Lent and I have an uneasy relationship.
For those of you who aren’t schooled in religious terminology, Lent is defined by Wikipedia as “A solemn religious observance in the Christian liturgical calendar that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends approximately six weeks later.”
It’s also supposed to be a six-week period of fasting, moderation and self-denial, and this is where things get shaky. Doesn’t life present us with enough difficulty without us deciding to make things worse through intentional deprivation?
Besides, Lent was never on my radar screen growing up. My dad attended a liberal church that served real wine at Communion (even to us kids) and nobody at his church ever talked about denying themselves anything.
My mom, on the other hand, drove out of town every Sunday to attend a biracial fundamentalist Church of Christ. Her church must have discovered there was no mention of Lent in the Bible, because there was certainly never any mention of it in church.
Sometimes Mom took us to church with her, and other times she made us go with Dad. When I was thirteen, she suddenly decided my siblings and I needed to be baptized, so she talked the Episcopal priest into meeting us at the Baptist Church where there was a baptismal font.
A mere sprinkling of water across the scalp would never do, in her book. We all needed to be dunked. Don’t ask me how Mom talked the Baptists into letting an Episcopal priest baptize us on a weekday in their church. But she did. We lined up in our clothes for the immersion, which to our mother constituted a proper baptism.
Even with all these diverse religious traditions vying for my attention, Lent never stumbled into the conversation until after I was married, when my husband and I joined a Methodist Church. It seemed a good middle ground for my husband, who had been agnostic before becoming Christian, and for me, who wanted to find a church he was comfortable with.
But it appeared as if everybody in the Methodist Church gave up something for Lent. The ministers encouraged this, although I don’t think our senior pastor ever went so far as to give up golf. Most people gave up chocolate, or dessert altogether.
I wasn’t that big on desserts, so giving them up didn’t seem to be a sufficient sacrifice in keeping with the spirit of the occasion. I decided to give up wine, instead. A glass of wine at night is one of life’s joys, and giving it up made for a challenging six weeks.
The next year, I went for a real fast. Well, sort of. I had watched my Muslim friend fast every year for 40 days during Ramadan, so I figured I could at least give up lunch one day a week. My friend nodded her approval every Wednesday at lunch time when I went to my office instead of the lunch room, and she was the only one who didn’t think I was crazy when I turned down Italian food catered by a restaurant one Wednesday because that was my day to fast.
The following year I went even further, giving up breakfast every morning. This level of self-denial was supposed to draw me closer to God. Instead, I GAINED WEIGHT! Why would you gain weight if you give up a meal? I haven’t figured that one out yet.
In light of all these unsuccessful experiences with Lenten deprivation, I decided not to give up anything this year. But my Bible study friends all seemed to be observing Lent with sacrifice, so at the last minute I decided to do something different.
Instead of giving up wine, food, or coffee (Heaven forbid, but some people actually do this!) I decided to give up time. That’s right. Time. I would give up 30 minutes a day to prayer, but not for myself. I wouldn’t pray during that 30 minutes for anything that benefited me (like more claps on Medium, which has not been answered anyway). I would spend the entire time in intercessory prayer, which means praying for other people.
This is where my story takes an unusual, or what I consider a supernatural turn. As soon as I began my first day of intercessory prayer, a particular couple’s name scrolled across the screen of my mind as vividly as if their names had been scrolling across a movie theater screen. Pray for this couple, my spiritual nudge seemed to say.
I prayed for them, then moved to others on my list: people with cancer, people who were depressed, people struggling to succeed at business ventures, children in foster care; anybody I knew of who needed prayer.
The next day, the same thing happened. This couple’s name popped into my mind and clung there tenaciously until I had prayed for them. I couldn’t figure out why. They weren’t people I hung out with or saw very often. I had heard they were on a cruise, so I knew they weren’t sick.
Every day when I started prayer time, this couple appeared boldly and vividly in my mind’s eye. It became a little irritating. There were people on my list who really needed prayer; people undergoing chemo and radiation; people who had lost loved ones. But just in case this was God prompting me and not something my imagination had concocted, I continued to lift them up in prayer.
For two weeks this pattern repeated itself, until I received some terrible news. This couple whose names had appeared in my mind so consistently at prayer time experienced a family tragedy. They needed prayer and comfort more than ever.
I was stunned and told my husband about this strange experience; how I had felt compelled to pray for this couple without knowing why, and how they had just undergone a difficult time. He said “Don’t be praying for me, then.”
But here’s how I choose to look at this. God nudged me to pray for this couple because He knew they were going to experience hardship and would need to be covered in prayer. The couple told me later, “We can feel the prayers of others and this has given us a sense of peace and comfort.”
Why would God prompt me to pray, rather than intervene to stop a tragedy He knew was going to happen? If He’s all-knowing and all-powerful, why not step in and prevent the bad thing from taking place? I don’t know the answer, but I believe God works in us and through us when we open ourselves to His spirit.
Some, like my Muslim friend, pray to Allah. I pray to Jesus. Many acknowledge a spiritual force, something beyond us, that is supernatural and unknowable. Others don’t believe in anything at all.
I believe God meets us where we are, looking beyond customs and culture and color, belief or unbelief, to peer into our hearts. The Bible says as much. “Man looks at the outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7.
God wants to see hearts that feel, express and value love. “A new command I give you. Love one another,” Jesus said in John 13:34.
So I guess I did experience more of God by giving up something for Lent. I opened myself to God by acknowledging his presence in my life, and He worked in a supernatural way to make me more aware than ever of that presence.
I might not ever understand everything, but I do understand there is more to this universe than we can see. I believe God works in us and through us to reach out to others, care about them and pray for them. Whether we’re wine-drinking liberals, fundamentalists at the baptismal font, Muslim, agnostic or atheist, God cares about us, meets us where we are and wants us to care about each other.