Growing up as a Baptist, I didn’t hear much about Ash Wednesday or Lent. In my years in the States before going to Japan, including the nine years I was a Baptist pastor, I don’t recall hearing or making any mention of them as a part of worship or Christian practice.
For several years, however, I have observed Lent to a certain extent and have attended a few Ash Wednesday services, which concluded with a cross being made on my forehead with ashes.
For some reason, until last year I had never paid much attention to the words that were spoken then. Perhaps different words were used in the previous services I had attended, but last year the minister said, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
I was moved to think about my own mortality by those simple words, maybe more than ever before. Of course, I had never been 75 years old before. Those of us who are 75 or older surely need to think about our mortality, for most of us have only a few years left on this earth.
But even for you who are much younger, the end of your time on this earth is coming, too.
Dr. Wayne Oates, my pastoral counseling professor whom I wrote about last October, was talking in class one day about visiting people who were terminally ill. He mentioned that it is common to say about such people, “Well, it is just a matter of time now.”
Dr. Oates then looked intently at us students and said something like this: “But never forget: that is true for all of us. Some have more time left than others, but it is just a matter of time for everyone.”
People do all sorts of things to keep from thinking about the fact that someday they are going to die—and certainly it is morbid to think about one’s mortality too much. But, regrettably, many people don’t want to think about it at all.
Last week I read the following words in a Facebook posting by Carol, a woman about my same age who now lives in my hometown:
Someone added beneath those words, “Slow down. Enjoy the day. Live in the moment. It all goes so fast.” And Carol made this brief comment: “So true.” I agree—and would also add, “But don’t forget to prepare for the end.”
One of my favorite people is Dr. Tony Campolo, professor emeritus in sociology at Eastern University in Pennsylvania. As many of you know, he is also an ordained Baptist minister, a popular speaker and a prolific author—and next Wednesday, Feb. 25, is his 80th birthday.
One year on Good Friday, Dr. Campolo heard a fellow minister preach a sermon regularly repeating the phrase, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s comin’.” Campolo later wrote a book published (in 1984) under that title.
So today is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, that 40-day period of reflection and preparation for the celebration of Easter, which will be on April 5 this year. This evening I have the privilege of leading the Ash Wednesday service at the Rosedale Congregational Church in Kansas City, Kansas, where I am serving as interim pastor this month.
When making a cross with ashes on the foreheads of those who come for that purpose, I am going to add to the traditional words. I plan to say to each one “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return—to wait for your glorious resurrection.”
It’s Ash Wednesday, but Easter’s coming!