Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dealing With the Dirt

I have an Ash Wednesday confession. I have always had something of a “clean fetish.” My childhood tormentors (read “siblings”) took notice of this and made up names for me – “nasty nice” being the most memorable among them. That’s not to say that I didn’t run and play and get dirty like other kids; I did. I just couldn’t wait to get the dirt off when the day was done. Not sure why. Perhaps because where I grew up dirt was…well…just dirtier than the normal dirt. The region around Lake Okeechobee where I grew up was known for its rich, dark, black organic soil called “muck.” It would grow anything, but it also was virtually indelible when it came in contact with human skin.

When I was about fourteen, my dad got me a summer job working on a sod farm. He had, I suspect, multiple motives – to help me earn a little extra spending money; to learn the value of hard work and dollars earned; to help build my self-esteem as well as my fourteen year old frame which, at that point, was mostly long, lanky, and lean with an Adam’s apple at the summit; and finally to help me get over my dirt fetish. It was hot, dirty work, and by day’s end it showed. I still remember getting into the car at the end of the day when dad had come to pick me up. I glanced at myself in the side mirror and was horrified at my appearance. I reached in the back seat of his company car and took a rag and began to wipe the grime from my face. He got in the car, sat down, looked at me frantically wiping the muck from my mug and said: “Son, you’ve gotta learn to deal with the dirt.” Indeed.

There is, of course, the dirt we wear on the outside, and then there is the dirt we wear on the inside. Christians call the latter “sin” – “soul soil.” For Christians, sin is not merely some unfortunate, no-fault, mindless mishap for which one is neither accountable nor responsible; it is intentional, willful disobedience to the One Who makes appropriate and legitimate claims and demands upon us. For the Christian, “sin” is not merely an “oops” or an “uh oh,” it’s a stubborn, intentional, recalcitrant “no!” that sets in motion irrevocable consequences and inescapable outcomes.

The solution for dealing with this kind of dirt is what Christians call “repentance.” It is owning the dirt so that we can disown it. It begins with a mea culpa (“I am guilty”), and it ends with a kyrie eleison (“Lord, have mercy”). And that, chiefly, is what Ash Wednesday is all about. We own the dirt so that we can, with God’s help, disown it. As C. S. Lewis said: “[Repentance] means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death…. And remember, this repentance, this willing submission to humiliation and a kind of death, is not something God demands of you before He will take you back and which He could let you off if He chose: it is simply a description of what going back to Him is like.”

Repentance – dealing with the dirt. It takes at least 40 days of preparation, examination, confession, and contrition to get ready for Easter, because there can be no resurrection until somebody dies, no atonement without “coming clean” and dealing with the dirt.

And so, when you see folk today wearing cruciform ashes, little “soil signs,” on their foreheads, remember, they’re wearing their dirt on the outside so that they can be reminded to deal with the dirt on the inside.

As David, who knew a thing or two about “soul soil” once prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God!”

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