The good people at Merriam-Webster define “consume” in this way:
2 a: to spend wastefully : SQUANDER or USE UP
3: to eat or drink especially in great quantity or to enjoy avidly : DEVOUR
4: to engage fully : ENGROSS
5 to utilize as a customer: consume goods and services
1 to waste or burn away : PERISH
2 to utilize economic goods (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/consume)
You and I are often defined as “consumers,” as those who consume. And, according to most measures both economic and otherwise, we’re darn good at it. We devour and use up and utilize and yes, we even squander, destroy and waste things and food and news and people.
For starters let’s remember that 71% of the world lives on $10 or less per day. We Americans live on an average of $101 a day. We spend money and consume odd things according to Mental Floss: like over $80 billion on lottery tickets. Or nearly $5 billion on Doritos, Funyuns and Cheetos. Or $1.8 billion for the mouthwash we need after eating said Doritos. Studies report that more than 2/3 of American adults are overweight— I suspect the Doritos aren’t helping there either. The average American adult spends 24 hours each week online. And, according to Nielson, “American adults spend over 11 hours per day listening to, watching, reading or generally interacting with media.” We consume a lot.
And today, on Ash Wednesday, this first day of Lent, we’ll mention these things to the Lord. We’ll pray: “We confess to you, Lord, … Our self-indulgent appetites and ways” “Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts.” But we’re not just mentioning these and other failings in a passing way, as a sort of drive-by confession in order to get on with our lives. Rather, we’re taking time today and kneeling before God in order to reflect on the ways in which we’ve taken in too much to our own detriment. We will confess before God that we’ve done this in the past, and that now we want to begin again, to move in a direction closer to God over the next 40 days.
So we blow the metaphorical trumpet on this day. We hear the prophet Joel proclaim these words that the Day of the Lord is near—a day of judgment is coming. And then he writes, “Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”
Today is not a day for becoming paralyzed in shame and guilt. Rather it is a day for honesty and taking stock of our lives. It’s a time to reflect with a recognition that we’ve likely lost our way on the path to God. That we’ve made it about us and the things we enjoy and consume to excess, rather than about what God might have us focus on. It’s a time to fast from those things we’ve enjoyed too much.
And that’s not because God is some cosmic-killjoy wanting to stick it to us. It’s because God has deep compassion for all of God’s creatures, for all those who live on this earth. God cares for the ones we tend to forget or don’t even notice because of our own comfort level or desire for more. It’s far easier for me to eat a bag of Doritos while watching a TV program I want to see, than to pay attention to news stories that are happening on the other side of the globe.
Recently the Christian Science Monitor did a cover story about young people returning home after being abducted by Boko Haram, that terrorist organization in northern Africa. The focus was on a young woman named Fatima and her son born while she was in captivity. Largely she has been shunned by her home community, and aid workers seek to help people like her become a part of society again after that long capitivity.
At the front of the issue, the Editor, Mark Sappenfield, wrote a piece titled “Why this week’s cover story is about you.” He writes, Fatima’s story is “about the women and children abducted by Boko Haram…. It is about the loneliness and despair many such abductees feel when they return home and are branded as traitors and conspirators, even after they have lost their childhood and been … abused. And it is about the impulse to bind those broken hearts.” He explains how stories like this don’t garner much attention because it’s all about revenue and the eyeballs on stories. News organizations know all too well that it’s the political updates and intrigue that gets attention these days.
Sappenfield asks, “Is this story truly that different from the stories at women’s shelters in any town?” He answers by writing, “It is a trap to think that any place or person is too distant from our own lives…. What drives news is not an event in some remote location, but the universal yearning to belong, to be free, to be content. That plays out in countless ways and in all places. In important respects, Fatima’s story is everyone’s story, [it is] our story.”
So this Lent, this period of 40 days, allows us to fast from those things we’ve consumed too much off — be it food, or gossip, or partisan news, or something else. It’s a chance to see that those things consume us as much as we consume them. It’s a time to step back and remember once again our utter dependence on God, that we are just dust and one day we will return to the earth. And if we do, we’ll see the very heart of God, of God’s steadfast love for us all. When we consume less, we can take part in sharing God’s love with those like Fatima who so desperately need it with our time, our resources, and our compassion. May we we do just that this Lent, and may we draw closer to God. Amen.