If you see people today with “dirt” on their foreheads, it’s probably ashes to observe Ash Wednesday. My church’s worship service isn’t until 7:30 p.m., so unless I stop at Publix on the way home, I won’t be sporting my ashes all over town today.
I have, though. As it says in my little tagline above, I’m superchurchy. I’m more religious, not so much spiritual on many days. I believe in the “practice” of religion like I believe in the practice of yoga, that by doing the actions, God brings a change in me, whether or not I have a stellar attitude on that day. I don’t believe that by doing the things I bring salvation to MYSELF….only that these are the practices suggested if, as Mark Powell says, you want to love GOD more (not that you want God to love YOU more….not possible).
In college, I went and got ashes on my head at the local Catholic church at noon. At that point in my life, I was learning about all kinds of spiritual disciplines from my evangelical brothers and sisters, finding not much in the Lutheran church as far as practices go. But I still went and got ashes, and it was strange how it was the evangelicals who I so closely identified with at that time who were freaked out by them. My boss, a Christian with a capital C if there ever was one, tried to wipe them off my forehead, as a “joke.” My fundamentalist friends thought it was weird and “Catholic,” which, of course, it WAS. But ever since then, it’s meant more to me to receive those ashes. Not that I was persecuted for my faith, nothing like that, but to have a devotional practice that was very meaningful to me to be challenged by the very Christians I depended on to help me know how to fast, how to pray, how to study the Bible regularly, was disturbing and shook me a bit.
Since then, nearly twenty years ago, I have learned to integrate the two. I still get ashes on my head, and even have the privilege of giving them out tonight. I’ve learned to practice fasting, since, as our brothers and sisters will share with us, Jesus ASSUMES that we will fast (but just tells us to go about our business while we do it!).
Because we are Lutheran, there aren’t any rules for us on how or when we should fast, or what disciplines we should undertake during Lent. If someone asked how to begin, I would say to start with the ancient wisdom that abstaining from food for a time is good, and helpful for many reasons. Also, abstaining from a certain media type can be helpful as well (Twitter seems popular this year!), or a food that has a particular hold on you. I’d also say that adding something can be a great discipline! In past years, I’ve added yoga, running, Bible study, meditation, and prayer, but not all in the same year, of course!
Some years, I haven’t added or fasted from anything. Having a small baby even gives you an exemption by the Catholic church from totally fasting, and our Muslim brothers and sisters have reasonable guidelines for their Ramadan fast that we can learn from as well: if you are sick, don’t fast; a small child, not yet; a teenager, start slowly; a pregnant or nursing mother, wait til the baby weans. Those kinds of years are a kind of fast of their own, and I know from experience that you give up enough to “count” as a discipline.
All this being said, as a Lutheran, if Jesus assumes that we fast, I’ll fast, most years, from something. The forty days of Lent are as good a time as any, especially when you are supported by a community, to give something up just for the sake of giving it up to grow in your relationship with God (again, NOT to have God grow closer to YOU! That’s already happened!).
I wish you peace and blessings this Lent, and that your fast will strengthen you for the days ahead, as we yearn for the blessed Light of Easter.