“There is a time and season for everything,” as the wisdom teacher of Ecclesiastes proclaims, and Lent typically has been the time of fasting, rending garments, long faces, abstention, and sobriety. Surely there is plenty of reason to be reflective in recognition of the realities of life on both the micro and macro levels. On the macro level, we must repent our mistreatment of the earth, our addiction to fossil fuels and consumerism, and our temptation to seek vengeance rather than reconciliation. We don’t need televangelists, Mayan calendars, and apocalyptic doomsayers to tell us that our planet is in trouble: we see it in threatened species, erratic weather patterns, and melting glaciers. On the macro, we need to repent of scorched earth politics, religious and culture wars, and the growing gap between the rich and poor/middle class.
On the micro level, we struggle with our own feelings of uncertainty, fear, scarcity, and alienation, and we need a new heart and a transformed mind. We don’t need the guilt trips of Psalm 51 – “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” – to recognize that we need to turn around and change course in our lives. Yes, we are “dust” but we are also “star dust,” the energy of the big bang, filled with great potential despite self-and-community imposed limitations.
The word “Lent” comes from the “lengthening of days,” the hint of spring that is in the air and the promise of new growth in the realm of plants and animals. While growth requires pruning, the growing season that lies ahead should be reason for joy as well as repentance. The penitence of Lent is not an end unto itself; it is a preparation to celebrate resurrection, new and abundant life springing forth amid life’s greatest challenges and defeats.
As Jesus suggests (Matthew 6:5-6), Lent is not about long faces, but about an inner transformation that leads to transformed behaviors and commitments. The pruning of Lent is, as a farmer once told me, the way we let the sun shine in and the blossoms grow into fruit. The mortality we recognize during Lent is not intended to burden us with fear, but to invite us to see life as precious and focus on what’s truly important. It is a call to treasure each day, and not mess around with the unworthy or unimportant.
Rabbi Harold Kushner once noted that on a person’s death bed, they seldom regret missing a meeting! While some meetings can be pivotal in our lives, Kushner’s point is that the fragility and brevity of life are a call to put first things first – to discover our calling, to love our families, to rejoice in each day, and to bring beauty to the earth. The “giving up” of Lent is not meant to deny the pleasures of the earth, the joy of good food, or the wonders of love, but to enable us to experience what’s truly important about our life here on earth. Divine omnipresence is an affirmation that God is present here in the mundane and passing just as God is present in everlasting life. We don’t have to go anywhere to be in heaven – heaven is right where we are. This is surely one of the messages of Jesus’ prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Lent calls us to reflection, change, and celebration. Let us embody a spirituality of Lent, characterized by the following daily practices:
- Waking up with words of affirmation, such as “this is the day that God has made and I will rejoice and be glad in it.”
- Letting go of negative feelings and grudges, and making amends with loved ones and associates.
- Celebration of relationships – letting go of words that limit or hurt others, and choosing words that affirm and heal, even in conflict situations.
- Affirmation of our gifts – letting go of self-limitations and embracing God’s vision of us as “beloved sons and daughters.”
- Abundant living – not to be confused with consumerism, but rather a joy in simplicity and a vision of wonder that sees greatness in small things, possibility in a small seed, and talent in hidden places.
- Gratitude and appreciation – saying “thank you” to God and others – counting our blessings, not as denial, but in remembrance of the gifts we’ve received.
- Planet loving – looking at our lifestyle and finding ways to affirm this good earth by using our feet rather than cars, by eating fresh rather than processed foods, by buying local as well as global….by finding ways to reduce our carbon footprint and living simply so others can simply live! Much to our surprise, this affirmative simplicity will add joy, energy, and hope to our lives.
- Generosity – gifts of time, talent, and treasure, appropriate to our necessary commitments to job and family. Again, it is surprising to note that when we let go of our stranglehold on time, self-determination, and money, we end up feeling greater spaciousness, more talent, and unexpected abundance in our attitudes toward life. Generous people always have enough….
Yes, Lent can be joyful. Our mortal lives can participate in God’s everlasting vision. In pruning our lives of consumerism, violence, injustice, and scarcity thinking, we can awaken to God’s abundance that brings joy and beauty to every moment and encounter. May you have a joyful Lent!
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church to be released in January. But, above all, he seeks to share good news in ways that transform lives and heal the planet. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.