Today is Ash Wednesday. Out here in rural Michigan, I miss being greeted by numerous ash marked foreheads throughout the day as I was when I lived in New York City. Instead, chocolates have replaced ashes as a symbol of this season. The brightly wrapped candies in fun spring shapes have had me thinking about Lent.
This season has come to mean a lot to me over the last six years since I first observed it my freshman year of college. Back then I hardly knew anything about Lent. I grew up very Protestant and it wasn’t yet a fad for Protestant churches to participate in this season. But that year I was going to Mars Hill Community Church in Grand Rapids, MI and it happened to be an Evangelical Church that believed in the importance of participating in this Christian tradition.
The concept was so new to me that year that I choose something rather frivolous as my fast. Despite that, Lent still had a powerful impact on me particularly because of the Lenten devotional Mars Hill had made and because of their Lenten sermon series. I have been observing Lent off and on since then. My observation of Lent has usually been a little less than conventional (You can read about past years here). But then we Protestants are more about the spirit of the law than the letter of the law, right? So it seems fitting that we would participate in this way.
Over the last few years I’ve learned more about Lent. Last year I wrote about how Lent is a season of paradoxes, a season of abstinence and indulgence. The year before I wrote about Lent as a season of Bright Joy, as a season of celebration. I’ve been reflecting back on these old posts and asking myself how I should observe Lent this year. To be honest, this is one of the first times since my freshman year that I’ve thought this much about it beforehand. Usually, it isn’t until Ash Wednesday that I start seriously thinking about it and how I would like to participate. I believe yesterday was the first Fat Tuesday I have ever actually participated in.
What I realized in my reflections upon Lent is that each year what I have focused on in this tradition has been different because my needs have been different. Two years ago, I focused on the celebratory element of the season because I needed to celebrate God’s goodness and connect to His kindness. I needed a balm for old wounds so that we might renew our relationship. Last year, I explored the paradoxical dimension of Lent because I needed to find peace in paradox. Those final months in New York were themselves an experience of bright sadness and bright joy. The question has been, ‘What element of this tradition am I in need of this year?’
I’ve found myself desiring to observe Lent in a more conventional, more tangible form this year. Persistence, patience and faith are the things that I need most at this time both in my life and in my walk with God. Therefore, I have committed to fast from sweets and read through the whole New Testament over the next 40 days.
Last time I tried to give up sweets for Lent it was a disaster. My roommates and I probably ate more sweets during those 40 days than we did the whole previous semester. I know that living with my parents at present is going to make this even more challenging (they almost always have some type of dessert in the house). Usually, I hate the idea of ruling out a desirable part of the food pyramid but I’ve remembered that fasting is different from dieting.
Deciding to fast from sweets for Lent isn’t like making a New Year’s resolution to eat healthy. The purpose isn’t to use Lent to weed out unhealthy habits (not that it can’t help). The point is to sacrifice something in order to exercise discipline and draw closer to God. Sweets are a good choice for me because, living with my parents, I find myself continually falling back into old habits of compulsively eating through my anxiety and frustration instead of turning to God in prayer or resting in Her promises of provision. I am hoping that through these 40 days I will not only develop greater discipline but that I will develop a deeper sense of faith.
Any sort of fast from food has to be paired with our heavenly bread. I’ve spent so many years dwelling on the Old Testament, it is time for me to spend more time in the Gospels and Epistles. More importantly, I find myself in need of the wisdom, encouragement, admonishment and perspective of the New Testament authors. When it comes to lessons in patience, persistence and faith they really are the ones to turn to.
How are you observing Lent this year?