Lent Is Not A Self-Help Program

Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent, when the faithful honor Jesus’ forty-day temptation in the wilderness by abstaining from booze, sex, and facebook; whereas on the day before, Mardi Gras, the unfaithful go to New Orleans to film Girls Gone Wild videos.

“Mardi Gras” is French for “Fat Tuesday.” The Anglicans call it “Shrove Tuesday” and celebrate by eating pancakes. I wondered if “shrove” was Anglican for “fat.” After all, pancakes can make you fat; just look at the church’s founder, King Henry VIII. Man, that guy was shrove. He looked like he spent Shrove Tuesday at IHOP, slept through Lent, Ramadan style, then woke up and ate a few easter hams. Surely “shrove” meant fat. But when I looked up “shrove” in the dictionary, it said it meant “the past participle of “shrive.” Oh, right; how could I forget? Okay, so then I looked up “shrive,” which means to confess and be absolved of guilt. So there it is: pancakes eaten on Shrove Tuesday have been absolved of calories. Everybody wins.

My husband and I have attended an Episcopal church for four years. We had aged out of the hipster church model and needed something less prone to celebrity pastor flameouts. I grew up Lutheran, so the liturgy has felt familiar and even grounding to me. Of course it has its annoyances. One Sunday the choir sang a tortuously dull hymn whose sole value was that marked the 14th Sunday after Pentecost. I actually found myself longing for a Chris Tomlin rock anthem. But I do love the liturgy, and I’ve come to appreciate the church calendar. And my favorite church season is Lent, which continues through Holy Week and ends on Easter Sunday. You can read last year’s post on Holy Week here.

I started observing Lent a few years ago when I sensed God asking me to give up one specific thing: Driving While Righteous. Hey, I live in Los Angeles, a city crowded with überrich primadonnas and the resentful blue-collars who take out their trash. I’ve watched BMW’s plow through red lights and use the emergency shoulder to get a single car length ahead. I’ve been the object of road rage for driving the speed limit in the slow lane. I fantasize about shooting out their tires. Driving While Righteous has been on my Lenten abstinence list for six years. Because clearly I’m not learning the lesson.

This will be the second Lent that I’m giving up Facebook and Twitter. This one is actually a relief. There’s too much pressure to “like” someone’s band or hide one political extremist friend from another. Besides, I waste far too much time on those sites – time I could spend praying, writing, or dealing with my righteous indignation before I get behind the wheel.

Before you dismiss abstaining from social media, think about the amount of spiritual energy generated around the globe from the simple act of prayer. Visualize it as a huge, electrical grid connecting the world with light and heat of the Holy Spirit. Now, visualize Mark Zuckerberg in his black hoodie, throwing the switch and causing a global spiritual brown-out. We can even monetize that energy drain: Facebook’s impending IPO could net over a hundred billion dollars. A hundred. Billion. Dollars. Imagine what God could do with a hundred billion dollars worth of our prayers.

I headed to Ash Wednesday service, geared up for my social media blackout. But Reverend Anne said something that got my attention: Lent is not a self-help program. It’s a crash course in getting real with God. She made a few points that stuck with me.

Why do we have ashes imposed on our forehead? To remind us of the truth we only think about when a child is born or a person dies: we belong to God. He is who we came from, and he is to whom we will return. What shape we return in depends on what we do with all those in between years.
Two: take an inventory. What is that one sin you have a hard time giving up? I knew what mine was: entitlement. I did all this awesome stuff for God, so why didn’t he bless me, the way he’d blessed everyone within my arms length? I didn’t want to go out and buy a BMW with a machine gun mounted on it. I wanted to make a living doing what I am good at. I wanted to adopt a boy from Ethiopia. How can these be extravagant dreams?
“Or maybe it isn’t a sin,” Reverend Anne continued. “Maybe it’s a deep wound in your soul that is so enormous you cannot let anyone near it, least of all God.”

BULLSEYE. I knew exactly what it was. It was the wound that regularly shows up in my dreams, in the hours I cannot sleep, and in the dread I feel at the first hint of waking. It is that deep sorrow over a lifelong dream that God seems to have kept out of my reach. It leaves me feeling unblessed, uncherished, unloved by God. My reaction in my dreams is always the same: rage and grief that destroys everything and everyone. My reaction when I wake up is the same, too: get coffee, turn on the computer and cover it up, with productivity, busywork, or any of the internet sites that serve to numb one’s pain.

An actor friend I talk to about three times a year emailed me last week. He had been praying that morning and God gave him a word about me. The gist was, “There’s something you’re afraid to do, but God wants you to go for it and have fun with it.” I knew what it was: a creative project I’ve been procrastinating on, for fear that God will refuse to bless it, my lifelong dream will die and I will have to become a legal secretary. And all that grief I keep at bay will finally destroy me. This is the wound that is so overwhelming I won’t let God near it.

And you know, God doesn’t have to bless it, does he? How many of us want good things: to be married, or to have children, or to adopt a particular boy in Ethiopia, or get out of debt, or (insert that longing you have here). How many of us have done as much as we can to fulfill that dream, teetering on the edge of of having our hearts shattered?

It has been five days since Ash Wednesday. Every day I have woken up to that dread, got my cup of coffee, and opened … not a blank journal. The first days I filled the pages up with some classic spew: anger, grief, tears, embarrassment. It was messy. It continues to be messy. I didn’t get any clarifying response from God. However, having gotten that spew out of the way I’ve actually been able to make some headway on that project I’d been procrastinating over.

This Lent is going to be difficult. It’s going to be about opening the wound my hard heart is so sure God does not care enough to heal. But what other choice do I have? What choice do any of us have? Sometimes you get to a place in your life where you can no longer NOT do that thing you know you were supposed to do. Regardless of the outcome.

It’s going to be a long forty days. I pray I’m not the same person come Easter morning.


  1. Hey Susan–I was cleaning out my mailbox and came across several of your blogs I had forwarded there…this being one I save and reread. Since Lent is coming shortly–how have things gone in the last two years? Hope this is a productive Lenten season for you in 2014…Blessings! Diane

  2. Dang, girl, you got personal with that one. Thanks!

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