I have never been very good at the whole Lent thing—even though I’ve successfully given something up for Lent a number of times.
Growing up in the Southern Baptist church, Lent wasn’t something I had any awareness of. So as a freshman in college, newly involved in a church that celebrated the season with the option of fasting from something, I remember being genuinely excited to try it. Plus all my friends were doing it so there was a sort of camaraderie-meets-competition vibe about it. For my inaugural fast, I chose to give up caffeine. I wish I could tell you that something significant happened during this experience, but truthfully, the only thing I really remember was that there was one night a few weeks in when I forgot about the fast and drank a “Biggie” Coke with my Wendy’s value meal and was up most of the night.
Last year for Lent I gave up reading the news. I had realized, in the wake of the election, that over the course of 2016 I had become addicted to checking the newsfeed on my phone constantly. I figured reading the news was the perfect sort of thing to give up because of the amount of time and attention it was consuming in my life at the time. It was one of those welcome distractions that seems benign, but really serves as an escape from the demands of work, family, even God.
The idea of giving something up for a season is not about self-improvement. It’s about creating a void where you can feel the absence of the thing, experience some measure of longing for the thing, and then be reminded that we were first and foremost built to long for God above all else. Sounds good, right?
The problem is, broken human being that I am, I tend to allow the void that I create during Lent to backfill with something—anything—other than God. I’ve successfully given something up for Lent, but I don’t know that I’ve ever had a successful Lenten fast. The void we create, unless intentionally filled, will fill itself with whatever life presents us. So we just need to protect the void we create. Easy. Except for the other problem—which is the problem of longing itself.
Who wants to be hungry, or thirsty, or bored, or unfulfilled? Most of us don’t live in a world that ever demands this of us. We’ve been swimming in instant gratification for so long that we feel entitled to it. Life, liberty, and Amazon Prime. But there’s nothing fast about a fast. Communion with God cannot be microwaved. There are monasteries full of people who have given their entire lives to prayer, but I want it in five minutes a day or less—and if I can’t have that, I’d rather be streaming Netflix, because that’s a whole lot easier than sitting long enough to long for God in the terrible silence of a fast taken seriously.
But deep down, I know. I know that there is life to be found there in that emptiness, and there is only emptiness to be found in so much of the rest of what I call life. The question is: will I… will you… will we... have the discipline to protect the void we create during Lent, and then both the courage and patience enough to sit in it and wait for the One we’ve been longing for?