by Joanie Butman
This week ushers in the Lenten season beginning on March 1st, Ash Wednesday. Many people celebrate Mardis Gras, but none with more gusto than someone looking at 40 days of abstinence. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Fat Tuesday is when some Lenten observers over-indulge in their vice of choice: sweets, carbs, rich, fatty foods – and for some, copious amounts of alcohol -- before the Lenten season, which for many includes giving up something for the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Could there be more polar opposites than Mardi Gras and Lent? Does the sacrifice of one cancel out the excess of the other? Hardly. If that were the case, it would take a lifetime of Lents to cancel out the excesses of my youth.
I’ve always felt Lenten sacrifices are more than a little self-serving – at least in my case because I tend to be the beneficiary. Seriously, is it never all about me? The by-product of my effort might be a kinder, non-complaining, non-gossiping person or maybe even a thinner, healthier, more clear-headed version of my former self (if only for the requisite 40 days). It doesn’t always include abstinence, sometimes it involves choosing to doing something extra – maybe a philanthropy project, a Lenten Bible study, reading a spiritual book or just allocating a certain portion of each day to quiet time with God. Whatever I choose, it most certainly makes me feel better because who gives up something that’s not bad for you to begin with?
So, what’s the downside? None in my mind. In fact, I was surprised to learn that there are those who view it with disdain considering it an effort to earn God’s favor, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I don’t view Lent as an extra credit project. I don’t choose to give something up or take something on during Lent to earn favor or forgiveness. I choose to do it because I already have them. I suppose the important question to consider is why you choose to participate. I do it because it gives me the opportunity to realign myself with God by turning down the volume of distractions that prevent me from enjoying the symbiotic relationship God desires, to strengthen our relationship through His power not my own. It’s a form of prayer and worship, an expression of love and gratitude for the sacrifice Christ made on my behalf. It’s no different than wanting to do things you know any loved one would appreciate – something that tells them how much you treasure them and how grateful you are for their presence in your life.
More importantly, the emphasis shouldn’t be whether you choose to execute your effort with perfection, just perseverance. The only perfection required is the purity of your desire to do it at all and the perseverance to start again even if you slip up. Think of when your children were young. Some of the purest expressions of love are the imperfect ones children present in their early years. You know the type – the bouquet of weeds tenderly offered is the first that comes to mind. They are the cherished ‘I love yous’ that can't be bought in a store, the ones you can’t throw out, the ones hidden in your heart and/or your memory box, perfect in their imperfection. It would be unthinkable to judge or criticize the efforts of a child to express his or her love for you. So it is with God and us. My mom recently shared some my early cards I made for her, and I had to laugh because I signed my first and last name on them. I know there were a lot of kids in our family, but really, did I think she wouldn’t know who Joan was? Maybe I wasn’t so far off the mark. To this day when I call my father and greet him with “Hi, Dad. It’s me.” His response is always a jovial, “Me who?”
As I mentioned, there are those who view the observance of Lent as an attempt to kiss up to God, which couldn’t be further from the truth. If it were, my efforts wouldn’t get me much. However, when you offer your desire and perseverance to try to do better – regardless of how imperfect, God ‘multiplies this little gift and fills it with the transforming power of His love’ strengthening and encouraging any effort on our part. This holds true every day, not just during Lent.
Therein lies the true purpose of Lent for me: to bring me closer to Christ, to strengthen our relationship through His power not my own, to choose to practice perseverance on the small things (despite occasional slipups) so when the big ones come along, I will be better prepared.
What circumstances challenge your ability or desire to press on?