I got a late start on Lent this year. Ash Wednesday found me traveling to a warm and sunny place, which is not conducive to reflecting on mortality. I missed the ashes in both respects — I didn’t get them, and I regretted not having them. Ash Wednesday is a strange holy day to appreciate, but I do.
Upon our return from the beach, Montana gave us a great, cold wind with lots of blowing snow. Balm for the Lenten soul. But I’m still behind in my Lenten Journey book and have yet to figure out what to give up. With Lent more than halfway over, any "sacrifice" I might make would be too puny and then some.
But it usually is, anyway. My typical choices are good for me: Facebook, chocolate, alcohol. Abstaining from those has not put me in solidarity with the hungry or mimicked in any way the sacrifice of Jesus. So what’s the point?
Well, to resist consuming anything, for those of us fortunate to be able to choose, is worth something in our culture. Perhaps it’s the littlest Lego in the edifice of character, which at some point might need to resist being bought. And the giving-upness, along with the ashes, are distinctive Christian practices which are meant to shape us à la Jesus — making for a humble, compassionate, patient people.
A humble, compassionate, patient people — that doesn’t sound much like America these days, Christian or otherwise. We’ve been infected by a nasty virus, with symptoms of impatience, selfishness and knee-jerk judgment. I see it in my clergy coaching practice, with pastors made sick by constant criticism, or turning themselves into pretzels to avoid it. We’ve seen it at the University of Montana, with faculty piling on the new president over a resume glitch. It’s infected me, too. Watch out!
But here’s the good news. My pal Martin Luther has a remedy: his explanation of the Eighth Commandment. It goes like this. “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander her, or hurt his reputation, but defend her, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.”
I know. It sounds Pollyanna-ish and ineffectual. We are up against harsh realities that demand truth-telling.
I didn’t miss Ash Wednesday after all. Nobody did. Seventeen students in Florida were massacred that day. I spent my time in the sun trying to distract myself. No more. But we all lose if we let these horrors negate our kinship.
Every single one of us is vulnerable to sorrow and screw-ups. So how about treating one another and ourselves with respect, and see what happens? Give up slander for Lent. Truth is, the Eighth Commandment takes a lot of guts to pull off. And a lot of love. Better late than never.