Praise be to the Lord... Not one word has failed of all the good promises He gave.
- I Kings 8:56
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 hadnt heard before.
But other words, those that are familiar to me, sometimes take a long time to understand.
I once had a student who wanted to use her retirement years to learn how to play the piano. She arrived at her first lesson with what she assumed were tools of her anticipated trade: two thick textbooks about music which were full of bookmarks and underlined passages.
She wanted me to know she had gotten a head start. She also told me she didnt have a piano at home, and she could only afford one lesson a month.
Knowing about music, I was sorry to tell her, isnt the way you learn how to make music. To become a pianist you need hands-on experience.
Lent was a world I had heard before, but that 40-day period from Ash Wednesday to Easter, which we have just begun to observe, wasnt an important part of my life until just a few years ago. (Most of the things other people gave up for Lent we didnt do in our church anyway.)
No matter how long Lent has been part of our religious tradition, however, we may have missed its point altogether. Just giving something up - seeing if you can do it, bragging if you can, hating yourself if you cant - isnt 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, or hands-off experience, is an effective way to learn what our small sacrifice means.
We know all about making promises - and breaking them, too. After all, were only a short way past New Years and the resolutions we were sure this time we would keep. So why would we repeat the futile process, make more feeble promises, set ourselves up for failure again?
Ive just learned the meaning of another word: vow. Though my thesaurus uses the words interchangeably, deeper study reveals that a vow is not exactly the same things as a promise. Instead, vow more nearly resembles the word "vote," since both words 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 will not cost us our life or our fortune if we dont 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 her friend long past that particular day or event. We dont make vows over trivial things.
For the serious Christian, Lent isnt a trivial time of year, nor should those bargains we make with God - "If you bless me I wont eat chocolate for the next 40 days" - be a trivial act of faith. Rather than denying ourselves something we could get along without anyway, we can use these 40 pre-Easter days to take on something, to renew our vows to be faithful to God past Lent, and to accept His forgiveness when we dont perfectly follow through.
Isnt this what the message of Lent, Good Friday, and Easter are all about?
God knew we would be weak vow-makers, have good intentions but not live up to his standards or our own. Perhaps its in that 40-day attempt to do something more, or to live with something less, that we learn how imperfect we really are.
Lent is not a time to do something extra so well 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 free-lance writer. E-mail comments to seabara@ aol.com.)
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