I wasn’t raised in a faith tradition that celebrated or followed the liturgical calendar save Christmas, Good Friday and Easter. It wasn’t until I attended seminary in my early twenties that I met followers of Jesus that practiced this thing called Lent, rung in by this day they call Ash Wednesday. Here it is again, the day that is a doorway into a foreign spiritual practice that I have organically stretched and grown into like a child pulling on an adult’s sweater.
I’m still not very mindful of following the church calendar throughout the year, so Lent sneaked up on me again. A Presbyterian friend who is a fellow minister and blogger posted last week about Lent. I groaned, not because his post was lacking but because it was convicting. My mindless wandering through the time-faith continuum always leaves me with less than adequate preparation. It’s always the week or days before that I begin asking myself what I will do to enter the desert with Christ this year, to walk with him on the path to the cross, to prepare myself for the wonder of his resurrection. This is not an easy question to answer – I really need to give myself more space and time to consider this fully.
How will I enter the desert with Christ this year, follow him toward the cross, fully know the sacrifice of his death so that I can wholly celebrate his resurrection?
For life-long Lenters, these forty days are often about fasting, sacrifice, giving-up, repentance. As a Lenten adolescent, I want to live into the practice, rather than follow a set of rules or expectations. In many ways, practicing Lent has become a work of imagination. Rather than being about soul-stripping deprivation, I like to approach Lent with curiosity, looking for what I can learn about life from one (Jesus) who has experienced the fullness of the life-cycle – birth, death, resurrection and life eternal. I approach Lent wanting to open myself to more of God as I empty myself of self-obsession, to have my spirit expanded not crushed or shriveled, to see and feel God create and grow love for the world in me.
Lent is less about what I do than who I’m becoming. Lent is an opportunity not a rule. Lent is a creative and imaginative act of my freewill not a mindless religious obligation. I practice because I believe it is a tool available to me to build up my faith in God.
This year I reach Ash Wednesday already in a season of deprivation. When I considered how to practice Lent this year, I rejected a lot of ideas. I thought about subtracting bread from my diet and each day reading passages that teach how God sustains us. Out of kindness for my weary soul, I shelved that idea for another year. Finally, this morning, in the eleventh hour – inspiration.
What do I know to be true about God, even in times of deprivation? I know that God is the source of life. God created each of us; he knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. God nurtures us like a breast-feeding mother and we grow content. At the center of God’s character, actions, message – in my interpretation – is love. If I do any good thing or believe any good thing but do not have love, what good am I? To grow more like Christ, I must grow in my capacity to know and give love.
For the next forty days I will read and meditate on passages about God’s love and each day I will write one love letter. I’ll care little about length, style or the delivery method of these letters but focus my attention on expressing love for the recipient. I’m sure I’ll write to family members, dear friends, even to myself. On Sundays I will write my love letter to God. Some of these letters will be easy, my thankfulness for the recipients overflowing onto paper. Others will be excruciatingly difficult, like the letter to my sister-in-law whose deception and abandonment have caused our family so much pain. I’ve started hundreds of letters to her in my heart. I have known and loved her half of my life but now my love is so mixed with pain, anger, betrayal and confusion that words don’t seem to be the right tool to express all that is in me. Smudging ash across a white page seems the most fitting. Regardless, this letter has been burning within me for years. It’s time to write it out. I imagine it will be the most difficult letter of my life.
I may not send every letter. I may not know how to finish some of them or even where to send them. But I will do my best to learn from and borrow the love of Christ and spread that love along every curve and point in my script.
Learning love. Borrowing love. Spreading love. It’s shaping into a fruitful forty days.