Lent is bearing down on us. February 13th is Ash Wednesday and that’s two weeks from today. Most of us know something about Lent. We know it seems to start with Fat Tuesday, which is literally what Mardi Gras means. Then on the next day, Ash Wednesday, many of us will have a cross of ashes stroked on our foreheads sometime during a painfully penitential service. Lots of us will “give up something,” that is, deprive ourselves of something we enjoy for forty days. Some of us will “take on a Lenten discipline,” that is, we’ll begin doing something that is good for us and/or for others. But, as I’ve thought about it and observed others, I’ve come to the conclusion that Lent isn’t a very important part of spirituality for many of us.
If I’m right about this, I think I know what’s going on and it’s not just one thing. Here are just two factors that occur to me. The first is that the whole idea of being penitent is a tough sell. I think most Christians think they are not that wicked in the first place. Our sense of what sin consists of seems limited to the “really bad stuff” which, of course, we don’t do. Consequently, if one doesn’t think of oneself as especially bad or sinful, then forty days of focus on being penitent seems pretty overblown. It probably seems as something left over from the more superstitious Middle Ages when demons lurked around every corner tempting us into sin.
Second, whether one gives up something or takes on something, discipline is required. Again, the notion of living a disciplined Christian life, for many people, is about fairly regular worship attendance. Maybe we read some kind of devotional literature like Forward Day by Day or the Upper Room, but I wonder how many of us do that every day. Never mind the discipline of regular Bible reading, frequent prayer, or service to others. We’re busy. We’re tired. We’re distracted. We can’t even make it to Christian formation classes where someone else is doing the heavy lifting for us, so being in charge of our own discipline is quite the challenge.
Okay, I could be completely wrong about all this. And the odds are, if you’re reading this blog, you are serious about your spiritual life and will take Lent pretty seriously. But just in case, may I suggest a simple, short discipline? Between now and Ash Wednesday, set aside fifteen minutes in which you are going to do some self examination. Just ask this question: “Am I the kind of Christian I’d really like to be?” If the answer is “yes,” then relax and keep on keeping on. If the answer is “I’m not sure” or “no,” then consider making this year the year you “keep a holy Lent,” that is, that you make the effort during these forty days to consider what you need to keep doing, what you need to do more of, what you need to stop doing and what you need to start doing that will help you feel as if you, like Paul, “...press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”