Yesterday was my birthday - and also the first day of Lent. It's a funny thing, spending a day celebrating the fact that you entered the world, and also being reminded that someday you will leave it.
My family never celebrated Lent when I was a child. We came from a solidly evangelical Christian background, and Lent was what Catholics did. Ash Wednesday was simply a small pre-printed note on the calendar, never marked by my family in any way.
Yet the past several years has seen a resurgence of interest by young Christians in ancient traditions. And the church we attend in Kansas City has observed Lent ever since we've attended.
Our service alternated between Scripture readings, hymns, and prayers focused on guiding us to a recognition of our frailty and our need for a Redeemer.
As I sang words and read Scripture, I thought, What a perfect service for today. I stood in line and bent forward slightly as the pastor touched his thumb into the ash and smeared it on my forehead in the shape of a cross, saying "Remember, from dust you came, and to dust you will return."
Birthdays are a celebration of life. I marked 28 years this week, thankful for each day that God has given me breath. Yet I'm also reminded of my own brokenness. And I don't need to look far to see the brokenness in the world around me. The purpose of Lent is to focus on that brokenness - to examine it, turn it over in our heads, wrestle with where it comes from and how it has wrecked our world, and to finally admit that sin is not only around us, but inside of us, too.
Giving up coffee or complaining may result in behavior change, but it can never change the nature of our hearts.
Many people celebrate Lent by giving up a favorite activity or food, hoping that it will make them a better person or earn favor with God. But if that is our sole focus, we are missing the whole point of Lent.
We are permanently bent on pursuing our own agenda and desires, and these will always lead us away from our Creator.
Lent also holds out the promise of change. If Advent is a season of anticipation for Christ's birth, Lent is a season of preparation for his death and return to life. It is a time set aside to reflect on our need for salvation, and to point our hearts towards Jesus.
Giving up something for Lent isn't evil or misleading in itself. Fasting from comforts can often reveal what we think can save us or make us whole. It is a tool for revealing the idols our hearts have set up. Do we seek out the approval of others, as if it will save us? Do we believe our ability to make life safe and comfortable will solve all our problems? Does caffeine or sugar simply cover up our tendency to be angry and impatient?
I'm not giving up anything specific for Lent this year - except my tendency to ignore my need for Jesus.
I'm not sure what that will look like in my daily life. It may mean putting down the phone and picking up the Bible, or not filling up every evening and afternoon with activities and noise and people. It will be doing something proactive - journaling or praying - that feeds my soul, instead of something else more self-indulgent.
The next six weeks of Lent will hopefully see warmer weather thawing out the ground and new life budding out. And I hope the same will happen in my heart - that God's Word will bury itself deep into the soil of my heart and bring up new life, changing the fabric of my soul.
Ash Wednesday is a beautiful way to start my 28th year.
What are your hopes for this Lenten season?
P.S. I'm sending out my monthly newsletter soon. I write a little life update, link to some online resources that have inspired me in the past month, and share ways that God is challenging me. Won't you sign up here to join the list? There's a little gift for you, too!