Last week the Christian church observed Ash Wednesday, the beginning of a six week period known as Lent. Even though I grew up as part of a local church, I don’t ever recall hearing anything about Lent through the church. When I did hear about Lent, it was from the Catholic kids who were my friends. They and some of the teachers would come to school with a gray smudge on their foreheads. They told me the smudge was supposed to be in the shape of a cross and was placed there by their priest. They would also tell me what they were giving up for Lent. Usually that would be candy, soda, going to the movies, and other trivial things like that. Then they would ask me why I didn’t have ashes and what I was giving up for Lent. I just told them I didn’t have to do any of that because I wasn’t Catholic.
It wasn’t until I was about 27 years old, after I joined a United Methodist Church, that I began to learn what many of our religious days and seasons (including Lent) were really about. The first thing I learned was that, while giving up something was part of what Lent was about, it was mostly meant to be a time for self-examination. I still understand that to be the primary purpose for Lent.
The purpose of this self-examination is to help encourage us to begin, renew, or continue to grow in our commitment to be disciples (followers) of Jesus. This is with the understanding that to be a disciple of Jesus means to become like Him. What that means can be summed up in on e word – “LOVE”. Jesus said that the greatest God-given commandment was to love God and other people. Not just people like us, but all people – regardless of religion, race, nationality, social, financial staus, etc. Even those we might consider to be our enemies. He also said that our ability to fulfill any other of God’s commandments and teachings, depended on the extent to which we fulfilled these two greatest commandments.
Here’s where the ashes and the giving things up for Lent come into play. The ashes (in the shape of a cross) are to remind us that we are not just trying to be good people, but to go far beyond that, and become people who demonstrate love as Jesus did in His word and actions. Giving things up for Lent is to remind us that in order to become more and more like Jesus there will be some costs. There will be some sacrifices. Yes, there will be some things you have to give up. Not just trivial things like candy or soda. But things like time , mental and/or physical energy, and money. You sometimes have to do things you don’t want to do, or give up things you want to do or keep. You are likely to be asked to serve some people you don’t know or maybe don’t even like. People who you know don’t like you. And all of this, not just for six weeks, but all the time. Being a disciple of Jesus has never been easy. Even today, in some parts of the world, people are suffering and dying because they are Christians. Jesus Himself said that if you are serious about wanting to become like Him, you have to deny yourself and then take up your cross daily.
The good news is that Lent – or any other time – is also a time to be reminded of and to experience the benefits of becoming like Jesus. I’m not just talking about the ultimate benefit of eternal life in heaven that comes by the grace of God through one’s faith. I’m talkimg about the benefits God provides in this world, despite all the poblems and troubles we all face, here and now. I’m talking about experiencing faith based hopes fulfilled. Specifically, the faith based hopes for the peace, love, and joy that Jesus always offers and fulfills, for all who will seek and accept them.
As I said earlier, I believe while giving up something is part of what Lent is about, it is mostly meant to be a time for self-examination. Of course, this can and should also be done at other times. But if you do it only once a year, Lent is a good time. Remember that the purpose of the self-examination is:
1.Take an honest look at where you are on your journey toward becoming more like Jesus (discipleship).
2. Identify the costs and benefits you have experienced so far on your jouney.
3. Listen for God’s direction as to how to proceed on your lifelong jouney.hearing
As you begin or continue your journey keep some notes showing how you are doing, the costs and benefits you are experiencing, and what God might be saying to you about what you are accomplishing. You might also finde it helpful to find a partner who is willing to do the same and then share your experiences with each other.
Grace and peace, Ray
Thanks for your attention. We look forward to hearing your comments about our web-site. We also invite you to send us stories of your experiences and observations of present hopes and hope fulfilled, so we can spread them around the world via this web-site. This is one way we can all join together to help keep hope alive.
May God be with you,
Patty and Ray