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Lent isn't just about giving things up

Posted: February 17, 2013 - 1:07am

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts; See if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

– Psalm 139:23-24

When I first heard the word “prioritize,” I thought someone had made it up. Soon, however, this addition to my vocabulary began rolling around my tongue like somnambulate, syzygy, and other authentic words I just hadn’t heard before. But other words, even those that are familiar to me, often take a long time for me to understand.

Lent was a word I had heard before, but that 40-day period from Ash Wednesday to Easter (excluding Sundays), which we are observing now, was not an important part of my life until a few years ago. (Most of the things other people gave up for Lent we didn’t do in our church anyway.)

No matter how long Lent has been part of our religious tradition, we still may have missed its point altogether. Just giving something up – seeing if we can do it, bragging about it if we can, hating ourselves if we can’t – is not what Lent is all about. But used as a way to identify with the God who gave up so much for us, the act of denial – a “hand’s off experience,” perhaps – is an effective way to learn what our sacrifice really means.

We know all about making promises – breaking them, too. After all, we’re only a short way past New Year’s Day, and those resolutions we were sure we would keep – this time. So why would we do it again, make more feeble promises, set ourselves up for failure again?

Recently I’ve learned a new meaning of the word “vow.” Did you know a vow is not the same thing as a promise, but that it more nearly resembles the word “vote?” Both words, “vow” and “vote,” come from the Latin root, “votum.” Rather than an oath or a binding contract, a vow is a choice, an intention, something we desire to accomplish but which usually does not cost us our life or fortune if we don’t follow through.

By this definition, even without the dire consequences, a vow seems deeper to me than a promise. I might promise to meet a friend for lunch, but I would vow to be his or her friend long past that particular day or event. This, too, is why the “I do’s” in a marriage ceremony are not called promises, but vows. We don’t make vows over trivial things.

For the serious Christian, Lent is not a trivial time of year, nor should those bargains we make with God – “If you bless me I won’t eat chocolate for the next 40 days” – be a trivial act of faith. Rather than deny ourselves something we could get along without anyway, we can use those 40, pre-Easter days to take on something, like increased times of prayer and meditation or more acts of kindness to family and friends. Primarily – or going back to that word “prioritize” – we can use these weeks to renew our vows to be faithful to God past Lent, and to accept His forgiveness when we don’t perfectly follow through.

Isn’t this what Lent, Good Friday and Easter are all about? God knew we would be weak vow-makers, have good intentions but, likely, not live up to his standards or even our own. Perhaps it is in that 40-day attempt to do something more, or live with something less, that we learn how imperfect we really are. In the process, we may also discover the real meaning of this potentially fertile period of our lives.

Lent, then, is not a time to do something extra so we will be good enough for God, but a reminder that his unbroken vow to love, forgive and care for us forever is good enough for us.

(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer and author of the book, As Long As the Rivers Run: Highlights from Columbia County’s Past. E-mail comments to seabara@aol.com.)

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