As I was out in the community yesterday offering ashes, I was struck by the wide variety of facial and body-language responses of the people who seemed to notice my presence. The least common seemed to be a knowing recognition and appreciation of why I was there – to offer a companioned experience of renewal to those who might desire it. A subset of these people actually came over and engaged me in conversation, some of them requested and received prayer and the imposition of ashes.
Far more common were the variations of folks who didn’t really seem to get what I was doing, even though I had a sign that clearly stated the offer —
I did not ask any of them about their thoughts – It seemed important not to insert or impose myself into their worlds any more than I already was by my mere presence and posture. Even so, I couldn’t help but wonder.
Granted, the mall or a metro station are not where one typically looks for experiences of forgiveness and renewal. Transformation may be sought many places and in many different kinds of experiences, but there was definitely a disconnect for these folks.
I thought about the work of Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile, two scholars from Harvard Divinity School – How We Gather. Their research took them into relationship with an array of leaders in new expressions of community designed to foster and facilitate individual, community and social transformation. CrossFit may be the most well known manifestation of this “new” trend in “non-religious” community formation. In the process, Angie and Casper identify six recurring themes that these gatherings have in common with religious expressions of community. As with religious groups, all six are not emphasized equally, and some are ignored completely. These six themes are:
Community ~ Personal Transformation ~ Social Transformation
Purpose Finding ~ Creativity ~ Accountability
As I looked hopefully on the people around me, those with smudged foreheads and those who wondered why I didn’t wash my face, it occurred to me. People are always searching for journeys of transformation. And often these journeys connect us with the earth in one way or another. Some people walk the Appalachian Trail. Others walk on hot coals with Trever McGhee. The journey will include at least 4 elements:
- It is both a solitary and communal act – As the person making the journey, it is you against the elements. And yet you are also surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” who have traveled the road before you, or are on the journey with you now.
- It is an arduous process – The journey includes various forms of pain (physical, emotional, spiritual, relational, mental) and deprivation (going without some creature comforts, or even things typically considered essential).
- It is transformative – The participant expects to be changed in some way – perhaps to prove to oneself an inner strength, a mastery of the elements, the mind or the body.
- It leaves a mark – Often the mark is some form of dirt or ash. The road takes its toll, and the marks are a kind of badge of honor for the wearer – and perhaps a cause of bewilderment for the disengaged onlooker (“You people must be crazy…” is a phrase often spoke of or at those who make such journeys.)
And then I realized – Lent, beginning as it does with Ash Wednesday – is the original Mud Run. The Mud Run meets all four tests listed above, though it is certainly briefer than the AT or Lent.
Lent is a journey of transformation, marked with the initiating challenge to runners “You are dust, and to dust you will return.” Perhaps things like the Mud Run exist because the way church has offered transformation journeys over the recent centuries has lost meaning and power for many people. Perhaps the church, without coopting (ripping off) the culture’s innate creativity, might take some notes. As Angie and Casper have demonstrated so capably, the culture will create responses to the very real human need for such journeys, whether inside or far beyond religious communities.
One other thing. The people who make such journeys in the wider culture – they really seem to be enjoying themselves, individually and together, despite the pain and deprivation. Personal sacrifice does not result in misery for these folks. I’m reminded suddenly of Jesus counsel to his contemporaries for how to undertake their own Mud Run disciplines:
Wherever your journey of transformation takes you, may you have companions by your side, and all the provision you need. And may you be truly different at the end – more fully yourself, and more fully alive.