Today marks the beginning of Lent, the 40 day period of spiritual preparation and self-discipline that leads to the great celebration of Easter.
For many people, it is the spiritual equivalent of the big diet before swimsuit season.
To me, that’s a shame for a few reasons.
First, it suggests that getting closer to God is no fun, even if it has great benefits in the long run. It saddens me that there are still people who go to church even though they don’t enjoy it, because they think God does and they’re determined to keep God “happy.” It’s as if they worship a God who never laughs.
Second, it’s a shame because it can make such an idol of self-discipline, which is an all-too-American flaw. The Gospel is so powerful because it offers us a different account of who we are than the world at large does, reminding us always that we are made in the image of God and infinitely precious to God, despite our imperfections. Yes, God invites us to work on those. But that’s as a way of inviting us to find deeper roots in the divine ground. It’s not so we can show our grit — for whom? God? Really?
Finally, it’s a shame because it often ends up “baptizing” things we think we’re inclined to do for entirely non-spiritual reasons. To put it bluntly, the Church did not come up with Lent way back when so that we’d all look fabulous for Easter—thinner, better rested, less boozy in the jowls, or what have you. Lent isn’t God’s solution to help us “conquer stress.” By all means, let’s do those things, and for their own sake. But let’s not say that we’re doing things “for God” when we aren’t. I bet that God isn’t fooled.
So what should we do?
Earlier this week, I saw some wonderful suggestions attributed to Pope Francis (though I couldn’t find it when I looked for it again). So…the words may not have been his, but I was moved by the invitation to give up a very different set of behaviors than the usual list. Instead, it focused on the deeper behaviors that get in the way of faithful living.
In that spirit, then, here is my list:
What if we tried giving up things like impatience? Sarcasm? Eye-rolling?
What if we tried giving up nit-picking, nagging, sulking, resentment, or self-pity?
What if we tried giving up saying things behind someone’s back, or needing to have the last word?
Lent is a time to focus on what matters most—a time to work on whatever it is that interferes with the joy we experience in loving God and neighbor. The more we do, the more deeply we experience the miracle at the heart of Easter — the more we know that Easter isn’t just an Alleluia we proclaim, but one God invites us to live and encounter again each day.
What do you need to do to accept that invitation? Make that the heart of your Lent this year. And may Lent lead you straight to the heart of God.
See you in church,