With the season of Lent just 2 weeks away, I’ve been reflecting on how I will lean into this season in our church year. Growing up in the Baptist church, I didn’t really encounter Lent as a child. I don’t remember even hearing the word spoken. I have vivid memories of Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, but nothing meaningful or powerful in between. The first time I heard about Lent was in middle school when I began visiting the United Methodist Church. The church was throwing around the term, without any explanation of what it meant. It was one of those “churchy” words that people on the inside use. I eventually had the courage to ask one of the youth counselors what it meant. I was sure that it didn’t have anything to do with the little flecks of debris that appear on clothing.
I have always had a fascination with Lent. Even as a teenager, I loved the idea that faithful people would dedicate their lives to intentionally growing in faith together. I loved the openness of Lent – a time to start something new, a new devotional practice, a new spiritual discipline, a new way of being. I need purposeful beginnings, before I can establish a new habit. It’s very hard for me to will myself into starting something new without a clear start date. And, then, I learned about Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday marks the first day of the Lenten Season. We will share in a worship service that evening together, and will receive the call to begin a Lenten discipline, and will receive the sign of the cross in ashes on our foreheads. I will never forget the first Ash Wednesday service I attended. I was in high school, and our church decided to host an early morning service. I got up early, and was in the sanctuary by 7am on that school day. There weren’t many faithful souls there that morning, but God met me there in a powerful way. I sat in silence after the service with my head bowed and my hands open to receive the Holy Spirit. I sat so long that my youth director came and sat with me. She could tell the Holy Spirit was working on me, and that my soul was open to listen.
I decided to keep my ashen cross on my forehead when I went to school that day. Walking into high school like that wasn’t easy. People stared, people whispered, some people tried to help me out and wipe it off. Other Christian friends gave me a thumbs up, and said they would be going to church that evening. I was prepared for peers to respond strangely to me, but I wasn’t prepared for my favorite teacher’s response. My Algebra 2 teacher took one look at me and said – What are you doing wearing that on your forehead at school? What’s your motive anyway? If you’re just trying to get attention, you’ve gotten it. Do you even know what that cross means? I was shocked. Of all people, I thought she would understand. I didn’t know what her faith background was, but she had always created a safe space for her students, and many of us would come to her on a regular basis to ask for advice and encouragement. I felt ridiculed and attacked.
I can’t remember what I said to her that day, but I do remember I spoke with conviction with tears welling up in my eyes. I know I told her of my devotion to God and my desire to be a witness. After my heartfelt response to her question, she softened some. She told me she still didn’t agree with my decision to come to school like that, but she was glad I understood what the symbol meant.
The cross is like that, isn’t it? It’s invasive. It’s uncomfortable. It makes others question themselves. It makes others feel convicted. The reality of death is like that too. Yet, having that physical reminder placed purposefully and lovingly on my forehead each and every year is profound to me. It’s a visual reminder of my faith and it marks the beginning of a new season of self-reflection, self-denial, and the beginnings of a hopeful transformation. It reminds me that I am God’s child.