Today begins the first full week of Lent, a time of year when many Christians enter into a period of fasting and penitence in preparation for Easter. Even those who don’t practice Lent have surely heard others say, “I’m giving up ______ for Lent.” (Most-oft overheard in my experience: chocolate). People often use Lent as a good excuse to give up bad habits, like swearing or driving aggressively or excessive facebooking, or, in the more modern (and increasingly common) way, of taking on good habits, usually prayer or other spiritual practice. When I first heard about taking on things rather than giving them up, it sounded just plain wishy-washy to me. I mean, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness and in honor of that, you’re graciously agreeing to buy that new Richard Rohr book on amazon and read a little every day? Come on!
Lent for me was sort of a badge of honor, like how some people brag about running in marathons or being able to change the oil in their cars (neither of which I can do, BTW). Growing up in the decidedly non-Catholic region of North Texas, I had never heard of Lent until High School, where I learned about it from, of all things, my Young Life leaders (if you don’t know what Young Life is–I’m sure there’s a future blog post in there somewhere…). Immediately, I was sold. I put ashes from the fireplace on my forehead on Ash Wednesday–just a smudge–I didn’t know about the cool cross pattern at the time. And I gave up caffeine and sugar and went to 7 am Bible Studies before school on Wednesdays. And when Easter came, I felt like I had earned it. I had sacrificed for God and earned my right to fully experience the joy of Jesus, which I did, in fact, experience. It was actually fun to me to give things up; like everything else in my spiritual life, it felt empowering, and gave me the illusion that I had control over my life, (which I most certainly did not, living under the thumb of a controlling and narcissistic mother as I was at the time). And that was my attitude about Lent for many years. Every year, I added more things to give up: meat, alcohol, television–it was like finding new ways to live like a monk 6 weeks out of every year, and I always emerged from it revived in my faith.
But then I reached a point in my life a few years ago where instead of religion feeling like a refuge to me, it became a source of wounding. I felt that the church I had loved treated me like crap. So knowing, as I always did, that God didn’t actually require a sacrifice from me during Lent, it was merely part of a disciplined (discipline as in living like a disciple) Christian life, I began to have doubts about the whole giving-things-up thing. I began to feel like, what difference does it make? And so I made half-hearted efforts to maintain the Lenten discipline that had formerly been so meaningful to me, like, oh instead of giving up caffeine, I’ll just give up coffee, but still drink tea (which, incidentally, converted me to a tea-drinker), or I’ll give up meat except, like, bacon. And finally, I gave up giving things up altogether because I became so riddled with anxiety, it didn’t make sense to add even more stress into my life by trying to give things up that comforted me, so I switched over to becoming one of those taking-something-on for Lent types, and being an intern, there was always more stuff to take on: groups to lead, extra services to run, etc. Lent became less an opportunity to walk more closely with Jesus and more something to be survived, crawling across the finish line to Easter, spiritually drained rather than revived.
This is the first Lent in many years that I haven’t felt that way, thanks be to God. Rather than feeling exhausted by the opportunities that are coming up for me this season, I feel intrigued and excited. So my practice this year, wishy-washy as it sounds, is to try to relax and observe and enjoy and let myself fall into more closeness with God naturally rather than trying to force it–and this is a habit I hope will continue into Easter and beyond.
A Holy Lent to all. And if you neither know what to give up or take on or where to even begin, here is a link to Rachel Held Evans’ excellent list of suggestions for 2015.