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Lent, the first week

Many Christians began observing the season of Lent this week, starting with a special service on Ash Wednesday.

There, the priest smudged our foreheads with ashes and said these words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The purpose of these words is not simply to remind of our mortality—although we are reminded that we will pass from this earth.

Nor is the purpose to make us feel that we have no more value than dirt—although the sense of our sin can weigh us down with shame and defeat.

The words are intended to remind us that our beginning and our end are in the hands of God.

From the stuff of the earth that God had created, God made the first humans. After God shaped our bodies, God blew into us God’s very own breath and God’s own image. We carry within us this spark of life given by God. When that life leaves us, our souls—the part of us that is like God—returns to God and our bodies again rejoin the substance of earth.

Ash Wednesday reminds us that we belong to God, that God is within us as well as all around us, and that God is closer to us than our own breath.

Our observance of Lent over the next 40 days is all about that recognition of our closeness to God.

Why 40 days? (And that does not count Sundays, remember.) Forty is a significant number in the Bible—Moses was 40 years old when God called him at the burning bush, the Hebrews wandered in the desert for 40 years, and, after His baptism, Jesus was tempted in the desert for 40 days.

Forty represents a significant period of time in Biblical activity. Thus Christians set aside 40 Mondays through Saturdays to remember what God has done for us and to prepare for Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Why do we promise to give up things or activities during Lent?

Because Lent is considered a time of repentance and contrition, and giving up something that is pleasurable to us is a way of shifting our focus.

Fasting is a practice in many religions is used to focus the believer’s attention on God. When we experience a hunger pang, for example, our thought process moves from “I am hungry” to “I am hungry, but I choose this” to “I am hungry, but God is more important than my hunger.”

Giving up something can be an excellent spiritual discipline. However, if you give up chocolate every year, maybe it is time to rethink your practice.

Maybe it is time for your Lenten discipline to be a new challenge for your spiritual life.

Do you start your day with a prayer? Try it for the next 40 days.

Do you look for someone you can help every day even if it is only holding open a door? Try it.

Do you tell your loved ones every day that you are thankful for having them in your life? Try it!

The results will amaze you.

Lent is a time to examine our own desires, our own practices, our own ways of worship and service.

Are we, indeed, putting God first?

Are we living in a way that others can see God in us—or do we just talk a good game?

What would our checkbooks and charge card bills say about what we value most?

How many times a day could we substitute a kind word for a sharp retort?

Does God live in your tongue as well as your heart?

Lent is a time to seek to be more like God, more like God made us to be. That is our best preparation to receive the grace of God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

The Rev. June Johnson is the interim rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church, located at 516 E. Broughton St. She can be reached by calling, 246-3554.