Today marks two weeks since the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday. Some of you have taken up a Lenten discipline of some sort, and some of you haven’t. And that’s fine. I’m certainly not writing this post to put the pressure on you; in fact, I’m writing it in hopes of taking some of the pressure off. In the last week, I’ve had a few really good conversations about practicing Lent with different people. I’m always encouraged to hear how seriously some people take it and how much they want to “do it right.”
I remember as a seminary student, I was so intent on finding the exact right thing to give up for Lent every year. For me, the purpose of Lent was to find that sweet spot of a daily sacrifice that would really form you if you gave it up, or really make an impact on how you see things. And, to be fair, if you do happen to take on something like that, it is incredibly formative. I’ve made a number of life-long changes thanks to my practices during Lent. Sometimes when your eyes open, you realize you want to keep them that way.
But other years, my choice to give something up over Lent was anything but insightful or spectacular. And plenty of times I forgot to practice for days at a time. And maybe that’s fine, too.
Because the more I think about it, the whole point of Lent is to become aware. I know this sounds like a far cry from the Catholic roots of the practice, where the goal is to feel repentant about all Jesus has done for you. I’ve never really practiced it like that anyway, because I disagree that the best path to Jesus is through baptized forms of self-degradation. When Jesus walked into Jerusalem, he held onto his own dignity. I’d like to think he calls us to do the same. So if Lent is about preparing for Holy Week and Easter, it’s about finding life and centeredness come what may. I don’t see what endless forms of guilt have to do with it. Lent is about prioritizing our pursuit of God not out of guilt but because we actually believe seeking God leads to joy and fulfillment. And we want to become more aware of how we get in our own way of putting that intention at the center of what we do.
For me, Lent is an opportunity to take note of the rhythms of our days and ask whether they are the best practices to lead us toward life. But to be honest, just the noticing is powerful in and of itself. To become aware of the thing that you normally don’t even notice? That’s when change becomes possible. To then ask yourself questions about those things, and consider whether or not they reflect who you want to be and what you want to become? Well, that’s a recipe for transformation.
My friend was telling me about his elementary aged daughter’s attempts to practice Lent this year. She loves to pick out earrings every morning, and she has quite a collection. So she decided only to use two pairs of earrings for Lent. Now, some people would say this is easy, or maybe even having the choice of two is cheating. I honestly know a few people who probably would’ve lectured her about it. He asked me what I thought, and whether he should be guiding her to do something else. But I told him I thought it was just a beautiful idea. She thought of something she loved, something she looked forward to every day, and she put a little awareness around it. And then, she put just a little bit of tension around it, limiting herself just enough to cause some strain, some muscle growth. And when she looks at all of those other earrings she could be wearing, she remembers to take a moment to thank God for all she’s been given. She might realize, without noticing it, that God is bountiful even when earrings aren’t, which is not a bad life lesson for an elementary aged girl. But most of all, she remembers God. Every day when she’s getting ready, she has the moment where she reaches for her earrings, and she remembers. Oh yeah. Thank you God. Awareness.
I used to think what you choose to give up for Lent was the main deal. But now, I think whatever you choose is sort of beside the point. It’s a maguffin. A maguffin is something in a story or a movie that gets the plot going. It piques your awareness and hooks you. It gets your interest. And then you forget all about it, and it usually doesn’t come up again. The maguffin’s job is to bring you into the story. Whatever does that, in whatever way it does that, counts. What if we allowed ourselves to look on our Lent practice not as the Christian Olympics but instead as a maguffin?
Whether you give up chocolate or become vegan or stop buying anything new or swear off social media or volunteer weekly, it’s all great. It all counts. If you give up all but two pair of earrings or decide to only wear one pair of shoes or decide to spend five minutes a day praying for others, that’s fantastic. The practice in and of itself may be meaningful for you. But you could choose the most shallow, inane, dumb idea of a Lent practice anyone has ever considered, and it can still work just fine. It can still do its job. It can bring you into the story of God by opening your eyes and reminding you of the most wonderful truth we so often let float past us without noticing: God is here. God is with us, and we can choose at any moment to breathe into life with God. We can do it at our sinks while loading dishwashers, or in our cars while tuning out the radio, or in the doctor’s waiting room while keeping our phones in our pockets. We can become aware of God, and aware of the life we’ve been given in God. And when we see that, we have already changed.
We have four out of six weeks left of Lent. Maybe you didn’t start right on Ash Wednesday. Maybe you did, and you’ve just been spotty about practicing it ever since. Well that’s fine. Lent is a handy way to do this awareness training all together, but you can do it anytime, really. You can even choose to begin right now, with the first dumb thing that comes to mind. Because four weeks of intentionally noticing God during your day is nothing to sneeze at. You could stick a post-it note by your toothbrush and find yourself bathed in the grace of God’s presence every day from now till Easter.
So go ahead- pick a maguffin, any maguffin, and let this year’s Lent story begin.