Despite my Christian upbringing, I didn’t grow up with the church calendar. Easter was a single day affair involving plastic eggs hidden in hill country pastures and Sunday school handouts with coppery brads to swing a construction paper stone away from an empty tomb. The graphic was always neat and tidy—flowers and grass and “He is Risen!” written alongside.
I knew the story of the suffering, but the celebration made more of an impact.
So between Valentines Day and Easter when my elementary school started serving fish sticks at the end of each week, I asked my reluctant classmates, “Why do you eat fish on Fridays?”
“It’s bad to eat meat on Fridays,” my friend Adrian told me.
“Why?” I asked.
“If you do, God won’t answer your prayers,” he said. I looked around and most of the other kids nodded, some of them poking their tartar sauce to see it jiggle.
My friend Brandy gave them a funny look. Her dad was a rodeo clown who’d broken almost every bone in his body. He’d been gored, kicked, trampled, and crushed.
The previous year a school counselor had hurried her out of our classroom in tears, and then our public school teacher sat us down in a circle to pray. I don’t know how many parents called to complain about this violation of the law, but that day Brandy’s dad died on the table, and the surgeons brought him back.
So when Brandy shook her head and continued to eat her bologna, I continued with my ham, writing off Adrian’s god of rules.
I preferred a god of grace. Jesus already died for our sins—we don’t need to dwell on the suffering—that part is over.
In college, when my denomination started to embrace certain aspects of the church calendar, I resisted—thinking back to cafeteria fish sticks and gelatinous sauces. I still attended regular Sunday services, but I avoided Maundy Thursday and scoffed at Lent as being extra-biblical.
This year I looked forward to the Advent service, excited to sing our favorite carols. But instead, for the first time I sang The Coventry Carol, mourning the Holy Innocents.
“This is horrible,” I whispered to my husband, as I held our child, safe from King Herod’s rage.
I didn’t want to think about all of those dead babies.
But I had forgotten about Brandy’s dad and that prayer we prayed in a circle.
Suffering is not over.
Sometimes I think God brought me a surgeon for a husband, just to remind me.
In the past month my husband has left four times in the middle of the night to fly on a jet to harvest hearts for transplants—three were from children. And while those hearts brought new life and relief to the recipients and their families, others suffered incredible loss.
All of them waited in suffering.
Some waited for family members to arrive, a doctor to pronounce the time, and a prayer to be said. Others prayed and then waited for a phone call, a plane, and for my husband to bring them a new heart in an ice chest.
Never in my life have I prayed more fervently for complete strangers.
And in the dark of the nursery, my husband away, cutting open the chest of a dead baby, I appreciate The Day of the Holy Innocents, December 28, because I struggle to comprehend the grief of parents who lose a single child to illness—even if their loss brings life to another.
Marking the time in between the celebratory holidays helps me remember this place I live—in between.
But now in the season of Lent, I have yet again avoided the Ash Wednesday service. I don’t even know if my church puts ashes on our foreheads. I am just now starting to understand this time of reflection and waiting for the resurrection.
Normally I flippantly give up sugar—more of a diet than a religious stance. Then by the first weekend of Lent I’m eating ice cream and telling my husband, “Jesus died for me already,” taking bigger bites—just to prove it.
But this year I’m trying something different. I’ll be the first to admit, I cheated today.
I’m here, waiting in weakness.
And as God continues to open my eyes more widely to the sin and suffering Jesus came to end—I more fully understand that it is not over. It’s paid for, but we await the reprieve.
I still resist the feeling of restriction, but I’m realizing that the church calendar helps me to deal with the wait. Instead of just celebrating the goodness, I’m setting aside time to acknowledge where I am right now in this world, with my own sin.
I’m acknowledging what I previously tried to write off.
And it’s comforting to wait with the church worldwide, because in my daily life I wait now more than ever. I wait knowing there is suffering. In fact, I wait because there is suffering.
Many people may be able to persevere and to trust without a calendar to remind them, but I get resentful.
I don’t believe in Adrian’s tricky god—one I must appease before he releases his grace. The appeasement has already taken place, and I know the promises he has made—plans for good and not for evil.
And I understand how a strict structure can make some people feel like obedient school children, forced to sit in a circle and pray for a rodeo clown.
It used to make me feel that way. Honestly, a lot of the time it still does.
But God resurrects rodeo clowns, too.
And in the space between, I don’t want to forget again.