Love God; love yourself as God loves you; and love others as you love yourself.
As a Baptist minister, Ash Wednesday and the Christian season of Lent are unfamiliar things to me. But as I have tried to understand and embrace them, I have come to believe that Ash Wednesday and Lent are designed to do nothing more than to help us love God, love ourselves as God loves us, and love others as we love ourselves.
A couple of years ago, on the Monday just prior to Ash Wednesday, I participated in the "Walk a Mile in Her Shoes" event at Mississippi State University. Men -- students, faculty and community leaders -- donned high heels, slippers, pumps, etc., to draw attention to and stop sexual assault, rape and violence against women.
Then Tuesday morning arrived, and I became very aware of several blisters on my toes and on the bottoms of my feet. My ankles hurt. My knees hurt. My wife told me she was proud of me for doing the walk, and she was sorry I was hurting.
But as I was putting bandages on my sores, my thoughts turned to the deep hurt and unspeakable pain experienced by a college friend who was raped; my thoughts turned to a co-worker who, as a young girl, was sexually molested by a trusted family friend; and the fact that when I look out over the students in my classes, I will be looking out upon several young women who, just while being at college, have experienced sexual aggression and violence -- and perhaps I will even be looking out upon some of the young men who have committed those acts.
In the days that followed my walking a mile in women's shoes, with each pinch of pain that came with each step, I noticed that I was praying for those women I know whose pain is deeper and far more severe than my blisters and aches will ever be. A few blisters and sore ankles created a level of empathy for others I had not had before.
I often show a documentary on Islam to my Introduction to Religion classes. In it, a Muslim man talks about Ramadan -- the Islamic month of fasting. He speaks of this being a period to learn patience, humility, spirituality; a time to focus on God and prayer; a time to ask forgiveness for sins, to pray for guidanc, and to take steps toward developing self-restraint.
He talks about Ramadan and fasting in the larger context of the Five Pillars of Islam, which includes almsgiving (or, charity). The man says that for almsgiving to be pure, it should not be simply done out of guilt or obligation, but out of genuine empathetic concern for others. He suggests that to be empathetic with someone who is hungry, he must first know the pains of hunger. Thus, the month of fasting helps this man focus on his sins, his repentance, and his need for God, but it also forms within him a physical connection with those who hurt and suffer throughout the year.
Being a Baptist, I'm still quite new to the rich Christian traditions of Ash Wednesday and Lent. I do know, though, that it's more than just "giving up" something or trying to "pick up" something else. Jesus doesn't speak of Lent (obviously, it developed in the Church), but he does tell us that everything comes down to loving God, and loving others as you love yourself.
So, whatever Lent is, it certainly has to be a means to the end of helping us love God. And with all of the "giving up" and "taking on" and fasting and discipline and confession and repentance, it is also has to be a means of helping us love ourselves as God loves us.
And maybe it is also a means of helping us love others, too.
Maybe in our humble confessions beginning with Ash Wednesday which we remind ourselves that each of us comes from dust and to dust each of us shall return; and maybe in whatever it is we will be doing (or not doing) during the season of Lent which helps us love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, and helps us love ourselves as God loves us; maybe in all of this God will also grow within us a greater sense of empathy for others.
It could very well be that in some self-denial, even with a little pain, God draws our attention to the pain and needs of others.
You may not have blisters on your feet, like I do, but many of us had ashes smudged on our foreheads recently. At the very least, may God take the ashes from our foreheads and place them in our vision so that everyone we see has the cross of ashes on their forehead -- reminding us that they, just like we, come from ashes and to ashes we all will return.
May God use whatever discipline you may be practicing to nurture a greater sense of empathy for a neighbor, a friend, a stranger, an enemy.
And thank God for your awful blisters.