Culture At Large

Looking to Lent

Mary Hulst

Here in West Michigan we've been blessed with a few warm days in a row.  Tuesday topped out at 61 (F), which felt like 80 to those of us who've been slogging around in down coats for months.  Runners, walkers, ball-throwers and frisbee players were all out in force this afternoon, basking in the warmth of the too-rare winter sun.

It was a delight to see the giant drifts of snow fade down to mere piles, to watch sidewalks appear from under the ice, and to see the icicles disappear altogether.  But when all that frozen whiteness melted away, the grungy remains were far from attractive.

Looking up one saw bright sun on a cloudless day, but looking down one saw mud and fast-food wrappers, dog poop and yogurt lids.  All that had been covered by white was now revealed in all its ugliness.

It was like redemption in reverse.

Lent begins in just two weeks, and I've always found it beyond coincidental that just as the receding snow reveals the unappealing garbage underneath, the spiritual disciplines of denial associated with Lent do the same for one's soul.

Giving up certain things--like sex, certain foods, alcohol, caffeine--often reveals all too clearly our reliance on those things.  I know of people who have worked to give up coffee for Lent, others who have set aside all sweets, still others who have relinquished alcohol.  None of these people were addicts (except maybe the coffee lover), but all of them struggled to give up their chosen item.  Once they made the choice to renounce it, the hold the item had became that much stronger.  But moving into surrender, they realized how bound they were.  Naming their temptation was like holding a hair dry to a snow drift: suddenly the thing that seemed so unremarkable became very ugly.

But that is exactly the point.  We are not asked during Lent to give up things that are easy to give up.  We are not asked to set aside chocolate if we never eat it or coffee if we never drink it.  We are called to give up those things that tempt us to rely on them and not on Christ.  We are called to set aside those behaviors that move us into sin (whether that be idolatry or sloth or pride or lust or...), and replace them with behaviors that move us closer to Christ.

I knew someone who announced that she was giving up butter and sugar for Lent.  Someone else who heard her announcement looked at her for a moment and then asked, "Those things really keeping you far from God, eh?"  She opened her mouth for a second, and then closed it.  She understood immediately that she had chosen to give up things that would help her (in this case, help her lose a few undesired pounds) but had little to do with moving her toward deeper intimacy with the divine.

We have a couple of weeks before Lent begins.  As you watch the snow melt around you (and then, presumably here in Michigan, fall again), think of those things within you that are buried and need to come to the light.  Consider the ugly stuff hiding under a cloak of self-righteousness and how you're going to let the Spirit come in and clean things up.  Sunshine, after all, is a great disinfectant.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. (Psalm 51:7)

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith