“Getting” Lent

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings, especially if the offering that’s being burnt is your dumb speed freak ass in some fiery car crash.  (Hosea 6:6, Gen X Post-Modern Paraphrase Edition)

I didn’t grow up with Lent.  Thanks to a brief reference to it in a lame historical romance I read in the eighth grade, I had heard of Lent.  Decades later, when I went to Milwaukee in early spring, I learned about “fish Fridays.”  Until I started attending a Presbyterian church about seven years ago, though, that’s basically all I knew about Lent.

And until this year, I can honestly say that even though I “observed” Lent after becoming a Presbyterian, I never really “got” Lent.  Years of observation convinced me that Lent was just a support mechanism for people whose New Year’s resolutions were in perilous danger of disintegrating.  And Ash Wednesday just freaked me out.  The first person I ever saw “ashed” was a coworker.  I made the mistake of saying, “Hey!  What happened to you?  Your kid nail you with a magic marker while you were sleeping?  I told you there’d be hell to pay for getting rid of your television!”

I had to eat lunch with a Jewish friend that day.

Still, I’ve long suspected there is more to this forty-day un-festival than a contemporary American excuse to exercise and eat better or, as an old anthropology professor told me years ago, a social construct designed to help Europeans make it through the leanest weeks of the agricultural year.  So, for several years, I’ve tried to jump – and stay – on the Lenten bandwagon.  At first, I gave up the usual suspects – chocolate, caffeine, and sugary pop.  I figured, if nothing else, giving up my favorite foods would help me identify with the plight of the poor.  This didn’t really work, because after about two days I realized that the poor aren’t starving for a lack of Coke and Lindt truffles.  Then I tried giving up taking the Lord’s name in vain, figuring it would help me cultivate a more spiritual attitude.  That idea backfired because I wound up dropping more f-bombs to compensate.  And one year I decided that not eating out during Lent would help me appreciate my own God-given gifts for meal planning, cooking, and self-care.   It failed cataclysmically, because if it hadn’t been for Coke and Lindt truffles, I’d have starved to death.

Last year, I got so discouraged, I just gave up self-denial.

But a couple of weeks ago, as I was speeding hell bent down I-25, I had an epiphany about Lent.  Before I tell you about that, though, I have to tell you about my friend Justin.

Justin and I were friends in high school where he proved to be a gloriously bad influence on me.  So glorious, that twenty-odd years later, I still religiously exercise one piece of his sage adolescent advice.  With the immoderate earnestness only a fifteen-year-old boy can manage, Justin gravely explained to me one day that the police were required by law to take three miles an hour off their radar measurements and no municipal law enforcement agency was going to go after anyone speeding less than four miles an hour.* Consequently, to this day, I conscientiously and consistently drive seven miles an hour over the speed limit.

Driving seven miles an hour over the speed limit for twenty-five years – and never getting caught – requires careful attention to detail.  I spend a lot of time checking speed limit signs and my odometer.  And wondering why I’m in such a freakin’ hurry all the damn time.

A couple of weeks ago during my morning commute, I was reflecting on my apparently habitual need for speed and realized that speeding helps me claim an illusion of control over time.  My first thought was, “I should exercise better time management.”  But the more I thought about it, the more I saw my need for control as a routine rejection of the providence of God.  And for the first time in my life, I started to “get” Lent.

Lenten fasts have the power to heighten our awareness and stop us, momentarily, to make mindful living a routine.  It’s not just about breaking bad habits; it’s not even, I suspect, primarily about mortifying the flesh, although I haven’t had “Mortification of the Flesh” class in seminary yet, so I may have to amend that doctrinal opinion in future.

By giving up something habitual during Lent, we give our bad habits forty days to achieve something constructive for us.  It helps us utilize our shortcomings in order to find God.  Put another way, Lent is a way of directing our earthly obsessions toward a more habitual awareness of God’s presence…and God’s priorities.  This awareness is absolutely essential to cultivating our relationship with God, which is really all God wants from us in the first place.

So this year, I’m not observing a Lenten fast; I’m observing a Lenten slow.  Every time I glance at my speedometer or a speed limit sign, I’m going to remember the God who gave us the Sabbath.  I’m going to thank God for building us for love, not for speed or accomplishment or for packing as much as we can into lives that aren’t meant to be the human equivalent of that closet you’re afraid to open because of the very real possibility that you’ll be crushed in an avalanche of crap as soon as the latch is tripped.  I’m going to remember that I can’t give what I don’t have – time, love, energy – and I’m going to practice trusting God to be in the driver’s seat.

Pray for me.  And I’ll pray for you.

* Please note that I have never checked any municipal ordinance or state law to confirm the “3mph” rule.  If you decide to test Justin’s theory, I wash my hands of you.  The fact that the “3mph” rule has never failed me doesn’t mean Justin didn’t pull the rule out of his ass.  Rather, I might just have extraordinary karma for avoiding moving violations.  I hope it has worked out as well for Justin, because his advice has shaved years off the time I’ve spent commuting during my lifetime.

© Marian the Seminarian, 2012

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