I’ve been thinking a lot about what to do for Lent this year. Despite my annual insistence that the best thing is simply to respond to God’s daily invitations to be prayerful, sacrificial, and generous, I still can’t shake the feeling that I should make a Plan. (You know, just in case someone asks me what I’m doing for Lent.)
There have been years when I was experiencing so much grief and transition during Lent that I couldn’t even fathom giving anything else up. (Rend your hearts, Joel, really? Mine is cracked wide open already, thank you.) The best I could do was to sit quietly in the dark and pray for one other person each day. It was enough.
This year, however (and I hesitate even to put this in writing, because of how quickly things can change), I am doing pretty well. I am loving my new freelance existence (though I still haven’t figured out how to carve out time to start that new book). Several people close to me have had astonishingly good changes of fortune (though others are still plowing through rough times). My health is reasonable, and there are exciting things on the horizon (though my ability to walk 300 miles across Spain on the Ignatian Camino this fall remains a question). In other words, as the mixed-bag existence of any human being not living on a TV show goes, life is good right now.
Professionally, I spend a lot of time talking about how to draw closer to God in times of vulnerability, diminishment, failure, and loss. Now I find myself asking an unaccustomed question: how do I draw closer to God when things are going well? In those hard times, it was obvious that I needed God in order draw breath, never mind get out of bed. Now, the biggest temptation is to imagine I’m doing it on my own.
The biggest temptation is to imagine I’m doing it on my own.
One Lenten idea I’m having (notice I’m not calling it a Plan) is to spend more time fertilizing my own soil this season. I tend to be very task-focused. When I had a full-time job in addition to my freelance ministry and volunteer commitments, I used to say, “My life is like a game of Tetris.” (Remember those rapidly falling blocks that you had to line up perfectly, with no gaps? That’s how I felt about my schedule.) Now, my days are more spacious. (As my work successor put it, I have more of a “choose your own adventure” life these days.) Nevertheless I still default to things that can be written down, finished up, and checked off. I’m not sure that’s a very good way to let God in. Correction: I’m sure that’s not a very good way to let God in.
What I mean by fertilizing my own soil, then, is taking time for nourishing over accomplishing. Call it input over output. The first thing I want to do is commit to some good spiritual reading. Not just page-a-day or quote-a-day Lenten stuff (though of course I have those too); I want to find the kind of books that make me pour a second cup of coffee and go back to the rocking chair, pencil in hand. I’m going to start with a Christmas present, Kate Braestrup’s Beginner’s Grace. I welcome additional suggestions, and will let you know what else I select.
To do this, however, I have to guard my morning time from myself. Too often, my days start like this: from the pre-dawn peace of my prayer chair, I remember something I was supposed to ask/tell someone. I pull out my phone to take care of just that one thing, but can’t help glancing through the waiting emails. Something catches my eye. I read. I respond. The next one takes me to a survey; I click. (So compliant!) The New York Times daily briefing leads me down a rabbit-hole of articles . . . and now the sun is up. Does any of this sound familiar? (Please tell me it does!) The way to prevent it, however, is simply to put a notepad and pen by my chair, so that when that first distracting reminder pops into my head, I can simply write it down, and refocus. Ta-da!
So, there you have it: my big not-a-Plan. I don’t know exactly how these ideas will draw me closer to God, but, as the season unfolds, I trust that two things will happen. 1) My fertilized soil will bear fruit in unexpected ways, and 2) life will present countless invitations to respond prayerfully, sacrificially, and generously.
It reminds me of that fabulous refrain from Leonard Cohen’s Anthem:
Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
I can’t think of better advice for Lent than “forget your perfect offering.” The season ahead isn’t about creating a perfect Plan, pulling ourselves up by the spiritual bootstraps, or nailing our resolutions. (A+ in humility, anyone?) It’s about letting God in through the cracks, and maybe—just maybe—widening them a bit.
May your ordinary (Lenten) days be extraordinarily blessed!