Last night, Anita and I went to All Souls Episcopal Cathedral for the Ash Wednesday service. It was a gift to be back in that faith-community which has been such a significant haven and home for us since my work at First Baptist Church of Asheville ended in January of last year. Because last year’s service was snowed-out, this one was the first I’d attended since I helped to lead the Ash Wednesday service at First Baptist in 2014. On that same day, I also began chemotherapy for multiple myeloma; I had an infusion in the afternoon and began taking an oral medication that night.
In between, I had the privilege of tracing the sign of the cross on the foreheads of people I loved and reminding them of the stark reality of our mortality and fragility. Over and over again, I said: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you return.” I viscerally felt and still palpably feel the “dust” which is my life.
Because I entered the saving wilderness of Lent and the uncertain desert of cancer treatment on the same day, I have had the opportunity to learn how the scriptures’ stories of testing, temptation, struggle, and suffering can uncover and impart meaning to my journey with life-threatening illness.
This year, I am particularly aware of the need to discover more about how to live within ever-narrowing limits and to affirm their paradoxically liberating power.
Ernest Kurtz wrote a history of Alcoholics Anonymous, Not God. To over-simplify, Kurtz claims that the central and most transforming insight of the 12 Step movement is the profound affirmation that none of us is God or godlike. Our knowledge, wisdom, strength, and virtue are all limited. We are unavoidably human, and acknowledging that fact is the entryway to the path of healing.
I believe that most of the damage we do to ourselves and to others comes from falling into theomania. I don’t mean the clinical delusion which compels people to believe that they are a god or a unique messenger of a god. I have in mind, instead, the practical illusions we have that we know more than we know (so much that we no longer listen to perspectives which might challenge us); that we are better than we are (and better than others); and that we can do more than we can do (so that the demands of rest, disengagement, and renewal do not apply to us).
I am more aware of my limits than I have ever been. The call I am hearing this Lenten season is to discern how those limits are actually the walls of shelter, not the thick concrete and iron bars of a prison and a means of grace, not a sign of judgment. They are instruments of freedom, invitations to vulnerability, openings to love, and doorways into wonders of ordinariness.