True confession: I am a Lent extremist. In the decade since I came back to church from some young adult meandering in the spiritual-but-not-religious camp, Lent has often served as the vehicle for me to rev up my experience of the faith of my adult choosing, often like some kind of fairly typical spiritual New Years resolutions. I have alternately given up my car, and even public transportation, taken vows of silence, fasted from cooked foods, prayed all the offices in their entirety every day including prayers for noon and Compline, sworn off social media, sworn off electricity, read vast swaths of the scripture in short amounts of time, some of which was chanted, and filled up all the rest of my free time with volunteerism. This has backfired on me on more than one occasion. I’ve had years where I give up on my practice two weeks in and gorge myself on fats and sugar or quit praying for a month entirely. I’ve had years where I come to Lent in the middle of a difficult season, such as my Middler Year of seminary or my Chaplain Residency at the VA hospital where I deeply resent the idea of my life being any more difficult than it already is and simply do nothing at all to mark the time. I don’t know why I go to such extremes. I think it has something to do with the desire to feel something. I’ve always been partial to bold, rich flavors in my cooking, sometimes the subtler things in life are lost on me. Lent has often seemed like the appropriate time to amp up the volume on my faith, to take the plunge, to live the kind of life in Christ I only dream about most of the time, where I’m this post-modern barefoot Francis who dumpster dives for all his meals and fills his house with homeless orphans who all gather around the dinner table each night to chant Evensong by candlelight.
A very nice and reasonable blog circulated in the past week gently suggesting a return to simpler observances for fanatics like me. The basic premise is: “Giving up your Diet Coke is nothing to turn your noses up.” It could have been written by my husband, who, when I told him that I was giving up my car for Lent, politely suggested that maybe a more reasonable plan would be to just give it up one day a week. A friend of mine summed it up this way: “you don’t have to give up enough to join the martyrs, just enough to notice.” I think there’s a good amount of truth to this. Resisting the urge to sip a coke, or open a browser tab for Facebook, or put the chocolate bar back in its place at the checkout line of the grocery store are like little pings, little twinges in our otherwise unchecked routine, little reminders to pause and recall the one we’re walking with, who gave up everything to travel beside us. I heartily commend this practice to your attention.
But, no amount of reasonable self-discipline can dislodge extreme Lenten measures from the prominent place they occupy in my heart. They are, after all, also at the heart of the story which we have inherited. The story of a people who rend their hearts, cry out for solemn assemblies, side with the hungry and the homeless and the naked and oppressed; they are full of great endurance, afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger; full of purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God. And even if we can only live by one of these extremes for a single day, I think it does something to the shape of the rest of our life. Because failing at all of this is the point. The opposite of exercising our piety in public for the sake of being admired by others isn’t necessarily always exercising it in private instead, sometimes it is risking the chance to be seen playing the fool, being vulnerable, or getting used to the feeling of being picked back up again from where we’ve fallen down. So whether we’re going to fail at abstaining from Diet Coke or whether we’re going to fail at abstaining from driving our cars, let’s at least agree that we’re going to fail together. Because if we’re going to follow Jesus, we’d do well to get used to falling down. We’d do well to practice looking for the hand which will be there to lift us up again from the dust.