I have no idea why it feels so strange to be in Lent already. It seems like it was Christmas just a few days ago, but now I find myself in March with Lent already a week or so old. Time seems to go so quickly.
I remember not knowing what Lent was. Growing up Southern Baptist, we did not observe it; it was never mentioned. As I grew up, I felt drawn to the Episcopal Church, and among the many things I learned that were different from what I had been taught before, I learned about Lent. It was a time of penance, to be more conscious of what sin was, try to avoid it, and give up something I was particularly fond of or enjoyed. I was not totally successful in giving up chocolate or Peeps, nor was I constantly looking for ways to avoid sinning. Every year I tried, and finally, I gave up observing Lent almost altogether. I avoided eating fish on Friday, but I’ve always liked fish, especially cod. It did not feel like a penance because I liked fish so much. I guess it was my first earnest attempt to observe Lent correctly.
I have since been a bit more conscientious, but I still cannot wholly observe Lent the way I think I should. Just today, I found a series of books on Kindle that I have not read in decades but have never stopped looking for. I am grateful that I found them at an affordable price, and I cannot wait to begin rereading them. It was a joyful discovery, which made me think about whether or not it was really something I should indulge in since it brought me joy in a season I was supposed to observe as a penitent.
I like the change in focus that has come into the church over the past few decades. Yes, we are still encouraged to be more spiritually focused, pray and meditate more, and try to avoid sinful thoughts and behaviors. I do try to do that, but it occurred to me that God created joy before evil crept in, so why not look for it more frequently than usual? Ok, I could probably ignore or put off some kinds of joy until Lent is over (like buying books). Still, one lesson I have learned over the years is that if I see something irresistible, get it because if I wait, it might be gone, and I will never find it again. This time I gave in and gave thanks that I had finally reencountered them and could read them at my leisure.
While my church still urges us to be less sinful and more repentant when we sin, we are now encouraged to take on things that help others and the world. We are encouraged to help our neighbor much more actively, helping with food banks and soup kitchens, finding ways to support the homeless, and caring for the poor, the children, and the elderly. We are urged to really look at our world and find ways to repair the damages we have done to it. In short, we need to learn to discover and enjoy what we do for others rather than simply the joy we find for ourselves.
I can find joy in Lent by knitting a prayer shawl for someone who could use the reminder that they are loved, not forgotten. There are some theological books I can enjoy and learn something from. Learning is a joy too. I can listen to someone who needs a pair of ears to really hear what they are saying, and I can lend my support to those I know who are sick, grieving, or suffering in some way. There is joy and enjoyment in those activities while also being opportunities to be helpful.
Lent may not always have the joy of the pre-lenten parties and celebrations, but it can have a quiet joy that is good for the soul as well as the world. Let us find the joy and spread it – in Lent and beyond.
Image: Prayer Shawl 06, property of the author.