I love the fact that the word humus—the decayed vegetable matter that feeds the roots of plants—comes from the same root that gives rise to the word humility. It is a blessed etymology.
—Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak
Walking through the woods this weekend as the snow fell, I heard the brittle branches of last summer’s undergrowth crackle underfoot. Each step’s snap sank twigs and leaves deeper into the earth that they were becoming. I found myself amongst those trees looking for suitable wooden arms, selecting the right shaped stick, stripping off the excess to prepare my find for its place on our snowman. To make a well-shaped body, preparations are necessary. Changes are needed.
Similar to how a blanket of snow temporarily transforms our tired winter landscape into a quiet, fresh stillness; this Wednesday we enter another temporary yet transformative time. Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the start of a 40-day journey of introspection and transformation.
In the early church, catechumens—those preparing for membership in the church—started a 40-day period of preparation and change, preparing for initiation into the church through a change in habits, perspective, and faith. These 40 days of preparation and change is called Lent. Echoing Jesus’ 40-days of preparation as he initiated his ministry, these soon-to-be members would prepare themselves during Lent by stripping away those unnecessary parts of their lives, reshaping themselves into the broken down, refined form that will be their essential addition to the ever-changing body of Christ.
Fallen leaves, dried undergrowth, snapped twigs become something new. Leaves, undergrowth, and twigs mix with damp dirt. They breakdown. The greens of summer become the yellows, oranges, and reds of autumn that become beiges, browns, and blacks of winter. This decaying layer forms the top of the soil called humus.
Humus is an essential layer, replenishing the dirt’s nutrients lost during the previous spring and summer. It is the layer that makes possible the promised explosion of new life that comes with spring. It is the gift from the forest back to the earth, offering thanks for another year of shared existence.
Humus, as Parker Palmer reminds us above, is also the source of our English word humility.
Humility is that posture of willfully lowering ourselves to be broken down, making us available to be used for some greater purpose. Like leaves broken down to be used for the next spring’s rebirth, so too, we must willingly prepare to be broken down so that we might be used to make something greater than ourselves when our shared spring arrives. For the church, that shared spring begins with Lent.
Our word Lent comes from an Anglo-Saxon word lecten, meaning spring. Over the years, this Lenten time of stripping away and introspective change has expanded to include not just those catechumens but all those within the church. Lent is a time for us all to step back from who we are and consider what must change within us to enable us to be who we must become. That change of the larger body begins first (and uniquely) within each of us.
As I enter my first Lenten season with you, I am reminded that for me to help foster what might be possible among us, first, I must be willing to be broken down. I must regularly remind myself that I cannot assume that I bring with me all that is necessary to make ministry happen. I cannot assume that I have all the answers to every unanswered question. I cannot assume that I know what is best or better. If God’s vital and vibrant kingdom is to be cultivated and propagated, first, preparatory, humbling work must take place. Like those leaves, I must change and risk dying to myself and my expectations and my assumptions if a new spring of possibilities is to come.
In Luke’s discourse on discipleship, Jesus challenges his disciples to engage in such an act of self-humility. There, Jesus declares, “‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’” (Luke 9:23-24, NRSV). His challenge is for his disciples to break away from past expectations about themselves, their world, and their God. This is no easy task, but it is an essential task commended to all who struggle to be followers of Christ.
It is my prayer that during this Lenten season of preparation and transformation that as individuals and as a community we are willing to risk letting go and being broken down, being made ready for what is to come. It is my hope that out of the humus of our lives God’s kingdom may come; God’s will may be done in this place as in heaven. As all Lents end at a tomb’s door promising new life , may our journey together this Lenten season arrive at the door of our new life, a new life of new possibilities for this college, its work, it mission, and its people.