Bethel International United Methodist Church
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The Love Marks from Ashes

Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday seldom fall on the same day as it did this week. The last time it happened was in 1945, the year World War II ended. We wondered on the third day of our Belize mission trip if they could go hand in hand.

Valentine’s Day down here is a big deal among school children of every age. There was hardly a student I saw walking home from school Wednesday who wasn’t carrying flowers, candy, and specially-made heart gifts, including those from the Junior College in San Narciso where we had been all day.

Does Ash Wednesday represent that kind of love? I think it does and more.

Ash Wed Jr CollegeAbout 40 college students gathered with me just before lunch in a gazebo in the center of the campus. This is not a religious institution whose total enrollment is about 500. I told them how this day was a day of preparation, the start of a 40-day Lenten journey with Jesus to the cross and to its victory on Resurrection Sunday. I said his sacrifice is the love story of all time, and the mark of the cross in ashes on our forehead reminds us not only of our own mortality, but of how we need to seek forgiveness for allowing Jesus to bear the cross alone. “Repent and believe in Gospel of love” are the words often heard as you are being marked.

As the initial batch of students left, others saw their marking and came. Faculty saw their mark and came. The Mexican construction workers on a new auditorium project saw and came. Cars drove up and came. I had told everyone to wear their mark in loving pride as they were united with Jesus. It was the best Valentine’s gift they could leave with that day.

As our team continued providing first aid and CPR classes, I slipped back into the village and stopped by the homes of faithful Christians who I knew would be unable to go to church that day and receive their ashes. One was a blind lady who, with her husband, open their home each February to a member of our mission team. Another was a host family whose husband had just had hernia surgery. When Florentino saw the cross on my forehead as I walked into his living room, he said, “Can there be ashes for me, pastor?” How did he know that’s why I had come?

I stopped by to see Alejandro, who will soon turn 90, an age seldom seen in Belize. He is frail and could hardly hear me, but when he understood, he was overjoyed. Several minutes later as I walked back past his room, I peeked in to see him with a mirror trying to find the cross on his forehead. He knew it was a divine love gift.

Ash Wed DivanAfter returning to the college, I offered the ashes to about 35 elementary teachers from two nearby villages who were finishing up their in-service training with our pharmacist, Gregg Kuck. Everyone offered themselves, except the few who had already been to church that morning.

Ash Wed PabloLater at supper we invited other host families with their children to join us for an Ash Wednesday service. It was a love feast that was capped off with a testimony of faith by Pablo Bolen who, with his four young children, had just lost their mother to brain cancer in September. He sings hymns with them out of several different hymnals every night. We sat in awe as he and his kids sang one hymn after another, many from memory.

Ash Wed BurningIt all started the night before when we took a huge palm branch and burned it for the ashes that would not spell death, but would cause us to remember our sinfulness and the journey of forgiveness and sacrifice that leads to life eternal…a valentine from God, not made of artificial hearts, but of real hearts beating for Jesus within us.

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