Lent is essentially a “churchy” time, when the unfashionable concepts of discomfort, sacrifice and mortality are brought into an uneasy focus for us, beginning with the marking of a cross on our foreheads in ash. We are dust, and to dust we shall return…
For a long time in the West, our privileged culture has sought comfort, happiness and ease, but these values don’t always sit well alongside the chaos and trauma of a world being decimated by climate change, ripped apart by war, and riven with injustice. Perhaps more than ever, living a life of excess, seeking happiness and prioritising individualism are at odds with the realities of life on this planet.
Lent has the power to do more than help us to lose a few pounds for the summer. Lent has the power to help us to put aside the cravings and desires we use to placate ourselves and to spend some time in the state of discomfort. Why? Because, while there are times for celebration and rest, actually facing up to our weakness and the world’s brokenness and our collective need is a good thing.
Many of us are used to always having coffee when we reach for it, or chocolate to take the edge off a busy day, or alcohol to add a bit of haze or bubble to a stressful week. We are used to “treating ourselves”, whether to a nice face cream when life makes our skin taut, a takeaway when our energy is too sapped to cook or even a getaway when we are simply bored of routine.
Of course, none of these things are wrong in themselves and sometimes celebration, exuberance and self care are exactly what is called for.
But the thing about always having something placatory to reach for, is that we forget. We forget that all across this beautiful planet, there are people displaced and far from home. We forget that there are still children starving. We forget that violence in all its guises is rife. There is war. There is drought. There is suffering.
We forget things about ourselves too. We forget that there is a spirit inside us longing for more than coffee. We forget that there is potential in us to reach out and help someone. We forget that our lives don’t stretch out unendingly, that our time on earth is finite and unpredictable.
Of course, there’s a reason we don’t dwell on these things all the time. Of course. These truths are uncomfortable, fearful even. We are too small for them, too fragile.
For Christians, Lent is not just about spending time with these uncomfortable truths. It’s about bringing them to God.
God. The God that called himself I AM.
There’s a trust in bringing the aching, grieving, terrified heart of the world to God. There’s faith in the ludicrous suggestion that in all of this, over all of this and under all of this is a loving God who can actually offer hope.
The thing about Lent is that we don’t just say, I am weak, full stop. Or the world is a mess, full stop. Or why is there suffering, desperate question mark.
We say these things and more. We cry them even.
And God says things back. Not easy platitudes. But things like this:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The things that God says take a bit of hard work to receive, sometimes. A bit of twisting our minds around. A bit of wrestling with. The things that God says offer a lot, and they ask a lot too. But maybe Lent is the time to push ourselves into those uncomfortable corners of our minds and to wrestle with the pain and hope inside us.
For many of us, the act of prayer – of bringing rages and questions and tears and dreams to God – is now a habit and a well trod path all year around. And those of us who do so, assure you that God is a safe place and a shelter and a comforter. In him, you won’t find platitudes or easy answers or even all the things you ask him for, but you will find rest for your soul and hope for the world.