Finding ourselves

Is one’s true home elsewhere?

By Molly T. Marshall

Have you succumbed to discovering which state you really belong in, what literary character you are, which biblical heroine or hero you are, or whether you live upstairs or downstairs in Downton Abbey? (I am Lady Mary in case you are wondering — sans the slight figure, of course.)

Incessant BuzzFeed quizzes pose seemingly disconnected questions to determine these verities. My problem is that I do not recognize much of the music as I am stuck in the 18th and 19th centuries, so I am sure I really do not belong in Vermont and probably Rahab is not my biblical meme.

Then, there is the genealogy hook. Are we really Irish, which we all really want to be in March? Can we find the elusive roots of African identity, or are slave names all that can be unearthed? Perhaps there are members of royalty in your family tree waiting to be discovered by their erstwhile descendants. One colleague discovered that his family was very close to royalty — they worked as gardeners at the palace.

Many engage the Oscars as an exercise in validating their good taste in movies or seeing what they might imagine wearing only if …. We laugh at the blunders of celebrities as it seems to topple them from their heights to our mortal plain. And, yes, some should wear sensible shoes and shorter gowns.

Is one’s true home elsewhere? Supposedly so, as the quizzes infallibly determine. Being satisfied in Kansas City does not seem to be an option. I guess it is hard for Chekhov to find work here.

These trivial and humorous pursuits probably cloak the deeper search for identity that is the ongoing quest of unfinished humans. Besides being a time suck and too frequent distraction, they remind us how much we really desire to know and be known. They also point to a holy longing to know and accept our true selves.

Entering Lent is a time of stripping away the false self and letting the Spirit of God probe our innermost being. It is also a time of gaining perspective on the shape of our soul and the curve of our sin.

The Scriptures for Ash Wednesday are the same in each of the three years of the lectionary cycle. We hear the solemn call to repentance from Joel, urging us to “rend our hearts and not our garments” (Joel 2:13). Psalm 51, a penitential prayer, calls upon God to cleanse and renew the wayward. The Epistle declares that God is reconciling sinners through Christ, who offers righteousness rather than retribution (2 Corinthians 5:21). Finally, the Gospel reading urges humility in spiritual practices, especially when we fast, pray and give alms (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21).

Each of these texts calls us to recognize how inescapable is our accountability to God and how prone we are to neglect that reality. Receiving the imposition of ashes reminds us of our temporality and our need of the breath of God, the Spirit, to sustain our lives. This is forthright acknowledgement of human limits. Bonhoeffer suggested that the primal sin of humanity was its unwillingness to live within limits.

A revered theology professor, Dr. William Hendricks, used to greet his class with these words: “Frail children of dust.” It was a bracing message for students in their early 20s, at the height of physical strength and intellectual promise. For those who let the words find resonance in their spirits, it was a perceptive reminder of their true estate.

Lent is a journey through the wilderness of our lives that makes possible “coming to ourselves,” an echo of the experience of the Prodigal. We wrestle with our temptations, acknowledge those overweening desires that seduce us, and feel the deep hunger of our spiritual poverty.

We seek to put off practices that prevent human flourishing and put on those that nurture faith and hope. Confession, repentance, fasting, and alms giving to the poor prepare us to living more fully before the presence of God, to whom all hearts are open.

In her reflection on this holy season, The Rising, Wendy Wright urges stark measures: “Let go of the old ways that lead to such pain. Start over. Fast. Empty yourselves to be filled with something new.”

My Lenten prayer will be this: Open my spirit to your Holy Spirit, O God, as you search out those places in my life that need your cleansing and healing work. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Lead me to discover more fully the person you are calling me to be, imaging your Son through the power of your Spirit.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.