Why Do You Have That Smudge?

The world behind me, the cross before me,
The world behind me, the cross before me;
The world behind me, the cross before me;
No turning back, no turning back.

The words of that great invitational hymn “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” run through my mind on this Ash Wednesday as I reflect upon the journey to come.  It is the beginning of the Lenten season and for the next six weeks we will prepare our hearts and minds for the resurrection of our Savior and Lord.  Earlier in the afternoon, I walked with Marci to pick up some of the children from Lucama Elementary for our After School Program and was met with puzzled looks by some of them (as well as their teachers) wondering as to why there was a dark smudge upon my forehead.  I suppose I could have been cute and said something about bumping my head upon something or failing to wash my face when I showered, but I was honest.  I could tell from some of the expressions that my “smudge” did not exactly resemble a cross.  In fact, one young lady said it was more of “a plus sign” while another chimed in that it appeared to be “a turkey.” 

Call it what they may, it is there this afternoon as a mark, a symbol, a reminder of life.  By life, I mean not just the fact that I am alive as opposed to its alternative, but rather that life is…well…messy at times.  Not only can life be messy, but sometimes it hurts.  There are moments when it has the highest of highs, and just as quickly turns into the lowest of lows.  Some days, I get things right and on others I miss the mark altogether.  But not only does this symbol remind me of life’s challenges, it also serves to bring to my attention the brevity of life.  “Life is short. Play hard.” “Time flies when you are having fun.” “You only live once.”  There are phrases all around reminding us that we have only one physical life, therefore, we must do all that we can, while we can, to make the most of it.  Although we may work to get all that we can out of this life, one day it will draw to a conclusion for each of us.

This season of Lent forces me, actually all of us, to deal with those subjects which are, shall I say, “difficult” or “unpopular” by most people’s standards.  Who likes to think about sin and death?  Who wants to hear messages or read Scriptures focused upon the temporal nature of this life and the daily need that we have for repentance and forgiveness?  Most of the time, not me!  And this is probably the case for those of you reading this reflection.  The stores have been stocking colorful candy, stuffed bunnies, and plastic baskets for the past few weeks reminding us that springtime is coming and it will not be long before we wake up to a surprise from Peter Cottontail.  Everything around us is calling out “Easter is here,” but the reality is…not yet.  Yes, we know the real story of Easter.  We understand the who, what, why, where, when, and how of Jesus’ life and sacrifice, but we are not there just yet.  Like it or not, we must deal with some things on the inside or, better yet, allow God to deal honestly with some things on the inside to make us more receptive and appreciative of God’s grace.

Lent gives us the opportunity in the coming weeks to remember that “we are but dust and to dust we shall one day return” and that in spite of our goodness, we continue to sin.  It encourages us to slow down just a bit and contemplate how we will live in light of the shortness of time and what changes are necessary in order for us to live the quality of life that is possible through Christ.  We do this preparatory and meditative work through the spiritual discipline of fasting.  Fasting enables us to disconnect from certain things which are important to us on a regular basis.  We do so in order that our priorities might be shifted and for the sake of drawing our attention back toward God.  The goal is not so much that we abstain from certain pleasures for a window of time, but that our lives might be changed in a way that continues long after Lent.  Sure, we will go back to our “things we gave up for Lent,” but hopefully the journey of Lent will have instilled in our lives a greater appreciation for the sacrifice made by God in sending Jesus for us.  We sacrifice during this season because God sacrificed as well.  We give in a small way while God gave his everything. 

By the time you read this, my “smudge” will have been long washed away with soap and water, but the truth is it will remain in a spiritual sense.  Hopefully, this will be true for all of us whether or not we actually received ashes on Ash Wednesday.  May we be mindful of the limited duration of this physical life and may we allow confession and repentance to be essential parts of our daily discipline.  It is through these practices that we discover who God created us to be and enable God to fill us with his presence so as to make him known within the world.  We know not the amount of time that we may have here and now, so we must make our lives count while we can.  The starting place for such meaning and purpose is found as our lives turn back toward God.

Together in the Lenten Journey,

The Rev. Kelley Smart