Lent: A Journey Beyond Sacrifical Gimmicks

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A number of years ago, I casually asked a friend what she was giving up for Lent. I expected one of the usuals: coffee, chocolate, alcohol, meat. Given the group of theologically-inclined people I generally spend my time with, I had even been prepared for something vaguely religious. I run with Christian friends who "give up Christianity" or "Jesus" for Lent to think more critically about faith, just to see what happens. I rub shoulders with atheist friends who experiment with the religious liturgies and practices of Lent to see what they might learn about human beings or interfaith dialogue. But I wasn't prepared for her answer:

"Fear," she said. "The bad kind."

I was caught off-guard, but taken, seduced into the simple idea that Lent could be, at the start, something richer than sacrificial gimmicks, more complex than surface-level religious practices, or -- my recurring fear -- a fetish of humility, violence, and loss.

Don't get me wrong. I know a lot of people who are surprised and grateful for the strange sacrifices they take up during Lent. But there are moments when some Lenten practices feel like vaguely pious, individualistic, New Year's resolutions. They begin to fall by the wayside quickly, and don't really open up our imaginations to thinking life differently.

My friend's words sunk in, and, for the last couple of years, I've taken on her model to my own heart. Over the course of a year, particularly focused in Lent, I choose a theme (wonder, anger, and justice are previous ones), and begin to ask who I am becoming in relation to my chosen fixation. I ask my loved ones what they think when they hear those words. What causes me to wonder? What does healthy anger feel like? What does 'good' and 'bad' fear look like? How do I imagine justice today? What impairs my relationships? And what stories of such things might I listen to, create, or speak into existence? What do my stories look like tomorrow? What relationships and spaces of justice might emerge from such questions? Lent has become a space to imagine the ambiguities, fragilities, and rich bonds of relationship -- with others, with the planet, with my mysterious self, with my own theological traditions.

I have significant qualms with some unexamined tenets of traditional Christianity -- especially with regards to patriarchy, racism, heterosexism, disregard for the earth, declarations of heresy, and the scapegoating of atheists. But I'm in love with the everyday living of the forty days of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday. I'm in love with the idea that people gather around to remind each other that they're all part of the same coarse earth from moment to moment, that we're fragile together but gather in communities of fleshy resilience. I'm in love with this earth, flailing, endangered, warming; earth that demands to be cherished, revered, protected, and respected. I'm in love with stories told and questions asked together that cherish difference and ambiguity and embrace the complexities of life.

Lent, for me, is not about (and has never been about) sacrifice or penance or appeasing some unexamined heritage. It's about interrogative love, passionate justice, and learning how to wonder again in the midst of all the awful, awful sadness. It's about asking how beauty might occur in the midst of our fragile, decaying lives. It's about creating new songs, stories, images scribbled in dust and ash that reexamine what human beings can be for the life of each other and the life of the planet. The short-shrift harmonies we sometimes manage to sing never are pure or clear, and the words and questions often grate against our ears with their grittiness. But Lent is about the questioning, the ambiguity of grit and glory.

This time of year, I often return to my family's farm in North Dakota, park my car on top of the highest hill in the area at dusk, and watch the stars slowly wake over the snow-encrusted wheat fields. On the prairie (those of you who know it), our lives look so tiny, wandering between the dust of the field and the bluefire stardust of the sky. We come from dust, and to dust we shall return, as the old Christian liturgy declares. All our questions get asked between those horizon lines of dust and dust and water and ice, spinning around on Carl Sagan's "pale blue dot." In the spinning of those questions, Lent, for me, reels a kind of call to passionately love dusty old questions and ask new ones.

Put another way, we come from stardust, and to stardust we shall return. The bursting supernovas of our hearts over time, the decays of suns, the mineralic bones and skin and dust that slough off our bodies daily return to the earth, all return to the fields and waterways. They beckon Christians and others who participate in Lenten times to reorient imaginations to the everyday ambiguities of life together. And the questions multiply...

[Author's note: This post first appeared during HuffPost's Lenten Liveblog in 2013.]