It is Ash Wednesday and throughout the day and the week my friends and I will be bantering back and forth about what we intend to give up for the season of lent. The list will inevitably include more and less brave endeavors. After many years of self-discovery, I now try to keep my personal commitments, ahem, modest.
Lately I have begun to think that our lenten choices are beginning to feel more and more like new year’s resolutions than spiritual exercises: quit smoking, exercise, skip dessert, drink less, eat more broccoli… And if I happen to loose a couple pounds along the way, so be it. Self control and discipline are good and praise worthy, but I do have to wonder if that kind of discipline really needs God. If our lenten practices have become mere efforts of will power and self-help then I am pretty sure we are still missing out on the transformative power of this kind of fasting can be: grace.
Lent is more than just a period of spring cleaning. The grace of Lent is that all of our lives can be lived, risked, and dared with the promise that we don’t come to the end of our story just because we come to the end of our own strength and will power. So instead of being a time for us to find out just how strong we can be, Lent disrupts our lives, asks us to give up things we want, and in fact even things we need – like some food – so that we have to confront what we cannot do.
So when I give up chocolate I am removing a vice that keeps me from facing parts of my life where I really need God. But giving up chocolate can also give me just enough distraction that I become more aware that I am craving for chocolate, than I am for healing.
The test is whether it is about the chocolate or about God. If what I am sacrificing would make the same amount of sense whether or not there is a God, then I have not yet cleared open that terrifying and beautiful place where we sit, without controls or guarantees and simply say, “God if you are there, would you please also be here. ”
Sure, I need to lose some weight, watch less TV, complain less. Yes, those are good things. But Lent reminds me that I also need to hollow out a lonely space, an empty space in which I am not so much changed by the clearing of the space as I am by the hysterical surprise that no matter how deep I dig or how dark that lonely space gets, God has already met me there.
That is not self-help. That is grace.
So as we venture head-long into these forty days in the wilderness, let us be brave, not in the kind of heroic sacrifices we can make, but let us be brave enough to face the places where nothing but God will help us. And if we can’t be that courageous, then let us just have enough faith to empty our lives a little so we have to face our need for God. And if we can’t have that faith may we just have enough obedience to shut up anyway and give God a chance to be God.