Recently Wesleyan Accent had the opportunity to explore the Lenten season with Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, who serves the Birmingham Episcopal Area of the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church in the United States.
Wesleyan Accent: Growing up, for me Ash Wednesday was something vaguely Catholic-ish printed on the calendar; I didn’t observe it until later in life. What role has Ash Wednesday played in your life? How has that changed (if at all) depending on what season of life or ministry you’re in?
Bishop Wallace- Padgett: I was first introduced to Lent as a child. Ash Wednesday was a big deal to me during the early years of my Christian walk because it was the day when I would “give up something for Lent.”
As a child I usually eliminated chocolate or candy from my diet as my “sacrifice” for the season. I thought my practice had much more integrity about it than what my buddy did. He gave up peas- a vegetable he didn’t like!
As I grew into young adulthood, Ash Wednesday became more to me than the day that launched Lenten observances. Though I still observed a Lenten fast, Ash Wednesday was the entry way into a 40-day experience of penance and reflection. I found special meaning in the imposition of ashes as a powerful reminder of my mortality and brokenness.
WA: What’s been one of the most surprising or poignant Lenten experiences you’ve had personally? Have you ever had a particularly difficult Lent?
Bishop Wallace-Padgett: My most poignant Lenten seasons have occurred when I have fully engaged in observing multiple Lenten practices such as reading a daily Lenten devotional, observing a Lenten fast, participating in special Lenten and Holy Week worship services, giving money to an outreach ministry and adding an extra act of service to my weekly routine.
I have discovered that there is a correlation between the depth of my Lenten journey and the height of my Easter experience. Lenten practices do not make me “holier” and thus more ready for Easter. Rather, like other holy habits, they increase my openness and readiness to experience Christ’s presence in my life.
WA: Some of us have been on both sides of the altar during Lent – receiving ash or bestowing it, observing Lent or planning sermon series for the season. I would imagine that there are a couple of layers of additional swapped roles when you find yourself in a place of ministering to pastors from the episcopal level. How has your perspective on Lent changed as you’ve moved from role to role?
Bishop Wallace-Padgett: My perspective on Lent has changed over time. This has been affected more by changes in my own personal spiritual journey than by the different roles in which I have served. As my relationship with Jesus Christ has deepened, my Lenten journey has grown more meaningful. I loved journeying through Lent as a local church pastor with a specific congregation. This was a rich and bonding experience.
In my current role, I am journeying with an entire Annual Conference through Lent. I preach often during Lent, including Holy Week services. I also attend as many special services during Lent as my schedule permits.
On another level, it feels appropriate that much of our appointment-making work happens during Lent. The reflective, prayerful posture required by the appointment-making process fits with the mood of Lent.
WA: Lent always seems like a strange play between individuality and community – it’s highly personal on one level, and yet a communally shared experience of traveling the church calendar together. How do you think this dynamic is beneficial to Methodists?
Bishop Wallace-Padgett: One of the strengths of Methodism is the dynamic between individuality and community. On one hand, John Wesley’s heart was strangely warmed, indicating a deeply personal experience with Jesus Christ. On the other hand, he developed a system of accountability within the context of community through class meetings and bands. We are a community of people who are on our way together in our relationship with Jesus Christ.
Lent and Ash Wednesday have survived as Christian observances because we need them. Our souls long for a deeper faith. While these special days are sometimes misused and trivialized, for those believers who observe them earnestly, they are a powerful influence for growth in our walk with Christ.
Lent is a season that calls us to personal introspection. It also is a time that accents our life together in community. You are right. Lent brings with it a unique dynamic that emphasizes both the individual and the communal nature of our life together.
WA: And as always, is there something we should have asked but didn’t? Do you have any other reflections or comments?
Bishop Wallace-Padgett: Thank you for inviting me to participate in this conversation. My prayer for us both and for those reading this interview is that we will have deep, meaningful and life-giving Lenten experiences that prepare us for a joyful and powerful Easter.