Church

March 09 2012
56

 

It happened again to me this year. Lent snuck up on me. As always it revealed itself to me through a random picture of someone in my social media channels who had ashes smudged on their forehead, and this made me think of my own smudge-free forehead which I had the sudden urge to smack with the butt of my palm. How could I forget, again? And then the voices.

You always forget. 

You aren’t intentional with your life.

You probably should think up something quick to “give up.”

You still have time to make this time of year actually mean something.

It’s the time of year to make yourself pay for your pathetic-ness.

“These voices are the voices that never leave,” I told a good friend of mine yesterday. “These voices are the voices we must learn to live with.”

What if I don’t do anything? I pose the question to the voices, and I wait.

They scramble over each other, nervous, chaotic, making undistinguishable, dissonant noise.

I feel like my life naturally has its own seasons of Lent. Things I must give up. Reminders of my brokenness. The paradoxes of ego dying, so I can truly live. Why, wasn’t it just this morning I sat in the dark of my half bath and cried as I mouthed Solomon’s words, “It’s all meaningless,” to my silhouette in the mirror? I’m familiar with the dark place.

I don’t feel strong enough to force my own personal lent on schedule to live out with intention. I have no stamina for self-imposed suffering and denial. I currently want no part in the death, the death, the death because it sucks the life, the life, the life out of me.

What would my own version of lent look like – a version I could stomach?

I’m sitting in the comfy chairs at Starbucks, writing this post while I wait for a friend to show up. But the words aren’t coming and certainly the understanding isn’t. I get distracted by people-watching. I watch the man I presume is homeless pace the floor. He’s here every time I am. He has a puffy red coat on and one sleeve flops empty at his side, no hand sticking out. He must be missing a hand?

He walks a teetering walk, back and forth, peering over people’s shoulders and just waiting for someone to make eye contact. Is he drunk? Is he mentally handicapped? Something seems off. In a moment of desperation for my writing that is going nowhere, I meet him eye to eye and I smile. He smiles back and comes close, extremely close.

“How are you doing young lady?” He asks. I look up at him standing above me and I notice the gray stubble of beard on his chin.

“What do you think of Lent?” I ask him, curious if it’s even possible to have a coherent conversation with him.

“Oh, I hate it. I don’t want nothing to do with it. See, I was raised in Catholicism, and I gave all that up a long time ago. It left a bad taste in my mouth.”

He gave up lent for lent, I think, making myself laugh on the inside, relieved that he can in fact speak coherently, and does have a strong opinion on the topic.

“See, I’m a writer, and I want to write a post about Lent, but I’m having trouble because I realize that I hate this time of year. I feel like it’s a time of year where we all beat ourselves up for all the mistakes we’ve made, and I just don’t want to beat myself up anymore. I want to focus on my freedom to live, not the death I’m responsible for.”

It’s interesting to hear the things coming out of my own mouth.

“Don’t. Don’t beat yourself up for it.” He says to me. “It’s just a lame attempt to keep people in line. It doesn’t do any good. I gave it up a long time ago. I was tired of having all those rules shoved down my throat.” His voice is angry now. Seems we’ve both hit a nerve.

“Do you believe there is a God?”

“Oh yes. I have to believe there is a God or my dumbass wouldn’t be here, surviving.”

His feet are shuffling in place and his head is turning repetitively as he talks to me, a bit like Stevie Wonder. I’ve riled him up. I think about apologizing, but I’m not really sorry. I needed the help of another human being, and he was available.

“So why do we hate Lent so much? Why does it make us angry?”

“Oh, I suppose it’s because we don’t understand it. Yes, we don’t understand it.” Then he adds with frustration, “I don’t want to spend anymore time with it.”

With those words, I see my friend enter through the front door.

“Thanks for your time, sir. What’s your name?”

“Jimmy.” He extends his hand in a cordial handshake.

“Jimmy. Thanks for your time. This is my friend Teresa. I’m going to hang out with her now.”

“Okay. You ladies have a nice day.” He says goodbye but he still stands way too close to my chair. And then he mumbles to me, “Too many people in here just blabbering and talking bullshit. I’m going to go see if I can find something to set on fire. You ladies have a nice day.”

Did he really just say that? I wonder. He reminds me of some Old Testament prophet – speaking truth and destruction and doing odd things and being written off for a loon. Is he a loon? This time he actually walks away.

Later in the afternoon as I’m raking the leaves in my backyard, the leaves I never took care of back in the Fall, I’m sweating and thinking back on my conversation with Jimmy.

“We don’t understand it…I don’t want to spend anymore time with it.”

I don’t want to spend anymore time with it either Jimmy. I know there’s something there, anger that both of us would be wise to pay attention to, but right now I don’t feel like I have the energy to unpack it. I know if I don’t, it won’t go away. It’ll be like these leaves, still here four months later. These leaves that are not going to be cleaned up in a single day. It’s going to take time.

Maybe the point of today, and this post, is to simply let myself say of Lent, “I don’t understand it” even if sitting with the unknowing makes me feel a little looney, like I want to set fire to something like this pile of leaves and then rub the ashes on my forehead.

56 comments

  1. Ellen Williams

    There are so many things I don’t understand but I rest in knowing that if I “need” to understand He will teach me. He wants me to continually seek Him and when I understand something, or least think I do, I quit searching for the answer. Thanks for sharing this!

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  2. Brilliant. I have never observed Lent. It just wasn’t what we did. Since getting older I pondered participating and realized that if I didn’t make lasting change (lasting more than 40 days) that any good that may come from it may also leave when I jump back into “everyday life” again.

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  3. Emelie

    Oh, thank you thank you thank you. This made me laugh out loud and it made my eyes tear up. Sums up so much of what I’m going through, both lent and other stuff. Feels like I just got the permission to leave all that behind. Wonderful.

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    • oh yes, the permission is there.

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  4. the first half of your post made me think of these alanis morissette lyrics.
    You see everything
    You see every part
    You see all my light
    And you love my dark
    You dig everything
    Of which I’m ashamed
    There’s not anything
    To which you can’t relate.
    And you’re still here
    .

    this is an amazing post, mandy. impeccable writing, and that last sentence is a top all-time-fave of last sentences. thank you for continuing to be vulnerable, even to the point of daring and adventure and hopeful pyromaniacs. <3

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    • Mandy

      “hopeful pyromaniacs” – wonderful phrase.

      Thanks for the Alanis lyrics. Have to write those down. And thanks for your kind words.

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  5. OH I love this post, Mandy. And I’m with Rain — your last sentence knocked the wind out of me it was so good.

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  6. Michelangela

    I can relate very much to the feelings you express. I left Christianity altogether for almost two decades over the “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” approach I’d been raised with (post-fundamentalist takeover Southern Baptists). During that time, I explored a lot of spiritual traditions that had a far more positive view of the human condition, particularly those related to the Lakota side of my biological heritage. Once I understood fasting in that perspective, Lent took on a completely new meaning for me – one that has nothing to do with shame or beating yourself up for not being perfect. But it took that journey to get past the deeply conditioned views of what Christianity is and was and should be out of my head so that I could experience it for myself.

    You show a very important point in this piece – one simply can’t “get” Lent by going through the motions of doing something because that’s what they schedule says you have to do, or because the ego-related voices want to use this pretty medieval tool to scare you into running for the safety of some external reinforcement that tells you you’re okay. It truly is a Mystery, in the old sense of Mysteries as usually uncomfortable, potentially dangerous and occasionally mad initiatory experiences which can open up a new level of understanding. In my opinion, accepting that it’s not completely understood is the moment when you open the door. Thanks for a beautifully written piece, and the best of luck in setting something on fire. :)

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    • Mandy

      I love this comment.

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  7. ♥ I adore reading your syllables, {magical} Mandy! :)

    And I treasure the memory of that childlike grin on Jimmy’s face … And I love that this is the post you mentioned about writing {the day I collaged a mental image of his pure-joy grin}. Because inside my head, I was doing the proverbial rolling of the eyes when I remembered my own internal dialogue on Ash Wednesday. And because I needed {really needed} this authentic {serious but whimsical} post this morning. {ox}

    ~signed, a hopeful-pyromaniac {love that terminology, Rain!}

    Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. ~Hebrews 13:2

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    • Mandy

      angels. quite possible. thanks for reading my syllables.

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  8. mandy, this is wonderful. thoughtful and honest and real.

    i kind of love lent. advent, too. but i’m all for setting shoulds ablaze and torching obligation-based practices that bear guilt instead of fruit leading to repentance.

    your sensitivity to the Spirit is obvious. be blessed in the seeking.

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    • Mandy

      i’m glad to hear you love lent and advent. and thanks for the “blessings in the seeking.”

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      • ugh, that sounded a lot churchier than i meant! just you know, practice that bears fruit instead of practice for practice-sake.

        but then there’s that lauren winner mudhouse sabbath thing of practice that becomes authentic through the doing. basically, there’s no One Right Way To Live Out Faithfulness is all i’m saying. grace, grace. lovely post, mandy, as always.

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        • i heard your words with much grace intermingled. thank you.

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  9. I don’ understand it either and honestly I have been too afraid to ask anyone about it. I am a believer in The Gospel. It is my life’s foundation. Does The Gospel & Lent go together because I like you have my own divine times of “giving up.” Holy Spirit, Divine Seasons of putting something, someone and even my own self “down.” Times of rest & reflection if you will. Lent sounds too much closely associated with a forced fast by my old Pastor. I always did it never understanding why. Always walking away with a new juice or Daniel Fast recipe, but never with more of Jesus. If anything it placed my focus away from Him and onto self. This may not be true for everyone but has been for me.

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    • Mandy

      “Forced” fasts are quite difficult for me to to understand as well.

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  10. Of course, everyone beat me to it, but the last sentence is one of the most beautifully tied bows I’ve ever read. This story which you experienced and a few I have expereinced myself is why/how I continue on…up to my knees in my own backyard leaves. God, somehow finds me, too, and says crazy things to me that somehow make the only real sense that there is.

    Thank you for sharing this story with me, it’s breath blown on my little rubish fire as well.

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    • Mandy

      Love the image of you wading in deep in the backyard leaves. And so glad I as able to blow some breath on your fire. :)

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  11. “I currently want no part in the death, the death, the death because it sucks the life, the life, the life out of me.”

    You and me both, hun. I wrote a post along the same lines a couple of weeks ago but cringed as I put it out there for the world to see because sometimes, I feel like the only believer who has fallen out of faith with the great church traditions. Your honest take on Lent is a big whopping breath of fresh air to me.

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    • Mandy

      It’s interesting because I had a powerful experience with an ash wednesday service in college when I went to mass with a few of my Catholic friends. It was really meaningful to me. I think I keep trying to re-live what I felt back then in that one singular moment. But I can’t conjure it up these days.

      Your post is lovely. An extension to what I’m feeling in many ways. Thank you for sharing it here.

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  12. Michael

    Very raw honesty and anger that the old traditions are no longer teaching, revealing, understanding and meaningful. This year beginning on Ash Wednesday we have been giving rocks upon entering church. The idea has been that we are carrying around rocks that weigh us down. The rock represents giving something up. I first gave up -how other people see me. I was very focused on the negative things I felt people sometimes see in me. I also felt that if I wanted to give up what I hear through the grapevine, that I too had to let go of gossiping about others. This made the challenge much deeper than I had realized.The irony too was that I started remarkably many good things about myself. I then realized that this was something I had to let go of too! I couldn’t let my ego get in the way. The second thing I let go of was a painful memory and offered forgiveness for the person who had created those scars. That brought lots of tears and before I was back to my seat I wanted to take my rock back. I some how recognized that the pain has been a crutch. I am giving it up. I really have enjoyed this new process we have implemented. On Easter morning when the rock has been removed from the tomb I believe or hope that this symbolism becomes real and that all of those rocks that have been in our path and that we have carried through life go the way of the Christ and open us to a new life without the constance of stumbling upon them, a new life. I enjoy this new concept and approach as it has much more meaning for me, unlike the traditional sacrifices that tend to be meaningless. I agree the last line about setting a fire is remarkable too. When John the baptism refers to Christ he stated that “I baptize with water, the one who comes after me will baptize with fire.” I feel that the more I give up the more my spirit has energy and a burning desire to follow (not necessarily worship) Christ. This means his spirit is lighting a fire within me. As a result I act differently much like you by befriending an untouchable in the homeless man. That is truly an act of following Christ’s example and you rekindled his spirit and your own by that choice.

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    • Mandy

      Thanks for saying I rekindled his spirit and mine. I certainly felt it. I hope the same for him. The imagery of being weighed down by stones is beautiful, I’m just too tired to even carry the stones anymore, I guess. Thanks for the reminder of this “I baptize with water, the one who comes after me will baptize with fire.” I like seeing that verse in the context of this post.

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  13. oh mandy. thank you. for being so very real.

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    • Mandy

      <3

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  14. Rex Banner

    Lent is such a foreign concept to me. Is it in the Bible or man made? I started out this January with the intention of reading the whole Bible through from cover to cover and switched to something more positive as more and more questions arose as I read Genesis and Romans. My life is now informed by A Course in Miracles, I forgive myself moment to moment and life is good ~no guilt, no shame, no remorse just love, compassion for myself and others and no living up to anyone else’s expectations. I am a kinder, gentler person and in my old age that is exactly what I want peace not angst.
    A stepdaughter who decided that she was going to be proactive and write letters as a Lent observance instead of giving something up has yet to communicate to her grandmother or father by writing thank you notes for gifts received for wedding and birthday. So I say the proof is in the pudding. If we simply had an attitude of gratitude to life for life and did that moment to moment it just might work where we forgive ourselves and others ongoingly.
    Thank you for provoking me to think.

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    • Mandy

      Love the mentions of forgiving self in your comment. This is something I feel very passionate about.

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    • Mandy

      I wondered why a Course in Miracles sounded familiar. I looked it up, and realized in college I read the book Return to Love: reflections on the principles of a Course in miracles. I had completely forgotten about it. I’d probably get something totally different out of that book if I read it again today. Thanks for the reminder.

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      • Rex Banner

        Hi Mandy,
        I have been re-reading some of my books from a couple of decades ago ~ The Only Diet There Is by Sondra Ray, A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson and Barbara Brennan’s Hands of Light that my massage teacher recommended just to mention a few. These are entirely different books to me now that I have had 20 years of life experience behind me. I thought I knew the Bible (ego arrogance!) but when I started to read it again I realized I didn’t. Still will read it some time but just not in that frame of mind right now. I really like your thoughtful insightful reading.

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  15. The more I see/read, the more I love!

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    • Mandy

      I love seeing you here.

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  16. Melanie

    To me, the fact that Lent was able to “sneak up on you” says more about your church (specifically, its traditions) than it does about you. Not everyone puts a lot of emphasis on observing Lent and there’s nothing wrong with that: until I became an Anglican, it certainly would have snuck up on me, too! Since I *am* Anglican, I would have to have been asleep during church over the last few weeks to miss the fact that Lent was coming: it’s a beautiful part of the rhythm of our seasons and one that I love even as I am forced to examine the parts about myself that I may *not* love.

    I think that insofar as observing a holy Lent helps you to draw closer to Christ, it is a beautiful thing. It’s a hard thing, to be sure, and so I think we have to guard against throwing the baby out with the bathwater: I’ve never felt the love of God wash over me in a more powerful, intimate way as I have on those Easter Sundays when I’ve personally identified (on a much, much smaller scale, of course) with his suffering. This, I think, is the point. Not to guilt us into “giving up” something for the sake of ticking off a legalistic box, but rather to provide a context in which we can choose to do something hard out of love for someone who did something incomprehensibly, exponentially harder for *us.*

    So although I *always* fail in my meager attempts to identify with my Savior each Lent, I welcome it because I believe it ultimately brings me that much closer to becoming more like him: “Pure gold put in the fire comes out of it proved pure; genuine faith put through this suffering comes out proved genuine. When Jesus wraps this all up, it’s your faith, not your gold, that God will have on display as evidence of his victory.” (1 Peter 1:7, The Message)

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    • Mandy

      Good point about the church, and therefore the “sneaking up” of Lent.

      I’m glad you have found something powerful in your own faith by participating in Lent.

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    • Rexy Banner

      Out of my husband’s reading of The Master and Margarita in his 20′s in France and consequently our watching the mini series three or four times I really got the love of Jesus in a whole new way. We can read or recite the Nicene creed without even thinking about it however after watching The Master and Margarita I really got who Jesus was in my bones and what the sacrifice was that he made. My husband told me how greatly those who are crucified suffer. All we generally hear about it how the blood and water separates.
      Your faith is enviable and obviously one that is deeply felt.

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      • Melanie

        I’ve been thinking about this topic all weekend after reading Mandy’s very thought-provoking post. My faith *is* deeply felt (as is hers, obviously), but so is my failure to consistently live in the way I know I should. I hope my post didn’t come across as self-righteous because if Lent teaches me anything, it’s that I am nothing without Christ. In remembering that Lent is about him, not me, I can embrace its heart and heat.

        I’ve never heard of The Master and Margarita but it sounds very intriguing. Thanks for the recommendation. :)

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  17. Lent has been a great struggle for me as well. I love Easter, it’s my favorite holiday…but lent? Fasting because everyone else is just doesn’t seem right to me. I haven’t really come to a conclusion on it yet. However, your post has helped me along my journey to find one, and for this I thank you.

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  18. I love your words on the sacred, holy, old-prophet, fire that makes us but ash. And I am reminded of this:

    “At some point we must surrender our fears and hopes, dying to the way it was supposed to be and opening anew to the mystery.” :: After the Ecstasy, the Laundry :: J. Kornfield

    <3

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    • Mandy

      I am ever “opening anew to the mystery.” Sometimes it feels as if it’s the only thing I have going for me right now in regards to my faith.

      Thanks for being here and commenting.

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      • Oh Mandy, I feel so similar. Sometimes I wonder how my one body:soul can be in such turmoil and yet know that it is, that this is me living.
        <3

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  19. Morgan

    I know I was supposed to focus on the Lent part. I mean, the whole narrative is about Lent, but I became focused on the feeling less than enough part. I don’t know if you’ve read Henri Nouwen’s book, Life of the Beloved, but that’s what I thought of when I read the part about your life naturally have its own seasons of lent. It sounds like you need to be reminded that you are God’s beloved. You are, you know.

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    • Mandy

      I think I need to read something by Henri Nouwen. He’s been on my radar lately.

      Thank you. God’s love is a consistent checkpoint and hope net for me.

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  20. a big smile bust through the seams when i read that Jimmy gave up lent for lent. I love it! you know how Spirit-orchestrated your post was, right? just how open you are to the circumstances you find yourself in at each moment, in tune with what’s happening right now, letting what needs to come through come through… it makes those tightly wound up places within me just loosen as i read and i so appreciate it, Mandy.

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    • thankful for your comment.

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  21. Tracy in NJ

    I think it is important to remember that Lent is a Christian tradition that developed over time. Obviously, Lent is not specifically mentioned in the Bible nor, as far as I can see, is there anything that even alludes to it. However, traditions and even rituals of the church, insofar as they point us to Christ and draw us closer to God, are a wonderful thing. When they distract us from the same they are a disservice. Which is the case will vary from person to person, and even within an individual based on their own season. Although I was not raised in a faith tradition which observed Lent, in more recent years I have discovered that some type of Lenten observation has made Easter much more meaningful for me. I do not necessarily observe in the traditional manner of giving up something physical, although some years I have done that. Being more intentional about prayer time, time studying scripture, serving others, “fasting” from unkind speech or complaining and negativity or doing just about anything that takes us out of a place of complacency can all be meaningful Lenten observations.

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  22. I’m really enjoying Lent this year. If you are ever interested in a different, non-religious but challenging perspective on it, read A Place at the Table by Chris Seay. Our family is trying one of his Lent ideas and finding it very freeing and meaningful. Best to you on the journey!

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    • Thanks Felicity for the suggestion. I’m glad your family has found a way to make this time both freeing and meaningful!

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  23. I. Love. Lent.

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    • you don’t get off that easy. at some point I want to know why.

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      • Because it’s about wanting rather than having. It’s about the darker side of faith. The human side of faith. The broken side of faith.

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        • it is quite possible i might like your lent. <3

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  24. Mike G.

    Wonderful writing. There’s so much **** on the internet and then to come across this piece, it really hits home. I can relate to your “place” that you’re at a lot. Thanks!

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  25. This is an exquisitely written pondering on life and self, Mandy. Thank you so much. I discovered Lent as a 40-something and have found it to be both rich and frustrating, soulful and enervating. I do enjoy the rhythm of the church calendar and I do NOT appreciate any pressure to add to the should list. For me, Lent has been both communal – delving into the history of it, the practice of it across traditions, the gathering as the people of God to remember who we are and who God is; and it is also highly individual – discovering more layers of avoidance/attachment/addiction in my own personality and opening those areas to the work of the Spirit. Those voices in your head – the ones that tell you lies about yourself? I cannot think of a better thing to ‘fast’ from, not just during Lent, but every dang day. I believe those negative voices, those ugly, snarling, name-calling sounds, to be the epitome of what the psalmists call ‘enemies,’ and praying the psalms (or brief portions of them!) can truly help speak against them. That’s the only way the truth of God’s love works its winsome way into the sinews of body/soul/spirit – to name them as lies, enemies of your very truest self. Your vulnerability here is breath-taking and very much appreciated. And, of course, the last line is perfection. Thanks for all of it.

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    • fasting from the voices in my head. i like the sound of that!
      and hey! vulnerable is my word for this year. glad the vulnerability came out it my writing. thanks for your ever-engaging comments.

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  26. Rena

    To me Lent used to be about suffering and sacrificing until I came to know Jesus Christ as the One who suffered and sacrificed for me! In the words of Gloria Gaither, “The Christ of History became the Living Savior in my daily life”. No longer the need to suffer to appease God for my sinfulness; He already knows I can’t be “good enough” so He sent His Son to die in my place. Feeling the need to suffer and sacrifice has been replaced with “Celebrating the God who sent His Only Son Jesus to die for me”. The Price has been paid in full and I am Free! Praise His Holy Name!

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  27. Megan W.

    I have to say I approached the Lenten season very differently than I have in the past. For the last 6 months my husband has been in and out of the hospital from intense chemotherapy and the day-to-day grind and “restrictions list” we have had to cope with seems like a grueling mile long survival guide.

    When Ash Wednesday finally came about it was the day after his latest hospital stay and I was exhausted. As I contemplated Lent, all I wanted was a little comfort rather than accepting something else I would have to give up. You see, we have been living the “death, death, death” part a lot lately.

    Over the course of this last year, we have lost a lot – a sort of dying – to the comforts and reassurances and general “things are going OK” feeling that life can sometimes have. I personally have had to face the reality that at the end of all of this it could literally mean losing everything I hold dear, everything I would consider “my life”. So, I have been sort of forced to face the slow, reluctant, painful peeling off of each layer of life I thought I wanted and needed so very much and confront that raw and vulnerable place between just me and God.

    I’m not going to lie it has been the most painful kind of giving up I have ever experienced, a kind of piercing to the soul, intentionally facing the person I really am and realizing I really can’t do this by myself. As I think over all the years I have tried to give something up during Lent, either as a success or a failure, at the center of it has always been the same thing – my willingness to admit “I can’t do this alone” and trusting God to intervene and walk with me as I struggled to deny myself in order to better follow Him.

    As I approached Lent this season, I accepted the practice of the “life of self-denial” that I had slowly been faced with over the last few months. I finally was ready to give it all up and hand it over to God: All the pain, the loss, the fears, the worries, hopes and dreams that I thought were important, even my own family and life. I turned it all into a willingness to follow God through any of the struggles life offered and accepted a commitment to follow God and love God even through the times when all I feel is pain, hurt, and loss: fully trusting God will intervene as I struggle each day to better follow Him.

    As I have come to live this way, I have discovered the more and more I give up and accept God in place of my comforts the more and more I have found an abundance of joy and peace and complete trust that God is working in huge ways in my life. One of the biggest ways I have found comfort and peace has been by allowing myself to continue this walk with others who are also struggling and self-denying themselves for the sake of Christ. Others who also had the ashes marked on their foreheads, who have also lost parts of their lives, and who also share the struggle of living in a world that we know is not our home. Lent is one of the most beautiful seasons to me because of this, it is the acceptance of our shared humanity and death and struggles in life, our faithful trust in God and our great hope that Christ has given us the ability to have everlasting, glorified, and abundant “life, life, life.”

    Ultimately, Lent has become less of a gimmick to me lately and much more of a recognized and intentional way to live fully as a part of the Body of Christ. Lent gives us all the opportunity to orient ourselves towards God by personally and communally accepting those words spoken by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane “yet not my will, but thine, be done” and continue on as we weakly help carry that glorious cross in which bought our redemption.

    Reply

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