Even those who have never been in a church probably have heard the same old song about Lent, as if it’s a time to give up something you love to show you’re serious about this “faith thing.” Perhaps it’s a time to give up a bad habit, to prove that you can white-knuckle the lack for a few weeks, making a special obligation to show you can take the rigor.
But what if we are meant to experience Lent in a whole new key?
Yes, the forty days of Lent can be a time to “get back on track” in our spiritual life. My book Tossed In Time says this season prompts us to admit how we have fallen short and to ask God to restore our broken, beautiful lives.1 The goal is to “turn around” to live face-to-face with God once more.
But Lent can also be a season to not go back to where we have been, but instead live life in a whole, new way. Maybe this year, after so many challenging experiences for us personally and together, our way of living may develop into a new genre. Like jazz and the blues, which are based partly on classical music (as my piano teacher showed me years ago), but which take the old musical standards in a wildly different direction.
One pastor2 describes Lent as a time to gain a balance of four elements:
• Worship together as we participate in the sacramental life of our community.
• Do a new study of Scripture and inspirational readings.
• Engage in service to others in a deeper way.
• Involve oneself in personal prayer, meditation, or another spiritual discipline.
But even if we achieve some kind of balance in a certain moment, it never stays that way. That’s because our soul is dynamic and alive. Inner harmony is never static.
So what if Lent is meant to urge us to develop some unsustainable practices? In a recent article, seminary professor Ted A. Smith says that Lent is not meant to be “Ordinary Time” (a term used for the summer months of Pentecost), as if it were simply a better performance of our ongoing obligations. Lent might even be a call to give up something good – only for these forty days – in order to loosen our grip on their power in our lives, so we can receive them back as a greater gift.
For example, a congregation might give up meetings and devote that time to prayer and works of mercy. An activist might choose to go on a retreat. A scholar might limit study to redirect those energies by helping their community shelter the homeless. An artist or a mathematician might decide to use the other side of their brain.
Even with food, “we fast not because food is bad,” Smith says, “but to live into the truth that we do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”3 Doing so can help us recall that the good things in our lives – even the essential things like food – come with a reminder of their limits, in contrast to the fulfillment that God alone can give.
Fasting on those parts of living that are not beneficial can lead us to experiencing life as a feast from the opposite end. For example:
• We could fast from unrelenting pressures to feast on unceasing prayer.
• We could fast from bitterness to feast on forgiveness.
• We could fast from personal anxiety to feast on God’s embrace.
• We could fast from sorrow to feast on God’s presence with us through it all.
• We could fast from fear to feast on God’s providential love.
So Lent can be a time of returning to God, but never in the same old way.
This surprisingly new season reminds me of some phrases from the poet Ann Weems:
“Lent is a time to take the time to let the power
of our faith story take hold of us . . .
a time to hover over the thoughts of our hearts . . . .
Lent is a time to allow a fresh new taste of God.”
I love classical music, but I’m starting to hear those surprising jazz chord progressions even now.
Your partner in faith,
1 – Rev. Dr. Betsy Schwarzentraub, Tossed In Time: Steering by the Christian Seasons, p. 56.
2 – Rev. Liza Klein, Montclair United Methodist Church
3 – Ted Smith, “Making Lent Difficult,” Christian Century, March 6, 2013, p. 29.
4 – Ann Weems, “The Call of Lent,” Kneeling in Jerusalem.