"God has not promised sun without rain,
Joy without sorrow, peace without pain.
But God has promised strength for the day,
Rest for the labor, light for the day."
- Annie Johnson Flint
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 sometimes words or concepts already familiar to us take much longer 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 thought were the tools of her anticipated trade: two thick textbooks about music that were full of bookmarks and underlined words - proving, she said, "I've gotten a head start." She also told me she didn't have a piano at home, and she could only afford one lesson a month.
Learning about music and having a desire to play, I was sorry to tell her, weren't sufficient to help her reach her piano-playing goal. What she and any student pianist needs most is "hands-on" experience.
Lent was a word I had heard before, but that 40-day period from Ash Wednesday to Easter, which Christians are celebrating now, wasn't an important part of my life until I was well into adulthood. (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, however, we may have missed its point altogether. Just giving something up - seeing if you can do it, bragging about it if you can, hating yourself if you can't - isn't 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 - "hands-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 and the resolutions we were sure this time we would keep. So why do it again, make more feeble promises, set ourselves up for another failure?
Recently I've learned the true meaning of the word "vow," which is not a synonym of the word "promise," but closer to the word "vote." Both vow and vote, in fact, come from the same 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 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 her friend long past that particular day or event. Usually, we don't make vows over trivial things.
For the serious Christian, Lent isn't 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 denying ourselves something we could get along without anyway, we can use those 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 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 not live up to his standards or our own. Perhaps it's in that 40-day attempt to do something more, or live with something less, that we learn how incomplete and imperfect - how in need of a savior - we really are.
Lent is not a time to do something extra so we'll 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 at aol.com.)
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