Friday, February 19, 2010

Yes, but what dust! (Sunday Reflections for February 21, 2010)

There’s a well known cliché that “truth is stranger than fiction.” Whether or not it is stranger, it is often more interesting because real events involve real people. And we do like to stop and stare.

Shortly after Thanksgiving the nation “stopped and stared” at a bizarre car accident: Tiger Woods hit a fire hydrant—coming out of his driveway. Later we learned his reckless haste in leaving home was because his wife was coming after him with a golf club. No, it wasn’t a club he had forgotten; it was one she intended to wrap around his head.

As the sordid story dribbled out in ensuing weeks, Woods experienced what Vanity Fair says was “one of the greatest recorded drops in popularity of any nonpolitical figure.” Woods went from being a gold-plated merchandise sponsor to being a corporate pariah. From being one the greatest sports heroes of our time, he went to being a schmuck.

While Tiger Woods fall was dramatic, it was that it was happening to him that was so astounding. Woods had created a stainless steel sports and public persona. His game was beyond compare and so was the value of his brand. His talent, his clothes, his watch, his car, his house, and—yes—his wife all proclaimed SUCCESS by any standard of popular American culture. Woods and his well-paid handlers together prevented any significant crack from appearing in that carefully crafted image—until that stupid fire hydrant got in the way. The crack that then appeared disgorged virtually a whole other person—the Tiger Woods who had been behind the curtain all along.

In the end it was the age-old clash of image versus reality, the compartmentalization of two different lives that inevitably merge at some certain point, whoever you are. He exhibited the same superhuman confidence off the golf course that he exhibited on it, apparently convinced he would never be caught despite the stupid sloppiness at the end—text messages, voice-mail messages. He deluded himself into thinking he could be something that he wasn’t: untouchable. The greatest feat of his career is that he managed to get away with it for so long in public, the bionic man instead of the human one who hit a fire hydrant. ("Tiger in the Rough" by Buzz Bissinger in Vanity Fair.)

Lent has traditionally been a time for self-examination. Typically this has meant looking for and looking at one’s character flaws, bad habits, wrongs needing to be righted, grudges needing to be let go of, persons needing to be forgiven. All-in all, certainly not a bad practice.

The Tiger Woods saga suggests what could be a valuable, contemporary recasting of Lenten discipline. Rather than asking, “What about me needs to be changed?” perhaps we need to ask, “Who am I, really?” In his startling and well-publicized comments, Britt Hume said Woods needed to come to Christianity to find redemption. Regardless whether, as Hume claimed, Christianity is the best place to “find redemption” it’s not obvious that is, in fact, Woods greatest need. Rather, it seems the first thing he needs is to figure out just who Tiger Woods really is.

In the gospel for Ash Wednesday, Jesus exhorts his followers to practice their piety in secret and not be like the scribes and Pharisees who “blow trumpets” to draw attention to their good deeds. Jesus labels them with one of his worst put-downs: hypocrites. Their public piety, he implies, hides a much more sordid reality in their private lives. Imagine if they played golf.

The gospel for the First Sunday in Lent tells the story, prior to the beginning of his public ministry, of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. In effect, Satan confronts him with the question we all struggle with and sometimes hear verbally: “Who do you think you are?” If you’re really the messiah, Satan says, then prove it. He assumes being the messiah is a defined thing. To each of the temptations, however, Jesus responds, “No, that’s not me. I know who I am and those things aren’t me.”

Who are you? In the Ash Wednesday liturgy when the ashes are applied, a verse from the ancient book of Genesis is recited: “Remember: you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This verbal slap-in-the-face is part of a reality check given by God to Adam and Eve after their misadventure with the serpent. However wonderful that fruit was, here’s the truth: You’re still going to die. Ouch.

Recently, however, those words have taken on a new meaning, perhaps more dignified and certainly more awesome. The use of ash is appropriate: scientists tell us we aren’t just any dust but carbon-based dust. That’s the stuff of life. And we can trace that dust to a pretty amazing origin. All this carbon-based stuff was created in the furnace-interior of the universe’s earliest stars and then scattered in all directions, across billions of light-years, in their dramatic explosive deaths. We are all literally made of star dust.

And think what’s been made of that dust! Those atoms have been arranged and re-arranged over countless evolutionary ages and eons—to us! Those stellar building blocks now form our skin and bones, muscles and organs, systems and fluids, and the most amazing entity perhaps in the entire universe, that grayish blob at out top we call “our brain.” It is that organ which has evolved over millions and billions of years to ask this question: Who am I?

It is the dizzying reality of modern life that we change our public identity almost as fast and as often as we change our clothes. We move in and out of so many roles in the course of our life it is little wonder we often find our selves in a daze wondering: Who am I—really?

The gospels imply that one reason Jesus can resist Satan’s temptations is because of a prior event. At his baptism by John, Jesus hears a voice declare, “You are my son.” So in our own baptisms it is announced that each of us is also a "child of God.” In the Psalms it says we are “little lower than the angels” and, as Jesus reminds his audience, that we are “gods.” And we should remember that in Genesis at the end of his creating God looks at everything he has made, including human beings, and declares it all to be “very good.”

We are amazing creatures. We have come to this point following an amazing evolutionary, cultural and historical journey. It is a journey which we are still on, beckoning us forward to an infinite future. The twists and turns of our individual lives can easily leave us dazed and confused: Where am I? What am I? Who am I? Lent is a gift of time to step back from all that and be reminded of our true and essential identity: We are dust but it is the dust of the universe, filled with the very breath of God.


Anonymous said...

When we think our lives are chaos, we just have to look back at where we've been. In the stars. David Mc

Doug said...

Agree David--it can help put things in perspective.