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Giving up for Lent

Kate Barrett | Thursday, March 2, 2006

I just talked to a friend who, for Lent, plans to give away one thing each day. He will examine his material goods and then, every day of Lent, let go of something. Now this may be easy for the first week or so. Extra pair of pants, no big deal; those shoes I never wore, won’t miss ’em. After a bit, however, it seems that my friend’s Lenten discipline will become more, rather than less, difficult to maintain. It’s not like giving up, say, coffee, where (after the headaches go away) you just sort of get used to its temporary absence. By the time he gets into the final couple weeks of Lent, he will certainly have exhausted his supply of that which he doesn’t mind giving away, and his gifts (which are now permanently, rather than temporarily, absent) 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 all that separates our hearts from God’s love, the closer we get to 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 what happens when what I have left is my really, really favorite sweatshirt? Does it 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 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? Ought we not be more concerned over what God thinks of us?

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. We strip down in a lot of ways during Lent – our churches and chapels look more 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.

Forty days isn’t such a long time. For many of us, finding 40 things to give away wouldn’t even force us to dip too deeply into our favored possessions. These next 40 days, however, could be powerful, transforming ones if we allow ourselves to become ourselves – without any of the layers of protective adornments we usually carry with us. Our mothers were right when they told us, “Just be yourself!” God loves us and will bless us; we just have to be ourselves.

Kate Barrett is the director of resources and special projects for Campus Ministry. She can be reached at [email protected]

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