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Portions of this blog were previously published here: https://www.txcumc.org/lent-is-not-a-punishment
"Lent" is a word many are talking about right now. Lent is the intentional period of growing closer to Christ in the 40 days leading up to Easter. It was a season on the church calendar that I, honestly, had no interest and no clue what Lent is.
You see, even though my mother came out of a faith tradition that heavily celebrated Lent (she was raised in a Catholic family) I grew up thinking celebrating Lent was a punishment! I remember we would often go out to eat on Wednesday nights and my brothers and I would laugh and stare at the people who had dirt in the form of a cross on their foreheads. Every Friday in the school cafeteria, we had fish sticks or fish sandwiches for lunch. The smell alone made me bring my lunch to school! I’d also hear my classmates say, “I can’t eat chocolate—I gave it up for Lent” and think, “Why would anyone want to give up chocolate?!?”
The school I attended as a child automatically gave us Good Friday off, but we never would go to a Good Friday service because it seemed weird to my brothers and me to go to church on a Friday of all days. We would show up in our best outfits for Easter Sunday and be happy that we would get the Monday after Easter off from school, too!
It wasn’t until I was in high school and we had a pastor that really pushed Lent that I remember attempting to understand and follow a Lenten practice. I remember we went to an Ash Wednesday service for the first time and that the ashes felt strange on my forehead. That same year, I decided to give something up for Lent—makeup—and it stuck with me after that! We attended our first Good Friday service, where the readings of Jesus’ journey to the cross were read and I remember feeling sad and leaving holding back tears.
That first Easter after I truly lived into Lent, I didn’t just feel happy in my fancy Easter clothes or that we wouldn’t have school the next day. I felt joyful that Christ had risen again. I was relieved that the feelings of Good Friday, those same feelings we often feel after we experience losing someone we love, were not going to last forever. I finally understood that Lent was not about looking funny on Ash Wednesday, giving up something you love to honor God, or just enjoying the extra days off of school for Good Friday and after Easter Sunday.
Ash Wednesday is to remind us that we are human and will one day die—this is not to scare us, but rather encourage us to live the best life we can here and now, and do all the work God has called us to do because tomorrow is never promised. Giving up something for Lent isn’t just to kick-start a diet or punish you by getting you to give up something you love for 40 days.
Choosing to give something up, or choosing to add something to your daily routine, is meant to help you reconnect with and make more time for God. Good Friday is not just about enjoying the day off with family and friends, but is about remembering that Jesus, the innocent Messiah, faced a brutal death. If he didn’t die, there would be no chance of a resurrection and, therefore, no chance of hope of a life everlasting.
For some of you, it might be difficult to want to truly live into the Lenten season this year. Perhaps you feel too busy or overwhelmed. Maybe you remember that last year you just went through the motions and got nothing out of the experience. No matter what your fears, apprehensions, or excuses are for not wanting to truly live into the Lenten season, I encourage you to keep an open mind and try it again anyway. We make time for the things we find important in our lives. Lent is not meant to be a punishment like I thought it was when I was a kid! Lent is supposed to be a time for us to grow closer in our relationship with Christ.
It is meant to be a time where, perhaps, we start out feeling distant from God, but end our journey on Easter Sunday with a joyful heart that is closer to God. I hope you take the leap this year and give Lent a true try, devoting your time and energy to drawing closer to your Creator, allowing yourself to cry on Good Friday, and opening your heart to feeling the hope that can be found on Easter Sunday.
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On Saturday afternoon, I was invited to attend a Little Dribblers basketball game of one of our 5th graders. As I headed over to the small, old gym with hard, wooden seats, I'm not sure what I was expecting to see when I watched the game. I think I planned on them barely being able to dribble, struggling to shoot, and just being a fun game to watch. That was hardly what I saw! These girls, just like our JV and Varsity basketball girls, were intense! Full court press, never let the other team figure out what to do with the ball, and lots of layups! I was very impressed with how great they were!
During the game, there were a couple times I watched the girls on both team second-guess their decisions. They had appeared so confident running down the court with the ball, but when they got to a certain spot on the court, something in their face changed. You could see their eyes intently thinking, their mouth turn into a frown, and they wondered if they could make a layup after all. So they stopped and planted their feet, waiting for others to get down the court to help them. There were other times where they weren't sure if they could shoot from that far away or if they could really steal a ball from the other team.
For as many times as I saw their self-doubt, I saw something equally important--they were much stronger than they knew. There were girls who overthrew the basket several times. I saw a ref have to shake out his arm after a girl threw him the ball. I watched in awe as some girls threw the ball to the basket and it somehow made it in the goal even though it clearly wanted to go through the backboard. These girls, for as strong as they are, did not know their strength.
I started to wonder when the switch happens for us, the moment where we start to question ourselves and our abilities. As young children, we don't often have that fear of being wrong. We just go through life confidently, doing our best. By the time you get to the end of elementary school, though, you are well aware of the concept of being wrong, of being embarrassed about yourself and the way you look or the way you talk or walk, and you're constantly second-guessing yourself. Perhaps adults can mask those feelings better than children, but if we are honest with ourselves, we feel those things, too.
Perhaps, in spite of all the self-doubt, fear of embarrassment, and wondering if people will like us, we are truly stronger than we know. There is something unique, special, and purposeful in all of us--after all, God created each and every one of us perfectly. What if we celebrated who we were and stood firm in our identity as Christians? Perhaps we would no longer be stronger than we knew...we would be strong and know we are strong. And we'd encourage and inspire others to be strong, too. Let's celebrate who we are (instead of focusing on what we are not), strongly, boldly, and courageously doing what God has called each of us to do.