Ash Wednesday was this week.
Forty-six days before Easter every year, millions of people around the world allow their priest or pastor to apply ashes to their forehead in a symbolic gesture of humility. Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, a season of self-examination, fasting, and personal repentance. The season’s purpose is to prepare one’s heart to fully appreciate the sacrifice of Jesus as observed on Good Friday and His glorious resurrection as observed on Easter morning.
Ash Wednesday (and Lent for that matter) has never been part of my Christian experience. The churches I grew up in and have been a part of as an adult have just never made much of Lent. And that might be ok.
Sometimes it’s easy for rituals to lose their meaning if held on to for too long. I have known a lot of people who have given up silly things for Lent (as a joke) or have walked around with ashes on their forehead on Ash Wednesday but had no earthly idea as to why they were doing so.
Honestly, I don’t know if my Christian experience would have been richer had Lent been part of my personal calendar. Maybe. Maybe not. Regardless, as I think about Easter approaching in just a few weeks, I am feeling particularly reflective, heartbroken, and humbled this year.
On Ash Wednesday, a 19-year-old former student shot and killed 17 people (and wounded 14 more) at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. As a parent of three beautiful daughters, I can’t imagine how horrific this would be for all of the families involved. I can’t even imagine.
As I mourn with those who mourn, I also detect within me a sickening reality that while I am heartbroken over lives lost, I cease to be surprised. Every few months, there is another mass shooting that makes the news. It tends to have a numbing effect.
An even sadder reality is that the number of mass shootings that make the news is a rather small percentage of the ones that actually occur. I did some research this week into gun violence and discovered that the reality is much worse than I imagined. If a mass shooting is defined as a gun-related event in which four or more people are killed or injured, then “mass shootings” are really quite common in America.
Three days before the shooting in Parkland, Florida, there was one in Detroit, Michigan, in which four people were killed and three were injured. On February 10, there was one in Paintsville, Kentucky, in which five people were killed.
According to The Gun Violence Archive, there have been 30 “mass shootings” in America this year, and we are only halfway through February. If old patterns hold true, we can expect over 300 “mass shootings” in our country in 2018. That’s a whole lot of people that God desperately loves.
Some of those events will make the national news.
In the first month-and-a-half of this year, there have already been over 400 children or teens in America who have been either injured or killed by a gun.
Let that sink in.
I know that bringing up such matters quickly invites finger pointing and arguments about politics, gun rights, mental health, personal responsibility, and blame. That is not at all my intent. Honestly, I wouldn’t know where to point. There are good people on all sides of the gun violence debate, and there are legitimate arguments all around. No reasonable person is “pro-violence.” We need to be mature enough to recognize that.
No, I am not looking for a debate, and I am in no mood for one, either. Not today.
I bring these matters up today because I feel broken and sad and because we are entering a season that will culminate on Easter. I bring these matters up because I feel the Lenten need for self-examination, prayer, repentance, and a refocusing of my mind upon the vital work of Jesus Christ. The death and resurrection of Jesus not only gives each of us hope; His resurrection is the first fruits of God’s ongoing work of making all things new in this dark and messed-up world. That is such good news.
The events in Parkland, Florida, (along with all the other horrible events that might or might not make the news) are a stark and brutal reminder of just how broken we really are and how much we need the transforming work of God in our world.
As we reflect and prepare for Easter, we need to remember that God invites us to be a part of that transformation. We are not just invited to celebrate the cross. We are invited to take up our own cross and follow Jesus—to live the way Jesus lived and to live the way Jesus died. Jesus invites us to not only experience forgiveness but to experience the wonderful freedom and abundant life that can only be found in self-sacrifice in service to others.
In a world as dark and messed-up as ours, it seems that kind of radical love, grace, and selflessness is what’s in order.
So, as we head into the Easter season, here is my prayer for me and for us.
Father, our hearts break with those whose hearts are breaking now. Bring comfort as only You can. The darkness in our world seems overwhelming at times. We are desperate to see Your transforming work in our communities. But we also know that if we are to be part of that work, then we will need to see Your transforming work in us as well. Create in us hearts of love and peace and surprising grace.
God, we love You, we need You, and we worship You. We offer You this day the gift of a heart that says, yes, Lord, whatever You want from me, I give You. Whatever is not good for me now, I relinquish to You. Whatever life You wish to impart to me from Your Son, Jesus, during this season of Lent, no matter how painful the transfusion, I receive from You. Holy Spirit, walk with me today that I may accomplish all that the Father has for me. Walk with me through this season. I need You. I welcome Your power to help me become more like Jesus. Heal me. Make me a healer.