Growing up in a mid-sized steel and rubber town in northern Ohio exposed me to a vast spiritual and cultural experience in the great melting pot America once was. As a kid, my friends ran the gamut of black, white, and every imaginable European lineage. My regular playmates were of Italian, Greek, Hungarian, German, and Polish descent. Many of these friends were first or second generation Americans. It was not uncommon for me to hear three different languages as some mom or grandma pushed her child out the door as my friends and I trudged to school. And when we played at each others’ houses, there were always strange and exotic aromas wafting from the kitchen—spätzle and rouladen (one of my favorites), pierogi’s and a Polish pork cutlet I could never hope to spell, goulash with way too much paprika, and the ever favorite baklava. My own family introduced cheeseburgers along with macaroni and cheese. While we were the most pedestrian of culinary artisans in our community, I fondly remember my buddies begging their moms’ for burgers, fries, and mac-n-cheese, and I learned a new word—“Philistines.”
Amidst the languages and foods of foreign lands, I also got first-hand experience of what other people believed about God. Most of my friends were from staunch Roman Catholic families and were quite different from my mixed Wesleyan and Lutheran family. This difference first became noticeable on Saturdays as we waited for our buddies to come home from confession before we could start playing baseball. Later it was noticeable when my friends would be allowed to come late to school because of Ash Wednesday. They were excused from a tardy if they had an ashen cross smeared across their foreheads. I also found out that teachers could tell the difference between an ash cross and one merely made from dirt found on the way to school. Over the years I would somewhat envy my friends who did “cool” things for their faith during Lent and other holidays.
As I entered my high school years, I started seeing my friends’ observance of Ash Wednesday and Lent (and Saturday confession, etc.) as less of a loving devotion to Jesus and rather as a desperate act of hoping that God would forgive them and just maybe, if they suffered enough, they would impress God. This disturbed me as I had always been taught that I could do nothing to earn my salvation and impress God. Ash Wednesday in 1977 was to have a tremendous impact on my life. I went to St. Peters to get an ash cross on my head with my buddies just to hang out with them (and be late to school). Somehow I thought I would feel different or changed. There was no change; the feelings of lostness and emptiness seemed even more pronounced. When my friends and I walked to school, we talked more about girls than we did God. I realized that all the little religious things my friends did were largely for show with some small hope that if they were faithful in going through the motions God would give them a pass. This realization and some other things would ultimately cause me, just a few weeks later, to come forward at church to confess and repent of my sins and accept Christ and His free gift of salvation.
Yet, what are we as born-again believers to think about or do with Ash Wednesday and Lent? According to Scripture, nothing. Neither appears in the Word. Nor are we required to do anything to publicly display our relationship with Christ other than baptism and communion. However Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season can be greatly used as a time to prepare our hearts for celebrating Easter (generally about 46 days later). Jesus says in Matthew 6: “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do.” Jesus says “when” not “if,” implying that fasting is to have some practice amongst the faithful. What is the purpose of fasting? When I was younger, the Lenten fast was either less meals during the day, not eating red meat, or giving up something that I enjoyed for a season as a “gift” to God. Frankly, I never saw how God got anything out of me eating fish instead of a hamburger—but God obviously knew things I didn’t. As I read the Bible, I noticed that Moses fasted for an extended time as he grieved over Israel before God because of the whole golden calf scenario. And Jesus inaugurated His earthly ministry by first fasting for 40 days. Then it hit me: fasting (Lenten or other) wasn’t about me giving up something “for” God, but rather focusing on being in tune “with” God.
The Lenten season for me and many others has become a focused time of allowing Ephesians 4:22-24 to have effect on our lives. Previously, fasting for Lent was just putting off the old for a season. As I grew in Christ, I realized that God was equally serious about me putting on the new, so now Lent was equally “putting off the old and putting on the new.” But there was more.
Doing this over the years, I also realized that just like a successful New Year’s resolution, I needed to establish habits to keep growing towards imitating Christ. I couldn’t just “put off the old” and “put on the new” and think it was a done deal. I had to learn and practice keeping the “old” off and diligently work to keep the “new” on. On my own, I have not been able to do this. I have needed both the Holy Spirit and the church, and specifically a small group of believers who felt as I did who could hold each other accountable and be ready with encouragement during the rough times. Paul told Timothy: “Flee the evil desire of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.” (2 Timothy 2:22) Paul’s counsel to young Timothy was to grow with others who were passionate about Christ.
My suggestion this season is to ask God what He wants you to put off and what He wants you to put on, and in that journey join with a small group of Christ-followers who desire the same things for themselves and others. It could be the most life changing Lenten season you ever experience.