A Forcible Lent

Red Rosary

What did you give up for Lent?

Sometimes it’s hard to walk the real or virtual halls of seminary without hearing this question forty times per day (see what I did there?) during this season of the year. Everyone’s curious about what we’re all sacrificing in preparation for Easter. Often it’s with good intention, but let’s face it: we’re all just a teensy bit nosy too. 🙂

Lent is supposed to be a voluntary practice when we give up a specific item, practice or habit in order to sense the loss of it, the need for it, the need to be without it, and to see the all-consuming love of Christ fill that empty space come Easter morn. Some folks give up meat, alcohol, or sex. Others reduce Lent to more of a personal self-help New Year and give up junk food (just to lose those last pesky 5 pounds), or smoking or something that leans towards benefiting the individual rather than really engaging in communion with God.

Okay, perhaps that’s getting a little judgy-judgy.

Down to business:

Have we ever thought about the people who really don’t want to participate in Lent, but sense we’re dragged into it anyway? Is there a category for us? Is there a place?

My friends are leaving in less than a week. He has one more service as pastor of our church with us; they spent the evening with me last night, visiting my humble little basement suite and sharing one more meal; and we have one more chance to engage in all sorts of soul-giving tomfoolery with our small music team.

Then I lose them.

I give them up. In a way.

I haven’t felt the slightest inclination to try and find anything else to sacrifice for Lent because there’s already a gaping hole right in the middle of the season. I’m giving up my friends.

Oh sure I’ll see them again, you might say. Trust me, it’s not as easy to shift from pastor-friend to “friend” in this denomination. I’m struggling with the boundaries and definitions and rules. I hope we’ll remain friends, but I know it won’t be like other friendships when someone moves to another town. From where I stand, it’s looking very bleak and complicated.

My colleague’s son committed suicide near the start of Lent.

She was forced to give him up.

I can’t imagine.

Many new faces in the food bank are here because they’ve been recently laid off from work.

They have been forced to give up their jobs.

That I can imagine (having been through it at one time).

A friend lost her farm because of horrible climate conditions and no way to purchase feed for her animals.

She was forced to give up her furry family members.

How difficult to imagine.

I wonder if, during this Lenten season, we make room for folks who are forced to give up people and possessions and lives most precious to them? Do we even ponder Lent in those terms? Are we able to understand why some of us feel it’s too hard to give up more than what we have because we’ve already lost so much? Would choosing to give up a food or smoking somehow bring us closer to God when we’re already well acquainted with nights of weeping, days of pacing, and hours of scanning the web for some sign of employment?

Is this strange Lent not holy too? Somehow? Are there not spaces needing to be filled? Wounds needing to be dressed? Minute-by-minute reminders that we need Love to come and make us whole?

I would say “Yes.”

A forcible Lent is terrifying. Not only are we forced to face the reality of our griefs and losses, but we aren’t assured that joy will come with Easter’s dawn. That’s the interesting thing about a voluntary Lent: we know there’s an end to it once forty days are up.

People thrust into Lent without warning or desire?

There’s not likely to be an end to the sacrifice once Easter comes. It’s not likely at all.

What is likely (or perhaps “hopeful” is a more apt term here) is that we might share in some profound “AHA!” moments. The pain might still be fresh and new; we might not know how life will look from one day to the next; and we may still not be able to accept our new lives without the people we love, the jobs we’ve excelled at, or the places we’ve cared for.

But we may have experienced a small glimmer of insight into God’s tenderness; we may have bumped into someone with just the right word to help us through the next five minutes; and perhaps we may even have heard the quiet voice of God in the deepest shadows of the  night, whispering “I’m here.”

“I haven’t given up. Give up if you need to, but I have not and will not.”

“I love you.”

“I’m here. I’m here. I’m here.”

These brief flashes of light won’t make the pain go away or the sacrifice stop once we go to church on Easter morning. But they will help shape our grief. We might see meaning in these moments; we might not. But shape and definition are important, as we come to realize just how large our wounds are and just how much of the relentless tenderness of Jesus we’ll require to heal.

So I say that YES, some of us are propelled into the Lenten season without our permission. And we flail at the loss of control. And we know deeply within our bowels that Easter-tide will not magically end our pain.

But since we are the ones who are walking through the valleys of the shadow of death the longest, we see those slivers of light the brightest.

What we choose to do with them is altogether another story.

And I pray for you, reader, that it is an incredible one.

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