Dust with Jeans On: a Lenten Experiment
11 Mar, 2011 - Stephanie Gehring
This year for Lent, I am considering wearing some variation of the same outfit from Ash Wednesday to Easter. I am probably not brave enough to do this alone, though, so here’s a dare for you: join me.
1. Choose one outfit to wear this Lent.
2. Don’t buy any new clothes for seven weeks.
3. Be creative. Prepare for resurrection.
This experiment with dressing simply is an attempt to live toward Christianity’s highest feast, the feast of Easter. It is an attempt to begin to pay gracious attention – to ourselves, our bodies, to others and their bodies, and to Creation. It’s not about heroics; it is about receiving the graciousness and generosity of God, the way the dust and mud of Eden received God’s breath, and the way a tree on a riverbank receives water and light and bears fruit. What would it look like to live in the generosity of God rather than in the guilt of our own failure? What would it mean to be free to notice that God is making the world new and that joining in that newness is a gift, and not a crushing burden?
Lent is seven weeks. The “one outfit” recommendation is flexible – this is a creative challenge. Perhaps wear the same pants and same shirt, or the same dress, but different scarves. What about jackets? Hats? Shoes? I’m not proposing no laundry for seven weeks; wash the clothes. I’m also not proposing that you go the gym in dress shoes, or sleep in jeans, or that you freeze during cold snaps and sweat through your shirt when it’s warm. What I am proposing is that we keep some significant part of our clothing stable in a way we wouldn’t normally. And then – from there – we can improvise. Maybe we can follow in the high Church tradition, in which Sundays don’t count as part of Lent. Sundays are the Lord’s Day and therefore they are always feast days, never fast days. Maybe we can wear one basic outfit, like a canvas, as a stable backdrop for a whole variety of appearances. Or maybe we keep one striking item constant, and let the rest of our clothing move around that fixed center.
Editor, philosopher, and teacher Gideon Strauss once said that clothing is an act of generosity toward other people. For him, I think this means sometimes wearing colors other than black. As I think of my own clothes-wearing practices, I wonder: have I ever considered my clothing in terms of generosity? What would that even mean? Clothes have had a lot of meanings for me. Over the years, the decision of what to wear has centered around my fear, around self-expression, hiding, guilt, or my desire to fit in. The labels in my shirts name me as a hopelessly privileged person – as an oppressor. Jeans sizes have at times felt like existential labels; the cut of them, or the brands, have been about proving I’m not one of those people, or that I am; clothes have been about proving that I know who I am, and that who I am is different but not freakish. Any part of embodied existence can become a physical language through which I must prove that I deserve to be alive.
What if, in wearing clothing, I were free to be generous? Generous to myself, to my own body, and free to begin uncoiling from my self-obsession? What if I were free not to think of what it says about me that my clothes were made in sweatshops, but instead to begin to think about the hands that made them, and consider the bodies and souls that go with those hands?
Jeff McSwain, who founded the Reality Center in downtown Durham, North Carolina, recently told me about his understanding of the difference between cooperation with God and participation. Cooperation, for him, means that God has done the lion’s share of the work, but that the tiny fragment we have to do is necessary; if we don’t do it, the world will be incomplete. No matter how small our part is, we can still fail horribly by not doing it. Participation, by contrast, means that we are invited to be involved with a God who makes space for us and for our creativity, but does not existentially depend on us. God is inviting us to work within the already-accomplished reality of creation and re-creation. We can be a meaningful part of the triumph, but we are incapable of causing ultimate failure. The Kingdom of God has come, and we live in it or deny it, but we can’t wreck it.
This is a claim that comes out of a deep, gracious theology of what it means for us to live in God’s creation and to work with God in restoring the world. Our work is real, and yet it is work within a reality that God has already brought into being. Participating with God is not about constructing new realities; it is about giving up on our denial of what is most deeply true. Participating with God does not mean inventing the kingdom of God. It means listening, and paying attention, and realizing that the kingdom of God is here, that it is real, that it is a place we can live, right now. God has made the world new in Christ. God has made us new. It is finished, and it will be completed.
And so this one-outfit idea is about giving in to reality. It is, for me, about reading the tags in my clothing rather than trying to forget that they say, Made in China, Indonesia, or the Philippines. It is about making a beginning with honesty, and trusting that God can show up. No: even more, it is about trusting that God has shown up.
Poet Mark Strand begins his poem “Keeping Things Whole” with the lines, “In a field / I am the absence / of field.” The poem follows the speaker moving through the world, understanding himself always as a negative, displacing presence. Everywhere, he is the absence of whatever was seamless until he came. The poem ends with the line, “I move / to keep things whole.”
This Lent, stop moving to keep things whole. Early in his Institutes, Calvin writes that the Spirit with “tender care supported the confused matter of heaven and earth until beauty and order were added” (1.13.22). Either that is what the Spirit is still doing, as God makes the broken world new in Christ, or we are desolate and beyond hope. In either case, we are not the ones making anything whole. Not by our pretense, our heroics, or anything we’ve ever done or ever will do.
In colder climates, Lent is the time of year when the bare ground slowly wakes up. This is the premise, I think, of the “fasts” the church calendar encourages us to practice during the days of Lent. Fasting is not negation; it is the space of new green shoots, the bare ground unfreezing and growing fertile again. Luther, in writing of our life in Christ, draws on the biblical image of a tree. What we do in God, he says in “On the Freedom of the Christian,” is like the growth of a tree. And what we do without God is, by implication, as useless as trying to build a tree out of scrapwood. Another image Luther uses is of dry ground waiting for rain. We are like that ground: we can no more produce life than cracked mud can produce plants. But once the rain comes, all sorts of new life is possible.
So what if it’s true? What if God’s tenderness, drawing the tips of plants up out of the ground, is the deepest source of reality? What if that tenderness is where all true beauty and order have their source? Then we can pray for Egypt and Libya. We can pray for Iraq and Afghanistan and the United States and Mexico. We can pray for the L.A. police force. For AIDS victims in Uganda. We can pray for downtown Durham. We can go to these places, in thought, in spirit, in tears, in laughter, and in body. We can pray for ourselves, our families and churches, and the friendships and communities where much has died and is dying. We can pray in spite of words we can’t take back. We can pray in spite of cancer, in spite of divorce. We can live. We can die (protesting nonviolently among bombs, or sleeping in beds in a neighborhood from which you can’t hear bombs). We can die the small deaths of the everyday as well as the physical death of which Lent reminds us – a death that goes through the Cross, into the ground, and rises into a life that is truly life.
Wearing one outfit all of Lent is not going to answer all my questions about what I mean in this body, what this body means in the world, or how I might begin living faithfully toward other bodies. But this Lent, as I consider my wardrobe, I am going to practice living on the premise that when God looked at creation and said, “this is good,” that meant me too. It means me, and you, and billions of yous whose names I don’t know. I can groan with the waiting creation, rather than plugging my ears because that groaning makes me feel so guilty. God has something more to say to me than that I’ve failed, again, at living this resurrected life.
Let’s think of our one outfit as the garment in which Christ clothes us, our humanity made whole again. Then it can help us remember that we are free to stop pretending that we are anything other than dust held together by the breath of God.
Credit where it’s due: This idea was partly inspired by a story told of a woman at Ched Meyers’ Sabbath Economics conference last fall, who only buys one dress every twelve months, and partly by Gideon Strauss’s daughters Hannah and Tala, who, every October, “along with several hundred of their closest friends,” choose one dress and wear it for the month, for the sheer fun of it, a project previously chronicled in The Curator.
If you’d like to join me in the clothes adventure, drop me a line and we can embark together: firstname.lastname@example.org. (If you find the whole project terminally intimidating but also attractive, drop me a line especially; I bet we can find some variation of it that will let you join us. That, in fact, is the whole idea – being exuberantly creative.) A version of this article also appears on Confessio, a student journal at Duke Divinity School.
About the author
Stephanie Gehring is a partial native of Portland, Oregon, and of various German towns. She holds an MFA in poetry from Cornell, made her last six months’ rent selling paintings (three cheers for people who buy art), and is currently at the beginnings of a project on beauty, suffering, and the sacred at Duke’s Divinity School. You can read more or see paintings at stephaniegehring.com.