“To change and to change for the better are two different things.”
~German proverb

Our Lenten journey takes us to a desolate, solitary place.  It is understandable why some Catholics return to the Church for the celebratory high holy days like Christmas and Easter, but what draws a very different group to this period of seeming deprivation and darkness we call Lent?

Over the years it has been traditional to give something up for Lent like ice cream, smoking, or alcohol.  Some parishes have tried to ritualize the process of “giving something up for Lent” by suggesting the value of the items, from which we abstain, be remitted to the church or a worthy cause in the form of a donation.  I know one family who has a “Cuss Box”.  Every time someone uses profanity during Lent they have to pay a $1.00 fine to the Cuss Box.  Suffice it to say, they make a sizable donation to their Church every Easter. 

Unfortunately, simply abstaining from something during Lent has no long term benefit…while it may be symbolic; it is not likely to bring about a lasting reformation. When we deprive ourselves of a particular source of satisfaction it tends to focus us on that source.  We focus on the deprivation we are experiencing rather than on the intent of the deprivation. Abstinence may make the heart grow fonder.  And there is a certain consolation in knowing the deprivation won’t last for long.  It is similar to going on a diet (so we look good for our class reunion) versus adopting a healthy lifestyle (so we can make it to our 50th class reunion).  

As Stewards we can become myopic, focusing on what we need to give (our time, talent and treasure) to the exclusion of what we need to give up…the things we don’t need.  If we were to plan a 40 day excursion into the desert (and not in a motor home) we would keenly focus on what we actually needed…the necessities of life…those things which sustain us physically (and spiritually).  Unfortunately, when we entered into lent on Ash Wednesday, the reality for most of us is we found ourselves approaching the desert with all our stuff, necessary or otherwise, still weighing us down.    

Lent is a time for us to shed our baggage; and in turn, focus on what is really important.  This baggage may be property, power or prestige, but it might also be grief, guilt, old hurts, resentments or pain.  Lent represents an opportunity to let go of the past, stop fearing the future and to focus on the present.  It is a time to perform a spring cleaning of our souls; a time to rid ourselves of the unnecessary.  And herein lies the second, and perhaps more important benefit: by doing so we are making room for the necessary.  There is a famous story about a man who asked the Dali Lama to teach him.  The wise old sage filled the man’s tea cup to overflowing, and then told him he was like the tea cup.  He was “too full”.  Nothing else could go into his cup.  

Lent is when we need to empty our cups: eliminating the unnecessary to make sure we have room for the necessary.  Our brothers and sisters who come for ashes and palms are examples to all of us.  When we go searching for answers, for meaning, for life; if we are to find what we need, we must get rid of what we don’t first.

A Lenten Reflection

Dear Lord help me to:

Give up complaining——focus on gratitude.

Give up pessimism——become an optimist.

Give up harsh judgments——think kindly thoughts.

Give up worry——trust Divine Providence.

Give up discouragement——be full of hope.

Give up bitterness——turn to forgiveness.

Give up hatred——return good for evil.

Give up negativism——be positive.

Give up anger——be more patient.

Give up pettiness——become mature.

Give up gloom——enjoy the beauty that is all around you.

Give up jealousy——pray for trust.

Give up gossiping——control your tongue.

Give up sin——turn to virtue.

 During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask, one way or another, what it means to be themselves…to answer questions like this is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become.  ~(Carl) Frederick Buechner, American writer and theologian (b. 1926)

 © 2010 James E. Carper.  All rights reserved.