This post may have been more appropriate yesterday, but I needed another day to think about it. Ash Wednesday is not something I encountered growing up in Piggott, Arkansas. I’m sure people observed it there, but I can’t prove it. This tradition has many things to commend it: the acknowledgement of our mortality and broken state, the goal to prompt repentance, a turning away from self and a turning toward Jesus. This I can dig. What troubles me is the triviality of the things some people give up during this time to the outright ridiculous. I had someone tell me they’re going to fast from cussing for Lent. Cussing? The person who can claim this in an unironic way as their Lenten fast needs to get their sniff tester examined.

I was tempted to share the history of Lent and its purpose throughout time but am not going to do that for two reasons.

1. I’m planning to fast from pride and arrogance for the next 40 days, so trying to sound smarter than you has gone right out the window.

2. I already know you know how to get to Wikipedia.

So if your fasting from beets, beat-downs, watching “Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo” or barn dances, and need something more chill, I have a challenging scripture I want to consider for this Ash Wednesday.

“And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” (Luke 9:22-26 NIV)

Jesus led a life of sacrifice. His friends resisted. You can see this from his friend Peter in this instance if you go on and read the rest of this passage. His family resisted. His hearers resisted. Even Jesus had to pray in the garden not his will but the father’s will. Everything in us resists sacrifice. In fact, self may be the root of all the ways we find to rebel and break faith with God. Because we can’t find a spiritual law we don’t want to break, Jesus chose to accept the penalties breaking away costs. He describes them here in those first few words of the passage. This is the good news for you and me. This next part gets at the response someone who puts their trust in the gospel will have, and this is when my toes start to feel stepped on.

First off, is this response for the super spiritual, goody goody, got-it-togetherins? “Then he says to them who are pretty good already.” Nope, he says to them all. “If anyone” No, no Jesus could you make it more plain. Who do you mean? “He must” Oh that guy. That’s right, all who want to follow must do what?

1. Deny himself: This is the first step of repentance turning away from ourselves. Turning away from holding on to the right to say I know best. Turning away from our personal, subjective rule book and accepting God as the rule maker. Can I be honest? This is kind of offensive. To say I need to deny myself says there’s something wrong with the way I look at things. It says there’s something fundamentally wrong with the priorities I set when left on my own. If that doesn’t offend you a little, I think it hasn’t sunk in. And if you think he means just deny yourself on the denying yourself holiday, keep reading.

2. Take up your cross daily: What is a cross? Is it a dusty shape on your forehead people keep thinking is a hygiene malfunction? Is it jewelry? Even Ke$ha has Jesus on her necklace. Think for a second about what a cross truly is. It’s an electric chair. What does it do? It executes someone and the someone is you and me. Yes, he says take up “your” cross. Your old way, the self-serving way, is who’s supposed to be on that cross not Jesus. So, am I shooting for 40 some days of this? I think I could do that. What does it say? “Daily.” Not a season of sacrifice but a new paradigm. Try reading it in lots of different translations. Learn Greek and read it like that too. This is what Jesus says to us. But if I lose what I know, lose what comes naturally to me, my priorities, who will I be?

3. Follow me: It’s not just stop living. Become passive. Stop doing bad stuff. Repent is: turn. Turn away from yourself and follow him. Live life to the full, trying our best to keep pace with him. You want to live life to the full. Want to savor every minute. If you try it under self-power alone, you’ll miss it. Stop trying the selfish way. The way of sin. The way where you know best, and you’ll end up saving the time you have here for good. Because following him is an exciting fulfilling adventure, and it’s better than what we would do on our own.

Lots of us are ashamed of this kind of talk. Why? It’s offensive. We want to find a different way to look at it. Make Jesus into someone else. But this is what he says and this is who he is, and this is what a life following him will be like. Not because we already know how to be this way. Quite the opposite. This doesn’t come naturally to you or me.

I’m not against Ash Wednesday. In fact, any excuse to talk about Jesus gets my vote. But I want to be sure I’m clear in my own mind. Jesus isn’t necessarily asking me to give up coffee, chocolate, TV, Facebook, root canals or eyebrow threading for a few weeks. He’s asking me to give up my whole life. He’s asking me to give up my authority. He’s asking me to trade in my priorities for his priorities. He’s asking me to get over myself, get off my path and follow him where he wants to go. And not for a season, he’s asking for it daily for the rest of my life. I’m offended and inspired all at the same time.

On my Ash Wednesday evening, I spent some time at home with a small group of believers who shared some food and discussed the need to say no in our lives. Here and here are a couple of other perspectives on Lent that may get you thinking. They also link to the poem by T. S. Eliot “Ash Wednesday.”

Were you ashy? Does observing Lent connect with you in a deep spiritual way? Don’t care? Developers threatening your community center and you’re trying to get the local break dancers to try to stop it? Tell me about it.