Lent & Peanut Butter Cups
We'll observe Ash Wednesday this week as Lent begins. In the Middle Ages, Lent marked an extended period of penance for sinners whose acts were so grievous they had been excluded from communion in church. Hoping for restoration, as a sign of their contrition, they wore sackcloth and were sprinkled with ashes. Though this form of public abasement began to fade in the 9th century, the Catholic Church continued to remind its adherents about the need for atonement with the imposition of ashes each year on the first day of Lent. Other denominations later took up the practice, also placing an emphasis on disciplines like giving to the poor, confession, and fasting during the weeks leading to Easter.
In the wider culture, many observe Lent by foregoing certain worldly pleasures, such as chocolate, alcohol, or social media. This, I think, is good as far as it goes, but this week, as we approach this holy season of atonement, let me start with a confession of my own: In terms of getting closer to God, this sort of sacrifice has not worked for me.
It's probably just that I haven't tried hard enough, but I tend to hew to my Lenten commitments for about a week and then my discipline ebbs and I return to my pre-Ash Wednesday riotous living involving a glass of Pinot Noir with dinner. A few days later, I find myself, resilience waning, strolling along the candy aisle at Walgreens. The breakdown then continues with a quick scroll through my Facebook feed in a moment of boredom. Pretty soon, I?m awash in my annual Lenten failure.
From one perspective, this is kind of pitiful. It's clear the Lenten experience is meant to convey the gravity of Jesus's temptation-filled journey into the desert and inspire imitation. It's equally clear that I lack the discipline to sacrifice practically anything at all. On the other hand, if the idea is to live a life more closely resembling that of Christ?s, it's unlikely that Reese's Peanut Butter Cups have much to do with it.
Confession and atonement are important and lacking in our culture, even in our religious life, and should be a part of Lent. However, if we?re talking about gaining a closer intimacy with God for the entire season, maybe we ought to think of Lent through the prism of what in the past has most often brought each one of us uniquely closer to God, and focus on that. Think about this: What is it for you? For me, it has typically involved teachers, books, music, or art that have enthralled me. Even more reliably, it's been moments or episodes, usually occurring in the company of others, during which I've earnestly and vulnerably tried to follow and act upon the core tenets of Jesus's Sermon on the Mount. In this time during which there's so much need, maybe that's something to focus on during Lent this year?simply helping each other through it.
I coached little league with a lot of good baseball managers?great dads, but even better men. My friend, Greg Scheinman is one of them. He's one of those cool renaissance guys who's smart, industrious, funny, in great shape, and though he lives life intensely, he somehow also does so with a lightness of being. He hosts a podcast and writes a blog, both of which are focused on helping men navigate through the waves and shoals of their middle lives.
At the beginning of this year, Greg tackled the difference between a resolution and true resolve. ?A resolution,? he wrote, ?is defined as a decision to do or not do something. Resolve is defined as a firm determination to do something.? This subtle reframing has helped me gather an additional measure of discipline in my life, peanut butter cups notwithstanding. Even more importantly, in his article Greg shared that he?d resolved to do two things everyday this year?two things which as far as spiritual disciplines go are pretty good. They?re not so much about sacrifice, not so much about atonement, not so much about temptation or sin, yet based on my experience, they?re liable to bring us closer to God if they?re done daily. And I?m sure Greg wouldn't mind if we borrowed them for six weeks or even longer. Simply put, he said this:
I resolve to offer help to someone today.
I resolve to ask for help from someone today.
God? I resolve to find a Lenten practice in which I feel Your presence moving, one which makes me vulnerable, helps others, and brings me closer to the experience of Christ.