Within Christian communities, we are about to embark on the season of Lent. During this time, many will abstain from certain activities to engage in a period of self-examination and repentance in anticipation of Easter. Growing up Baptist, I don’t remember participating in Lent aside from fish on Fridays and the Seven Last Words preaching services I loved and still love to attend. It wasn’t until I got older that I understood Lent is designed commemorate the 40 days of Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness before he began his ministry. Consequently, I began to use Lent as a time of intentional prayer and fasting in order to gain more clarity about my relationship with God and my vocation.
Last year, a friend asked what I would be giving up for Lent. I told him that because I'd already lost so much, I wasn't intentionally giving up anything else. Mama had only been gone a few months and I was embarking on my first Easter without her. I didn’t have the energy to fast from anything because it was taking every ounce of strength to make it through each day. Churchy and unconvinced that Lent wouldn’t be helpful, my friend told me that was why I needed to fast. He said I needed to be in a space where God could see my pain and honor my sacrifice.
…I called BS on that and ate Talenti and Haribo gummy bears for 40 days and 40 nights.
But my friend’s position is often the posture many in the church carry regarding fasting. It is assumed that when you are experiencing crisis, that is the best time to fast and “get clear” about what God is doing and wants from you. At any other point in my life, I would have believed that. I would have turned my plate down, my face toward the wall and waited to hear from God. But I couldn’t. I refused to believe that, in a season of great personal loss and confusion, God would require me give up more to prove a faithfulness deserving of an explanation of just what the hell was going on in my life. So I didn’t “fast” last year. Instead, I made a list of four things I really wanted to do that would make me happy. I took twerking and cooking classes, went to the beach with Langston, spent a weekend coloring and cooked my first Easter dinner for friends. It was one of the most enriching Lenten experiences of my life.
If we are honest, many of us lack the capacity to "give up" anything during this season but we will still want to be reverent and honor this holy time. At the end of the day, we’re churched and it’s difficult to completely walk away from what we have been taught for any period of time. Perhaps this Lenten season will not be about fasting but giving ourselves permission to be refueled in the pursuit of joy. Could it be possible that, instead of “dying to ourselves”, we find ways to live into the abundant life Jesus came to give? Too often, we focus on the fact that Jesus died and forget that he lived. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful that Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice. His death makes my redemption and eternal life possible. Still, Jesus lived. He had fulfilling relationships with people. He laughed. He loved. He lived a full life. Maybe these next 40 days need to be about life for some of us. What makes you feel alive? What brings you joy? How do you need to be reminded that God wants you to flourish? Might I suggest answering these questions and leaning into some of the answers over the next 40 days.
So many of us are in different places this Lenten season and, for many different reasons, we are exhausted. And, in our exhaustion, many of us have tried to continue practicing cultural and doctrinal customs because that’s what we’ve been taught. Consequently, pastors and leaders should begin exploring alternative ways to observe Lent (or any other time of fasting) that do not include traditional “food fasts” and are not just about restrictions. For instance, many women with eating disorders and/or body image conditions have them exacerbated by fasting in ways that don’t bring them closer to God but push them further into places of darkness and despair. Additionally, when sisters lack the capacities to participate in restrictive practices and have not been given tools to reimagine what times of spiritual self-examination can look like for them, they often bear a kind of shame that forces them to participate when they can’t or feel guilt because they couldn’t. Some of us are being asked to give up things and activities during Lent that are literally keeping us alive during seasons of great loss and deep pain. Ultimately, we need pastors and leaders to help us construct new understandings of who God is to us: that God is one who cares about our mental, physical, spiritual and emotional health. We need people who will remind us that God is big enough to hold the times when we are not okay and loves us enough to want us well.
Admittedly, I have never completed an entire Lenten fast without cheating at least once. The guilt I would feel about being unable to remain faithful to a God who remains faithful to me was overwhelming. I felt like, because I know better, I should do better. Now, I realize just how much those times reflect my humanity. My missteps during Lent remind me that I am not striving toward perfection but walking toward the One who is. It matters how we think about ourselves in relationship to God particularly when we are in tough, dark emotional spaces. Fasting may not be what we need right now and that is okay. What matters -more than anything- is that we find and remain in spaces where we can rest in the fact that we are the beloved of God. Holding steady in that truth may not require saying no to things right now but saying yes. Though Lent is liturgically preparing us for Easter, the stone has already been rolled away. Jesus lives and, sometimes, we need to be reminded that so should we.