Lent 2016: Forget the Fasts

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My Catholic readers know that tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. For my non-Catholic readers, which is most of you, Lent is the 40 day period before Easter, the pivotal moment of our Christian faith when we celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus. During Lent, Catholics (and some other denominations) try to focus their energy on preparing themselves to celebrate the Easter season. Technically, this is done through fasting, prayer and almsgiving, but mostly, people focus on the fasting. If you ask a Catholic, or even a non-Catholic, what Lent is about, they will probably say it’s about giving something up – a favorite food, or drink, indulgence, or bad habit. I was raised to think that way and it’s taken me a very long time to move beyond emphasizing that one practice.

Looking back at my childhood, I’m trying to remember the theology behind the fasting – why we were asked to sacrifice something. I don’t think the priests actually said this, but in my mind, I thought it was for one of two reasons.

#1 – Jesus gave up his life for me, so the least I could do is give up candy (it was always candy growing up!) for him during Lent. You know, tit for tat. Fair is fair after all.

Or #2 – You aren’t worthy for Jesus to have died for you – so your candy sacrifice is your way of becoming more worthy of Jesus’ death.

As if that were possible, as if anything we could do in a lifetime, much less forty days, could make us worthy of Jesus’ life.

I knew there was something about those theological constructs didn’t sound quite right, but I couldn’t quite move past those child-like assumptions for a really long time. But of course, as I grew and matured, my Lenten practices did as well. And so what I ‘gave up’ changed, but I was still doing it for the same reason – to somehow become more worthy of God’s love and Jesus’ sacrifice.

The fasting habit fell apart for me a couple years ago, which you can read about here, and it came about as most failures do, through a confluence of good intentions and misguided execution. Of course, it was my husband, who had the words to help me see the light. After suffering through a Lent that left me feeling deeply saddened and discouraged, Tim gently called me out. He reminded me that he loves me “as is,” and that God does too.

God always loves us ‘as is,’ not ‘when,’ not ‘whether,’ not ‘if,” we get our act together during Lent, or at any time. If God is the Abba that Jesus taught us about, then we are loved beyond measure already and it is knowing and experiencing that Divine Love that inspires any changes we make. It is never, “First you are worthy and then you are loved.” Contrary to most of our cultural conditioning and human reasoning, with God, you are always loved first and that Love makes you worthy. What you do with that Love is up to you, but personally, I have never once in my life been loved unconditionally and taken it for granted. True Love has never turned me against myself, or another person. Being Loved deeply has always inspired me to become a better version of myself, a truer reflection of the woman God created me to be.

Through that conversation, I finally got it: Lent is never a question of worthiness; Lent is a question of mindfulness, of bringing to our minds the Mind of Christ, which is compassionate, loving, and tender to all human beings and absolutely faithful to the Love of God, which he experienced first hand in the Trinity.

At the end of our talk, Tim reminded me of this bit of wisdom from my own teacher, Richard Rohr, who often says, “Don’t try to engineer your own death; it will be done unto you!” The scriptures are full of this imagery about the death of our ego, the part of ourselves that we keep separate from God and each other. We read over and over again that we must die to ourselves. I know the truth that unless a grain of wheat dies, it remains alone, a simple grain of wheat; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. But the point I had missed in my Lenten fervor was the fact that life itself will take care of death, both literally and metaphorically. Life is already full of losses – of the people we love, of seasons and situations we cherish, of dreams, hopes, plans, and health. And we don’t have to manufacture those losses on purpose; they happen as an inevitable course of our lives, but what we can do, during Lent, and every day of our lives, is prepare ourselves to face them.

And that is what I plan to focus on this Lenten season. Last year, I committed to just keep practicing my practice and that is what I plan to do this Lent as well and what I’ve tried to do almost every day in between.

I’m going to meditate and walk, read and write.

I’m going to hug my family members whenever they get within arm’s length.

I’m going to smile at friends and strangers alike.

I’m going to find Love and pass it on whenever and however I can.

Whatever I am already doing that opens me up to God’s Loving presence in the world, I’m going to keep doing. Whatever shuts me down, I’m going to forgive and move on.

I may hold a different intention, or pick up alternate readings to begin my meditation. I may find a special focus for my journal, but I will not fool myself into thinking I need to be different than I am to celebrate the new life that is constantly before me.

In my last post on “Seasons,” I wrote:

Death is inevitable, but so too is resurrection as long as we have a deep commitment to Love and Faith and Life. Only in that soil is there an invitation and a space for the Divine to work in us. Life and Love will win if we want them to and if we release our preconceived notions of what that life looks like!

We are all moving through a season. Some are observing Lent; others are experiencing the transition from winter to spring, in nature, or in their own lives. Though we are in different parts of the cycle, we are all participating in the eternal movement from death to new life. As gardeners of our own soul, the only thing we can do is prepare the soil and trust that God will do the rest.

We can aerate our egos, poking holes in the outer shells that protect us from each other. We can soften the hardness of our hearts with the holy water of tears (you too guys!). We can let the things that have died over the past year become fertilizer for the new life to come. I cannot think of a more difficult practice for Lent, or any time of year.

SmallThings750

 

 

 

For a Season and for a Reason

 

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My ideal day, every day

My first two children were twenty months apart, and although I know they can be a lot closer than that, they were much closer than Tim and I wanted them to be. It was a rough transition for us to go from a party of 2 to a party of 3 and then 4 in rapid succession. And after baby #2 arrived, I actually went to see a therapist. Tim was worried about me for some reason, ostensibly, because he would leave for work and I would still be in my pajamas and he would get home from work and I would still be in my pajamas and he would leave for work the next day and I would still be in those same pajamas. You get the picture. (I really wish yoga pants had existed back them. I could have totally fooled him!)

So one day I actually did get dressed and went to the therapist, and through laughter and tears, told her all about what was going in my life and how I was feeling and she said, “Aw honey, you aren’t depressed. You are having far too many emotions for that! You are just exhausted. I don’t think you have any idea how tired you are.” And she gave me permission, it was more like a prescription, to just rest. For a little while at least, to just give it all up! And that was the nicest advice, some of the best advice anyone had given me. Just let it be. Stop trying to do it all, and be it all, on time and looking good. But most importantly, she said to me, “You know, it’s okay to acknowledge the season of life you’re in.” Yes, I was young and healthy and just on the cusp of motherhood, but I was also in a winter season. Finn was born in late October and this probably took place in mid-December, so it was literally a winter season as well. The days were short and cold and so were my reserves of physical, mental and emotional strength.

There are seasons and then, there are seasons. There are seasons of the year, and seasons of our lives and within each season of our life, we will experience different seasons.

And as far as seasons go, I am a summer person. I love the light and the heat and the warm ocean water, and the long days. I am also by nature a sunny, happy person. My mind gravitates towards a sense of wonder and possibility in almost every situation. I don’t like to focus on the dark stuff. So when I had my first two kids so close together, what the therapist helped me see was that I was a summer person, in the spring of my life, experiencing a winter season. No wonder I was confused.

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All the seasons, all the time

In Southern California, we use the word “seasons” loosely. Growing up here on the beaches, cold meant 60 degrees and the only days you couldn’t wear flip flops were the rainy ones, but even then you could probably get away with it, if you timed it right. I was operating on a completely different system. Winter was for occasional skiing and snowboarding. It was a recreational activity, not a way of life. And so, the weather of my daily life totally fed my optimistic, fun-seeking personality. Rain was supposed to go away in a day. Clouds only lasted until 10 am when the sun would burn them away. Actual natural hardship, or limitation was temporary, evaporating almost immediately.

So when I became a new mom, and entered this long stretch where my sunny self disappeared, it scared me and Tim as well. I didn’t know what to do with the darkness and sadness I felt inside; I didn’t know if the sun would ever come back, and I hated that thought. I had been through some difficult things before, but those seasons had passed when I was a child. Now, I was ‘adulting.’

adultingI was the “adult” in charge of a marriage and the emotional, psychological and physical well-being of two little babies. And I was searching for a way out of this darkness I was in. I was looking for the light and I wanted it fast, because that’s how I thought it worked. I wanted to be where I thought I should be already – in the glory days of summer, but it wasn’t to be. Let me give you just one story from the winter that blanketed the Kirkpatrick family for about two years in the late 90s.

Even the worst winter storms bring on snow days, where everyone drops their cares and worries and has a good time. There were moments of real joy and laughter, but Keara was a handful as a toddler – strong willed, and mommy-centric. Her naps and our tempers were equally short, but Tim often came home from work early to help me. One afternoon, I was sitting on the couch, nursing Finn and reading stories to Keara. I saw Tim pull up in front of the house, but he thought it would be funny to ring the doorbell and I thought it would be funny to let Keara get the door. It wasn’t. She opened it, saw Tim and yelled, “No daddy home!” and slammed the door in his face. That kind of puts a chill on a relationship. It might have happened between the two of them, but it is a perfect example of the frost that covered our home. I may have been the one in the winter season, but everyone was feeling it. We were trying, and often failing, to connect with each other. Too often, like our two-year-old, we were more concerned with protecting our own turf.

We have warmed up from that winter and been through all the other seasons: the spring when Molly was born, the glorious summer when all our kids were out of diapers and none of them were yet teens and another winter when the Great Recession hit and we struggled to keep our business alive.

At this point in my life, at 44, in another fall, I am far more comfortable with the language of seasons (though I would still never choose to live in any place that actually had them), because I have been through them over and over again. I know the truth they represent and the wisdom I can learn from them.

In one of my darker winter days, I asked my spiritual director, a wise woman in her sixties, “Where is God in this darkness?” and she said to me, “If you want to know what God is like, look out your window. Look at life; look at the seasons of the year; watch the pattern of your days. God is not other than what is created. God is found in the pattern of creation itself.”

And really what she was saying is: Life is change and transformation, death and rebirth, light and darkness. Nothing good lasts forever.

I know that now.

I know that no season can last forever, no matter how good it is, or how badly I want it to.

I know that no season will last forever, no matter how dark or difficult it is, even if it lasts longer than I think I can stand it.

I know that wanting what was, or clinging to what is, or anxiously waiting for what will be is the surest way to miss the beauty of the season I’m in, or to learn any of the lessons it has to teach me.

And when I understood that, I could stop clinging to a vision of life where only eternal summer – light and goodness – could make me happy. My efforts to always keep it light are wasted energy, energy that could be better spent getting comfortable with darker days, digging in the soil, and nurturing whatever new thing is trying to come to the surface. What is born in the spring is what the world needs, not what fades away when its natural time comes.

Rob Bell likes to say that things come into our lives for a season and for a reason and if we stay, or cling to them for too long, what was once joyful, becomes bitter. We have to let them go. The Book of Ecclesiastes reminded the ancient Hebrews that for everything there is a season and a time for everything under heaven.

ecclesiastes-3-1A time to give birth and a time to die;

A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.

A time to tear down and a time to build up.

A time to weep and a time to laugh;

A time to mourn and a time to dance.

I always heard that passage, or the song by the Byrds and thought it applied to farmers and hippies, not 20th century beach girls like me.

But now, whenever I sense a waning of the light, I can hear my spiritual director saying, “Look out your window. What do you see? What do you know is true?”

Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor of The House for All Sinners and Saints, is one of my heroes. Someone asked her once in an interview why she keeps talking about the Resurrection, the fact that Jesus rose from the dead on Easter morning, because she talks about that story all the time, not just in the springtime when it’s topical for most of us, and she said simply, “Because it’s the truest story I know.”

And what she was getting at was not just the fact that Jesus died and was raised up again on the third day, although that is of ultimate importance to her as a Christian and a pastor, but also that it is the truest story she has experienced in her own life. Over and over again, her plans for herself, her life, and her church have failed, or been disrupted and when it happens, she is desperately sad, or wildly angry, or probably both, because she has a temper, but over and over again, they come back to life. They are resurrected. Sometimes they push back to the surface, just slightly changed, but sometimes they are unrecognizable, a lot like Jesus after the Resurrection. No one, not even his closest friends – not Mary Magdalene, not Peter, not his apostles on the road to Emmaus – recognized him, because he was a brand new creation.

Pastrix-coverAlways, without fail, Nadia says, the things that arise from the death of her dreams are better; they are more life-giving for everyone. Even more importantly, she says, is the fact that every time she dies to herself and her own ego, her need to control and perfect, SHE rises again with more potential to Love the world – and everyone in it, from herself, to her family, to her community, to the stranger on the street and for her this is a big one, even a Wall Street trader. She says in her first book, Pastrix, “Every single time I fight it (the death, the loss, the disruption). And every single time, I discover more life and more freedom than if I had gotten what I wanted.”

I love Nadia and her insistence on the resurrection, because it is one of the truest things I have come to know as well, but I didn’t always. Even though I have always considered myself a Christian, or perhaps because of it, I thought Resurrection was a miracle that happened once, long ago to God’s son. I still do believe that, but I also believe that God appears to be resurrecting everything all the time and everywhere, as Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr says. 

Death is inevitable, but so too is resurrection as long as we have a deep commitment to Love and Faith and Life. Only in that soil is there an invitation and a space for the Divine to work in us. Life and Love will win out if we want them to and if we release our preconceived notions of what that life looks like!

Life is a constant repeat of loving something, and then having to let it go, not necessarily tragically, sometimes just naturally, because life is change. What we can trust, if we have a deep familiarity with the story of Jesus, or with the seasons of life itself, is that new life will come from what we have lost. If we don’t short-circuit the process through clinging, or denial, or impatience, a new season will flourish and bring new life. It won’t be the same as what we lost, but it can be even better. If we allow it, the soil of our lives can be enriched by the death of our fantasies about what we, or our lives, or our families should look like. And in that soil, we can plant deeper roots, and we can weather more storms and we can enjoy the autumns and survive the winters, because we KNOW that spring is coming and that summer isn’t the only season worth living for.