It was dusk on a chilly, midweek, early March day as I walked with friends along the bank of the ditch on our way to school.
“Who’s up for basketball at my house after school?” I asked my compatriots.
“I’m out,” said Jim. “It’s Ash Wednesday and I have to acolyte at church.”
I then remembered that I, too, would be acolyting at St. Matthew’s (my little Episcopal Church – not to be confused with the ‘big’ Roman Catholic Church where Jim attended). “Ah, right, I forgot I have to do that too,” I responded.
A moment later Jim asked, “So Brian, do you guys have to give stuff up for Lent, too? Man I hate that!”
Before I could answer our friend Tim blurted out, “What the heck is Ash Wednesday and lint – we don’t do any of that stuff in my church.”
“Me neither,” said Jeff, another walking companion.
And then, with a hard right turn characteristic of many junior high conversations, yet another friend, John, said, “So did you guys do the reading for English? Man, I hope I don’t get called on.”
This is my earliest and most concrete memory of Lent. I remember, like my buddy who was Roman Catholic, that we were encouraged to give something up for Lent. Yet learning that my friend had to do so emboldened me even more. So much so that on the day after this conversation, I picked up where we had left off.
“So Jim, what are you giving up for Lent?” Without any hesitation he replied, “Chocolate, always give up chocolate. How about you?” “The same,” I responded. And there you have it, the roots of my Lenten practices. Steeped in deprivation of what most children crave, Lent at it’s core was about the cruelty of the Church taking away the things we desire the most. All in the name of…? Well, that of course never made it onto my fledgling, theological radar screen.
The fact of the matter is, it was not until I was in college and was introduced to my first spiritual director that I gained a deeper understanding of both Lent and Lenten practices. My spiritual director opened up an awareness and appreciation for the opportunity Lent provided for growth in my faith. She guided me in discerning practices that would turn out to be helpful to me, not just during Lent, but throughout my life. They encouraged me to continue to go deeper and deeper in my faith. Her gentle suggestion was to ‘try some things on’ and if they were helpful, to consider continuing them long after Easter.
This has been my practice ever since. Long gone are feelings of Lent as a season of chocolate abstinence and deprivation. Now I look forward to Lent with anticipation for the opportunity to ‘try some things on’ to see if it will enhance my experience of God in me and through me. In that spirit, since I am still connected to most of those childhood friends, and with respect to our missional program theme for this year in ECMN, maybe I’ll reach out to them to invite them to share their stories of how they presently live into Lent.
Prayers for a holy and growth-filled Lent.