Giving up Despair for Lent

By Clare Butterfield

Rev. Clare Butterfield is a Unitarian Universalist community minister and the Director of Faith in Place. This blog originally appeared at

The thing about Lent is that it happens every year. And every year people in professions similar to mine are expected to whip out something pithy and pertinent and original for God’s sake, about it. That doesn’t seem very likely, after 2013 years. So this year I’m appreciating funnier approaches. Lent Madness is one. I’m liking the nerdful adoption of sports metaphors by Episcopal priests in collars as they play pairs of saints off against each other. The saintly part is serious, but the bracketology is just silly. And there is no reason in 2013 that we can’t be silly during Lent.

All those sacrifices that are designed to deprive us of pleasure, they are good things for the more indulgent among us (and you know who you are), but I am not particularly indulgent. I spend most of my waking hours working or taking care of people, and my weekends cleaning my house, exercising, and working some more (I exaggerate here, but only slightly). I don’t think that giving up the little pleasures I indulge in here and there along the way to be a particularly useful exercise during those last colorless days of winter.

But some kind of soul cleansing seems like a good idea. I’ve learned, by hanging out at a Presbyterian seminary to teach a class with a Mennonite Biblical scholar that the words in Hebrew Scripture that tend to get translated as “soul” actually mean “breath.” So the question we were toying with in our class (“does my dog have a soul?”) was the wrong question. It should have been “do I have one?” and the answer, according to Hebrew scripture, is no. But whatever animates these bones and muscles, this bag of cells that hangs together and holds my consciousness, I am sure that by the end of February every year it looks like the snow piles around Chicago.

It needs cleaning.

Spring is coming. Easter is coming. It’s a good idea to get ready. (I understand it was Pope John XXIII, as far as I can see, the last funny Pope, who said “Jesus is coming, look busy.”)

And there is all that bad environmental news. Oceans rising, coal mining expanding, money to be made and people who know full well the consequences eager to make it and happy to deny reality for as long as it takes to get the last dollar out. Those people exist. I’m not in denial about that. But I am denying the inevitability of their victory.

So for the duration of Lent, I am giving up the temptation to fall into despair. Giving up the temptation to sit down upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of Earth. There is a thread in environmental conversations that seems to take perverse delight in pointing out that our personal behavior changes are pointless because they have such limited impact. This is largely true on one level. My lightbulbs don’t mean much one way or the other. But my discipline about minimizing my use of them, my willingness to pay extra for the new LED’s because it is consistent with my highly (and lengthily!) articulated value system does have an effect – on me. It makes my practices consistent with my thoughts. That matters.

The purpose of Lent is to recognize that we’re all doomed anyway, in the sense that we’re all going to die. It is to remind ourselves that we come from the earth and to the earth we will return. But the response to our mortality shouldn’t be despair any more than it should be denial. Taking 40 days to sit with the reality of our temporal-ness is a wonderful exercise, and it’s also wonderful that it ends in Easter. That bursting forth of life – that affirmation of goodness, and its durability. The life-giving sun, the smell of hyacinths.

It’s true that the path we’re on is taking us into all kinds of ugliness and suffering, and the alternative path will require new ways of thinking, new ways of valuing the life around us over our own immediate gratification. We might get there and we might not. We might figure this out in time to head off some of the worst suffering or we might have to go through that suffering in order to internalize the lessons, and then whoever is left will learn to do things differently. It may be more or less hard to get from where we are to where we need to go. And the response to that should be to live. To live fully, gratefully, joyfully. To laugh hysterically at something or other every day, to taste something good, to hear music, to find something beautiful to the eye and spend time with it, to hug people we love.

So no, I’m not giving up meat, or coffee, or chocolate this Lent. I’m giving up despair. And I’m doing something loving, beautiful, appreciative, delicious in a small, sober, reflective way, every day. And then when Easter comes I’ll know what to do with it.

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