By Olive Tree Staff: Molly Van Ryn

I still remember the first Lent that I was really considered old enough to give something up on my own.  It was jr high, and like just about everything at that age it quickly turned into a contest.  For weeks lunchtime conversations revolved around Lent: who was giving up the hardest thing, who had been successful the longest, who had fallen off the wagon and whether they were going to try again.  Most people gave up some sort of food, like candy or soda.  Some brave souls even went so far as to give up television, to exclamations of “No way!  That’s so hard!  You’ll never make it!”

I don’t remember what I gave up that year, or whether I carried it through until Easter.  But I vividly recall the jockeying for position.  The people who were giving up something that was perceived as more difficult exuded a sense of smug superiority, only to be replaced by people who had picked something easier and stuck with it.  I learned a lot of lessons from that about setting realistic goals, but hardly any about being in relationship with God, or what the season of Lent is actually about.

Since then, my relationship with Lent has evolved.  There was the year that I realized that not all Christians participate in Lent in the way that I always had.  I was just beginning the long journey of understanding how many ways there are to be Christian and starting to take ownership of the path I had chosen.  This was the year that I first did Lent as a conscious choice, instead of just as something that everyone did.  Then there was the year I came to the conclusion that I could add a spiritual discipline to my life, such as a more dedicated time of prayer in my day, instead of picking something to give up.  It was immensely freeing to have this whole other set of options I hadn’t considered before.  It really helped me to focus on the idea that Lent isn’t about getting rid of bad habits, a sort of 40 days of self-help, but an opportunity to grow closer to God and focus on preparing myself for the celebration of His passion.

I look forward to Lent these days.  It’s no longer about picking the most difficult thing I can think of.  I don’t feel particularly comfortable anymore telling people what I’ve chosen to do for a given year, unless I want them to help keep me accountable.  But there is something very meaningful to me in having those 40 days of discipline set aside each year.  It is an annual reminder to evaluate my relationship with God, to dust the cobwebs out of the corners of my prayer life and be mindful of ways in which I am not prepared to receive the gift that was offered on the cross.  It gives me a reason to set aside resources that I might otherwise consider indispensable to the other areas of my life, a boost to drop the excuses I surround myself with.  And I know that there is a community around me, waiting and anticipating as Easter approaches.