Except for the one day a year when I allow myself a gluten-free, dairy-free, tomato-free pizza (and truthfully perhaps even then), I live Lent in my daily life. Every day with chronic illness is a sacrifice of the foods I want to eat, the places I want to go, and the things I want to do. Since my diagnosis several years ago, I’ve held a seed of bitterness towards Lent. Stupid Lent. With its imposed fasting, and required sacrifices, and manufactured suffering.
I know I’m harsh. Lent can do that to you, when your Easter Day does not hold a basketful of chocolate bunnies, but simply more of the same Lenten fare.
To be clear, I no longer partake of fasts or sacrifices during Lent. My spirit simply won’t bear it. It would break me. And so, I offer up my daily sacrifices during Lent, just as I do during the other days of the year.
This year, a friend asked me what wanted during Lent. I didn’t have to think long. “Mercy,” I replied.
“What would that look like?” she asked.
“A church body that remains outwardly focused.” I was surprised by my answer, because it was completely new to me and because it came so quickly. Like a bolt of clarity sent directly to my heart and then out of my mouth without a moment’s pause to consider it.
I realize now that my biggest frustration during Lent is that we all retreat inside of ourselves. I know I did, before Lent became my life. I’d be so focused on completing my own disciplines that it would get in the way of true ministry. My own perceived, self-inflicted suffering became more important than the true sufferings of those around me.
The more time I spend walking this Christian walk, the more convinced I become of the duality of our existence here on earth. Our earthly actions have eternal consequences. This little babe inside of me already has a full and complete spiritual existence, in spite of his limited physical one. And though the physical existence may change, the spiritual one never will. (Can I get a hallelujah?)
Likewise, events of spiritual growth and significance have both an inward truth and an outward expression. Baptism is an outward expression of something that has already taken place in someone’s spirit. Communion is an outward partaking of something we receive inwardly. Knowing this, I don’t discount the internal truth of Lent. Coming to terms with sacrifice and suffering in one’s own life is a necessarily inward struggle.
But, as someone who is weekly reminded of the importance of the external, not being able to share in the weekly bread and wine due to my limited diet, I also don’t discount the outward expression. And this, to me, is where Lent has always left me feeling a little….dissatisfied. What is the appropriate outward expression of Lent? How do we represent those internal truths of sacrifice in our physical, external reality?
I have seen how living Lent 24/7 has changed me, and I have a suggested answer. How about mercy? And grace? Coming to know, deeply and truly, the pains of life on earth, has made me understand the universal sense of suffering here. We all suffer. We all suffer daily. Our sufferings are all unique and look different. Because of this we’re always tempted to grade our suffering, thinking that someone else isn’t suffering nearly as much as we are and therefore they have no right to complain, or that our suffering is nothing compared to so-and-so’s and therefore doesn’t “count”. But although the outward expression varies, the inward truth of our suffering is the same. And because I suffer in my life, I have something to offer to someone whose suffering looks different from mine.
Words of grace. Acts of mercy.
Sometimes I do these things well, like when I hear the grieving tears of a friend over the phone and I have words to offer. Sometimes my timing is off, like when I offered some words of grace to a tired mom and she looked at me like I had three heads. But I’ve learned to make the offering. And my spirit is soothed when others make the same offering to me.
By all means, spend time on the internal struggle of suffering and sacrifice. But please, don’t let it end there. Our Christian walk is never intended to end at our own skin. These internal truths are only useful if we are able to extract them from ourselves and use them to bless those around us. I’m always amazed at the ways God uses even a hesitant, introverted, over-analyzer like me to reach out and bless His people.
So I’m declaring a truce with Lent this year. Lent is going to demand no more sacrifices and no more turning inward from me, and I am going to have eyes wide open for opportunities to offer to others, on behalf of Lent, the same things I hope to receive–words of grace; acts of mercy.