Last Wednesday, a bunch of 20-somethings claimed a booth at the Parkway, and got down to the serious business of beer selection. Fresh from the evening Ash Wednesday service, the charcoal crosses on our foreheads were still distinct, unsmeared by forgetful cuffs and bangs as we read the week’s taps off the chalkboard.
“I was thinking of giving up alcohol and beer,” said T. Her husband, J. immediately interrupted with an incredulous snort. “No no no. Beer is good for the soul… if not for the body.” “As Ben Franklin said,” added my own huz, “beer is proof that God loves us, and wants us to be happy.” Agreement all round the table. Pints were ordered. A few other bar patrons noticed and/or commented on our crosses, and as we sipped, we talked about what—besides beer, of course—we’d be giving up for Lent.
Some of my Catholic friends didn’t realize that Lutherans follow the Lenten traditions of ashes and abstinence of some form or another. I will admit, that in my own experience, this is the most “spooky” ritual I have encountered in my Lutheran faith. Besides the (rather important!) ritual of communion, we just don’t go in much for angels, icons, prayer beads, and many other accoutrements and rituals that bring scary otherworldly ideas to mind… at least not in worship.
Our hearts are heavenward, but our feet are planted on the ground for right now, and we will make the best work of our time here, thank you very much. …but then…there’s that melancholy, reflective tone to Lenten worship, and there are those dusty grey ashes.
“Remember you are dust. To dust you will return.” These words are spoken as the ash—remnant of last year’s Palm Sunday branches—is smudged into a cross on the forehead. Yes, these words remind us of our mortality… in the grand picture, our human life is fleeting. But they are also a reminder of the promised everlasting life. When the body is dust, the spirit will live on with God.
Maybe it’s just the church I grew up in, but the whole Lenten journey has been a large part of my faith life each year. In the 40 days preceding Easter, worship and prayer takes on a dual personality of penitence for those things that distance us from God, and meditation on what baptism really means in the context of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Although I hear the tradition is pretty new in the Lutheran church, I have been marked with an ashen cross on my forehead for every first Wednesday of Lent that I can remember. Since I was in my early teens, I have made the conscious choice to give up or drastically change something for Lent. Sure, it started out as something frivolous… giving up chocolate, sweets altogether, cussing. But about 7 or 8 years ago, I finally cottoned on to the idea that this was not just a time to “test” yourself, and then be really sorry an guilty if—when—you failed. I realized that some people added habits during Lent, and not just “healthy, physical” ones: reading a chapter from the bible, setting aside 20 minutes to pray each morning.
For several years now, I’ve annually given up two things. One that’s a physical sacrifice of sorts, that will likely do me some good to do without, and one that is more for my spiritual well-being. I pretty much always give up chewing my nails during Lent, for instance. (Which was very hard in college! Easter comes right at the end of mid-terms!) Some years I have given up caffeine, red meat, that kind of thing.
But for the other, the “spiritual sacrifice”… well, it’s always a little hard to describe, but it makes sense to me. In the past few years, I’ve tried very hard to give up jumping to conclusions, taking the easy way out, and telling white lies. All were good to give up, and all really did make me think about my words and actions. But still, I don’t’ think I was really getting it.
This year, the idea of giving up things that create distance between me and my faith—between me and God—seemed to finally hit home. Those other things are habits that are not nice, but they aren’t entirely chasm creating. This year, I am trying to give up fear. Specifically, fear of the unknown, and the paralyzing worry that can accompany it, leading me to expect the worst of situations and the people I love.
Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? But for someone with a known history of excessive, and often illness-inducing anxiety over small decisions, and larger outcomes I can’t possibly change… I think it’s an important thing just to start thinking and praying about. And I’m learning that every time I start to worry and guess about what the future might hold… I’m letting go of faith. I’m willfully ignoring God’s plan—which I do believe He has for me. What is faith without faith in your useful, loving purpose?—and I’m turning a blind eye to the ways He might make it known to me… however small, unexpected, and flat out bizarre they may seem to me.
So. This year, this Lent, that’s my plan. Try, try, try not to be fearful and filled with worry and the worst expectations. Pray for my success in this? I’ll need it… seeing as I can’t chew my nails till Easter.