What Lent Isn't and What Lent Is

Two items caught my attention as Lent started this year, which reflected confusion about what it is. First, the picture above: Perhaps I've never enjoyed looking at a sign at a gas pump as much as I enjoyed this one. Promoted there, alongside the Marlboros and breakfast burritos, is, supposedly, an opportunity to repent and hear a first-century Jewish rabbi's call to deny ourselves, take up our own crosses, and follow him as he walked the road into his own unjust death.

Hey that sounds good. Oh, and let me grab a bag of Doritos to go with my three Lenten cheese enchiladas. As long as they're not meat-flavored, I think the man upstairs is pretty happy with me today!

The other attention-grabber was an article about churches offering drive-thru Ash Wednesday services. There are some good things that happen when churches begin to think beyond the way they've always done things, and much of the beginnings of my own Methodist heritage is based on how John Wesley was determined to preach in places that weren't normal. But still...

 "From dust you came and to dust you will return. Repent and believe the gospel... Yes ma'am, that means changing the entire course of your life... No ma'am, getting out of the car isn't required to do so.... Say, is that Lady Gaga you have on the radio?... Okay, have a nice day [living exactly as you always have.]"

In their defense, there's probably at least someone who has had an encounter with God right there in their car because of these churches doing this who wouldn't have otherwise. And I'm sure that I don't know the whole story here, so I'm not offering criticism of these specific churches since I'm not there trying to figure out how to minister in their context as they are doing.

But, in general, the thing that came to mind for me as I read about it was this: our methods of ministering to people in the name of Jesus Christ aren't neutral and independent of the message we seek to communicate. Instead, our methods are part of the training people are going through in what it means to follow him. So, in what kind of training are we involving people when we encourage them to begin Lent without even bothering to get out of the car? Or, to put it another way, what percentage of people receiving an imposition of ashes while continuing to sit behind their steering wheel do we honestly expect to continue, for the rest of their lives, down the road of being whole-hearted, full-throttle students of Jesus? Again, there may be some example of someone to whom that has happened, for which I'm grateful. But is such a case a natural, predictable result of the way we do things with God, or are they just strange exceptions to the rule?

This kind of thing matters all of the time, but it really matters in Lent. Lent is the period of forty days leading up to Easter, not counting Sundays, and Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. Lent is a time for house-cleaning our souls, so that when we come to Holy Week and Easter Sunday, we're prepared for the resurrection of the crucified Messiah to take more of its intended effect upon us. It's a time to pay attention to how dis-oriented we have become in the ways that we have lived our everyday lives and to find ways that we can re-orient ourselves to the one who said,

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

So if you and I got into the drive-thru line for our ashes to begin Lent this year, or picked up our Lenten enchiladas at the gas station, or whatever else it is that we may have done during this annual period of repentance and re-orientation, are the things that we're doing of the type that naturally help us, by God's grace, to become more likely and more able to follow Jesus with our own crosses in tow? Or are they things that just help us to feel religious while leaving the houses of our souls exactly as messy and disoriented as they were last Lent, and the one before, and the one before, etc.?