03/20/2012 11:50 am ET Updated May 20, 2012

Lent: Words in the Wilderness

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It begins for me on Ash Wednesday, as soft black palm ashes smear on my thumb and I meet each congregant's eye to say honestly, "Remember that you are dust." Like the build-up of those ashes under my fingernails, the message lingers across the days of Lent: Remember that you are dust. Remember that you are no more and no less than human. Be mindful that life's breadth and depth and beauty are ultimately finite.

While many choose to journey through Lent with fasting or generosity as the tools for considering our human dustiness, I choose to journey into the wild finitude with words. Each day for the length of Lent, I test the symbols of language by putting pen to paper to articulate a prayer. Now halfway through the season, my prayer-writing has observed balloons and planets, considered the river of God's tears and the pain of God's silence. This human life of ours is nothing short of total wilderness -- breathtaking, wild, unpredictable, lonely, enchanting -- and the daily discipline of finding words for the dust is my practice of humility.

My words are like tongs
handling the hazy red coals
of a fire too holy
which nevertheless
has called me to its side.
So I whisper: "Beautiful!"
and an ember pulses brighter;
"Delightful!" and a spark
cracks with laughter;
"Restorative!" and
a flame licks warmly.
"You are unchanging and
ever-surprising," I woo,
and the fire swells.
"You are satisfying and
unsettling," I affirm,
and then I set the tongs down
while I bask on the hearth
and rebuild my courage
for handling fire again.
("Handling Fire" 2/18/2012)

Language -- the handling of words -- is no small sacred cow among Christians, yet it may be one of our most measurable examples of human finitude. Like grass, language flourishes and withers, seemingly overnight. Words trend. Communication changes. Fresh slang waves at us like a bright green palm leaf before crumbling to ash ... only to be recycled in another community, by another population, long after we think it has blown away. My children and their peers invent words to be phonetically expressive. Domain name creators and marketers and bloggers manipulate language with an understanding that words are excitable but momentary.

Yet in the Church, where concerns linger that altering the Trinitarian formula -- Father, Son, Holy Ghost -- may actually alter the essence of God, we construct the ashes of human language into idols and call them sacred, thus avoiding the scary wilderness of words. Our collective Christian preference for familiar language is at once understandable and bizarre. Pastorally, I appreciate the comfort of timeworn words that echo across generations when we recite prayers and hymns and names for God. Theologically, I understand that blurred distinctions between The Word Made Flesh and the Word of God and the written words of scripture have complicated our idolization of religious language.

Realistically, however, I'm dumbfounded that we expect words and their meanings to be ageless. When is the last time any of us used "twitter" to describe a robin's pre-dawn song? We adore words like "The LORD is my shepherd," yet the lived experience of those words is rare: how many of us have ever witnessed an actual shepherd herding actual sheep in an open meadow? Words and meanings and experiences change. Language changes -- rapidly these days -- because language is a human construct. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

I recently bought (and am quickly falling in love with) a book entitled "Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little," by Christopher Johnson. In outlining his premise -- that our increased brevity in language empowers the general population to not merely consume language but also create it -- Johnson asserts that any debates over the pros and cons, rights or wrongs of this linguistic shift are inconsequential (or at least secondary). Rather than challenge the shift, he suggests, why not engage it, see what it does, test out its meanings and sounds, play with its possibilities?

In other words, since language is temporal along with the rest of human experience, why not follow it into the wilderness to see what can be found? Why not mark our church language with ashes, why not risk shedding our idolization of sacred words for the possibility of stretching their height of sound and range of meaning and depth of passion in order to delve all the more fully into our humanity through the finite dust that is language?

Put on an extravagant spectacle
to disrupt our pallid rituals,
O Discerning One.
Dance. Tease. Provoke.
Goad us with a parody
of our vain ambitions
and shallow truisms.
Like a searing comedian,
point us out to be stingy fools.
Name our asinine inconsistencies,
our disbeliefs and our contradictions.
Laugh that we have marveled at the cactus
when there are stunning flowers in bloom
and sweet fruit at their peak
in the arid wilderness.
By your wisdom, mock us
for the flighty egos that we are
. . . and then rescue us, too.
("While We Wait" 12/20/11)

As I dive into writing each year during Lent, the experience is spiritually akin to flopping onto the soft grass on one's back, gazing at the clouds, and pondering their drifting shapes. The practice of prayer-writing is the practice of curiosity, seeking out intersections of the human and the Holy through words. "Remember that you are dust. Be mindful that life's breadth and depth and details -- even life's linguistics -- are ultimately finite."