December 3, 2020

All Fall Down

Ring around the Rosy, Potthast

Lent 2012: A Journey through the Wilderness
All Fall Down (Ash Wednesday)

• • •

Broken lines, broken strings
Broken threads, broken springs
Broken idols, broken heads
People sleepin’ in broken beds
Ain’t no use jivin’, ain’t no use jokin’
Everything is broken…

• Bob Dylan

• • •

We must first learn that the wilderness is within us.

Though we dwell in dry and discouraging places, the barren land that surrounds us is the effect and not the cause of our misery. We are not the “good people” to which bad things happen. We are the fools who have fouled our own nests and now move about in the dirt and stench.

Our rebel rain-dance has awakened the storm clouds and now we find what pleasures we can splashing in puddles and rolling in mud. Fun though it may be, we end up soaked and shivering, and it’s hard to avoid making a mess everywhere we go.

“Ashes, ashes, all fall DOWN!” the children sing, smacking the ground with their butts and squealing with delight. If only they knew. These little Jacks and Jills will spend their whole lives tumbling, fighting gravity, trying to avoid breaking their crowns. All the while, the king’s horses and men will rush about, triaging the damage, sweeping up bits of shell, spraying away the goopy mess of foolish Humpties who had no business sitting atop walls in the first place.

The very earth is groaning as ice caps melt, forests dwindle, and species die off.

You and I can’t seem to talk to each other without getting our feelings hurt or at least wondering about motives. We find it hard to quiet the noise within and we avoid quiet places because that’s when it gets so loud we can’t stand it. So we keep busy with trivial matters and call that life. We convince ourselves that we’re mad at the government or appalled at the latest scandal. We watch the cooking shows and imagine we’re full. We live for Sunday, paint our faces and don our jerseys, and dine on bread and circuses. The antics of our virtual “friends” amuse us or at least keep us occupied until the next show starts.

It’s a wilderness out there because it’s a wilderness in here.

Come on, it’s not as bad as all that, is it?

It must be said that the wilderness is a place of breathtaking beauty as well as desolation. Rarely must anyone in this world face unambiguous ugliness. The late John Stott called this “the paradox of man.”

Desert Wildflowers, Sammons

We human beings have both a unique dignity as creatures made in God’s image and a unique depravity as sinners under his judgment. The former gives us hope; the latter places a limit on our expectations. Our Christian critique of the secular mind is that it tends to be either too naively optimistic or too negatively pessimistic in its estimates of the human condition, whereas the Christian mind, firmly rooted in biblical realism, both celebrates the glory and deplores the shame of our human being. We can behave like God in whose image we were made, only to descend to the level of the beasts. We are able to think, choose, create, love and worship, but also to refuse to think, to choose evil, to destroy, to hate, and to worship ourselves. We build churches and drop bombs. We develop intensive care units for the critically ill and use the same technology to torture political enemies who presume to disagree with us. This is “man”, a strange bewildering paradox, dust of earth and breath of God, shame and glory. So, as the Christian mind applies itself to human life on earth, to our personal, social and political affairs, it seeks to remember what paradoxical creatures we are — noble and ignoble, rational and irrational, loving and selfish, Godlike and bestial.

• Stott, Decisive Issues Facing Christians Today

And so we come to Ash Wednesday, the starting point for our Lenten journey in the wilderness that is both beautiful and bedeviled.

On this day we submit to the marking of our foreheads, a liturgical act by which we acknowledge the wilderness in our hearts. We confess our inner barrenness. We also admit that we are lost in a “in a dry and parched land where there is no water” (Ps. 63:1 NIV). We abandon hope that there is an oasis near enough to sustain us. The pools of refreshment calling to us are mirages.

Dust we are, on dusty roads we travel, and to dust we will return.

• • •

Lord of the winds, I cry to thee.
I that am dust,
And blown about by every gust
I fly to thee.

• Mary Coleridge



  1. Well done, Chaplain Mike.

    Thank you.

  2. Good thoughts (well, thoughtful insights) for the start of Lent. Despite the steak and wine and chocolate of yesterday, I was feeling overwhelmingly sad…..the disregard for human life in all its forms, the ugly state of discourse in America, and waste of permanent pockets of generational poverty and depravity. Ohhhhh…and the state of my own soul.

    So, today is ashes and cheese sandwiches and plain water, and the time to think about my role in responding to God’s plan for me and for us. Pray for me, and I will pray for you, fellow I-Monks.

    • Thank you Pattie – I need your prayers and will pray for you also.

      And thank you Chaplain Mike for this wilderness journey. Nice to know I am not journeying alone.

  3. Very encouraging words! Its interesting that I actually just moments ago randomly watched a video on what it takes to win….

    “Success is defined as getting up one more time than you’ve been knocked down”

    The desert times of our lives are merely but a perspective.

  4. Man shall not live by bread alone. This is the first day of the best time of the year to put that into practice. May we be fed by every words that proceeds from the mouth of God.

  5. Mike, beautiful and helpful words. You’re first two paragraphs are very profound, and exactly the way to begin thinking about the wilderness.

  6. Robert Burns says

    Well said,I will be thinking of your words all day.

  7. Thank you for walking a newbie through Lent

  8. This essay is piercing – thanks CM.

  9. “Though we dwell in dry and discouraging places, the barren land that surrounds us is the effect and not the cause of our misery. We are not the “good people” to which bad things happen. We are the fools who have fouled our own nests and now move about in the dirt and stench.” – CM

    This as an opening to Lenten reflections is a great parallel to the Great Canon of St Andrew, which makes the same point over many odes. The stories of the Bible aren’t just to tell us about other people’s foolishness, but to show us our own.

    “Alas, wretched soul! Why are you like the first Eve? For you have wickedly looked and been bitterly wounded, and you have touched the tree and rashly tasted the forbidden food.
    The place of bodily Eve has been taken for me by the Eve of my mind in the shape of a passionate thought in the flesh, showing me sweet things, yet ever making me taste and swallow bitter things.”

    • David Cornwell says

      “The stories of the Bible aren’t just to tell us about other people’s foolishness, but to show us our own.”

      And woe to those of us who cannot see into our own souls through these stories.

    • I tell my Jr. High bible class that every story in the Bible has 2 pictures in it: one of you, and one of Jesus. …and you’re usually the one making the stupid mistakes.

  10. A forgotten poem for the mood of the season:

    I bow my forehead to the dust, I veil my eyes for shame,
    And urge, in trembling self distrust, A prayer without a claim.
    I see the wrong that round me lies; I feel the guilt within
    I hear the groaning and suffering, The world confess its sin

    Yet in the maddening maze of things, And tossed by storm and flood,
    To one fixed stake my spirit clings; I know that God is good.
    I know not what the future has Of marvel or surprise,
    Assured alone that life and death His mercy underlies.

    And if my heart and flesh are weak To bear an untried pain,
    My bruised soul He will not break, But strengthen and sustain.
    And so I drift alone at sea, And though I have no oar;
    No harm from Him can come to me On ocean or on shore.

    I know not where my journey ends, beneath His heavy stare
    I only know I cannot drift, Beyond His love and care.

  11. The Stott comment reminded me of this passage by Chesterton (the first sentence may be slightly reconstructed from memory):

    “The optimism of the age had been false and disheartening for this reason: it was trying to prove that we fit into the world. The Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do NOT fit into the world . . . I had been right in feeling all things as odd, for I was myself at once better and worse than all things.”

  12. How can we indulge in meditations on repentence and the human condition when, at this very moment, unrepentent homosexuals are frolicking in bed together, with nary a twinge of guilt at the offenses they are committing? Meanwhile, evolutionists too are taking advantage of their domination of the “scientific” community to spread their seductive poison. And the media have been mocking the godliest of our presidential candidates for his (quite orthodox) belief in Satan (while ignoring his opponent’s belief that Christ and Satan are brothers!). Surely a few posts on these neglected subjects would be just the thing to rally the online Christian community against its common enemies, and take our minds off of all this Papist nonsense about sackcloth and cheesefare.

  13. David Cornwell says