“For Lent, I’m giving up sex, drugs and drinking,” remarked one of my suitemates with a touch of sarcasm in his voice. I was in my second semester at the University of Houston and living on the first floor of Taub Hall.

“Gosh, that’s rude,” I thought to myself. (And I probably used really coarse language like “gosh” when I was a freshman in college.) I had heard a lot of second hand rumors about Lent when I was a kid but had never really been exposed to actual flesh and blood participants until I lived in Taub Hall and had several Roman Catholic girls living down the hall.

I suppose that my suitemate meant well. I suppose that he thought that mocking the observance of Lent was fighting a war for true Christianity against vain superstitions. Real spirituality isn’t in giving up chocolates and ice cream, it’s found in prayer and Bible study, or so he (and I, though I was too polite to admit it) thought.

- – - – - – - -

A few years later, while living in Austin, I was observing Lent for myself for the first time. I was hungry for a Christianity rooted in history prior to my birth in 1978 and saw the ancient practice as a way of preparing myself for Easter and connecting with my roots. For the season, I chose to give up caffeine (a major sacrifice for me). I got rid of all of the Dr. Pepper in my dorm room and started drinking water and the occasional root beer. Those root beers were magical. They really were. I remember thinking to myself, “Barq’s Root Beer has got to be the finest beverage on God’s green earth.” I was convinced that the new heavens and the new earth would have Barq’s Root Beer flowing out of every rock. Of course, you can already see where this story is headed. The slogan of Barq’s is “Barqs has bite!” And where does that bite come from? Caffeine. I discovered this fact about 2 weeks before Easter and sheepishly got rid of the root beer for the next two weeks.

I remember the first day of Lent 2001. I had decided to go to my first early morning Ash Wednesday service. I got up before dawn, showered and prepared my things. I had quite a bit of packing to do, as it was the day I left on a Wind Ensemble Tour through Central Texas. I loaded my bag, my tuxedo and my horn into my car and set out for a small Episcopal church on my way to school. I had big plans that year. Not only was I going to give up caffeine again, I was going to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday for spiritual devotion. I made it about 7 hours. Finally, in our van, I didn’t want the other students to think I was strange and so I ate a box lunch and drank a Dr. Pepper like everyone else.

It’s funny, I seem to be able to remember Ash Wednesdays better than other days. Ash Wednesday 2004 – the day I kept ashes on my forehead all day long and told my elementary school students not to ask what they were or else the government would take me away and I couldn’t be their music teacher anymore. Ash Wednesday 2005 – searching for days to try to find a church in St. Louis having a service, misjudging the distance to the Lutheran church I finally went to, driving through the snow and ice to show up halfway through the homily, my fingers numb from the cold.

- – - – - – - -

If my suitemate is right about Lent, if it is simply a season of abstaining from our favorite foods or television shows or shoes or luxuries, I am the biggest disappointment in the history of Christianity. My Lents are marked by frailty, weakness and failure. Even when I try to give up simple things, I usually don’t succeed and when I do, I’m so prideful about it that it ruins any positive effect that it should have had. If that’s what Lent’s all about, I ought to quit right now.

Frailty. Weakness. Failure. Those things don’t just sound like my Lent observances, they sound like me. And they don’t just sound like me, they sound like everyone I know (at least, everyone I know who is honest). Maybe, just maybe, those things are what Lent is about as well. Giving something up isn’t so that I can add something to my spiritual resume, as though making it through Lent 2003 without caffeine is something to crow about. It’s about living in anticipation of the Resurrection. When I fail during Lent (and odds are that I will fail – several times), Jesus doesn’t say to me like Napoleon Dynamite, “Gosh! I knew you couldn’t do it. Looks like I have to go and get crucified.” Rather, Jesus picks me up out of my failure, dusts me off, looks me in the eyes so deep that I start to feel uncomfortable and says, “Eric, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

“Follow me,” he says. And I do. At least I try to until I fail again and then again he picks me up, dusts me off, looks me in the eyes so deep that I start to feel uncomfortable and says, “Eric, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

“Follow me.”

- – - – - – - -

The Collect for Ash Wednesday from the Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Post filed under General Christian Worship.