Here’s My Problem With Lent

by Rev . Louis Mitchell

I didn’t grow up in a tradition that observed Lent. Perhaps they found it too Catholic for their belief system. Now I minister in a church that observes Lent, Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday.

To say that it was a steep learning curve for me is an understatement.                          

It wasn’t that I couldn’t theoretically understand the Lenten observation. It’s that something about it vexes me.

It’s hard for me to imagine a God that would want people with very little to give up something, even a small guilty pleasure. I know, it’s about the spirit of the thing, but it still chafes.

I witness people giving up cigarettes, chocolate, scratch tickets, the internet. I hear their pronouncements and their suffering…counting the days. I’m fairly certain it’s the opposite of what God would want. It seems to derail a focus on the story of the season.

I also witness folks who quietly surrender something that is one of their only “extras.”

I see the yearning on their quiet faces. I sense the just-under-the-surface crankiness of withdrawal. Is this feeling of loss and disorientation is the spiritual lesson?

The bible holds no answers for me, as Lent isn’t something that the early followers of the Way observed. Most sources that I’ve read either connect it to a redux of a pagan ritual or to a ritual observation of the Jesus’ 40-day fast prior to his temptation by Satan. I read that some believed that Lenten sacrifices earned the favor of God. Others believe that we repent for Original Sin.

I found all of this very interesting but not necessarily enlightening. Where I finally landed is that this observation period is important to those I serve, so I join them. But, I don’t limit this time to necessarily mean giving something up. It may mean for some to take something on.

Rather than giving up chocolate, buy extra and share it with someone who can’t afford that delight.

But two packs of smokes and share them with people who use cigarettes to distract them from the meal they’re not having (or better yet, use that money to buy them a meal). Take someone out somewhere special and spend time with them. Commit to serving at a shelter or a senior center for 40 days. Fast from self-serving navel-gazing. Pray for and think of that group or person who you feel is really wrong and imagine life on the roads that they journey. Go worship with that “other” church that doesn’t do it right.

I take the Lenten season as a time to stretch out with my heart. To reach out with love to relatives who are challenged by me. To refrain from bashing candidates that seem to loathe the fact that I breathe the same air. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not buying them flowers. I am extending myself to be gracious and intentional. We still disagree, but I’m committed to being less disagreeable.

I pray for people who I felt wronged by. I make amends to those who feel that I’ve wronged them. I take on an extra portion of responsibility for all of my relationships—the good, bad and the ugly. I fast from snap judgments and sharp pronouncements. I put down my venomous pen and put my razor tongue on a timeout.

As I ponder the path to the cross, I attempt to weed my side of the road.

I do this in full knowledge that this will not prevent pain or loss, but in hope that my little will is in line with the will of the All.

I can’t help but imagine that a Divine One who gives grace as an unearned gift, forgives us even for the things that we aren’t aware that we’re doing, sustains us when we have little and humbles us when we have much, doesn’t need our show of sacrifice. But may smile mightily at our intentional stretch to learn how to be one of many in the Body.

Photo via flickr user Jeff Slater