Excess and Ashes

When is the last time you bought something for yourself? Today? Yesterday? Last week? For me, it is usually no longer ago than “last week,” and that is hard for me to admit. It is, I think, an admission of my selfishness. I buy not because I lack anything but because of some perceived deficiency or because there is some further convenience I crave or because of some less definable hankering that urges me to amass more things for myself. 

And it makes me angry that I do this. Not only is it selfish, but I also believe it is degrading, both for me and for those I exploit in order to buy often and cheaply (think underpaid factory workers, poor environmental standards that lead to health hazards and climate change, perpetuation of unequal wealth distribution, etc.).

I recently read an article in The Anglican Theological Review because the title seemed to speak so directly to me: “The Struggle for Human Dignity in a Consumer-Oriented Culture” by Beverly Eileen Mitchell. Mitchell writes:

In the United States, a leading player in the global economy, too many of us have overspent, going into debt to buy according not to our basic needs, but to manufactured wants. What is insidious is the growing link that has developed between our sense of identity, value and worth and the products we purchase. We no longer buy products simply for themselves, but because we fall for the illusion that they will enhance us or make us into who we would like to be and fear we are not.

In what way did I imagine a new tablet cover would “enhance me”? Did I buy a fancy tea kettle that heats the water to specific temperatures for various kinds of tea because I needed it? Certainly not. I could argue that I bought these things for the added convenience they provide in my life; in fact, that is how I justify the purchases to myself. But I think, if I don’t want to deceive myself, I must also admit that I bought them so that I would look a certain way to others, so that I could bolster up my image of myself as a smart consumer or a tea aficionado or some such foolishness.

I want to be a real person. I don’t want to buy because I’m told to, and I don’t want to cut myself into some prefab shape so that I can be acceptable to society.

In fact, isn’t a prefab person often something of a turnoff? Isn’t someone who is uber-fashionable/always “put together”/always ready to show off their newest electronic marvel, isn’t that person somewhat unapproachable? Do the clothes I put on in the morning make me look good? I think so. But is it possible that some of the choices I make when I am getting ready for the day–when I am putting together an image of how I want to present myself to the world–actually make me seem aloof or arrogant? Could it be that the way I present myself turns some people off from talking to me, smiling at me, sitting next to me on the bus?

What I really want is to be down-to-earth and open. I’m not very good at this. And much of it is my own fault. I put on armor all the time. It’s an armor made of things: my clothes, my electronic gadgets, my choice of highly marketed snack or beverage, even my damn tea kettle and tablet cover. I want to say there’s nothing wrong with looking good and feeling confident, but shouldn’t this be innate within us, as individuals created by a loving God, not a confidence and beauty we must manufacture with all the stuff we buy?

So for Lent this year, I’m choosing to abstain from the culture of superfluous spending. For forty days at least, I’m going to step back and stop. I’m not going to buy anything for myself.

I’m a fan of the band Giants & Pilgrims. They’ve got a new single out for Lent this year, and they’ve posted it online along with a short reflection by pastor Jeff Cook. It really spoke to me, and I hope you’ll take a moment to listen as well, to start off your Lenten season with a deeper contemplation of what it means to be a soul in a body, what it means to subtract the excess, and what it means to celebrate with ashes, which are a symbol of destruction–something we may need to do to our insatiable desire to buy. The reflection is first, followed by the song:


Deep Song

Sometimes when I wake in the morning, the first feeling I have is like a stone in my stomach. Sometimes the weeks gather in questions, stones gathering together as they rumble through the mountains of my body. Sometimes I lose the rhythm of the Deep Song.

And then, in loneliness, despairing the depravity of the world and the deep craters in me, I find myself sitting at a picnic table under a great, wide elm as my daughter plays just there, at the playground. Suddenly, I am present, drawn back into the green. I stretch my neck back, draw my eyes into the thin, serrated leaves. Light plays through them, layer upon layer of leaves, creating every shade of brightness.

A small breeze, a chill of cloud. A deep sigh, and I hear the beat. I rise, rest my head on the elm, and hear the drumming of the world, the beauty of the things that grow.

I am one of them.


Sixty-seven degrees today, and it feels like maybe, finally, we’re getting some traction under our feet and spring is on its way. The wind pounds and whips the salty mud; the air feels so different on a day like today—a day of sunshine and buds. Deep beneath, there is a waking of all small, green things.

After this winter of eternal gray—the dry cold beating down the door and slithering between the sheets—it’s hard to believe in spring. And summer? Summer is a fleeting breath between deep frosts.

But when it’s 67 degrees outside and the wind nearly blows your feet from under you, there is no option but to breathe, breathe deeply this hope, this grace of light and life, however briefly.

by Louise Glück

Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you.

I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring—

afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy

in the raw wind of the new world.

Hope and Lament

What is poetry’s role when the world is burning? Encroaching environmental disaster and the relentless wars around the world have had, it seems, a paralyzing, sterilizing effect on much American poetry. It is less the magnitude of the crises than our apparent immunity to them, this death on which we all thrive, that is spinning our best energies into…shrill denunciations of a culture whose privileges we are not ready to renounce—or, more accurately, do not even know how to renounce. There is some fury of clarity, some galvanizing combination of hope and lament, that is much needed now, but it sometimes seems that we…are anxiously waiting for the devastation to reach our very streets, as it one day will, it most certainly will.
-Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss
How I love the lake; it calms me and whispers its fierce, cold lullaby to my heart. I touch the bark of maple and oak, name the names of each flower in spring, glad for their return. I love the snowflake, telling me a tale of infinite delicacy, perfect individuality.
But what does my love translate into? Do I have any salvific strength? I live thoughtlessly inside my large grocery store, my mini-van—a culture whose privileges we are not ready to denounce—or, more accurately, do not even know how to renounce. What words of hope can I speak onto a page, what lament will be more than helplessness? How do I dignify creation without ignoring destruction?
Night Afloat
Last night I dreamed I was alone.
Rain shivered on our roof until
the ceiling dissolved like salt, white-lipped
water beading on my forehead, my knees.
I swallowed buds on trees and sandy peat.
When I woke before dawn, Zach was still asleep
next to me, neither of us drowned,
though mud and grass
still clung to our eyelashes.