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Could you give it away?

Faithpoint | Thursday, March 3, 2011

Guess what is extra-late this year, but will be here in six days? No, not Spring, silly; that’s still more than two weeks away … if we’re lucky. Mar, 9, Ash Wednesday, begins one of my favorite (call me crazy) times of the year: Lent. I think I enjoy Lent each year because of its stripped-down, no-nonsense, focus-on-the-basics sensibilities. It feels to me like a season that knows its own purpose, that refuses to be sidetracked by unnecessary diversions from the reason for its existence: the opportunity to prepare us all for Easter, for celebrating the reason for our existence.

I have a friend who, for Lent one year, gave away one thing each day. He examined his material goods and then, every day of Lent, let go of something. Now think about it: this may be easy for the first week or so. Extra pair of pants, be gone; those never-worn shoes, out the door with you. After a bit, however, it seems that my friend’s Lenten discipline would become more rather than less difficult to maintain. It’s not like giving up, say, coffee, in which (after the headaches go away) you just sort of get used to its temporary absence. By the time you get into the final couple weeks of Lent you would certainly have exhausted your supply of that which you don’t mind giving away, and your gifts (which are now, unlike that temporarily missing cup of coffee, permanently gone) will be hitting a little closer to home.

It strikes me, though, that for the very reason that giving your stuff away would get harder and harder, it’s a great metaphor for how to spend Lent. Shouldn’t we all strive to keep stripping away what separates our hearts from God’s love as we approach Jesus’ death and transforming resurrection? Maybe I can feel just as secure with seven pairs of pants as with eight, or with one fewer pair of shoes, but when the “extras” are gone, and I’m looking at items I’d really, really like to hang on to, does it then become time to skip a day of giving? Whatever we wrap around us, literally or figuratively, that makes us feel safe, or cool, or powerful, or smart, or daring, can also be the very thing that holds us back from facing just our plain-old-unadorned-possibly-even-inadequate selves. This same “stuff” can become our reason for neglecting our relationship with God, because in the little corners of our lives where the stuff isn’t, we know that God may be waiting, calling us to unwrap these layers of protection. Do we look to accumulate possessions, or prestige, or popularity, or expertise in a certain area, out of concern for (or pride about) what others think of us? Isn’t it surprisingly easy to be more concerned about our appearance to others than about our real, unadorned, unprotected selves that God knows and loves so well?

At what point do we recoil from what Christ calls us to “give up” in order to follow him with all our heart? It’s probably not at the point where we meet chocolate, or beer, or TV or video games, though giving any of those up for Lent may help us to realize areas where our priorities might be misplaced.

We strip down in a lot of ways during Lent – our churches and chapels look bare and the music of our worship becomes more solemn and stark; we give things up and try to spend more time in prayer; we may eat more simply, in order to donate the overflow of our food budget to the hungry. Perhaps our stripping down and giving up, however, needs to be directly focused at how we can hear more clearly God’s intentions for our lives. As you consider the possibilities for the promises you might make this Lent, think about how each of the traditional Lenten disciplines, prayer, fasting and almsgiving, might truly help you follow the path of Christ to the God who loves you. What do you place in the way of that relationship? Could you give a little of it away each day?

Forty days isn’t such a long time. For many of us, finding forty things to give away wouldn’t even force us to dip too deeply into our favored possessions. These next forty days, however, could be powerful, transforming ones if we allow ourselves to become ourselves – without quite so many of the layers of security we usually carry with us for the sake of appearance. Our mothers were right when they told us, “Just be yourself!”

God loves us and will bless us; we just have to be ourselves. Lent might just be the perfect time to practice.

Kate Barrett is the director of the Emmaus program in Campus Ministry. She can be reached at kbarrett@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.