I've got ashes on my foreheadWe observe the period of Lent in the United Methodist Church just as Catholics and other denominations do. The period runs for 40 days from Ash Wednesday through Easter - excluding Sundays which are considered "mini-Easters" leading to THE Easter.
And I'm trying hard to learn
This dust that I have started from
Is where I shall return
~ Ashes by Jonathan Rundman
I'm intrigued about how few folks practice Lenten disciplines - or even understand the season at all. I'm hardly a theologian by any stretch, but allow me to toss out a few ideas to consider.
I've met a lot of folks who think Lent - and especially Ash Wednesday - is just a Catholic thang. Even my former boss commented "I didn't know you were Catholic" when I returned from a lunch time United Methodist service with ashes on my forehead. I jokingly yet directly told him the Caths don't have a monopoly on all the cool Christian traditions.
A common generality about Lent I've often heard within churches I've attended, from folks who don't observe Lent but think they know what it is, and within my own circle of friends and family is one has to give up something during the 40 days. Folks give up all sorts of good stuff - TV, Cokes, chocolate, beer, internet surfing (forget that one), caffeine, etc.
I could debate most of this stuff on two levels: (1) most stuff we're willing to give up likely isn't all that great for us to begin with and (2) most of it can likely be surrendered without much sacrifice on our part - at least in the short-term. If we're not willing to truly experience some level of sacrifice during a focused period, how can we legitimately focus on the sacrificial journey Christ took during a similar period of time culminating with his arrest, "trial", conviction, and death?
I don't believe we're called upon to give up something during this period so much as I do believe we are expected to make more room for Christ during it. If we choose to give up TV to spend more time in the Word, that's a pretty good trade-off. Skipping lunch one day a week and instead donating the money to hunger relief - well, I think that's a way of walking closer to God during this time.
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us." ~ Hebrews 12:1A personal choice to spend more time in Christ-like ways, to begin or strengthen Christian disciplines, and shedding those things in our lives that so easily entangle and prevent us from fully realizing a relationship with God are three of the most important decisions we can make beginning Ash Wednesday. As a former pastor and friend of mine preached a few years ago, God don't want yo' chocolate. God wants US - you. me.
Whether you attend an Ash Wednesday service is of no concern to me. I've missed more than I've made over the years. But I do think its important to view and live these next 6 weeks different than we do other weeks.
[Click here] for a PDF list of many different ways one can participate in the season of Lent. I pick a handful of ideas from this list each year - reaching out to an old friend, spending additional time with those less fortunate, more devotional time (definitely sacrificial for me - not my strong suit), trying to maintain a more positive attitude than one of skepticism or cynicism, etc.
Look, I don't have all this figured out, and I know my casual sales pitch for Lent is hardly as assertive or theologically sound as others would believe it ought to be. But I do know that I've experienced some really neat spiritual growth and enlightening moments over the years when I choose to be active during Lent.
So give it a shot - regardless of whether you've done so in the past or if your local church has an organized approach/ministry built around Lent. Try a few things on the list. See if you can make a concerted effort to seek Him a bit more during this time. And consider sharing your experiences - good, bad, or indifferent - with friends, family, co-workers, here on this blog, whatever.