Lent doesn’t always mean forbidding ourselves pleasure; it can be an opportunity to seek the pleasure of God’s love and presence.
Posted in , Jan 2, 2015
Every Lent my teenage daughters give something up—or at least consider it.
It’s the usual things. Chocolate. Pop. A favorite TV show. Once Lulu gave up meat. Last year, Charlotte renounced caffeine, a sacrifice she found especially challenging since it meant going without her beloved Earl Grey tea with milk and sugar.
Still, she told me, it was easier than the other act of self-denial she’d been contemplating: “no technology”—that is, 40 days without Facebook or texting.
“But why are you doing it? What does it mean?” I routinely ask, hoping for some impressive spiritual motive.
Penitence, perhaps, or the desire to share in Jesus’ suffering. Judging from their answers (the universal teenage non-answer, “Just ’cuz”) and their spotty success, I’m guessing the closest they come to any spiritual goal is guilt.
“I know it’s supposed to make me think about God,” Charlotte told me last year as we neared Easter, “but, to be honest, it doesn’t always.”
Thinking about God is what Lent’s about. Having discovered my faith after spending two decades abstaining from everything God-related—decades of lonely, hungry atheism that might be called “my long Lent”—I like to devote the Lenten period to seeking out and indulging in God’s presence.
Lent doesn’t always mean forbidding ourselves some pleasure. It can be an opportunity to seek the pleasure of God’s presence.
1. Get outdoors
One of the simplest and most immediate ways for me to get a sense of God’s presence is to go outside and look for it.
Although I live out in the country, I’m indoors much of the time, often spending whole days—in my office at the university where I teach, in my house, in stores—barely aware of the weather or what’s growing or what birds are singing.
To remind myself of God’s omnipresence, I plan outdoor time: a trip across campus for my mail instead of having it delivered, a long run on the country roads near my house, a magically relaxing moment of bird watching.
My garden has always been for me what Celtic believers call a “thin place”: a place where the membrane between our world and God seems particularly thin
When I’m out turning the cold wet dirt with my spade or sowing early seeds—spinach, radishes, peas—or harvesting the slender onions that volunteer themselves to the sunlight after the long winter, I connect with the presence of the One who created it all.
2. Spend time with others
Another place where I’m sure to find God is in others, specifically those who are—or should be—the recipients of my generosity and compassion.
The needy themselves, according to Jesus, are God. In answer to his disciples’ questions about what to expect at the end of time, Jesus envisions himself enthroned in heaven, dividing the nations into two groups: those who showed him hospitality when he was hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and alone, and those who did not.
Neither group remembers encountering Jesus in such circumstances, and he explains, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."
I don’t have to go very far to find God in the needy. They’re all around me: retired colleagues, a neighbor kid whose mom needs a break, the mom herself. During Lent, I consciously set out to enjoy moments with them.
3. Pray for the little things
During Lent I pray more often—out in the garden, on my runs, over lunch with friends. I also pray smaller, about the most minor details of my life: to-do lists, writing deadlines, lost keys.
Others may consider such prayers inappropriate or irreverent. Many lim-it their prayers to desires they think God wants for them, not what they want for themselves.
Certainly, we should put God’s will before ours. But aren’t we also meant to be childlike in our faith? My daughters prayed about the most minute details of their lives—a lost toy, a sibling fight, a hard test, a bad breakup. Often, even when they prayed in anger or malice, I sensed a peace in them afterward, as though God had heard and answered their prayers. It’s never wrong to pray about anything.
4. See the answers
Early in my adult faith I longed to read the Bible daily. As a full-time teacher and the mother of two toddlers, though, I had to spend what little unoccupied time I had grading papers. So I prayed for more time.
I didn’t really expect anything to change. And nothing did, exactly. I stayed just as busy at work, grading papers, just as busy at home, as I always had. Nevertheless, somehow I was able to get it all done. Every morning, that whole year, I read the Bible. I was granted the miracle of time.
Lent is a time to consciously acknowledge and appreciate life’s daily miracles. The miracles of dirt and winter onions and answered prayers.
5. Turn worry into prayer
If I ever felt challenged to give a cherished or unhealthy habit up for Lent, it would have to be worrying. Worries about my daughters or money or some conflict wake me most nights. I even worry about worrying. And I’m forever vowing, in vain, to stop.
In the spirit of Lenten renewal, though, I weave my worrying into prayers. I call it “pray-worrying,” the closest I’ve ever come to that mysterious faith achievement of “just giving it to Jesus.”
“Here’s this problem,” I rant, as though God were a student who had skipped several classes. Then I worry forth my certitude of how bad things are and how much worse they’re likely to get.
I may sound pushy, disrespectful even, in my prayer-worries, and I am. I am as self-absorbed and demanding as my teenage daughters can be. But here’s the thing. During Lent and always, God is present. Nearby. Listening. Longing to respond.
If the one thing I give up during the Lenten season is worry, it’s only because I take on prayer. Prayer always draws us closer to God, and that is what Lent is all about—finding greater opportunities to bring the Divine into our daily lives. Hopefully that is what I can teach my daughters.
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