I have been thinking for most of the day about a conversation I had this morning- Ash Wednesday. It was with a young woman I have known somewhat for over two years. I know she is a wonderful, dedicated nurse, a loving wife and mother of a toddler son. I know that she was raised Catholic and her husband was raised Lutheran. I know that since the birth of their son, they have been feeling the need to become involved in a church community, and that they have tried several different churches, including Catholic and Lutheran, but didn’t feel “at home” in any yet.
After New Year’s, when I saw her for the first time in several months, she mentioned that they had found a church that she and her husband both really like. They feel welcomed there, and the teachings and sermons have seemed to connect to their lives. She was excited to talk about what she is learning. They haven’t joined yet, but they have become pretty regular attendees at worship.
This morning when I saw her, somehow the topic of Ash Wednesday and Lent came up in the conversation.
She said, “I want to ask you something. I am thinking of giving up sweets for Lent, but if I do that, and a special day comes up, can I break it for the day?”
“You can do whatever you want, since you are the one deciding what you want to “do” for Lent”, I replied. “It certainly doesn’t matter to God. God doesn’t love you more or less because of what you give up for Lent. In fact, some people don’t give up things for Lent, they add things in- like special prayer times or service projects, or special quiet times for themselves. You can give something up, or add something in, or do a combination.”
A look of surprise crossed the young nurse’s face. “I never thought about adding something in. But that’s what we have been learning at our new church- that the world is so much bigger than we think. It’s bigger than the things that we think are so important but that really aren’t. The pastor is encouraging us to think beyond our everyday lives…That makes this whole Lent thing seem very different from what I thought it was.”
As our conversation continued, I told her that one reason people make changes in their lives during Lent is to shift the focus of their lives in some way. Going without something we think is important to us (like certain foods or activities), can remind us of those who suffer every day.
Adding prayer time can help us focus on God’s love and God’s work in the world, especially when we pray for others and not ourselves.
Finding ways to serve others in new ways lets us do what Jesus did. We can reach out to the forgotten people, the suffering people, and the lonely ones: people we might not think about when we are busy with our normal activities.
What has kept this conversation in my mind all day, and what stirs me now, is the look of surprised delight I saw on my nurse friend’s face. She was starting to envision possibilities. She was wondering how her life might expand in the near future. She liked thinking about what God might be doing through her and in her family. She was hungry for more than sweets.
Lenten math is funny. There are 40 days (not counting Sundays). It begins on a Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday. It begins in darkness and ends in glorious Light, but the actual change in the length of the days is almost unnoticeable- until it is.
During the weeks of Lent you can subtract things like bad habits, selfish acts (or yes, even sweets). You can add things like prayer, worship and service. Or you can do both. And somehow, mysteriously, by God’s grace, the results add up to more than you expected when you first started.
Your world can grow larger. Your heart can grow larger. Your walk with Jesus can grow sweeter. Your sorrows can shrink, or maybe your capacity to bear them grows greater. And you realize that the effect that you have on the world around you, your bigger world, is more than you ever imagined.
Lenten math is God’s math, multiplied in our hearts and lives by Grace. It has its own set of rules altogether. And I am so glad for that.
-Janet Blank, Faith Formation Coordinator