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I worked on the evening of our Ash Wednesday service. While some left their sanctuaries bearing a cross, I went home to sort the decision out alone. The bowls of ash have long been emptied. What of those who missed the ceremony? I grappled with the meaning of charred dust and the season of Lent. What should I do to honor this season? Was I too late to observe it at all?

Lenten rituals marking foreheads with charcoal crosses have launched our seasons of observing Christ’s sacrifice for centuries. Millennia before these rites began, ancient cultures threw ashes on their heads to demonstrate mourning or repentance. Ashes have long represented purification, burial, putting the old things of life behind us.

 

Many discuss their fasts to observe Lent. Some give up a treat or luxury for the season. Others give more to charity or spend more time in service. Prayerfully chosen commitments can help us shift our perspective to focus more on God. A fast or obligation with superficial motives offers no benefit. The Lord can guide us along unique paths to a deeper relationship with our Savior, so it’s best to consult Him when determining the way. The journey of discipleship doesn’t carry the same start date or the same lessons for each individual.

He transcends time and ritual. His heart is to draw us into deeper connection with Him, and this purpose defines both Lent and its destination–Easter. If you missed Ash Wednesday, pray about the perfect start and means for your discipleship journey. God is always on time.

Ashes remain a mere symbol, and Lent a seasonal reminder. Repentance transcends ritual or seasons. Any time is a good time to honor Christ’s sacrifice–with or without a grey mark on your head.

Do you have the heart to be a genuine Valentine?

The traditional sentiments float across store shelves and into mailboxes–be mine, I love you, I’m yours, etc. We purchase knick knacks and cards for friends, family, and those whose company we enjoy. But these gifts fall short of a true Valentine love. If we knew what the words meant, would we promise to be anyone’s Valentine?

In the year 270, Roman Emperor Claudius II persecuted Christians and forbade soldiers to marry. A priest cherished the hearts of those he served, sharing the gospel of Christ at great personal risk. He loved Jesus and His people more than he valued his own life. When Claudius II tortured him, demanding he renounce his faith, the priest continued to proclaim his love and devotion to Jesus Christ. On February 14, the Roman emperor beheaded this faithful Christ-lover, thereby releasing to eternity the man we now know as St. Valentine.

Selflessness has grown rare in our modern world. Generosity can mask a desire for recognition. Friendliness often cloaks expectations of returns on kindness. Complaints of loneliness escalate by the day toward a deafening roar. Many say they’re looking for “love,” but few understand its genuine meaning. The lonely want someone to love them, but show no interest in becoming a Valentine.

Scripture underscores the central role of love in our spirituality. The Author of our Faith wants to deliver this life-giving message loud and clear. Even those who don’t read the Bible might hear the famous “love chapter” recited at a wedding.

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

So love’s importance remains unchallenged, but culture blurs its definition. Some think love requires having our needs met by another person. Others believe it hangs upon a fated connection with a certain individual. Most feel the value of love centers upon pleasure. God’s Word reveals true love’s sharp contrast to these misconceptions.

Consider which of the following you demonstrate in your love for the Lord and toward others:

“Love is patient” (v.4) Are you the patient Valentine, who offers grace in waiting on others and faith in waiting upon the Lord? If not, pray for the Lord to work on your heart to transform into one more like His.

“Love is kind” (v.5). Do you show kindness without requiring others to return it? Practice it until it becomes a natural part of your attitude.

“[Love] does not envy” (v.4) Jealousy rages from the insecure heart, and our world gushes with its stench. Refuse to compare yourself to others, and resist the temptation to believe another’s blessings reflect unfairness on God’s part. Declare the goodness of God, and meditate on His love and blessings in your life. Keep a thankfulness journal to remind yourself of the good things He has given you. Pray with adoration and praise, confident that He will provide according to your best interests. Free your heart from envy to allow room to receive His love.

[Love] does not boast…is not proud” ” (v.4) No gift or level of maturity elevates one Christian above another. Resist the temptation to believe the lost and poor in spirit lay beneath you and deserve humiliation. Boast in God’s grace alone, and discipline yourself to remain humble before Him and others. Listen with others’ best interests at heart. Keep vindication and pride out of your conversations and attitudes with others and with God.

“(v.4).  

“[Love] does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking” (v.5)  Do you seek your own needs to be met in relationship? If so, this kind of dependency creates disappointment and fosters criticism of others. Only God can meet all your personal needs. Expecting this of others will poison your relationships. A pattern of disappointment can foster a self-protective mindset, which drives people to judge and dishonor others. Submit all critical thoughts to the Lord and ask Him to heal your insecurities and wrap you in His peace. Pray scriptures of declaring the Lord as your rock and refuge, your life and hope.

“[Love] is not easily angered” (v.5)  Disappointments that trigger anger can come from misplaced expectations. Replace expectations for others with preferences, and refuse to give away your emotional remote control to other people. Daily stress management, freeing your heart from bitterness, and venting to the Lord before you talk with a person can also help lengthen and extinguish your fuse. Most anger rises from latent woundedness and/or fear Pray for the Lord to replace an attitude of self-protection and fear with a compassionate, patient heart toward others.

“[Love] keeps no record of wrongs”(v.5)  Forgiveness frees you from the quagmire of the past. The rap sheet you keep on other people does not protect you, but instead binds you to them. Forgiveness doesn’t let them off the hook or justify their wrongs. “It is mine to judge; I will repay,” says the Lord (Hebrews10: 30) and refusing to trust God to do His job blocks your relationship with God and keeps you imprisoned in your pain. Set yourself free and receive life to live forward instead.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth” (v.6) Do you entertain half-truths or lies about yourself or others? Resist the urge to exaggerate negatives or participate in gossip.

[Love] always protects” (v.7) Would you risk your well being or lay your self down to protect a helpless person? Would you sacrifice something to prevent harm or stop it against someone else?

“[Love] always trusts” (v.7) People fail us at times, and trusting everyone would not prove wise. We can trust people to the degree they can be the best they can with what they have, but our full trust must remain rooted in our secure, unfailing God who remains trustworthy at all times. Even if people we trust fail us, we need not fear because God will make up the difference in our lives and bring us all the support we need. He will never fail or forsake us.

“[Love] always hopes” (v.7) Healthy hope, like trust, must be kedged in God alone. We stake our hope in God and remain hopeful for His love to bless others around us.

“[Love] always perseveres” (v.7) Do you give up on yourself, God, or people? Pray before you choose to disconnect. If prayer indicates you cannot trust the people to remain in relationship with you, a true Valentine continues to care and pray for them at a distance no matter what.

Light Impressions.

I peer into a hole in the mud. About two and a half inches in diameter, it sinks at an angle to a depth I cannot see. No one has walked along this side of the house in months, so I rule out poles and sticks. The abundant squirrels and overgrown weeds offer prime real estate features for a snake. I straighten and back away, my soles sinking into damp earth and stirring its musty odor into the breeze. 

I leave impressions with each step as I head across the northern lawn. Robins weave their nest in our hedge and stir melodies into the backyard air. Slug trails glisten across the deck. All creatures leave evidence of their life’s path, even the cunning serpent. Will I leave more behind than muddy depressions?

Once inside, I remove my shoes and socks. If I don’t change out of my grimy footwear, I will undo all the cleaning I finished yesterday and ruin the pleasant accommodations for everyone else in our home. I slip on fresh socks and wool-lined mules, banishing the odor of mud from my soles.

As a child, I dreamed of wearing slippers made of glass or rubies. Life’s path ought to become a spangling dance to share joy with a technicolor world. Real life differs from my idyllic hopes. My tennis shoes don’t sparkle, and I must trudge through mud and dodge snake holes.

The walk of a disciple requires certain footwear–protective layers over the soul. Wrapped in the light of God’s truth, my spiritual feet shimmer with greater brilliance than any of my youthful dreams. There are serpents and worldly filth to contend with in my work, but I must leave the mud at the doorstep. Evil threatens to contaminate my mind, heart, and spirit each day. Dark attitudes set me back and their odor impacts others in my environment. I must remain vigilant with maintenance, or face a lengthy cleansing process. My soles need daily refreshment in prayer and scripture.

With the right footwear, I can leave liquid light prints behind me. I now hope to dance in squishes and shimmers. If I follow the lead of the King’s Spirit, a fragrant trail of compassion, generosity, and praise can stir Christ’s aroma into the air along my life’s path.

Lord, please guide me to leave sweet, fragrant impressions of Your splendor in all the steps of our dance together on this earth.

Matthew 5:14; 2 Corinthians 2:14-15