Do you resist Lent? Do you see it as an imposition upon your routine? During Lent we are presented with opportunities to engage in self-examination, repentance, fasting, and service. If you take on a Lenten discipline, will you come to resent it? If you don’t, will you feel guilty?
For three Saturdays in a row, St. Paul’s hosted a series called Islam 101. With over 180 people present each week, we learned about the history and basic tenets of Islam and got to know a few Muslim neighbors in Whatcom County. The Muslim emphasis on practice impresses me. To follow the five pillars of Islam means speaking the Muslim confession of faith, praying five times daily, giving alms, fasting during Ramadan, and making pilgrimage to Mecca at least once if possible. Anyone who does these things is a Muslim.
But Christians, at least those in the circles I run in, don’t have any absolutely required practices. As the historical “shoulds” begin to fade from our decreasingly Christian-dominant culture, it seems that we mark our Christian identity by things that we think in their heads and believe in our hearts, whether they affect our daily behavior or not. This is not the church the apostles envisioned.
I want to suggest that Lent is, indeed, an imposition. We mark it strongly on Ash Wednesday with the imposition of ashes on our foreheads. The season of Lent beckons to us urgently, whispering, “Life is short. How are you spending yours?” We don’t believe that the purpose of life is to ensure a trip to heaven. Rather, our life is the time God has given us to learn how to love. We cannot do this merely in our heads—or even merely in our hearts, since love is not a feeling but a way of life. We can only love in relationship with each other.
This year, allow Lent to impose itself on you. Seek after God through prayer and self-denial. This might mean changing your routine or adjusting your priorities. You can commit to weekly church attendance and daily prayer, to acts of charity and occasions for learning. You can engage in self-examination, in prayer, in journaling, and in intentional humility. You can commit to full participation in the services of Holy Week. If fasting is something you are capable of, give it a try, especially on Good Friday. Make a practice of service by giving of your money, time, or talent.
But understand that feelings of unworthiness, of not being “good enough,” do not come from God. As Augustine of Hippo put it, “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” An invitation to deeper practice is just that—an invitation. Failure to live up to a practice does not mean we have let God down. Rather, it is a chance to accept the invitation again, always with the assurance that God loves you infinitely and will never give up on you. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and not through any act of your own, God has made you worthy of salvation. How will you live out that immensely good news? And how will you share it this Lent?