Lent . . . I can think of no other church season that inspires such mixed responses. Beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending on Holy Saturday, it is the time of preparation for Easter, in which the faithful are called to a period of repentance, humility, and engaging our mortality. A nifty little video called “Lent in 3 Minutes,” says Lent is the time for spring cleaning our lives.
It’s an apt metaphor in many ways. We generally like the results of a good spring cleaning. We seldom like to do it.
It certainly can be daunting. Gertrud Mueller Nelson writes in her book To Dance with God, “Thinking about Lent is not my favorite thing to do . . . in Lent we come to know that the only way to our healing and wholeness comes paradoxically through dismembering.”
Likewise, theologian Frederick Buechner notes, “During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.” In other words, what does being Christian truly entail? What does being Christian for us truly entail? Are we really willing to follow Jesus, knowing it will often take us places that are uncomfortable and cause us to question many things we take for granted or at least wish to?
We know intellectually we have things we need to let go in order to take up the new and see where God is leading us. But when we get in touch with what those things are, we see how our dependencies, addictions (not just to substances but the desire for comfort or control for example), and habits can lead us away from God.
So to help keep us focused on this spring cleaning of our lives, what following Jesus truly entails, many people take on some sort of Lenten disciple—usually involving giving something “up” such as chocolate, wine, or red meat. Others may take something on, such as an additional prayer practice.
But what often gets lost in this is the reason we take on such a special discipline. It is not just to show us how we stray from God but rather help us to instead focus on our relationship with Jesus and ever deepen that relationship. For instance, if we give up cookies, every time we are tempted to have one, we use the moment to help us recall Jesus. If you really like cookies, you will be thinking about Jesus a lot.
But what if this year we all try something a bit more challenging? Something more integral to our day to day life such as not shopping for anything other necessities online, or not bring our cell phone with us to meals, or turning on the television the moment we get home—any of the innumerable things we all tend to do quite unconsciously? One year, I made a Lenten vow to not say anything catty about anyone and as I have joked with folks since then, I did not say much that Lent. Seriously though, I was amazed how often little sarcastic comments would come to mind. It caused me to think deeply of what it means to take on the mind of Christ.
Some people like to tell others what their Lenten discipline is in order to be held accountable. Others keep the practice to themselves, quiet time between them and God. Regardless, returning to Gertrud Mueller Nelson’s comment of how Lent is a journey to wholeness and healing, and Frederick Buechner’s comment about this being a time to learn who we truly are, the important thing is to engage whatever practice we take on this Lent with compassion and knowledge of God’s constant presence. To do it out of love for the one who loved and knew us first.
Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark, A Doubter’s Dictionary (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), p. 82.