Lent

Love + Ashes

There’s something that continually sticks out to me when I read the Bible, particularly when I read the stories of mourning and of repentance and that is sackcloth and ashes. When we read through stories of tremendous grief and sorrow, those two things are almost always associated.

Bible Gateway says this about sackcloth and ashes, “Sackcloth is a coarse, black cloth made from goat’s hair that was worn together with the burnt ashes of wood as a sign of mourning for personal and national disaster, as a sign of repentance and at times of prayer for deliverance.”

For some reason, the imagery that this practice of wearing sackcloth and ashes in response to mourning and sorrow and in the midst of repentance gives invokes in me this deep-rooted feeling – this deep stirring in my belly that is difficult to put words to but the closest I have is love.

Love + Ashes

It is when we are in deep mourning or deep repentance that we can more fully appreciate the love that is lavished upon us wholly undeserving people. It is when we humble ourselves, die to self, and repent that we can see just how much grace God pours out as a gift we never did anything to earn.

Ash Wednesday falling on the same day as Valentine’s Day could not be more perfectly planned, I think.

At the start of this Lenten season, the ashes that are being spread on foreheads today symbolize to me repentance. They symbolize this incredible sense of humility and smallness and sorrow that comes when we actually force ourselves to confront our sins. When we look at ourselves in the mirror long enough to see all of the ways that culture and society and the enemy have wedged themselves between us and God. And friends, to confront that and stand face to face with this demands our repentance. It demands our grief and our sorrow for all of the ways that we turn from God day in and day out – whether we mean to or not.

But on a day when culture and society are spewing out all of these manufactured tokens of superficial love and spreading guilt and shame to those without “true love” in their lives, Ash Wednesday adds some much needed perspective to the mix that is setting my soul on fire today. When we look at this day and at this season with a Lenten focus and remember why we reflect and repent during these 40 days – this Valentine kind of love just seems so obviously lacking. Lacking in substance, lacking in meaning, and lacking in the perfect love that came at the expense of Jesus on the cross.

The customary practice during Lent is to give something up until Easter and growing up, this was a practice that I truly never gave significant thought to when I was growing up in the Catholic church. My go-to was usually giving up soda or something like that but in recent years as I have grown in my faith, God has really laid it on my heart to consider not just what I could give up to draw nearer to Him but what I could potentially add in order to achieve the same result. That could be adding in the habit/practice of reading the Bible daily or meditating, two things I do already, but I think it also comes down to our posture. Sure, I’m already doing some of the things that can draw us in closer to God but where is the posture of my heart when I do these things? Am I doing them to just check it off a list or am I actively listening and actively quieting my mind in order to be more in tune with God?

As I write this, I’m also reading some excerpts from Pope Francis’ homily earlier today during the Ash Wednesday service at the Vatican and his thoughts perfectly echoes the cry of my heart lately.

”Pause from this compulsion to a fast-paced life that scatters, divides and ultimately destroys time with family, with friends, with children, with grandparents, and time as a gift…time with God,” he said today, before continuing with, “Pause for a little while, refrain from the deafening noise that weakens and confuses our hearing, that makes us forget the fruitful and creative power of silence.”

Silence and stillness have the power to amplify God’s voice and truth and it is my prayer this season that I am able to instill this into my own life. The kind of love that this day marks is not one that can be found on a store shelf or in the boxes of chocolates being passed around. No, it’s not a coincidence that Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day. May we all draw nearer to the source of the purest and greatest love there is in this season.

Cleanse Your Hands and Purify Your Hearts // Ash Wednesday 2016

Ash Wednesday 2016

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts // James 4:8, ESV

Having been raised in the Catholic Church, the tradition of Lent is one that I am very familiar with. The thing about traditions like this, though, is that it tends to bring with it some level of guilt on my part. I really never put much thought into the real meaning behind this important season in the Church. It saddens me that I went so long without pausing to really reflect and give Lent its due diligence.

Just over a year ago, I felt God calling me to leave my comfort zone of my childhood church and pursue a deeper relationship with him at a new church home. The switch brought me to an nondenominational Christian church. The church where I spent all of my formative years could not have been more different, but I truly believe that God called me to the place where I am now so that I could finally open my eyes and launch headlong into a relationship with him. What we had before was a friendship, an acquaintance-ship even. I learn something new about this great God of ours nearly every day and this blog, I hope, serves as a vessel for sharing that journey and testimony.

For years, I could tell you in a split second what I was going to be giving up for Lent. Soda. For years, I never gave that decision a second thought. Sure, giving up soft drinks would be great for my waistline, but come Easter morning, was I in a better place spiritually?

Not at all.

A couple of days ago, I came across a quote on Time.com from Pope Francis that he said in 2015. He said,

“No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.”

What powerful words they are! Our outlook on Lent has become superficial; something we do out of obligation, not out of worship. The act of giving something up is not just something we do for a personal benefit. The practice symbolizes the abstinence from something that was leading us away from Christ and towards sin. I mean, I know soda isn’t healthy, but was it leading me away from Christ? Not necessarily.

For me, simply fasting or abstaining from something isn’t necessarily going to solely bring me to closer to God during Lent. Removal of a bad habit isn’t going to do much if I am not replacing it with a good habit. So abstaining from something that is leading me towards sin and a divide from God and not replacing it with a behavior or habit that will lead me back to Him just isn’t going to work. Rather that strictly fasting from something, I choose to do this while also adding something spiritual to my life to pray and reflect on. This might mean picking up that spiritual book that’s been gathering dust on the bookshelf, spending a few extra moments reading Scripture each day, or even leaving your car’s stereo on the Christian radio station for the commute to and from work.

I choose to see this season as a time for me to draw near to God and root myself completely in Him. While I don’t necessarily feel that we need to shout the things that we give up from the rooftops, I can appreciate the accountability that is so vital to the Christian faith. So, friends, however you choose to spend these next few weeks before Easter, I pray that you are able to find your way towards God and keep your hearts fully focused and rooted in His love.

The Art of Giving Up

We’re almost two weeks into the season of Lent and something that has been on my heart lately is the tradition of giving something up. Growing up in a Catholic church, this tradition as well as the abstaining from meat on Fridays is something that I am familiar with and would practice every year. But now that I am in my twenties and kind of rediscovering myself and making my own path in the church, this is an interesting season for me.

For as long as I can remember, I have given up soda every year for Lent. This year, I find myself stopping to think more and more about the true meaning of this practice and how I, and many others, are really missing the mark.

Last week, my sister and I had a conversation about what we were giving up this year. She knew that I was doing my typical soda-fast but she was still debating on what she should do. She made the point that we should be giving up the thing that is keeping us from really spending that quality time with God. This has been something that I’ve been struggling with for the last couple of years, but I’ve always stuck to the soda-fast because it was what was familiar and I didn’t really have to think about it. But shouldn’t I be thinking about it? After all, what’s the big point of giving up something for Lent if it’s really not doing anything for you spiritually?

Sure, giving up soda and the sugar and caffeine that comes along with it is one way to make healthier life choices, but that is a rather selfish act and not one that genuinely draws me closer to Christ. I thought about praying every time I began to crave it, but what became abundantly clear was how I had lost sight of the true purpose of this time in the church.

While I am still holding on to my soda-fast in hopes to prove to myself that I can actually do it (I’ve succumbed to the cravings at least once or twice for the past two or three Lenten seasons), I have added a new challenge for myself. I have been an avid reader my entire life but I have always been drawn to fiction, particularly young adult fiction. I’m in no way giving up that genre, but I have begun to seek out a few non-fiction reads that will hopefully bless my life. I’ve been reading through Bread & Wine by Shauna Niequist, which is amazing and I am looking into her other novels now, and will be starting The Best Yes after that. It’s a small gesture, but the genre is a departure from me so I am praying that I continue to be intentional and reflective on these books and their impact on my life.

While the Lent serves as a time for us to draw closer to God and His word, we can’t just look towards the superficial tendencies that fasting in today’s society often brings. Fasting from soda and sweets is healthy, but is it really bringing me closer to Christ? As the name of the Lent study from She Reads Truth says, Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross.

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