It seems that no sooner than we entered a new year, we now are entering the season of Lent.
Easter comes early this year, and we just observed Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, on Feb. 10. Each year, we enter into the metaphoric wilderness, and we do so for a period of 40 days (plus Sundays, which are not included in the 40 days).
Our journey corresponds with Jesus being led into the wilderness for 40 days immediately following his baptism. We may not experience temptations as Jesus did. Yet many give up something during Lent to remind them of Jesus when they are tempted to indulge in what they have given up.
To me, however, the journey is not simply metaphoric. Lent is a time of reflection and retrospection for me. I contemplate my spiritual journey as I invest additional time in God’s word and in prayer. So for me, I have never been much on giving something up — although I have done so.
But I do usually add something, whether it be spending more time in study and devotion or doing good deeds for others. By the way, if you give something up for Lent, the traditional expectation is that you would calculate the money you saved and then give that to the Lord’s work.
These are the types of things we learn about the church year. Whether you started in your faith development early in your life, as an adult, or just recently, Lent offers an opportunity for us to grow in our faith. For many of us who were brought up in church, our childhood faith began when we learned the well-known Bible stories.
I still remember my Sunday school teachers, and I honor their memory. Esther Harter, Mary Davidson, Nellie Arnett and Joanne Patrick all played a major part in my early faith development. Stop and think of how many stories pertain to the Lenten season and the events connected to it.
Although I cannot say I completely understood the significance and meaning of the temptations Jesus experienced in the wilderness, I knew that Satan tempted Jesus, and Satan failed. I still remember our little take-home lesson that pictured Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and the people placing palm branches on the roadway.
The children were singing Hosanna. I confess, though, that I never understood why someone would just let a complete stranger take his donkey just because he was told the Master needs it. I also did not know the symbolism of a victorious king entering the city on a donkey. Where is the big white horse?
I remember Esther Harter teaching me about the Upper Room and that Jesus ate a meal with his disciples. I knew about the Lord’s Supper because we took communion once a quarter in my church and I was allowed to take it as a child. As my faith developed, I understood more and more what it meant. It was hard to picture Jesus hanging on the cross. I knew he died because he loved me. I could recite that Jesus died for my sins, but I didn’t understand why it had to happen that way.
But then came my second favorite morning of the year, Easter. (Christmas was No. 1. It was also my birthday.) On Easter morning, my brothers, my sister and I all got dressed up. Mom was wearing a fancy hat, and Dad wore his newly pressed suit. We would hop in the car and drive the two miles to church. The church would always be packed. Those were the days, and I am so thankful for them. My faith history helps me every day.
As we mature into adulthood and we have the knowledge of how much God loves us and how he was with his people during difficult times, it can be a great comfort because many people struggle in having relevant faith amid today’s realities of life. When I have faced the worst of difficulties, it is an opportunity for me to explain my faith. My faith is not dependent upon my outward circumstances but on who God is and has been in my life. And his name shall be called Emmanuel, God is with us (Matthew 1:23).
As you travel through Lent this year, think about who God is to you. Do you have a faith history that helps you through the wildernesses of your life?
God’s faithfulness in the past gives us future hope. Don’t give up. Keep believing. Keep the faith.
Mark Wesler is pastor of New Palestine United Methodist Church. This weekly column is written by local clergy members.