Confession might be good for the soul, but it has also been observed to be lousy on the reputation or, as Abe Lincoln is credited as saying, “better to be thought a fool and be silent, than open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”
But in the season of Lent, we honor the proper place for the cry of lament. The acknowledgment of universal disappointment, heartache and suffering experienced by us and all the people of the world is a spiritual necessity.
Things are neither as we want them nor as God has intended them to be. Despite all the progress, all the technological improvements and ease of information and travel, all the medical breakthroughs and trillions upon trillions of dollars, pounds, yens and euros churning endlessly away in cycles of governance and commerce, we can hardly be called members of an advanced society when we are as close to the brink of disaster as is claimed.
Sackcloth and ashes is perhaps a truer reflection of our condition than the glitter of Mardi Gras—it is certainly a more fitting identification with the millions of our fellow citizens who have already lost jobs, homes and livelihoods.
All spiritual traditions teach that it is better to be humble than proud. It is better to be generous than to be greedy. It is better to be mindfully aware of struggle than callously indifferent to suffering.
The Lenten journey begins in the dust. Our very bodies, once you take away the breath that animates us and the water that expands us, are little more than mineral powder: carbon and calcium, phosphorus and potassium, sulfur and sodium. Dust we are, to dust we return.
But in the soil, there is life. In the bowed head, there is the awakening of the spirit. Only in the open palm can there be any surprise gift of grace. Waste turns into compost. Living deep in the dirt means there is nowhere else to go but up.
When we can admit that the trouble is on our street too, the pressure of pretending we are better than we really are goes away. Only then can we realize that the fairy tale was never just about me alone. It was always a much grander and richer story about all of us, in a terrible mess without any hope unless we learn how to help one another.
Come, brother, let me help you carry your burden. Come, sister, let me be as Christ to you. For we are all crawling, creeping, limping forward, through the dirty ground where we began and will end—the ground of all creation, the holy ground, the soft clay that has made me and made you.
Mark Johnson is senior minister at Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky.