A love for Lent
One of our sisters shared this personal story during our worship service last Sunday. She agreed to allow me to post it as long as I didn’t use her name. It touched me deeply at many levels. Hope you enjoy! – Ron Simkins
I love Lent. In an economy that refuses to be bound by weather or season, where we want asparagus in December and lettuce in the wilting heat of summer, Lent reminds us of the importance of spiritual seasons. In a culture focused on cultivating each of our individual wants and desires, Lent fulfills a need that we rarely allow ourselves to even recognize.
I love Lent like others love Advent, like kids love Christmas. For me, anticipating Lent is like gazing at a gift under the tree, waiting to be unwrapped. Each year it is a new discovery, slowly unfolding over 40 days. While I would be hard pressed to remember past Christmas presents, I can easily recall the gifts of Lents passed. They sit under the tree with this year’s slowly-emerging gift, beckoning me to remember the ways that God worked unexpectedly through the addition or the surrender of a particular habit.
I was not raised with Lent (or Advent, for that matter). I am not Catholic. No, I met Lent in adolescence, an unexpected introduction at boarding school. Even then I intermingled the Jewish and the Catholic: one of the first things I gave up was bread with any leavening, in solidarity with my Jewish friend eschewing it for Passover. I am a non-denominational, independent individualist God-seeker, Jesus-follower, who has found a hunger for community and ritual that are often satisfied by dining at the Jewish table, and borrowing from Catholic traditions. Nowadays my Lent is punctuated by weekly Shabbat meals, the Esther fast that prepares us for loud and joyful Purim, and the Passover Seder.
A friend once expressed her frustration with Lent, saying that Advent is a community celebration while Lent is so individual and personal. “Aha!” I thought, “that is why my Montana individualist self fell in love with Lent! while my efforts at Advent feel more strained, out of obligation, for the good of the children. And yet my love of Lent makes me an evangelist, wanting others to join in and taste this gift, crossing the line from individual to community. I revel in my private journey of Lent, but seek to draw others in, through table decorations and discussion, hoping my love of Lent will be contagious.
For me, Lent is for making myself available, to surrender something of my habits and routines, to allow something new, a time set aside. In the days before Lent, I try to open myself up to listen, to feel the Spirit prompting me. Sometimes the reasons for taking on a certain discipline are not clear until later, like the year I gave up alcohol for Lent. That was the year my sister was hospitalized with an aggressive, non-cancerous tumor that consumed her hip socket; I spent that Lent commuting to Chicago to sit with her in the pain and uncertainty, clinging to Catholic mass and Ann Lamott, knowing that the stark clarity of complete sobriety was a gift that I would not have known to give myself. As I questioned the goodness of God and the meaning of prayer and shouted my doubt at the heavens, I felt the steady beat of that Lenten gift carrying me through.
Another year I felt the urge to add the (sacred) practice, the privilege, of hosting each of the pastoral staff and their families for dinner during Lent. That was a time of difficulty and division at NCF, when people we had walked with many years decided to part ways. Sharing a meal with each of the ministers and their family helped affirm our love, even as we often did not see eye to eye on the issues and division among us. And in some cases that was one of the last family meals we shared together before our roads took us in divergent directions.
For anyone who has known Jubal and me for any length or depth of time, you know that we run on different clocks. This has been a bone of contention over the almost 17 years of our marriage that has challenged us in many ways. One year it occurred to me, like a lightning bolt (or slap in the face J), to give up being angry that he was “late” (otherwise known as: not on my schedule). The idea was shocking to me, and seemed quite impossible, but it was one of the most profound and cherished gifts of Lenten seasons past. While it did not “solve” everything, it did open my eyes to new possibilities, new ways of seeing.
Each of these Lenten gifts was somewhat unexpected, affirming my often tenuous belief in the ability of God to break through into my life, to surprise me. They required a step of faith that doing something different for a time could have more meaning than what was immediately clear to my tired eyes.
So, as we continue in this Lenten season, I urge you to try opening yourself up to Lent as a pathway to God. If this is new to you, take a small step. I hope it would be big enough to be significant and not easily forgotten, yet small enough not to set yourself up for failure. And a word of caution: please don’t use Lent as a self-improvement opportunity, to start that diet or exercise program that you’ve already been feeling guilty about. Lent is an opportunity for surrender, to choose discipline, and be surprised by the freedom within it. It was not until this year that I realized that “giving something up” was a process of surrender, a difficult practice for a rabid individualist such as myself. That is the Lenten gift that I am savoring this year: the timid and persistent exploration of surrender- of routines that preclude openness, of structure that reassures, but leaves little room to experience whatever that elusive gift that is surrender.
My hope is that you will see Lent in a new way, a possible pathway, perhaps hidden by underbrush, or disguised in shadows, but worth seeking to see what gifts lie in store.