When my son and his male cousins headed to college, my daughter’s gift to them was a colorful book called “A Man, a Can, a Plan,” by David Joachim and the editors of Men’s Health.
Clever and presumably practical, it contained easy recipes for the man on his own. Realistically, however, a can opener was largely a foreign object to these guys, and if it couldn’t be accessed and consumed through a pop top, well, what good was it?
Nevertheless, that title stuck with me. I like plans. I may not always be much better at keeping them than a 19-year-old with a recipe book, but at least it helps me find a target and take a shot.
I think many of us feel this way about Lent. We see a target. We want to accomplish growth during Lent. I think that’s one reason that Ash Wednesday services are so crowded. We have good intentions. Sometimes, we don’t finish as strong as we start. And then we grow discouraged.
Let’s face it. Whether it’s life itself, or Lent, we need a plan. Of course, life teaches us that the “best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry.” (Thanks, Robert Burns.)
In this life, it seems we walk a delicate balancing act between conscientiously planning for our lives and then accepting that our plans may be turned upside down in a moment. And sometimes, it’s the turning upside down moments that yield the most value.
Perhaps walking in this tension is what we are called to do this Lent. Listening for the God of surprises might be our Lenten resolution.
But even listening requires some structure. Without a plan, the 40 days of Lent slip away. The best way to stay on course: Keep a daily Lenten journal. List your goals, and each day write a short reflection on how you’re doing. Don’t make it burdensome. Keep it short and sweet, your progress and your inevitable failures open to the God of surprises.
The church provides us with three “pillars” of Lent — prayer, fasting and almsgiving. I like to think of these more like a circle, each pulling us more deeply toward the other.
Since the goal of Lent — and of our entire Christian life — is to build a relationship with Christ, it would seem that we would turn our attention first to prayer. Without quiet time to listen, our plans are futile. There are so many good online guides to prayer — sacredspace.ie and ignatianspirituality.com, to name a couple of my favorites. Parishes often offer materials as well.
Setting impossibly high bars is a recipe for failure, but anyone can commit to 10 minutes of prayerful listening a day.
Next, consider fasting. A temptation is to turn Lent’s sacrifices into a self-help program. Don’t make weight loss your motivation. Lent is not a prelude to swimsuit season. That doesn’t mean that a struggle with food or alcohol can’t be an issue to deal with during Lent. Only you know what fasting will be best for you.
Many people fast from screen time and use the extra minutes and hours for family time or prayer or serving a charity. Or they give up eating out or clothes shopping and donate the money. Then, both our fasting and our almsgiving become sacrificial. Rereading the corporal works of mercy prepares us for Lent’s call to sacrifice.
So, get that journal. Make those plans. Consider sharing them with someone. And be open and ready for the God of surprises to upend your life in ways you least expect.
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