In the Protestant tradition, today is the last day of Lent. (The precise span is different in other traditions.) Unlike most of the rest of the Christian world, Mormons don’t formally observe Lent. Our awareness of it tends to be shallow and cultural, not deep and devotional.
As in: People give things up for Lent, right? Like chocolate and reality television? Just to prove they can? Things they love and to which they intend to return? — because if they were things they should give up anyway, they wouldn’t wait for Lent, and their abstinence wouldn’t end with Lent, would it?
As in: Lent appears from the outside to be a needed respite after the day- or weeks-long bacchanal of Mardi Gras, an orgy of fleshly pleasures so intense that it takes participants six and a half weeks to detoxify (physically and/or spiritually) sufficiently that they can walk into church on Easter in a straight line and with a straight face.
This shallow, ignorant view of Lent makes it difficult to take seriously.
You’ve already guessed that I’ve begun to think more seriously of Lent. A favorite Christian blogger, Kim Hall (at GivenBreath.com) has been helping me, even if she doesn’t know it. In a lesser way, my Mormon bishop (pastor) helped this year, too. So did some people whose names, roles, and troubles I will not mention beyond this sentence, who have turned to me in recent weeks for counsel, comfort, or simply a listening ear.
Newly aware of the deeper spirit of Lent, I find that it makes much more sense, even if Hall, my primary explainer, writes, “Lent brings God’s people out of their trouble in a way that makes absolutely no sense.”
No, Not That HP
I lead a group of men at church — several dozen of them — and we share responsibility to minister in some ways to about two-thirds of the members and families in our congregation. (My title is high priests group leader.)
We leaders — my assistants and I — like to encourage the men in our group to stretch themselves. In recent years, we have conjured up an annual challenge, such as reading the Book of Mormon or the Gospels during the year, even if we’re studying other scripture in a given year’s Sunday School curriculum. Along the way, we provide some encouragement and occasional opportunities for participants to discuss their insights and experiences. By and large, the men in the group take these challenges seriously.
This year, some leaders a step or two higher in our church hierarchy suggested an enhanced scriptural reading load for the year, so we looked for a different approach to our voluntary soul-stretching. Instead of an annual challenge, we settled on two smaller challenges. We haven’t announced the second one yet; we’re saving it for summer, and it doesn’t focus on reading. The first challenge ends this week.
My bishop suggested challenging the group to read ten specific chapters of a book well known among Mormons, James E. Talmage’s Jesus the Christ. The chapters comprise about 220 pages, are by no means light reading, and recount the final month’s of Jesus’ mortal ministry, focusing on events we Christians remember at this season. He suggested that we invite them to begin this reading on Ash Wednesday — the first day of Lent — and complete it by Easter.
And they’re doing it. Even I’m doing it, though I’m a couple of chapters behind. This is as close as I’ve ever come to doing something for Lent.
. . . Which might seem backward. We give up something for Lent, right? That’s the shallow cultural understanding, at least.
In a deeper understanding, turning our time and thoughts from ourselves toward God is precisely the spirit of Lent.
Kim Hall writes:
Lent is a communal call to God’s people to bring all the created things (even the good things) that we imagine will bring us more and better life, and renounce them. Our worship of God’s gifts, instead of God himself; this is our trouble.
Lent illuminates God’s people. It shows how things really are under all the layers of how we wish . . . things would be. What good things do you keep bringing to God in hopes that he will accept you? What sin do you keep justifying in hopes that you can accept you?
What are you clinging to? Control, maybe? Your rights? Your independence? Your way? Now is the time to take a good look at what you are unwilling to change. What is it that you think you deserve, at the very least, at this stage in your life? Respect? Answers? Clarity? Purpose? Security? Lent insists that it is precisely this thing – this thing that you crave more than anything else – that you must bring to the table this season.
Some of us are gripping an identity too tightly. Is your first identity that you are marked as Christ’s own? Some of us are grasping our children too tightly. Do you believe that the LORD holds them in his hands, and that He is committed to them in every good way? Some of us a[re] holding a grudge so very tightly, and feel justified in our self-righteousness. Do you believe that with God’s help, you can forgive?
Bring it to the table, today. Give it up. Give up your blame and bitterness and craving for control. Give up your defensiveness. Give up your expectations that others consider you first and foremost in all their decisions. Give up your comparisons and envy. Give up your agenda. Give up loving your people with strings attached. And look at the cross.
Look at the cross until your pride melts. (Original italics.)
There’s more where that came from.
In That Spirit
The spirit of Lent, then, is the spirit of a humble king’s prayer to God in the Book of Mormon: “I will give away all my sins to know thee” (Alma 22:18).
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)
In this spirit and with this promise we approach — or at least we should approach — not only our weekly Sabbath worship, but also our daily private prayers.
So now the thing I wonder about Lent is this: why isn’t it every day of the year, instead of just 40 days (not counting Sundays in the middle)?