1

There is a meme going around Episcopal Facebook about Lent. It is not surprising that this meme has found traction in the modern church that is more Pelagian than it realizes. With sermons and programs that focus on what you can do for God (note: it is always more than what you are currently doing), it is easy to see Lent as a chance to work harder and do more. 

I remember being a high school student in south Alabama when the local non-denominational churches would dispatch their youth groups into the unsaved halls of our public high school for the “40 Day Challenge.” This Lent by another name (because Lent sounds a little too Roman, am I right?) consisted of 40 tasks to accomplish, like talking to a certain number of people about Jesus and wearing a cross in permanent marker on your hands to silently witness throughout the day. 

I was a member of the Episcopal parish youth group. We definitely did Lent, but not like that — ours was a subtle Lenten season. I longed for the matching youth group t-shirts and bracelets and the accompanying feeling of being in. One year I quietly asked an evangelical friend to bring me a copy of the 40 Day Challenge book that contained that year’s challenges. I quickly drew a cross on my hands and counted myself as one of the elect.

Much has changed in my life since I was in high school. The 40 Day Challenge and my desire to do more for Jesus has not. I still see many people and groups proposing interesting and varied ways to work harder in the name of Jesus for Lent. You can give up something, take on something, give away a bag of clothes each day, stop using plastic straws, or any number of other things, all in an attempt to be your best self — for God. These things are not bad in themselves, but Lent can quickly become primarily about us and what we are doing and less about what Jesus has done. 

2

On Ash Wednesday this year, I led an evening service at a small local congregation that does not have full-time clergy. Seventeen people filled the small nave as we prayed at the beginning of the Lenten season.

When it came time for the imposition of ashes, the congregation formed a line and made their way to the front of the church to be reminded of their mortality. A ninety-year-old woman stepped forward with tears in her eyes, the same woman who told me over and over about her father-in-law carrying stones across the road to build the church in 1924. As she stepped forward I looked into her eyes that have seen almost one hundred years and proclaimed the absolute truth, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” As I smudged the ash on her forehead, her eyes closed and she turned to walk back to her pew. 

Right behind her, a seven-year-old girl stood at her mother’s feet. Tears quickly filled my eyes as I crouched down and smudged ashes on her young forehead and repeated the words I had just proclaimed to a nonagenarian, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” 

3

On the first Sunday of Lent, my family went to the early service at our parish. It always feels dangerous to bring a toddler to the early service at an Episcopal church. Those early morning congregations with their love of traditional language and silence have a (misplaced) reputation for despising children and joy. 

My daughter is an active toddler and spends most church services singing or running around in the lobby. This Sunday, she ran into the living room of the church and grabbed the pillows off the couch. She came back into the church and laid a pillow down next to our pew. 

As the priest stood in front of the congregation and proclaimed the absolution of sins and the Comfortable Words, my daughter laid her head down on the pillow on the church floor.

Hear the Word of God to all who truly turn to him.
Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.

*

I never know what to do for Lent. I want to find the right book to read or the right prayer practice to take on. I want to figure out what I can do in Lent to make Easter the best it can be and, in turn, make me the best I can be. I want to do more for God. I want to try harder for Jesus. I still want the 40 Day Challenge book. 

My spiritual teacher this Lent is Paul Rudd’s character from the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall. In this irreverent comedy, Paul Rudd is a surf instructor teaching the wayward protagonist the way of the waves. Jason Segel lies on a surfboard parked on the sand and attempts to “pop up” to standing, a key skill when surfing. Rudd says, “Don’t do anything. Don’t try to surf. Don’t do it. The less you do, the more you do.” 

After several failed attempts to stand up correctly, Rudd repeats, “Do less.” 

That is my Lenten discipline. That is my preparation for Easter.

I am going to do less. 

Jesus doesn’t ask us to work harder or do more. He doesn’t want you to be your best self. The season of preparation for the Resurrection is not a chance to try your New Year’s resolution again. It is not a spiritual boot camp. 

Lent is a season to remember that you are mortal and that you are redeemed through Christ. It is a season for the ninety-year-old and the seven-year-old to join together in praising the one who pulls us all up from the grave. 

I am trying something new for Lent, something I learned from my daughter. I am going to rest. I am going to grab a pillow and lay down as the words of Jesus wash over me.

Jesus doesn’t want the ideal version of you. He wants you. 

God doesn’t require anything from you. The work has already been done. 

The real 40 Day Challenge is this: Can you stop your running and your striving to be spiritual? Can you rest in the knowledge that God sees you at this moment and loves you more than you can ask or imagine? Can you let yourself truly believe that God loves you exactly as you are and not as you could or should be?

Let that truth saturate your being in the next forty days. Let that be your Lenten practice. Do less.