In Giving Up, I relate a moment from a particularly memorable Ash Wednesday. Other memories of this solemn service have been more somber, but none more soberly illustrates our ‘selfie culture’ or the need we have for this Lenten season that can draw us out of ourselves—if only we will let it.
A few years ago, I led the Ash Wednesday service at our church in North Dallas. What a beautifully rich, deeply devotional service it was; the sermon touched on the themes of continuous repentance and humility before God. The music was moving; we sang these words: “Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast / save in the cross of Christ my God. All the vain things that charm me most / I sacrifice them to his blood.” I had tears in my eyes as we sang. The service culminated with a somber moment when each person came forward to receive the imposition of ashes with these words spoken by our clergy: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And then, toward the end of the evening service, with a room of eight hundred people, we knelt before our just and merciful God to reflect on our lives, sins, shortcomings, and need for salvation. As one voice, we read the words of King David’s famous confession to our God, Psalm 51. The service was dismissed in appropriate silence, and people left to make their way home. Lent had begun.
I quietly thanked people for coming and, after about thirty minutes of reflection by myself, went home. I pulled into the chilly garage, turned off the car, and, before I came inside to spend the rest of the evening with my wife, I decided to do what any other person would do in that situation: check my Facebook page. The screen lit up, and in a few taps I was looking at the feed coming over my timeline.
I could not believe what I saw. I was tagged in several messages, a few of which read like this: “Had a totally fantastic time at Christ Church for Ash Wednesday. Now, sharing a drink with great friends at [local bar]. Go Lent! Can’t wait for Easter, when I can add chocolate back into my diet.” And under these words was a selfie of three girls blowing kisses at their audience, each wearing a mock flirtatious expression on her. Just over the pencil-enhanced eyebrows of these beautiful girls were the still-visible traces of the ash crosses I had placed on their foreheads earlier that evening! Seemingly, all they had left from that sober, worshipful evening was a smudged, fading souvenir. #GoLent!
My point: our technology may be nudging us further toward self-obsession, but as I intimated earlier, we hardly need nudging. We are bent that way to begin with. Self-absorption is one of the most common and sad themes in the Bible or in the history of thought, for that matter. We all began our life in the same way. We emerged from the womb, opened our eyes, and discovered an entire world, all around us—with us at its center. As we live our lives, we each try to define, refine, invent, and reinvent a person and persona that will succeed. And when we die, we close our eyes to a world that we imagine will never be the same because we are leaving it.