeks of self-denial and austerity. But while Lent is a season of fasting and a time for reflection, we do not engage in those practices as an end in themselves. Even the image of “spring cleaning for the soul,” which I myself have  at times used to explain Lent, is not without its problems. Such language suggests that the purpose of our Lenten journey is to use the disciplines of prayer and fasting and almsgiving as the means to polish off the imperfections of our spirit, ensuring that we arrive at the Easter celebration in a properly purified state. And while that is a nice idea, it perpetuates the idea that Lent is somehow about US and what we can achieve for ourselves, rather than becoming more aware of God’s activity in our lives.

This is why I appreciate the image of “decluttering” so much more than cleaning. (Indeed, if you want to take the image literally, you can check out 40 bags in 40 days for some helpful life-simplifying tips). Whatever practices or disciplines we take on in Lent cannot simply be about our attempts to better ourselves. They are about pausing and taking stock of where we have not allowed God to be present in our hurried, busy lives. If I give up chocolate for Lent, I do that not just to test myself out of some sense of spiritual rigor, but in order that maybe I become just a little bit more mindful of where I can so thoughtlessly grab for a cookie or a piece of candy. I do so to achieve a better sense of mindfulness in our all too often un-mindful lives. If I give up time on social media, or watching TV (my great weakness), I do that so I can give more disciplined time for prayer, or spiritual reading. This year, my Lenten project is finally to conquer the Divine Comedy all the way through.

So the question for all of us as we enter into this holy season is … where do our lives need “decluttering.” Where are we crowding out room for God, and how can we make our lives more mindful, more attentive to his presence in the world around us. Perhaps more than any other season, Lent is a gift the church offers us to offset the business and the clutter that can so easily overwhelm us.

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