I had been in church for twenty-three years of Sunday mornings before I ever heard a sermon about Lent. In the non-denominational church of my childhood and adolescence, we had nothing that resembled liturgy, and anything that gave the appearance of an affiliation with Catholicism was frowned upon. Later, there were other churches and numerous chapel services at college, but still, no one ever talked about Lent.
So when Matt, my pastor and my friend, mentioned from his little music-stand podium that we might want to give up something for Lent that year, I bristled. I knew Lent was a thing, but it wasn’t our thing. This small, intimate church that I recently found didn’t do Lent, did it? Wasn’t that a little... rules-y?
In every church I had ever been a part of, there had been a common refrain: God doesn’t want us to be “legalistic.” The definition of legalism, though, was always vague and subjective. Basically, the legalist is whoever has more rules than you do. I grew up in a Christian tradition that was focused on adherence to rules and good behavior. There was irony in the fact that my childhood church that had told me what I couldn’t say, watch, listen to, and eat had sold me a message that churches with liturgical traditions were somehow too rules-obsessed.
On the Sunday when Matt preached about Lent, he told us that it is a tradition which allows for believers in Christ to prepare prayerfully for the hope of Resurrection. It is practiced in several denominations. Fasting was one option for observing the forty days leading up to Easter, but one could also choose to give up something other than food. As long as it is something important that will make the Lent-observer aware of what they are sacrificing, it is fine.
Matt suggested that we should each choose something to give up until Easter. What does he know, I asked myself. I was wearing my well-honed “listening to a sermon” scowl: crossed arms, furrowed brow, lips pursed and off to the side. Matt was in his mid-twenties, like me, and sometimes I thought he had no business being in charge of a church. It was not that he was bad at it; on the contrary, he was good at it. It was just that if Matt was old and mature enough to be in charge of a church, then I should have been old and mature enough to be in charge of something too, and I wasn’t. I was in charge of nothing more than my bedroom in my mom’s basement, my car, the miniscule paycheck I brought home as a substitute teacher, and my wedding plans.
Did he really think this would be a good idea? What was the benefit of giving up meat for a month, or swearing, or desserts, or whatever else we might think of? Wasn’t this just a way for people to go on a diet and blame it on Jesus?
I was having trouble with rules those days. They were a part of the religion I was trying to escape. Giving up something for Lent sounded an awful lot like introducing new rules into my life, and there was nothing I could imagine that would be worse.
rules of my childhood in an independent, Evangelical church in rural Indiana
The religious rules of the missionary organization I joined when I was fourteen, which took me to places like Australia and Nepal and India for two months out of every year until I left for college, included:
As Matt talked about choosing to sacrifice as a way of lament, I found myself thinking back on all the ways that religious rules had hurt me, especially those related to abstaining from things.
When your church tells you to abstain from Halloween, you don’t get to participate in the school costume contest, no matter how much you love dressing up in costumes. Instead, you and the other three or four kids from your church sit in the school library during the annual costume parade. The school is open concept, and so while you color pictures with your church friends and siblings, you watch as everyone else marches through the halls in silly clothes and hats, your teachers included, and you wonder what about this is supposed to be evil. You and the others end up drawing masks on your coloring paper. As you hold them to your faces, you can’t help but wonder if this is “celebrating the Devil’s holiday.” If the children’s pastor came into the library right now, would you be ashamed of your behavior? Your librarian pities you. You can see it in her face.
When a charismatic and charming youth evangelist shouts into a microphone at a massive youth convention that the devil is trying to destroy your generation through the quadruple-threat of drugs, alcohol, sex, and MTV, you are terrified of losing your soul. And so you commit. You commit to eschewing all secular music, all rated-R movies, all “appearance of evil.” This is especially true if you are only eleven when you are first exposed to the youth evangelist’s teaching, and you have no filter to determine what is authentic and what is not. He tells all of you in the stadium—but mostly you, awkward little middle school you—that he knows the heart of God. “You must be set apart,” he says. “You must be different from the rest of the world,” he says. “If no one can tell you are a Christian through your actions, then how are you going to save anyone from hell? The blood of your friends will be on your hands on Judgment Day.” You buy in, and you don’t do anything that would damage your witness. Your peers aren’t convinced by your devotion, though, and you never see the revival come to pass that the evangelist promises is in God’s plans. You are filled with guilt.
When your youth minister tells you that, “Questions are the beginning of temptation, and temptation is the beginning of lawlessness,” you write it down in your sermon notebook and ruminate on its meaning. Is it really wrong to ask questions? Should you even have asked that question? Your youth pastor loves you. Your youth pastor wants what is best for you. Why would she tell you something that isn’t true? Your parents say that it is fine to ask questions about anything, but how do you know that your parents are right?
I was eighteen when I finally broke a rule. It was an unwritten one, because that felt safer. I was on my fifth international missions trip, this one to Kolkata, India. The man in charge of the trip was only three years older than me, but he wielded his authority like a weapon. During morning devotionals, he read scriptures about the importance of submitting to leadership. When we traveled through airport terminals and baggage claims and new cities, we were told that we each could ask only one question per day. If we were late for a meal or accidentally let our chairs scrape hard against the concrete floors of our hostel, we had to do twenty push-ups.
I didn’t like him.
I had known a short lifetime of spiritual leaders who loved and praised me for my adherence to the rules, and here was this guy, treating me like I needed more of them. Didn’t he know I knew what I was doing? I wasn’t some thirteen-year-old on her first trip overseas. I wasn’t a kid. I was old enough to vote. I had spent more time as a teenage missionary that this guy ever had. I resented him and his rules.
Of course, he was simply the representative of a childhood full of repressed desires and careful behavior. When I looked at him, my eyes saw a twenty-one-year-old authoritarian with a need to control my actions. My heart saw something else. My heart saw every screaming evangelist, every youth minister, every senior pastor, every adult who told me that the only way to please God was to obey. Obey everyone.
I decided to break a rule.
We were supposed to avoid everything secular. If it wasn’t made for the church, we were not to consume it. Almost all movies, in particular, were off limits during the missions experience. I loved movies at home, and sometimes I even watched R-rated ones if I felt my youth pastor wouldn’t be disappointed in me. On the first flight of our trip, we got permission to watch the World War II drama Enemy at the Gates, but only if we covered the screen with our hands and took out our headphones when Jude Law and Rachel Weisz’s characters had sex. As missionaries, we were supposed to “guard our hearts” and “avoid the appearance of evil.”
I was standing in an airport bookstore when I saw the appearance of evil. It was in the form of a picture of Jude Law on the cover of Biography magazine. He had been in enough PG-13 movies that I knew his pretty face well. If I had allowed myself to put up posters in my locker or on my walls of attractive performers, he would have been the one. Gorgeous, British, dressed in layers upon layers of scarves and jackets; everything an eighteen-year-old in 2001 would fall for.
I looked at the trip leader. He was buying a bottle of water. I looked at the magazine. Jude was staring at me. The trip leader was putting away his change. Jude Law kept staring with sleepy, sexy eyes. Buying that magazine would imply that I was curious about the world outside of the church. It would suggest that I was interested in sex and celebrity and beautiful men.
I picked it up and carried it to the checkout.
Never has a teenager’s heart pounded so hard while buying an innocuous and unsensational magazine. It felt as forbidden as pornography. Feeling brave, I let the leader see the magazine as I purchased it, then carried it with me until I had a chance to sit down and read it. It was as if I could taste my leader’s disgust with me in my mouth.
Just a couple of years later, I realized that he probably didn’t care. My scandalous act was not, in fact, scandalous. I was not advertising my sexuality or announcing that I was a rebel. I was just a girl buying a magazine. When you have followed the rules your whole life, the tiniest step outside the lines feels like a rebellion.
It has been a decade since Matt preached that sermon on Lent, and I consented to give up something for the forty days leading up to Easter. What it was doesn’t matter. I emailed Matt recently to ask what he thinks about the observance and what verses he might use when preaching about it. He replied quickly, as he always does when I pester him, and gave me a list of facts and scriptures that might inform my understanding of the whole idea.
What did he say in that sermon that made me willing to give it a try? From the moment I bought Jude Law’s cover story, I had been on a tear, rejecting every rule I had internalized from all those churches and youth ministries. My rebellion was minor in comparison to some of my peers, who found relief from religion through massive amounts of alcohol or very young marriages to people who were very bad for them. It felt significant to me nonetheless. I watched movies. I read books. I listened to music. I kissed men. I danced in nightclubs. I learned to swear. I changed my mind on politics. I stopped feeling guilty for not praying.
Why would I have decided that yes, I was willing to abstain from something for the sake of religion? What could Matt have said that made me put away my sermon scowl and relax my arms and say, “Okay, yeah, I’m going to do this”?
In recent weeks, as I have thought about doing Lent again for the first time in several years, I have tried to remember what made me commit that first time. I finally figured it out. No one was going to make me.
Matt wasn’t going to hold it against me if I chose not to. I was an adult, and my parents didn’t care if I observed or not. There was no pressure from my friends, who didn’t assign any moral or eternal significance to the decision to participate. If I failed, there were no repercussions.
The decision was entirely up to me. I could abstain, or I could partake.
The religious leaders of my childhood seemed to think that if they didn’t rule us, we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves, and we would behave in shameful, sinful ways. I used to think that the rules were what kept me in line. They were what prevented me from losing control. Now I understand. The rules were about controlling us through shame.
I might give up something for Lent this year.
I might not.
Liz Boltz Ranfeld is Instructor of English at Anderson University, teaching English composition and creative writing.