I remember the first time I met someone who celebrated Ash Wednesday. I was in ninth grade and came into my history class after lunch. The girl I sat next to had a smudge on her forehead, and I thought I should let her know. She acted a little embarrassed and gave me a confusing explanation.
I don't know how I made it all the way to age 15 without hearing about Ash Wednesday. It seemed so odd to me to go to church and get ashes smudged on my face. I'm not even sure what the ashes signify, although I suppose I could find out pretty easily if I actually wanted to.
To this day, I've only seen a few people with ashes on their foreheads, and I've never done it before. On the other hand, I have had the sign of the cross painted on my forehead with anointing oil.
I suppose all faith traditions seem a little odd to people unfamiliar with them. We raise our hands in worship or we kneel. That doesn't surprise me, although I suppose it did at one point. I've seen people face down on the floor, humbled before God. That doesn't seem odd to me either, but I probably seems odd to others. When you think about it, the floor is pretty nasty.
This is a long introduction to a discussion on Lent. Yes, Lent. Another foreign tradition I was unfamiliar with until a few years ago.
I heard about it from Roman Catholic and Lutheran friends. As in, "What are you giving up for Lent?"
"I'm giving up sugar."
"I'm giving up wine."
"I"m giving up chocolate."
Over the past few years, I have observed Lent, although not traditionally. I've given up TV. I've given up meat. I've given up various forms of technology.
But Lent is more than giving things up. Lent is more than fasting.
Lent is all about considering Jesus. Remembering his journey to the cross. Remembering his life. And his suffering. And his death.
Recently I've been reading author Margaret Feinberg's blog. Last week she wrote about Lent and described the history of this Christian tradition, a time set aside for penitence, prayer, and self-denial. She says it's all about "preparation and worship."
She suggests that rather than ask what we are giving up for Lent, we should talk to God and ask, "What do you want me to lay hold of during Lent?"
She extols the wonders of Lent and challenges her readers with a series of questions as they move into the Lenten season.
How will you choose to seek God during this time?
What expressions will your desire for God take?
What do you want to lay hold of in greater measure through Lent?These questions resonated with me.
Sometimes we can reduce our Christian disciplines to what we do, like giving something up, and if we're good at following the rules, we feel like we have succeeded.
But Lent isn't about following rules. It's about following Jesus. Sitting in His presence. Listening to His voice. Getting to know Him.
For a while now God has been calling me to seek Him in a new way. In a way that allows me to reflect on his Awesomeness and his inexplicability.
I may have made that word up. Essentially it means that I can't explain Him. I can read God's Word. I can memorize it and meditate on it. I can observe Him at work in lives around Him. But I can never explain Him. I can experience Him. But I will never be able to explain that fully.
God is Glorious. And Holy. And Wonderful.
I want to embrace the wonder of God. The wonder of Jesus.
So for Lent, I am not giving anything up.
Instead, I am embracing new disciplines.
I am going to figure out how to observe a Sabbath, a real rest.
I am going to sit quietly before God and listen.
I am going to ask Him what things He wants me to do, and I am going to do those things.
Whether you're fasting something over this Lenten season or not, it's not too late to ask Feinberg's question: What do you want to lay hold of during Lent? What do you want God to show you? What do you want to seek from God over the next 40 days leading to Easter?