On Ash Wednesday we talk about sin and death together. So what’s the connection? It isn’t that sin causes death. Death is the price tag for having a life to begin with.The connection is that we don’t want to think about either one. Ernest Becker's Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Denial of Death, says, to a greater or lesser extent we all pretend we aren’t mortal – like the Paul Simon lyric: “and so I’ll continue to continue to pretend my life will never end. . ..”No surprise there.
But Becker goes on to show convincingly that denial of death is the psychological root of all sorts of regrettable behaviors and our refusal to own up to them. In Christian parlance, to the extent we deny our death, we deny our sin.I once heard several people furiously denying they were racist though no one had said they were.In Georgia we used to say, “It’s the hit dog hollers.”
People accuse religion of shoring up our denial.They say it’s a pie in the sky fantasy for hiding from hard truths.Often, they’re right. Many Ash Wednesday sermons will caution people not to think about anything unpleasant. Some priests use cute variations on the imposition ashes. More than once I’ve heard: “Remember that ‘You are stardust. You are golden.’”
There’s plenty of escapist religion.But St. Augustine, defined “sin” as precisely this kind of escapism. Sin is disengagement. Sin is denial. Religion can be sin.In Isaiah’s day, people were jumping through religious hoops so they could bypass the hard stuff.But God wasn’t impressed. He said, “On the day of your fasting . . . you exploit yourworkers.Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife. . .”
He had no use for petty pieties like giving up coffee, candy, or Face Book for 40 days – as if that makes us ok. He thought we had real issues to deal with – especially each other.
Feel good religion, self-help books, and video games are all escape routes for fleeing from the common life of family, church, and civic engagement. Smoke and mirrors religion won’t cut it.
God says, “Let’s get real.” This is real. We’re awash in unspoken grief that life doesn’t meet our expectations. We’re lonely. Sometimes we’re angry. Often, we’re afraid. We aren’t who we want to be, so we’re ashamed. Sooner or later, we’re going to die. It adds up to a load of unacknowledged grief we act out in unfortunate ways. That leave us with a rucksack of unacknowledged guilt.
Theologian Luke Bretherton says we avoid guilt andgriefin two ways: denial and projection. Denial pushes our guilt, grief, and shame down below our awareness, but they don’t go away. They fester.So we project our negative feelings on scapegoats -- human screens for the parts of ourselves we refuse to own.I’m not selfish – not manipulative – not judgmental. I’m not angry and I’ll fight the man who says I am. I don’t have the psychological baggage that afflicts everyone else. Not me. It’s the immigrants, the gays, the homeless.
Jesus said a Pharisee and a Tax Collector went up topray:“The Pharisee stood apart and prayed,‘God, I thank you that I’m not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week (and tithe).’”
But the Tax Collector prayed, “God have mercy on me a sinner.”He didn’t escape. He didn’t project. He owned his moral failures. It was the Tax Collector who went home justified.
If we want a Lenten discipline, let’s try this one: Withdraw our projections. The road to personal wholeness begins when we withdraw our projections. Jesus’ word for personal wholeness was “salvation.”Whoever we’re demonizing, give it up – at least for 40 days. Instead of giving up chocolate, give up a grudge. Maybe it’s someone in our family, church, or neighborhood. Maybe it’s someone we disagree with over politics. A rational disagreement is good. A principled stance is good. But passionate animosity is ineffective and fueled by projection.
This Lent let’s withdraw our projections and look inside. When we stop blaming others and acknowledge our own sin and mortality, two things become possible:
First, we can see someone else as, in Robert Burns’ words,“my poor earthbound companion and fellow mortal. “
Second, we can do some serious soul-searching, cultivating a healthy self-awareness.We may find some stuff that isn’t pretty. But we may also discover the capacity to forgive ourselves for being human. We don’t have to beat ourselves up. Beating ourselves up misses the point.The point is to acknowledge our faults with Christ-like compassion. Maybe start with just one. Acknowledge one fault and forgive yourself. Then forgive someone else.
If we practice the gentle art of self-forgiveness, we can forgive our “poor earthbound companion(s) and fellow mortal(s).” We may even forgive life for disappointing us long enough to actually live it. Wouldn’t that be an Easter! Wouldn’t that be a Resurrection!