The discipline of failure
Part of the Lenten experience is grace received when good intentions miss the mark.
By Amy Butler
It’s Lent again, and that means everybody is talking about what they are giving up. Many of us have been gearing up to make the most of the liturgical season, so much so that I felt a little guilty last week when I filled the candy jar in my office with half-priced, post-Valentine’s Day chocolate.
Along with whatever practice we’re taking on or giving up, it seems like feeling guilty becomes a regular liturgical practice during Lent. I can’t remember one single Lent during which I managed to perfectly keep my resolution.
Not growing up in a tradition where Lent was practiced, I’d never even heard of Lent until I was an adult. But during my college days, I stumbled into an Ash Wednesday service and thought I had discovered an incredibly novel Christian practice.
Like a child seeing something wonderful for the first time, I was a Christian for whom the Church’s traditions of Lent were new and unusual. What a great idea, I thought, to take a specific, set time during the year to be thoughtful and intentional about life in general, to clear time and space in all the busy-ness in order to listen for God and to see life from a clearer perspective.
I didn’t realize then how very hard it actually is to successfully change a habit or add a practice to my busy and often mindless living. Lent quickly became an exercise in setting out with good intentions and somehow missing the mark.
Over the years, my Lenten resolutions have enjoyed varied levels of success. There have been high points, like the year I decided to adhere to a disciplined schedule of reading material, for example. I almost made it the whole five weeks.
But the year I thought it would be a good idea to exercise every day -- not so much. Last year’s “become a vegan for Lent” experiment was a total failure. Every year I try, and every year it seems that I can never get this Lenten practice done perfectly.
For me, Lent is always a little exercise in failure.
Only a week in, and this year I’ve already missed a day or two of my intended Lenten practice. Exasperated about my recent failure, I began to wonder if, perhaps, this annual experience of falling short is exactly as it should be.
Maybe the real work of Lent is not succeeding with flying colors at whatever Lenten habit you decide to take on, but instead gaining a concentrated experience of personal failure covered with an assurance of God’s forgiveness and love.
Perhaps the season of Lent is like a life laboratory, a close-up experience of intending to live life one way and falling short -- a time when we can experience failure and forgiveness in small ways and maybe even remember that the grace we experience in the small things is there for the big ones, too.
After all, every one of us experiences failure in life -- even those of us who seem especially holy. Often those failures are more serious than giving in and raiding the candy jar.
In this awareness, I am living Lent this year as a small-scale reminder that God’s forgiveness and grace are offered freely in all the many ways I fail, big or small.
So, perhaps this year, rather than living a totally pure and chocolate-less Lent, the real work for us all is remembering God’s grace and forgiveness for the whole of life, even, and most especially, in the big failures for which we can never seem to forgive ourselves.
This Lent I am going to try to remember that. If I fail, well….
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