I Gave Up “Normal” for Lent

Grace and peace to you all. May this find you enjoying good health and abundant hope.

Friends, we are in a new season. Last Thursday at 11:50pm EDT we entered spring the earliest we have in the last 124 years. I love the vernal equinox and the energy of life that is budding and blooming and bursting out of its cold winter shell.

On the church calendar we are still in the season of Lent. These are the days before Easter when the church has traditionally practiced the spiritual disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. It is a time when Christians have often ‘given up’ something. Refraining from something, whether it be a particular food or beverage or activity, has served as a sort of cue for a deeper life of prayer and reflection and gratefulness.

Meanwhile in the real world we are in a season of pandemic as the COVID-19 virus makes its way around the world wreaking havoc. It is a deadly virus and it transmits easily. It takes some time before symptoms are evident, so people are carriers of the virus without even knowing it. In fact, some people are asymptomatic which means they never even suspect that they have put others at risk. We are still figuring out what it is that we are up against. Scientists and doctors and researchers are working feverishly to find the answers that we need. Manufacturers of ventilators, masks, and PPE (personal protective equipment) are working overtime to try to meet demand. Nursing homes and hospitals are bracing for the worst-case scenario. It is a frightening season indeed!

As with the change in the seasons, there are trends and numbers that we can track. We know spring is coming when the temperatures begin to warm. We can see the increase in flowering plants and trees. With the virus we can see the numbers rising as well. They are not only rising but rising rapidly. The number of new cases increases daily. The death toll goes up as well. The stress and strain is also on the rise. Anxiety may be hard to measure, but it is certainly there. Fear is present and obvious on people’s faces. Worry is not in short supply. Indeed, anxiety, fear, and worry are the things that seem most readily available. Watch the news, listen to the radio, check your social media—these three are everywhere.

Is it a coincidence that this crisis and Lent have come at the same time? Surely it is. Viruses do not follow the church calendar. Disease is not done on a regular schedule.
But while it may be coincidence, the fact that they are going on contemporaneously could be instructive. Many people were not anticipating giving something up this Lent, but all of us have.

I wasn’t really planning a strict Lenten discipline for myself this year. Indeed, after a season of grief and loss, a mission trip, an illness, and a need for rest, I was looking at Lent as a time to hopefully catch my breath. There would be additional church activities, like always. But I was not going to burden myself. On the first day of Lent, Matthew 11:28 popped up: “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.” (Mt. 11:28, CEB). Thank you, Lord, a little time to take it easier would be just the ticket. Not giving up much, not taking on much, just a few weeks of routine would be welcomed.

I know that pandemics and disasters are not created just for me. I know I did not cause this crisis. But I also did not realize what we would all be giving up. I elected (not really!) to give up ‘normal’ for Lent! That’s exactly what it feels like. This set of strict circumstances was handed not only to me, but to all of us. As if God said, ‘let the whole world have a season of Lent this year. Let the nations learn to do life differently.’

So we had to give up travel. Once the origin of the virus was identified travel started to be restricted. The science says that the virus needs a carrier and if we slow down the rate of travel we will slow the rate of transmission. Correct. Except that the virus was already making its way all over the globe before we could curtail the route. Airplanes and cruise ships and who knows what else were already spreading the virus.

So we had to give up sports. Well, actually large crowds. Major sports leagues had to cancel; colleges and universities had to cease; eventually all school sports were shutdown. There would be no March Madness. I have known folks to give up the NCAA Tournament for Lent (in Kentucky, no less!), but this was a shocking development.

So we had to give up school, or at least assembling at school. These places where millions of young people are crowded together and spend hours in dorms and cafeterias and classrooms were shut down to avoid possibly spreading the virus.

So we had to give up church. How odd, the notion that we gave up church for Lent. But churches and houses of worship put people into close contact with one another; there are handshakes and hugs, passing the peace and passing the plate. Spiritual leaders like myself had to scramble and rethink ways to keep connected to our flocks who were now scattered abroad and shuttered away in their own homes.

We gave up ‘normal’ for Lent. Lots of things that we have taken for granted and always assumed would be readily available are now suspended, at least temporarily. A season without ‘normal.’ What does that mean? What are we to take from this?

Perhaps we are reminded that ‘normal’ is a social construct that depends on lots of people and elements all working and working together. It takes farmers and truckers and teachers and helpers and medical staff and clerks and workers and a whole bunch of people putting in their labor to keep it all together. ‘Normal’ has lots of moving parts, or to say it better, lots of contributing people.

Perhaps we need to remember that much of life is ‘non-essential’ in some ways. If we can survive a few weeks without some things, then we may want to re-evaluate their place in our lives. What is ‘essential’ in our culture? What is over-valued? What or who is priceless?

Perhaps we should look at what we really need—food, family, faith, friends, fresh air, feelings of belonging and value. Maybe we should be putting more energy and effort into these people and places.

When we come out of this crisis—and we will—one benefit of this season will be a ‘new normal’ that truly values people and their place in our lives—that is what is most essential. Let’s not give that up at all.

Be safe. Be Healthy. Be good to one another.
Blessings, Les

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