By Chris West
The season of Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter Sunday, is practiced in a variety of different ways. Traditionally, it is practiced as a period of fasting, giving up luxuries, and performing regular prayer. In recent years, Christians have updated this practice as a way to eliminate the distractions that draw their attention away from God. This shifts the focus away from depravity and towards a reorientation in perspective.
It has become commonplace for Christians to use this period of fasting to abstain from social media, television, coffee, or… bad posture. The list gets even more innovative than that. Good Housekeeping compiled this list of 25 creative things Christians might choose to give up for Lent.
Don’t shoot the messenger here. This is not meant to be a theological advice column or an excuse to have that slice of free birthday cake at work… It is to celebrate Mrs. Betsy’s 42nd year after all, right? Any way you slice it, Lent is about making time and space to reflect on the sacrifice of Christ, the sinless incarnation of the divine, to atone for our sins on the cross.
However, unlike Christ, none of us are perfect. Every year, millions of Christians worldwide set out, committed to new habits of eating, prayer, fasting (and yes even sitting up straight) and as with any resolution, many in that determined mass will eventually forget about their new habit or experience a lapse in willpower. They slouch, eat junk food, or violate whatever commitment they made. Perhaps you have been one of this mighty hoard of saints that fell short of your Lenten commitments in the past. No judgment—it’s hard—and you’re not alone.
A few years ago, a good friend of mine, let’s call her Sam, was leading a group of 25 youths in their first Lenten period of fasting. This was an idea she had fought tooth and nail for several months in advance. She had complied lessons for every day of Lent with creative spiritual practices, beautiful music and artwork, biblical analogies, and more. It was a true work of genius that was developed to lead this group of youth through their first ever experience fasting and, for the most part, it worked great! Just not for Sam.
Not even a full four days into Lent and Sam, who was busy with midterms and experiencing the pain of a recent heartbreak, totally lost her bearing. At 10:53 p.m., under the cover of darkness, Sam made her way to Cookout to order a double burger tray, corndog, fries, and a large Oreo milkshake. She devoured it in a matter of seconds. Then the guilt set in.
Sitting on my couch in tears, Sam confessed. She felt like she let the whole group down and didn’t know what to do. At that moment, I had no idea what to tell my friend to comfort her or absolve her of the shame she felt for her lapse in willpower. Then, like God often does, something occurred to me that I am certain was from the holy spirit. This is what Lent is all about and what we should all feel.
This is not a period about sitting up straight or cutting carbs. It is not about rewarding ourselves or patting ourselves on the back for cutting out the distractions that draw us away from God… those are, after all, things we should consider cutting out or putting in moderation anyway. This is a period that prepares us for the deep sadness, despair, and shame that we know is just around the corner. Lent is the period of mourning for the most tragic death the world has ever known and coming to terms with our own shame, responsibility, and sin.
I respectfully put my hand on Sam’s shoulder and sat quietly with my friend, feeling the weight of that shame and regret. After a period of reflection and prayer together, I shared with Sam my insight and encouraged her to share this message with her group. She choked back tears long enough to share the news of her defeat with them and, like church people will do, they surprised her. They embraced her, some confessed that they too had fallen short, and eventually, they laughed about it together
The purpose of Lent is not perfection or proving ourselves good enough. It is the exact opposite. The purpose of Lent is to sit somberly together in a season of reflection, realizing the implications of sin, human fragility, and fault.
Let us spend this season of Lent sitting with our failure, fault, and fragility. If you slip up or fall short in this season, use that as a theological lesson and continue on. To quote my Old Testament professor Dr. Brent Strawn, “Lament is just one moment in the life of faith… not somewhere to stay.”
Easter is just around the corner—the celebration of Jesus victory over death and a reminder of the hope of salvation! The wonderful news of the Christian life, regardless of the season, is that grace is free and abutment for those of us that fail. Yes, that means you.
Chris is a first year M.Div. student at Duke Divinity where he is a CBF Leadership Scholar and part of the Baptist House of Studies. Chris is currently serving as an Oral History Specialist at CBF as part of the Student.Go program to further explore his interest in american religious history. Additionally, Chris works at the Center for Reconciliation at Duke, and is pursuing certificates through the Theology, Medicine, and Culture program and Office of Black Church Studies.