Michael Howes is husband to the Rev. Sue Conrad Howes, father to Michael and Emily, and an ordained pastor in Mennonite Church USA, although he currently serves as pastor of Youth and Faith Formation at Lancaster Church of the Brethren. For the last 27 years he’s pastored everywhere from rural west Texas to the most economically and ethnically diverse suburbs of Washington, D.C. He loves making Sue laugh and all things nerdy.
Growing up in southern Louisiana, everyone, it seemed, was either Baptist (me) or Roman Catholic.
This created a lot of confusion and sometimes envy for me. My Catholic friends got to go to Mass on Saturday night. And they got to wear casual clothes. I had to go Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night. And on Sunday morning, I had to wear a real necktie — I couldn’t even skate by with a clip-on. Maybe this was the birth of my lifelong fascination with the sociology of religion, the patterned ways of behaving that we attach to our faith which in turn give form to its expression.
Mardi Gras is a holiday for everyone in Louisiana and along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico: parades, beads, king cake, doubloons, cries of “Throw me somethin’, mistah!,” among oceans of warm beer in red plastic cups. But the next day a funny thing would happen: all of my Catholic friends would show up for school with a dark, cross-shaped smudge on their foreheads. They’d been to Mass that morning and received that mark as a reminder that Lent had begun. Growing up, the cross-shaped mark was simply a reminder to me of who worshiped at which church, but through the years it has become filled with meaning.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a 40-day season leading up to Easter. This evening, with another pastor at my church, we will invite people to receive the mark of the cross on their foreheads or the backs of their hands.
We’ll speak these words over them: “From dust you were made, and to dust you are returning.”
We spend (or waste) so much time trying to evade the truth of our mortality, our createdness. It’s good this day to be reminded of it forcibly.
If you’re doing the math, you’ll have noticed that Lent, running from today to Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, is actually more than 40 days. That’s because the Sundays within Lent are not counted, because Sunday is always a feast as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.
But what should we do with these 40 days of Lent? Allow me to suggest two things: taking something out and adding something in. Think of something you enjoy — a leisure activity, a favorite food. For the 40 days of Lent, subtract it from your life. That can be relatively easy or extremely difficult, depending on how big of a place what you choose to abstain from has in your life. You might also choose, if there’s a negative behavior in your life, to abstain from it for Lent.
Once you have decided what you’ll abstain from and remove it from your life, you’re ready for the second step: adding something in. This is the place where Lent can be a truly transformative moment. The purpose of Lent is to make more space in your life, more room in your heart, for God. So choose a spiritual discipline that you’ll practice daily during Lent that will open up room for you to draw near to God and God to draw near to you (James 4:8). Whether it’s a new way of praying like centering prayer or a devotional guide to facilitate you dwelling in Scripture, choose a tool that will help you go deeper in your journey of discipleship.
After you’ve identified a discipline to add to your journey inward with God, identify a discipline that connects you in loving service to your neighbor, and commit to it for the season of Lent. This could be helping at a local school, hospital or shelter, or taking on a new responsibility within your congregation. As love for God grows within us, it inevitably spills over into love for our neighbors.
That’s the heart of Lent for me: taking something out in order to make new room for God.
What will happen on Easter Sunday, when Lent is over and we celebrate God’s vindication of Jesus’ obedience? Who knows? We are free to return to the simple joys and pleasures we gave up for a season, but we may find toxic addictions or compulsions destroyed, and new life-giving disciplines rooted in the soil of our lives.