We think of Lent as many things: a journey; a time of discipline, solemnity and self-denial; a time to engage in self-examination, to prepare for the joy of Easter and resurrection. Whatever we may have decided to do to mark this season, we enter it hoping to carry it all the way through to the end. After all, if Jesus could spend 40 days and nights in the wilderness fasting, praying, and resisting the temptation to “be God” or to test God, the least we who follow him can do is give up chocolate, pray more, and try to stick it out until the Great Vigil. Praying more and being diligent with our chosen disciplines are good things; I’ll leave it to you to deal with your chocolate.
But do we ever think of Lent in terms of being gentle? Here’s a pitch for observing a “gentle Lent”. Not that we should just sit back, relax, and let spiritual practices slide. But there are practices that might make the keeping of a gentle Lent productive, meaningful, and spiritual.
Be gentle with others. Who is in need of a kind word, a helping hand; a donation of some kind, monetary or material; a shoulder to cry on, an ear ready to listen? Who needs the kind of help and support that only you can give? Make yourself available. Where is that person with whom you’ve had a misunderstanding, or an argument that goes unresolved? Make every effort to make peace with that person, remembering that the mission of the Church is reconciliation both with God and one another. It’s so easy to indulge in the very human tendency to judge another person, consciously or not, because of something that person cannot help or simply because of who that person is. Such thoughts can slip so easily into our minds. Remember that God’s grace, love, and mercy extend to all. No exceptions. Be gentle with others.
Be gentle with the creation. Buy only what is needed. Less consumption means less waste. Recycle whenever possible. Become an ethical and sensitive user and consumer; keep in mind your carbon footprint. Get acquainted, or re-acquainted, with God’s world. Remember that “the earth is the Lord’s.” Be gentle with the creation.
Be gentle with your community, and with the world and its people. Look to the needs of your neighbors; what can you do to meet those needs? Work for cooperation and understanding among those of different religions, different races, different backgrounds, doing whatever can be done to eliminate stereotypical thinking, for we are all children of God. Pray for peace, advocate for justice, be proactive in showing compassion to the hungry, the homeless. Where you have been blessed with abundance, give something back. Remember: Isaiah reminds us of the fast that God finds acceptable: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke. Focus more on the common good, and less on individual salvation, because Christ has already taken care of that second item. Be gentle with your community, and with the world and its people.
And finally, be gentle with yourself. This may be the most difficult of all, because we all tend to have blinders on when it comes to both our strengths and our weaknesses; and because even though being gentle with oneself may sound as though we’re taking permission to be lax about our Godly habits, the truth is that we tend to be inappropriately and inaccurately hard on ourselves, rather than too easy. And so as Paul reminds us, first and foremost let us be reconciled to God, for Christ’s sake. Strengthen your relationship with God in prayer. Relinquish the need for control – of others, of oneself, and of God and God’s purposes. There is tremendous stress associated with the need for control. Like that ubiquitous song from Frozen reminds us, “Let it go!” Accept your complete and utter dependence on God, and be grateful for the love that God shows us; because with God we have everything we need. God gives us the gift of community; so if there is any self-denial to be engaged in, let it be the denial of individualism - the self-centered tendencies we all have to rely on ourselves and our own strength, which serves to isolate us from God and from one another. Be gentle with yourself.
What will each of us do with these next 40 days? How will we spend our time and energy between now and the Great Vigil of Easter; and most important, how will our choices shape the way we live our lives far, far beyond that?