Humility and Dust: 6 suggestions for Lent
Matthew 23:12 (NRSV)
In 8th grade I kept a careful count of how many points I scored during the track season. I also kept a careful count of how many the rest of my teammates scored. I knew that our team coaches would be looking at the tally of points when they gave away the awards at the end of the season. It was a good season for me and I knew going into the awards ceremony that I’d scored more points than any other guy on the team. I felt pretty confident that I’d be taking home our version of the MVP, the leadership award.
The coaches put the leadership award at the very end of the ceremony and set it aside as clearly the most important award of the evening. When it came time, the coach went on and on about the superlatives of the recipient without mentioning his name. Finally, he said it, “And this year’s leadership award goes to . . . “ I stood up with a big smile on my face, “Kevin!” My first thought: my name is not Kevin. Second thought: oh, my name isn’t Kevin! I didn’t win. Third thought: sit down you fool!
I fumed over this, because I felt like it was a terrible injustice. After the ceremony, I even confronted my coach with my spreadsheet of points scored for the season. He said, “Ingalls, leadership isn’t about points,” patted me on the back, and walked away shaking his head ever so slightly. It took me a while to swallow his lesson. I did not lead our team that year. I knew how to run fast, but not how to influence my peers positively. The coaches made the right call. I needed to humble myself and realize that I had room to grow as a leader. Eventually, my coaches words became a bit of mantra for me. I remember consistently praying during college, for instance, that no matter what a race’s outcome, that God would use me to encourage my teammates. Sometimes growth requires humbling ourselves to see an accurate image of who we are. It’s too easy to keep mental spreadsheets so as to prop-up our self-image.
Lent is about a lot things, but at the center of it all is humility. When your pastor applies the ashes he or she will remind you: remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return. The serpent’s temptation to Adam and Eve, you’ll remember, promised that the fruit would cause them to be like God (Gen. 3:5). The serpent lured them with a promise that goes against our nature. We are not like God. We are dust breathed to life and now on its way back to dust. We need God.
Do we really think we need God, though? How often do we rely on chocolate or sweets to calm our anxiety? Or rely on our money to mask our feelings of inadequacy? Or to create a false sense of security or superiority? Or rely on our knowledge to make people think we’re special? Or rely on our picture-perfect Facebook profiles to make us feel like we have a beautiful life? Or rely on our degrees? Our accomplishments? Our eloquence? Our political parties? Our experiences?
It’s tempting to rely on the world and its shiny fruit. When we do, we push God further and further away. One day he shows up in the Garden and says, “Where are you?!”
Lent is a time to push off all the false-selves, the crutches we rely on, and be reminded that we are dust, in need of God. Ash Wednesday is a time to kneel before God and say, “for the next 46 days I’m going to consistently offer to rely on you instead of this thing I’ve been relying on.”
This is an appropriate posture to take as we approach the cross. It reminds us of all the reasons Jesus had to/chose to die . . . namely, our frailty. So we humble ourselves before God and we mourn that our striving has cost our Lord his life.
But never forget, humbling ourselves before God is never, ever the end of the story. Jesus always responds to our humility by exalting us. We find, that though we be dust, we are beloved dust and dust capable of doing wondrous acts of love because of the one who breathes life into us.
With this Lenten narrative in mind, I offer the following six ideas for your journey to Easter:
1. If you fast from something like chocolate, keep a prayer journal too.
It’s too easy to fast from something like chocolate only for the health benefits. So, try to find something that will keep you focused on the point. I suggest a prayer journal. Set aside intentional time to reflect on what kind of falsehoods chocolate props up. Does it help you mask a real need? Maybe it reinforces a negative image of yourself. Bring all this and more into an ongoing conversation with Jesus. Then watch and be amazed as he exalts you by freeing you from the crutches that keep you from being real with yourself; as he exalts you by fashioning a new and beautiful identity for you.
2. Fast with a person or cause in mind . . . recognizing that God wants to bring you new life with a purpose
Isaiah 58 is an epic passage about fasting. Isaiah argues that fasting is corrupt and a farce if it is not accompanied by a personal commitment to justice (i.e. freeing the oppressed, feeding the hungry, sheltering the unsheltered, clothing the naked, and caring for your family; see 58:6-7). So, try infusing your fasting with an eye on justice. Pick a person or cause and pray about it when your fasting is causing you the most trouble. Then watch and be amazed as God exalts you by softening your heart and granting you opportunities to make a difference.3. Don’t tell anyone
It is too easy to forget Jesus’ words about fasting (Mt. 5:16-18). He challenges us to fast in secret so that we don’t lose the heart of the experience . . . humility. Tell your immediate family, but otherwise keep quiet. Make it an intimate experience where you look to God consistently for strength. Watch and be amazed as he exalts you by lifting your humbled head and smiling down on your servanthood.
4. Sticky notes: “I need you here”
Identify some places where you’ve been trying to replace God, push him out, or ignore him. Maybe it is your Twitter account or Facebook. Put a sticky note on the top of your device. Every time you see it, invite God to lead you in your interactions. Watch and be amazed as God exalts you by transforming the way you see these things; as he fashions a solid identity for you where there once was only smoke and mirrors.5. This is what being alive looks like! Read through the Sermon on the Mount every week.
It helps to be reminded of what exaltation looks like. It is forgiveness of our sins, for sure, but it is also a new way of life . . . a new way of being human. No passage exemplifies this new way of life so thoroughly as the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-8 (or Luke 6:17-49, 11:1-13). Watch and be amazed as God exalts you by igniting a passion in your heart to live this way.6. Skip lunch and pray for your political opponent
Political angst leading you down a path of hatred? Try this: once a week go without lunch. And as the pains of hunger hit you, reflect on your limitations, your humanness. That should lead you to a pretty humble place. At this point, pray that God will bless your opponent (need an extra nudge? Reflect on Mt. 5:43-48). Pray that he would teach you to bless them. Pray that he would help you understand them and to see them as people who his Son’s blood was shed for. And be amazed as he exalts you by softening your heart toward people the world has convinced you to despise.
I hate to think what my life might have looked like if I had kept on keeping self-glorifying spreadsheets. That awards ceremony caused me a lot of pain, but it also freed me to see myself as I really was. So too, I pray that this Lenten season is an occasion for you to get in touch with who you really are and who God longs to help you be. We are dust, indeed, but dust worth dying for, so that the dust may be exalted.
 See also: Luke 14:11, 18:14, James 4:10, 1 Peter 5:6.
 The quote comes from Genesis 3:19, but it also derives from the image of God forming Adam from the dust and breathing him into life (Gen. 2:7).