Lenten Ashes

A few weeks ago, at the beginning of Lent, our church held an Ash Wednesday service. Amanda and I decided to meet in downtown OKC to attend. It was the first Ash Wednesday service for either of us and, I must confess, I was preoccupied with one thought:

“Will we have to get ashes on our heads?”

I know…bask in the glow of my holiness and piety. 

As we spent time considering the words of Psalm 51, 1 John 1, and Romans 8, repenting of our own sins and thinking of the goodness and grace of God, my mind kept coming back to the ashes.  And the truth was not pretty: I was thinking about it, not because of an inner moral dilemma of whether this was a dead ritual (ashes on the head in scripture being a sign of repentance and mourning), but because I wondered what people would think of me once I walked outside.

Again, aren’t you amazed at the depth of my spirituality?

I couldn’t help it…my inner self was having quite the conversation: “Why do you care what people think?  What are you doing this for?  WHO are you doing this for?”  This went on and on for some time.

The service was ending.  Time for the ashes.  No compulsion or guilt, I could abstain.  But as the line, or queue for my English friends, formed to go and receive, I resolved I would do it.  As I waited for my turn, I noticed our pastor wasn’t merely putting ashes on foreheads but was saying something as he did.  

When my turn came, he looked me in the eyes and asked: “Matt, have you put your trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of your sin?” I took a deep breath and replied: “Yes.” He then put the ashes on my forehead, I could feel the shape of the cross being traced, and said:  “Consider yourself dead to sin, and alive to God in Jesus Christ.” I couldn’t feel the ashen cross, but those words…

I could feel those. 

I had no idea what it looked like on me, except by looking at the foreheads of those around me.  There we were, a room full of folks with smudged, black crosses on our foreheads, in the middle of the week in downtown Oklahoma City, all with those words ringing in our ears “consider yourself dead to sin but alive to God in Jesus Christ.”  From the quiet, dimly lit sanctuary we wandered back out into the noise and brightness of the city at midday, bearing our little crosses, seeking to go and follow Jesus.

As a professed follower of Jesus, I’m supposed to be set apart, or in the world yet not of it.  I’m supposed to be different.  The ashes on my head served to make that difference visible, outward, not just inward.  Granted, to some, it might be nothing more than an empty ritual or a routine…but it wasn’t to me.  It caused some serious heart questions. Why was I so concerned?  Why did I care what anyone thought?

Truth is, and this hurts to say, it is easy for me to “be Christian” when I’m around people I know are Christian.  I do not mean I act differently, like I’m putting on a show at church, but rather it’s easier for me to not be so vocal with the fact that I follow Jesus unless I feel “safe”.  It’s easier to be open with my faith in Christ, to talk about Jesus when I know I’m talking to another Christian.  Living in the Bible Belt, you can pick up on things someone else says to realize they are a Christian (like my last post). It’s like being in a faraway land and then picking up on an accent of someone from your home town…you recognize it immediately.

And while it’s good to talk to and encourage other believers, this is not what it means to be salt and light in the world. Living in a way where your life is visibly different from the flow of the culture around us, that’s “salty brightness”, as one of our pastors likes to say. I confess far too often I am content to swim along in the current around me, looking and sounding like everyone else, with no visible difference between my life and their’s. I’m talking about people who live normal lives, pursuing the American dream, hard-working, “good people”, but who do not know or follow Jesus.

Honest question: other than perhaps abstinence from a few visible sins, does your life look any different than the non-Christian world around you? Do your Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter feeds look different? Do they reflect lives transformed by the cross and resurrection of Jesus? Or do they show that we’ve bought into the consumer culture around us? The fitness culture?  The political world?  Are we more vocal about a political platform than about the Gospel?

We’re not called to just be good people, but new people. We are called to be a city set on a hill and a lamp set on a stand, shining the light of Jesus for all to see. Some will hate the light. It will sting their eyes and they will prefer the darkness to it. But others may see the light and, though it stings, long for the warmth and life found within. It goes without saying they can’t see the light unless it’s openly shining.  And folks, if we profess to love and serve Jesus, that light is supposed to shine through us. 

In effect, are there proverbial ashes on our profile pics? Are there ashen crosses standing in the way we live our lives? Are we living in such a way that someone who is stumbling in the dark, grasping for answers, looking for hope, could look at our lives and see not just someone who goes to church on Sunday and knows the Bible, but someone who lives and loves like Jesus?

God let that be said of me, of all of us that call on the name of Jesus.  Not just during Lent.  Not just on Sunday. 

24-7, 365.

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