Giving up the heaviness of Lent

by Kristin on February 21, 2012

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by lululemon athletica

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. It seems like the only thing I can count on about Lent is that it sneaks up on me and takes me by surprise.

Other than that, there are no rituals or traditions I know I will instate. Sometimes I eat pancakes on Fat Tuesday, some years I don’t even think about what I eat that particular day. I have gone to Ash Wednesday services at Catholic churches and been marked by ashes, after a quick Internet search to see who’s doing an evening service that fits my schedule. I have also walked through plenty an Ash Wednesday without stepping foot in a church.

Some years I have tried “giving something up” for Lent, even though I did not grow up in a church or family that promoted that. My first such Lenten experiment involved giving up cream in my coffee. I thought the new bitterness of my favorite beverage would daily remind me we were in a different season, one focused on Christ’s suffering (I’ll admit, I also thought I could cut some calories and maybe give up cream for good, but no…). A few years later, it occurred to me that Lent should help me be a better person in a more direct way, so I tried giving up my typical impatience and frustration behind the wheel of my car. Another year I tried giving up old hurts and bitterness, which was really more about adding something for Lent—more forgiveness.

And still, there have been many other years when I have not given up (or added) a thing. Either Lent simply caught me by surprise (once again), or the imposed practices and observances felt hollow and forced. I wasn’t in the mood to walk through rituals just for the sake of ritual.

Can we do Lent without the guilt and heaviness?

This morning, the annual Lenten surprise, followed closely by heaviness, hit me. The heaviness comes from knowing that it’s time to try again to figure out what Lent means to me—or at least what I want it to mean to me and how I can help myself get there. It comes from knowing I’m going to feel guilt one way or another—either from not observing Lent the right way or not observing it at all. And I think some of the heaviness comes from feeling annoyed that this guilt seems to be a part of the Church’s design for Lent. I do just fine on the guilt front all by myself, thank you very much.

So I was intrigued to see a tweet by my friend @hopefulleigh: Maybe this is why I don’t observe Lent? Good thoughts. Don’t Get Caught In The Lent Trap

It was just what I needed—a friend who comes right out and says she doesn’t observe Lent, and a post by a pastor explaining Lent in a way I can begin to understand, and the “trap” in a way I can feel good about avoiding. Here’s how Pastor Mark Sandlin puts it:

Done right, at least by my assessment, Lent acknowledges the places in our lives that we are falling short of God’s desires for us and strives to remove the things that cause those places.

Focusing not on the isn’t, but on the is

It’s not a test. It’s not about depriving myself, or proving anything to anyone. It doesn’t have to begin at some magic time tomorrow, and it need not involve the exact same practice for the next 40 days. It’s a framework, a mindset.

For me, I’m starting to think Lent is a time to be reminded that God has so much more in mind for me—more joy, more peace, more important, rewarding work. I just need to identify and weed out the things that are getting in the way. I’m not saying that’s an easy task, I’m just saying it’s an organic, gradual, changing task—one that is sure to move me, by baby steps, not just closer to Easter, but closer to God.

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  • EmJ

    This has been my favorite one the last couple years. What if you ate Chocolate for Lent? I don’t agree with every word, but the idea behind it is important!!

  • Addie Zierman

    Love this.

  • Lisa

    I have found much more meaning in *adding* a practice for Lent than in giving something up. In reality, I do give something up in order to add in the new thing but it isn’t stated that way. I find it easier to focus on what I will do than what I won’t. Something I learned from teaching and management – it isn’t enough to tell people what not to do because it leaves open such a range of possibilities not all of which are acceptable options to the thing one is trying to stop. Better to tell students/supervisees what success looks like!

  • HopefulLeigh

    This is a good continuation of the article, Kristin! I love your thoughts here. I was not raised to observe Lent. During my childhood, friends would announce what they were giving up. I never quite understood the connection of why people gave up caffeine or dessert and the like. I didn’t question why they would do it but I didn’t see why I would want to. In recent years (or perhaps just my increased presence via social media), it seems like everyone talks about Lent but I still didn’t see the connection or why it would be a practice to adopt. I suppose I figured since we’re all in the process of sanctification, there’s not much point in taking such a concerted stand for 40 days. The article pinpointed my uneasiness with the personal observance of Lent. And that actually made me more open to the idea. I wonder if part of my discomfort is connected to the legalism that I associate with some practitioners of Lent? I wonder what would happen if Lent was a quiet practice we simply did instead of announcing or asking others about.

  • sarah louise

    These two phrases, one from your post, one from the comments:

    “For me, I’m starting to think Lent is a time to be reminded that God has so much more in mind for me—more joy, more peace, more important, rewarding work. I just need to identify and weed out the things that are getting in the way.” (Kristin)

    “I wonder what would happen if Lent was a quiet practice we simply did instead of announcing or asking others about.” // HopefulLeigh (above)

    Due to the fact that I’m dating a Catholic, last night I called up my one devout Catholic friend (who I met during the year I was, indeed, Catholic, about 7 years ago.) I wanted to know if there was anything I should expect at the Ash Weds Mass, even though I know I must have been to one before.

    It led to a really wonderful conversation about faith, and really seeking after God, which I think is part of what Lent is about. And it really made me think about what I could do for Lent, since this year I want it to be meaningful (and not because I’m dating a Catholic.) I think I have a few ideas, something that would work for me. And I think that’s the thing. Something that will work for me, that I can stick to, more or less, for 40 days, that will focus me more on Him. But not something necessarily “holy.” Except that everything, anything, can be made holy, made profane.


  • The Modern Gal

    I have a great e-mail from my priest about what to expect during Lent (it’s long, but if you’re interested I can e-mail it to you). One of the points is exactly as yours — Lent is a good time to identify what stands in our way in our relationship with Christ. He also makes the point not to be too hard on ourselves or try to do too much during Lent. Keep it simple and remember that our journey of growth to Christ takes a lifetime.

    @HopefulLeigh Even as a Catholic, I cringe when I see or hear people “announce” what they are giving up. Matthew 6 should be our guide during Lent, where we fast, pray and give alms in quiet so that only the Lord can see. Those who boast about it have received their reward. And yes, these are things we should always be doing, but sometimes we need a good period of intense practice to really refocus. Lent is a good time for that.

  • suzy

    Hi Kristin,
    I have an old friend who (in 1987) gave up blue eye shadow in protest of the “shoulding” she disliked about Lent. (She didn’t wear blue eye shadow). I smiled that you and I both wandered through this path. I must invite you to see my post today!.
    best always,

  • Jen

    So, as a PK in a Presbyterian church, you’d not expect me to have much Lenten experience. But alas, my dad was BIG into Lent. It was a huge deal at our church and I LOVED the ways fhe helped the community to prepare their hearts for both Lent and Easter. There were always special Wednesday night classes, always suggested movies and books and groups getting together to discuss those books and movies. The youth group always did Shrove pancakes. We had Passover celebrations. It was lovely. But, the thing for me that I notice now over then is that with the advent of social media etc. we can hear and see what others are doing for lent and that is the thing that sort of leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I like the idea of communities talking about it and workting through it. I dislike the sort of public guilt making machine. Lent isn’t about guilt. It’s not about giving stuff up. It’s about focusing upwardly and forward. And it’s internal. Your focus and my focus will be, by dint of our individuality, different. Thank God. It is sort of heavy, but the point is to make us lighter. I’m rambling. I love you.

  • Jen (#2)

    First, can I also say this comment from HopefulLeigh really resonated with me? “I wonder what would happen if Lent was a quiet practice we simply did instead of announcing or asking others about.” Thanks for that.

    I’ve only practiced Lent 3 or 4 years now, and that is one aspect that I really wrestled with this year. As I tried to understand how to practice it this time, I usually ended up in some internal debate — Give this up? You do that every year. Do this? That’s a New Year’s resolution, not sacrifice!

    I appreciate your conclusion to take away the heaviness, and I appreciate the blog post you linked that addresses the danger of the “Lent Trap.” I don’t feel bitter or heavy about it this year, and I could make myself guilt over that, but I won’t. :) In the end, my one small thing to give up is enough (though it’s more like a tiny gift than a life-changing sacrifice) and that’s meaningful itself.

  • Kristin T.

    EmJ, wow—what a fascinating way to think about opening ourselves to God’s love. Thanks for sharing that post!

    Addie, thanks—it’s good to know I’m not rambling pure craziness (or if I am, there are other equally crazy people out there).

    Lisa, I really love that concept, too. There’s always a way to take the negative and turn it into a positive statement—to frame things according to what I *do* want in my life rather than what I don’t. That’s sort of what happened the year I focused on forgiveness during Lent. Yes, there was a letting go or giving up of something, but it could only happen with a positive effort and action from me.

    HopefulLeigh, I can completely relate to this: “The article pinpointed my uneasiness with the personal observance of Lent. And that actually made me more open to the idea.” Sometimes we just need to shift and reframe things to discover they aren’t completely broken after all. Thanks for sharing the original post with me!

    sarah louise, yeah, it took me a while to get to my point in my post, but it took even longer in my mind! :) Thanks for wading through this with me.

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  • ed cyzewski

    Reading this post, it seems like you may have been really hard on yourself in the past for Lent. Even where you ended the post, I wonder if you may be putting too much pressure on yourself. I write that more from the standpoint of trying to say that you may be doing better than you think and that perhaps some of your measures could be off.

    It’s like you saw what needed to change and tried to face it, and even now you’re seeing what you want and trying to go for it. I could be wrong, but part of Lent for me is removing the obstacles that keep me from God so that I can feast on him. So the things I “address” during Lent are not necessarily the areas where I fall short or even the things I want, but the things that keep me from having the time with God that I need. How God deals with my own shortcomings or takes me someplace else is up to him. However, if I try to focus on the problems during Lent, I’m sure to fail. If I focus on creating more space for God to work, he is free to address my failings and even some other stuff… gulp…

    So, in a sense, the bar is kind of low. Make space, wait on God, let him do his thing. I don’t need to make things better. I don’t need to get rid of my dirt. I just need to stop moving long enough so that he can work with me. I hope all of that makes sense. I’m not a Lenten expert, so I could have just redefined it according to my own experiences at a few churches.