Lent is a season of self-examination and repentance. But the purpose of this season is always to draw closer to Jesus. Jesus followers are not ascetics. He didn’t teach that. Self-denial, self-deprivation, abstention, these do not, in themselves, bring us closer to God. In fact, these can easily drift into pride and superiority. I’ll add that, having lived in an impoverished nation for many years now, they can also be a bit of a luxury. People who really are depending on God for their daily beans and rice are not going without coffee or chocolate as a means of feeling closer to God.*
I’ve also heard the objection about Lent that “we should always be repenting of our sins, so how can ‘repentance’ be a particular season?” Of course we do repent every day that we are aware of our sins (“she who has been forgiven much, loves much”), but our lives are also seasonal and cyclical. It helps us to return and renew our focus on the crucial aspects of our faith, which is why the Church has a calendar with seasons including Advent, to rejoice again in Jesus’ birth, and Lent, to remember again Jesus’ death and resurrection.
As we begin this second week of Lent, I’m thinking about how we are all journeying. We cannot see very far ahead of us–though some of us are planners, we must employ a generous imagination to believe that just because we have planned our lives, they will be so–and we are learning our destination as we go. I certainly did not set out to live in Nicaragua. We walk the journey and the journey takes us. Some of the choices are ours and some are not.
In my life, I’ve held a son as he died and watched a daughter live who was supposed to die. I’ve survived two potentially fatal accidents. I’ve walked beside a close friend dying of brain cancer. I’ve had stretches where it was all I could do to keep breathing and survive from one day to the next. Tonight as a I sat with a group of high schoolers, talking about the issues, suppressed and otherwise, that they are facing, it struck me how bizarre and unforeseen it is that I would know any of them, much less be so deeply invested in their lives. As they talk about their plans, they are very much aware, in their current season, that their futures are uncertain. As we get older and more set in our ways and patterns, we nurture the illusion that we know how tomorrow will go.
After our son Isaac died, I struggled with fear that my wife or one or our daughters would die, too–in a car crash or from sickness or some other completely unanticipated tragedy. Having had the illusion shattered that these things can’t happen to me, it became clear that any of these things could happen to me, or them, at any given moment.
This, too, is a truth of our journey, but one we spend a lot of time ignoring and plugging our ears against: “LA LA LA, I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” It’s hard to live in the awareness that horrible things can happen to us. This, too, is a difference I see living among people suffering poverty: they have fewer illusions that the bad things cannot happen to them. They don’t understand faith in God as including that God won’t let anything go wrong.
Though I don’t want to speak against your faith here and we all have to work out our own understanding of what we mean that God protects or watches over us (or doesn’t), I have to say bluntly that it’s unbiblical to believe that, simply because we are Christians, God will shield us from anything bad happening, or even anything bad happening above a certain level. We made that up. God never promised that and, as someone who has felt betrayed by God, I had to come to my own realization that God isn’t unfaithful when the thing I expected was never guaranteed in the first place…much as I wanted it to be.
Putting these thoughts together, we are journeying with God. We don’t know our destination or what might happen between here and our destination. The purpose of the journey is to draw closer to Jesus, to experience and believe more fully that God loves us. Lent is our season, every year, when we remind ourselves and one another that we are not in charge, that we are not Captains of our own Destiny, that seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God means accepting A)we are not running the show, and B)we are going wherever this journey takes us.
Every year we come back to Lent, but every year we are in a different place when Lent comes around. Every year (that I’m paying attention) I see new areas of sin and darkness in my life; recognizing them is always life-giving as long as I’m willing to let God begin to root them out of me. The only purpose in giving anything up for Lent is to open up space so that God can give us more of what we truly need.
May your journey be life-giving. May we all remember the purpose for which we are here. Even in the midst of all our responsibilities–especially in the midst of all our responsibilities–may we keep our focus on the one thing we need. If we aren’t meeting God along the way…well, that’s what Lent is for: to take time to notice if we’re working hard at missing the point.
*I’m not criticizing giving these up for Lent. Again, the idea is to draw closer to God. I simply share this as a statement of perspective.