This week is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. And I think it’s downright sinful that non-Christians should be excluded from one of my favorite seasons. It’s like Christmas – I celebrate the birth of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean others can’t enjoy a season of giving and celebration.

OK, so forty days of self-denial, sacrifice, and penitence might not be as much fun as a season of presents and parties and spiked eggnog. But bear with me.

The Burden of Shame

Judging from the stats and comments on my blog, people are very interested in the issues of shame, guilt, and making amends. I got more comments from friends about my post Imagine Apologizing than anything else I’ve written, and you would be surprised how often people Google the phrase “What Color is Shame?” and end up at my post by that name. I get several every week.

Weird, right? What’s that about?

I’m glad you asked.

I think that even the non-God-inclined sense that the burdens of shame and guilt call for something beyond our brains. They seek relief in something deeper — maybe in something sensory, like color?

By their very nature, shame and guilt are things that people don’t talk about easily. That’s why they weigh so much. We try to carry them all by ourselves. We trip about on the internet, looking for answers in stranger’s blogs.

Sacks of Shame

Turning Around

It makes sense that with this kind of human longing for relief or redemption – whatever you want to call it – most major religions include a season of self-examination and repentance.

(By the way, the concept of repentance isn’t as burdensome as it sounds, all sackcloth and ashy. It basically means to turn around or to change your mind.)

We need to deal with our mistakes and regrets before we can be at peace and move on, but that’s not too easy if we intend to commit the same offense again. That’s where a change of mind comes in – repentance.

My point here is that whether you are religious or not, you could probably benefit from an intentional season of repentance. Set aside some time, perhaps getting away by yourself for a day or two, to reflect on the ways you fall short of who you would like to be. Take along a journal so you don’t conveniently forget any commitments you make to yourself.

You might consider doing without something for a period of time – fasting from food, television, social media, caffeine, gossip, or alcohol. Stripping away some of the things you think are oh-so-important can remind you of what actually *is* important.

What’s Lent, Anyway?

I won’t go into the details of Lent as a Christian practice. There is plenty written on that – here is one interesting history. The forty-day season of self-sacrifice and fasting leading up to Easter Sunday has been around longer than any denomination, since near the beginning of the faith. The concept of a season of repentance, teshuva, is deeply rooted in the Hebrew faith, from which Christianity sprang.

Personally, I never observed Lent until about ten years ago. I wasn’t raised in a religious tradition, and my only childhood experience of Lent was feeling left out when certain kids would come to school with smudges on their foreheads.

I became a Christian in my late thirties when I discovered that, unlike the nasty, judgmental TV preachers, the historical Jesus was a rabble rouser who confronted systems of economic injustice and religious oppression and liked to hang out and drink good wine with imperfect people like me.

I liked the idea of spiritual practices to help me focus on God during the forty days leading up to Easter. Over the years, I’ve given up eating after sundown, drinking alcohol (during which time I found my friends to be a lot less entertaining), saturated fat (I nearly starved — did you know a BANANA contains saturated fat?), and driving above the speed limit.

The speed limit endeavor was the worst. The word Lent comes from lang, meaning long, because the days grow longer in the spring. And believe me, when you’re toodling along at 55 mph on the frenzied Washington Beltway, the days seem very long indeed.

So – I’m not sure what I’m doing for Lent yet this year. No doubt some fasting and more dedicated meditation, but probably something else as well. There’s a good chance I’ll write about it, because I find there is a phase during which I obsess about my “sacrifice” before I settle in and focus on deeper pursuits. But perhaps you won’t be reading those posts, as you may have given up messing about online for Lent.

Lenten blessings to you, no matter your faith or beliefs.

English: Ashes imposed on the forehead of a Ch...

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Ash Wednesday. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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