Lent is one of those seasons that always begins with the best of intentions and rapidly goes downhill, at least that’s how it usually plays out for me.
I plan to pray more and eat less and find creative ways to make my favorite time in the Church year meaningful for my children. Unfortunately, the ashes hardly have time to settle into the wrinkles on my forehead before I’m feeling like I’ve already failed.
I think maybe part of the reason is because I tend to set my sights too high, forgetting that, like a baby learning to walk, I’m going to have to take a lot of wobbly first steps before I can run full steam ahead. Lent is a time to put one foot in front of the other as I hesitatingly toddle toward the rich spiritual experiences I know are waiting to be had.
I guess I need to think about Lent the way I tell Noah to think about piano: You don’t get to be an expert by simply sitting close to the lesson books. You have to work at it a little every day in order to see true progress. And so it is with God. We can read books about God, even write books about God, but until we put everything away and spend regular quiet time with God, we’re going to have a hard time getting out of the starting gate.
Somehow that concept seems a lot easier to understand when I’m explaining it to my children. As they face their own Lenten challenges, I remind them that if they fail one day, they can just get up, dust themselves off, and start over. I remind them that Lenten sacrifices and promises are not about making us feel bad but about clearing out a space in our lives where God can squeeze in. Big rewards can often spring from small actions.
I remember going to a birthday lunch with some friends during Lent a few of years ago. When it came time for dessert, I quietly ignored the chocolate cake sitting in front of me, hoping that no one would notice. Someone asked me if I wasn’t eating the cake because it was Lent, never mind that half the women present were skipping dessert because of various diets. My friend went on to say how silly it is to give up insignificant things like sweets for Lent when there are so many important things I could be doing to make a difference in the world.
Point taken, even if it was through gritted but smiling teeth. And yet, as I mentioned to my lunch companion that day, while we are called to pray and help the poor during Lent, we are also most assuredly called to fast and sacrifice. That is not some antiquated notion without meaning in our modern lives. Giving up a daily bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream or a nightly glass of wine might not seem like much of a sacrifice on the surface, but if those small actions inspire us to contemplate Jesus’ own sacrifice for even one moment, if they make us empathize with those who have less than us, then what may appear silly to others is in reality spiritually significant to us.
As I contemplate what I'll do for Lent this year, my promise is simple: Make the sacrifices and the actions meaningful even if they are not monumental. And if, as in year’s past, we get to the end of Lent and realize there are only a few lonely quarters clanking around in our Rice Bowl because we forgot to make regular donations throughout the 40 days, we’ll write a last-minute check to make up the difference and bring it with us to church on Holy Thursday, taking one more wobbly baby step in the right direction.