By Randy Millwood, BCM/D Missionary for Missional Church Leadership, Small Groups, Seminary Extension, Spiritual Formation and E-Quip.net
I grew up in a patriarchal home with one TV. Translation: we watched what dad watched. And dad watched Westerns.
He loved them all… Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Big Valley, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Laredo, Maverick, Rawhide, The Rifleman, Wagon Train, The Wild Wild West, …even F-Troop.
If there was a Western on TV and dad was home, that is what we watched.
As you can imagine, we frequently heard from the old TV phrases like, “Stick ‘um up” and “Reach for the sky.”
The line was always delivered by the Marshall, or the Sheriff, or the Ranger. And it was always directed to the bad guys.
It was a way of saying: Surrender. Stop running, wrangling, wrestling, or rustling.
ASH WEDNESDAY comes early this year – February 13. It is the first day of the Lent season – the 46 days leading up to the Resurrection Celebration that is Easter.
My patriarchal-1-TV home was also in a very Protestant part of the country… those Protestants were mostly what would be called low Church [less formal, more protestant].
So, I grew up hearing very little about Ash Wednesday or Lent.
I was 24 years old before I saw someone with ashes on their forehead and embarrassingly offered to bring to their attention “a little spot you missed this morning.”
When a kind explanation came to me, I was reminded of the ancient nature of the practice…
In what some believe to be the oldest written book in the Bible, Job put on sackcloth and covered himself with ashes as a way of physically expressing the depth of his soul-searching grief and mourning.
That practice came to be something of a standard way for people to physically demonstrate they had become consciously aware of failings, shortcomings, and/or disappointments in some area of their own life, and of the deep sorrow they felt in response.
But, it was much more than an act of contrition.
It was also a way to demonstrate a decision to turn back to God…to show God that it is HIS mercy on which you are coming to depend, rather than your own abilities!
On Ash Wednesday hundreds of millions of Christ followers, from a great host of denominational streams and all around the world, will have ashes physically placed on their forehead in the mark of a cross in order to announce both to their worlds and to their own souls the decision to turn back to God… to refocus… to ready for a next step.
From that announcement moment, many/most of those will then observe a fast of some sort throughout Lent.
A fast is a spiritual discipline of abstinence – to voluntarily abstain from something in order to give more attention to God.
As I’ve already confessed, I knew so very little about Ash Wednesday/Lent growing up, but in hindsight I realize there was one hint sent my way. As a ‘shout out’ to those in our communities who were more high Church than the majority of us, the public school system would serve fish sticks (instead of meat) on Fridays during Lent.
To be clear, I had no idea why we were doing what we were doing – but I now recognize that was the reason.
It was a fast from meat… but it had no role in ‘giving more attention to God’… so it was just a way to escape mystery meat and enjoy a crispy, tender, catsup covered lunch treat for about 5 or 6 weeks each year.
Since those early experiences I have often heard the question: “So, what are you giving up for Lent?”
Some people say they are giving up chocolate, FaceBook, soft drinks (or not-so-softdrinks), a certain TV show they love, or about anything else you could think of!
While the question is a good start, it seems to me to miss the heart of the matter…
I don’t want to just give something up for Lent… I want to give everything up for God.
The longer I live, the more aware I have become that following Jesus is much more than just a one-time decision. It is actually a lifetime journey filled with loads of little decisions along the way.
Several years ago I started leaning into what is variously called the Church calendar or the Christian calendar. One of the great benefits of this for me has been a greater sense of focus… of paying attention to our Father’s work around me and in me, and attending to what I notice/what He shows me.
THIS WEEK – and for the next 46 days building up to Resurrection Sunday – we all have the opportunity to stop running, wrangling, wrestling, or rustling.
We all have the chance to pay attention and then attend to whatever our Father might show us about a next step on the grand, spiritual quest of following Jesus.
Whether your turning moment includes ashes or not – may you hear from God about the next thing to surrender.
May you find strength in God’s Spirit to practice life without that thing throughout Lent.
May you find, in the end, that you have truly died to that thing.
And may you awake on Easter morning celebrating the Resurrected One and a resurrected life!!
Let’s give up, shall we?
Randy Millwood is the Team Strategist for Leadership Development and Support with the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (443) 878-4587. If you would like to build occasions to explore and experience varieties of spiritual exercises in a retreat setting, consider the BCM/D Restore My Soul retreats. You can find additional information at https://bcmd.org/restoremysoulretreats. Follow his blog at www.simplymillwood.com.