When I was a kid, the mail nearly every winter day was heavy with the weight of seed catalogs and farm implement sales bills. My dad loved to garden. Even more, he loved to plan for his garden. He studied the catalogs with the keen insight of an experienced scientist. His purchases always included a carefully determined mixture of tomato, green bean, and sweet corn varieties that were known hits and others that were experiments, attempts at taking the best sweet corn ever up a notch higher or producing a tomato crop that would outdo last year's. No garden ever received more loving attention, particularly in the winter months, while the ground lay frozen and dormant.
I think of Lent much like the time my dad spent planning for his garden. Like the tilling of the soil and the anticipation of the seeds that would be planted, my Lenten disciplines are preparations for growth, removing that which blocks it, taking up that which is needed to nourish.
I'm new to the practice of observing a Lenten discipline. I grew up Baptist. I knew nothing about the ashes, except that they were something the Catholics did, and the Baptists had determined Jesus made no longer necessary. Though my worship professor in seminary worked diligently to correct all the years of Baptist irreverence for all things liturgical in his students and teach us a thing or two about the Christian year, I still don't have the deep intuitive sense about the meaning of some celebrations on the Christian calendar.
I admit I don't get how giving up caffeine or sweets or sex or whatever helps one prepare for growth. More to the point, I haven't yet figured out how it helps me. I do understand that it's meaningful for others. I've heard many stories about how the absence of something that's part of others daily lives reminds them to focus on God, to reflect on that which gets in the way of them connecting with God. I've just never had any success finding a deeper connection with God that way.
Instead, following the pattern I started a few years ago, when I decided that I was going to give up the habit of "catastrophizing" for Lent, I've chosen to consider the patterns of behavior or thinking that keep me from fully connecting to God and to those around me and choosing to allow the period of Lent to be a time-limited experiment of giving up those patterns, knowing that I can take them back up afterward, if necessary, but also realizing that in most cases they are things I don't want in my life anymore and that after 40 days of living without them, I'm much better able to let go of them for good.
Giving up the habit of catastrophizing opened me up to one of the greatest transformations of my life, and while I don't expect that kind of dramatic change to happen every year, I do see the potential a yearly tilling of the soil and examination of what's needed for growth can bring to my life. The imposition of ashes is a reminder of my mortality. Life is short. I don't have forever to wait for those things which are most important to me to just happen. For life to have the meaning I desire, I have to be intentional about the choices I make. Letting go of patterns of behavior or thinking that get in the way of that kind of intentional living seems to make the most sense to me in the season of Lent.
My Lenten discipline this year started calling to me some time in November or December. I didn't have to reflect much to decide what I wanted to give up. It emerged naturally over the course of several weeks, like the cycle of growth that planting, harvesting, and waiting that exists in the natural world around me.
Still, I'm struggling to let go. I'm trying to give up the questions of inadequacy this year, the ones that ask: Am I smart enough? Good enough? Creative enough? Attractive enough?, etc. I know the patterns well. I even understand the role they play. But letting go of them means taking up the discipline of risking and working hard to move toward those things that I want most for my life. Letting go means having faith to move beyond that which has held me back most of my life.
I'm not asking anyone to tell me I'm enough, because someone else's perspective isn't what I really need. What I need is courage to believe what I already know is true, because if I truly believe it, my actions will follow.
That, my friends, is my struggle in the darkness of winter, while I pore over the seed catalogs of possibilities for my life.