Lent is Not a Self-Help Program

Susan Isaacs

We are in the midst of Lent, when the faithful honor Jesus’ forty-day temptation in the wilderness by abstaining from booze, sex, and Facebook; whereas on the day before, Mardi Gras, the unfaithful go to New Orleans to film “Girls Gone Wild” videos.

“Mardi Gras” is French for “Fat Tuesday.” The Anglicans call it “Shrove Tuesday” and celebrate by eating pancakes. I wondered if “shrove” was Anglican for “fat.” After all, pancakes can make you fat; just look at the church’s founder, King Henry VIII. Man, that guy was shrove. He looked like he spent Shrove Tuesday at IHOP, slept through Lent, Ramadan style, then woke up and ate a few Easter hams. Surely “shrove” meant fat. But when I looked up “shrove” in the dictionary, it said it meant “the past participle of ‘shrive’.” Oh, right; how could I forget? Okay, so then I looked up “shrive,” which means to confess and be absolved of guilt. So there it is: pancakes eaten on Shrove Tuesday have been absolved of calories. Everybody wins.

I started observing Lent a few years ago when I sensed God asking me to give up one specific thing: Driving While Righteous. Hey, I live in Los Angeles, a city crowded with überrich primadonnas and the resentful blue-collars who take out their trash. I’ve watched BMWs plow through red lights and use the emergency shoulder to get a single car length ahead. I’ve been the object of road rage for driving the speed limit in the slow lane. I fantasize about shooting out their tires. Driving While Righteous has been on my Lenten abstinence list for six years. Because clearly I’m not learning the lesson.

*Photo by Jeffery Turner, Creative Commons

This past Ash Wednesday my pastor said something that got my attention: Lent is not a self-help program. It’s a crash course in getting real with God. She made a few points that stuck with me.

  1. 1. Why do we have ashes imposed on our forehead? To remind us of the truth we only think about when a child is born or a person dies: we belong to God. He is who we came from, and he is to whom we will return. What shape we return in depends on what we do with all those in between years.
  2. 2. Take an inventory. What is that one sin you have a hard time giving up? I knew what mine was: entitlement. I did all this awesome stuff for God, so why didn’t he bless me the way he’d blessed everyone within my arms length? I didn’t want to go out and buy a BMW with a machine gun mounted on it. I wanted to make a living doing what I am good at. I wanted to adopt a boy from Ethiopia. How can these be extravagant dreams?
  3. 3. “Or maybe it isn’t a sin,” Reverend Anne continued. “Maybe it’s a deep wound in your soul that is so enormous you cannot let anyone near it, least of all God.”

• • •

BULLSEYE. I knew exactly what it was. It was the wound that regularly shows up in my dreams, in the hours I cannot sleep, and in the dread I feel at the first hint of waking. It is that deep sorrow over a lifelong dream that God seems to have kept out of my reach. It leaves me feeling unblessed, uncherished, unloved by God. My reaction in my dreams is always the same: rage and grief that destroys everything and everyone. My reaction when I wake up is the same, too: get coffee, turn on the computer and cover it up – with productivity, busywork, or any of the internet sites that serve to numb one’s pain.

• • •

Last year an actor friend I talk to about three times a year emailed me during Lent. He had been praying that morning and God gave him a word about me. The gist was, “There’s something you’re afraid to do, but God wants you to go for it and have fun with it.” I knew what it was: a creative project I’d procrastinated on, for fear that God will refuse to bless it. My lifelong dream will die and I will have to become a legal secretary. And all that grief I keep at bay will finally destroy me. This is the wound that is so overwhelming I won’t let God near it.

I went forward with that project. It was incredibly fulfilling. I didn’t get everything I wanted out of it; I still have more work to do. But I paid attention and went forward.

This Lent, I have more work to do on opening my wounded heart to a God I fear doesn’t care enough about me. But what other choice do I have? What choice do any of us have? Sometimes you get to a place in your life where you can no longer NOT do that thing you know you were supposed to do, regardless of the outcome.

It’s going to be a long forty days. I pray I’m not the same person come Easter morning.

What about you? Are there things you’re discovering this Lent?

Susan Isaacs

Susan Isaacs