For most of my life, everything I knew about Lent had been learned in the Catholic school cafeteria: give something up for forty days and make sure to tell your friends. The best way to conquer Lent was to choose something that didn’t really matter that much to you so it wasn’t a real chore but you still got credit.

I grew up going to a very non-liturgical evangelical church. There was no church calendar, except the one for social events. There was no changing of the vestments, no vestments at all actually. There were no colorful table linens to let me know what season it was. The only changes to the front of the church were the sets that had to stay up for our week-long Vacation Bible Schools and our two-week run of the Christmas pageant. The church year could be separated into two parts, after Christmas/before Easter and after Easter/before Christmas.

My Catholic school taught me what little I knew about the rhythm of the church year, the rituals and liturgy foreign to me but appealing to my ten year old heart. I wanted to go to confession; I wanted to give something up for Lent. It only seemed fair that I should sacrifice something for Jesus, who had sacrificed his life for me. But mostly I just wanted to talk to my friends about my endeavor.

I never had the courage to try to actually participate in a Lenten fast until college. Some Episcopal friends were discussing what they would give up while we sat in the dining hall, and I thought I would join in. Thinking back to my days at the Catholic school, I looked around the cafeteria and chose French fries. I liked fries but not enough to notice for a mere six weeks. And it would probably benefit my quest to maintain my weight. Double win! I would give up French fries.

Anyone who has read Romans 7 knows how this goes. “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” I think I made it most of those six weeks — I’m a little fuzzy on the details — but I know one thing now: I love French fries. I cannot eat just one. In fact, I can eat many. They are now one of my favorite foods. When I told my husband this story, he looked confused. “But giving up French fries would be impossible for you!” He has only known me post-college. Lent changed my relationship with fries. And Lent has always been a failure for me.

My view of Lent changed when I was living in New York post college. I attended a Lenten study group in the crypt of Calvary/St. George’s, reading through Augustine’s Confessions. I don’t remember much, but I remember the group leader saying, “We are supposed to fail at our Lenten fast. Lent is a time to reflect on our inability to save ourselves and Lent points to our need for a Savior.” A right view of Lent allows us to look on our own futile attempts at sacrifice or fasting and remember that only one could perfectly make it through a wilderness journey of temptation.

I wish I had learned that as a child. It’s one of the reasons I love StoryMakers. The zines teach our children the Gospel in a child-friendly way and help us as parents navigate some of the trickier parts of life and faith.

Lent, in many ways, is to Easter what Advent is to Christmas. We are not gluttons for punishment or intent on ruining everyone’s lives. Lent is a time to look to the crucifixion, to examine our own hearts and remember why we desperately need atonement, why we desperately need our risen Savior. Learning the rhythm of the church calendar, of Advent preceding Christmas, Lent preceding Easter, we learn the rhythm of life. If we skip right to Easter, we miss the current state of our situation. Life is not one big celebration. Everything is not yet right. If we only celebrate the glory of Easter, we discount why we need Easter. If we do not walk through darkness, we will not know we need the light.

Unlike what I learned as a child, Lent is not about giving something up to earn favor with God. In the latest StoryMakers Lent zine, we learn it is a season of preparation and reflection, a chance to remember why God’s Son needed to come and die a humiliating death and why we rejoice that he rose again. I join with Paul when he writes, “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Last year, I had a more “successful” Lent, if by success I mean truly reflecting on my need for the good news of the Gospel. I gave up something very specific: eating chocolate alone in my pantry. I realized that over the course of the winter, when my children were too loud or asking me for yet another snack or resentment built in me, I turned not to a gracious Lord but to my pantry and, specifically, my chocolate-covered toffee squares from Central Market. I would hide in there and eat the chocolate and, for a moment, forget that I still had not done the laundry or the dishes or anything. Chocolate and self-indulgence were my saviors. Giving those up led me to consider how badly I wanted to be the perfect mom and how I had been consoling myself in my imperfection. It wasn’t about not having the chocolate. It was about remembering that I am not a perfect wife and mom and that I don’t need to hide from that in the pantry. I am loved in my imperfections, and I am saved in spite of my resentment.

P. S. — Click here for more info about the latest StoryMakers release (and use the code MBIRD2021 for a 5% discount).