My FAQ about the Book of Common Prayer is my most-read post ever. So I decided to take the hint and do a whole series of these tongue-in-cheek posts about the spiritual disciplines and practices that give me hives. And what better time to start than Lent, the most-dour holiday?
You’re welcome. And now, without further ado:
Welcome to Lent–a Christian holiday so nebulous for Evangelicals it seems custom-designed to inspire anxiety. In other words, you could give something up, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to….Wait, you don’t want to give anything up? After what Jesus did? Really?
(See how we did that?)
You’re not exactly inspiring confidence.
Sorry! We just couldn’t help ourselves. We promise: no more faux guilt trips.
Ooookay, I guess my first question is—well, should I? Celebrate it at all? It kinda seems like the extra-credit holiday for Evangelicals. Like if you’re Catholic or Episcopalian, it’s required reading, but for Evangelicals, it’s a little ‘teacher-pet’. Right?
Talk to us about that great verb: “celebrate”.
Are you avoiding my question?
Only a little. Look: the spirit of “celebrate” might lessen your anxiety if you let it. If Lent was a celebration of something, instead of a burden, would that make it an easier choice?
Maybe my verb choice is off. Isn’t Lent all about penitence, not celebration?
Mourning, dancing—if you squint hard enough they clasp hands.
I have no idea what you’re talking about.
To mourn, you must have danced at some point. If you have nothing to lose, you don’t feel grief.
So I’m supposed to cheerful during Lent?
No—but maybe feeling the discomfort of sitting in sackcloth for a few weeks might wake you up enough to feel real joy at Easter.
But only if you want to. There’s no extra credit here. It’s more like choosing to inhabit all of the corners of the life God has given you, and not just the comfortable, easy ones.
So should I feel awful that I keep checking out loopholes to see how often I can get away with eating chocolate or drinking coffee in the weeks before Easter? I mean, so it still counts.
Counts towards what? Your GPA? You really are fixated on that graded curve, aren’t you?
Go easy on me: I did sit in a classroom for more than a decade.
I guess I just wonder what I’m supposed to be getting out of Lent? How uncomfortable do I have to make myself for it to work?
Lent isn’t a colon cleanse—it’s a spiritual practice. It doesn’t “work” or “not work”. Look, it’s like parenting. Sometimes, the best moments with your kids involve sitting still long enough to actually hear what your six-year-old is jabbering about, and realizing she’s jabbering about wonder and joy.
I know I’m too goal-oriented. But is that all bad?
Not necessarily. It’s just a product of your age. However, that’s not the age Jesus lived in, so perhaps we postmodern creatures have a harder time comprehending him.
Fair point. Still, I don’t feel any closer to knowing whether I should give something up or not.
The fact that you keep asking makes us think you kind of want to give something. Why?
Oh—I guess, I guess I want to feel—part of something.
That’s a wonderful reason to give something up. Do you see how that spirit could be a kind of celebration? It’s like signing up to be part of the party setup, instead of just showing up for the live bird release at church on Easter Sunday, saying “Ahhhh,” and going home to watch TV.
Not to say that the work won’t be inconvenient or taxing or never annoy you. Just that there’s joy in going deeper into anything, including discomfort.
So how do I choose what to give up? How do I not guilt myself into being extreme? I feel like I either go overboard or ignore it altogether.
If you need a goal, maybe focus on being present. What could you give up that might calm twitchiness or distraction or disengagement? What actually will remind you, over and over, that you are in a special time of year?
It could be anything. The classic of no meat is time-tested. Or you could give up something digital, since that’s the gluttony of our age. Or a habit that takes you away from being present with people.
And start simple. You can always add-on later. That feels better than scaling back because you overcommitted.
None of that is bad advice. So why do I still feel worried about committing to it?
You’re better able to answer that question than us.
Because—because I’m afraid I won’t follow through? That I’ll prove how fickle I am, again and again and again?
That’s a lot riding on milk chocolate. No wonder you’re anxious.
Maybe Lent could be more about acknowledging each moment you don’t reach for a Hershey’s Kiss, and thanking God for being present with you in that moment. If you only participate in half of Lent, or a week, or even one day, you have still kept awake for a moment in the garden with Jesus.
What if the bar was so low you could never trip over it?
All of it is optional. All of it is an invitation, not a gold star. There’s no way to do it wrong. You might be surprised by how abstaining from something fills you up even more than candy.
I’m glad you reminded me that I kind of want to do this.
We are strange creatures, aren’t we? We are thirsty to feel the ache we normally gloss over. We are thirsty for mourning, even when it frightens us.
Can we pray for you? Jesus, help us to enter into Lent with a spirit of odd celebration. May we remember that at every moment, you let us choose how deeply we want to follow you, never condemning us for our weakness. Lord, empower us to become more than shallow celebrants. Help us to find joy in taking up our petite crosses and preparing for the bigger ones we think we can’t handle. Help us to keep watch with you during these forty days, Lord. Amen.