Lent is an odd time of rapid growth. It’s like the strident, awkward middle school years of the soul, except that it happens every year. People try new things, like the great quest of giving up chocolate, wine or Facebook. They go to the fish fry at the local Catholic Church even if they are Methodists. They experiment with Ash Wednesday, walking around with a smudge on their face, wondering and fearing what others are thinking. Then, for over six weeks, they hurl themselves into God’s presence, gulping, clumsy and hoping something will happen, while some roll their eyes at the whole encounter.
Most of my childhood, I did not celebrate Lent at all. Until recently, many Presbyterians resisted Lenten observances, seeing them as too “Catholic.” My pastor growing up always joked, “When folks ask me what I gave up for Lent, I just say, I gave up giving things up!” Lately, Presbyterians have bucked that response by saying, “Lent is a time for taking things on, opting to take the spiritual challenge.” And ministers inevitably wake up to the reality that Lent always seems to fall during Lent – when we are planning a Lenten program, writing Lenten sermons and gearing up for holy week and Easter. This time of year can easily be about calendars, email, meetings and spiritual hunger, rather than the blossoming of the soul.
But when the inky dark of a March morning is pierced by the brave call of the cardinal, trying out his special spring song, and when the dull mulch is shot through with the courageous stalks of daffodils, and when the crocus puts on his purple paraments against the hard crust of winter all around, I feel a tug to grow too. I feel a surge of energy to reach for God, to join with all nature in manifold witness to God’s faithfulness, mercy and love.
I think we are all wired for seasons, like nature around us. We have seasons of joy and seasons of sorrow, times when we grow and learn and strive, and times when we set it all down. In fact some of the hardest times, spiritually speaking, are when we feel out of sync somehow with the seasons of our peers… when everyone is falling in love and getting married and starting families, and we are not. Some of the most joyful times are when we are able to be fully in the moment, without fractured attention, without a buzzing phone or a to-do list blurring our thoughts, but fully present. Some call this mindfulness.
So, this year, my big wild Lenten observance is taking the form of writing. I decided to write a few lines everyday about that for which I am thankful. The idea came from a blog, but the desire to notice Lent, or rather notice my own life, had been there all along. I just needed that kick in the pants.
So, I got out the moleskin journal that had been sitting on my bedside table waiting for attention for three years. I wrote the first sentence on the first line. In the journal, there is no comments section, no fear of evaluation, only expression, so the pressure of a good first line falls away.
“This Lent, I want to do a gratitude journal – add my joy to what may be hard.” Then, I was surprised at how I loved writing to God without worrying about sentence structure. I was surprised at what elicited gratitude.
“On a day when I found out that Gracie stole a girl’s bow at daycare, saying ‘Mommy, she said she didn’t want it,’ and Davis melted down screaming for his bobby bobby bobby (his word for pacifier) and mulk mulk mulk (milk), I am amazed by joy. Joy of Davis’ smushing his smushy cheek onto mine. Joy of showing grace to Grace when I could have come down hard. Joy of two minutes to say a prayer in the snow before going into the church building. Joy in seeing the director of the daycare caring for another mama who was red-eyed from crying because, from what I could tell, her son had just been diagnosed with ADHD. She is a pastor to them! Gratitude that my tortellini was a total hit at dinner! Babam! Gratitude for D’s good listening. Gratitude for hearing about my sister’s life. Gratitude for the sight of my dog sleeping on her puff. Gratitude that our neighbor gave us a king cake out of the blue. Gratitude for friendship with my colleague. Gratitude for Jesus. Gratitude for perspective that came from watching “12 Years a Slave” and eating lunch at Ashby Ponds (the retirement community where a handful of members of my congregation live.) Grateful for Davis’ look of amazement at the sight of his own footprint in Play-Doh. Gratitude for one day of Lent. Done. So much love on a rather ordinary day.”
I think that is what Lent is about, scanning the landscape cover of our lives for the purple flower of the Holy, toning our hearts for gratitude, giving thanks to God and trusting that God cares about the big and small moments of our lives. I have already missed a day or two of journaling, and it’s barely the third week of Lent. But even then, I know that the point is not to be perfect in my discipline but to be tuned into God’s movement in the world and in my life.
A formation of wild geese flew overhead this morning. Their formation was not perfect, but they drafted off the air currents of the ones going ahead of them and they headed back to familiar ponds as the ice finally began to melt. My heart is drafting off of the Holy direction of this season, hoping to arrive at that empty tomb of Easter with a real journey behind me: winded, red-faced, grateful, alive.
Becca Messman is the associate pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, Virginia. She leads “Lunch for the Soul” – a ministry with Hispanic day laborers. Her other passions are preaching and offering pastoral prayers, leading retreats, energizing church leaders to serve the community around them, youth and young adult ministry, and cultivating the “fear and trembling” holy journey of parenting. She lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband Dave, her two young children, and her dog Luna.