As a child, I watched the Mardi Gras parades in Mobile, Alabama, from a balcony overlooking the street. I loved the energy, the confetti and the calling for beads and candy. It was a chaotic mess in a normally orderly city.
But I also remember being fascinated by how quickly the streets were cleaned. When the last float passed, immediately following were massive street-sweeping machines. Men and women cleared debris with a fury to match what had just happened.
That’s how Lent works after Mardi Gras. Following revelry and feasting, there’s a 40-day period of reflection and fasting leading to Easter Sunday. It’s a kind of spring cleaning. The word “Lent” means “lengthen,” referring to the spring bringing longer days.
This year Lent begins on March 6. Many people will give up something during this season — meat, sweets, a negative attitude. The idea is to deny yourself something in order to pray more and reflect on how Jesus suffered and sacrificed. Some say they find their lives “lengthened” by such a practice, expanding, becoming more full.
“Deny yourself” is surely one of the most countercultural teachings of Jesus. That sounds like a dead, controlling religion to most ears. Why should I deny myself good things, even for a season?
Lent reminds us that saying “no” to certain things allows you to say “yes” to better things.
The storyteller Fred Craddock once visited a former student. After dinner, the parents excused themselves to put the kids to bed, leaving Fred with the family pet — a large, sleek greyhound. Earlier in the evening the father had said, “That’s a full-blooded greyhound. He raced professionally in Florida. Then he retired. Great dog with the kids.”
Now Fred was alone with the dog. The dog turned to him and said, “You probably heard I came here from Miami.”
“You retired from racing, right?” Fred said.
“No, I didn’t retire. Is that what they told you?”
“Well, did you get injured?”
“No,” said the dog.
“Did you stop winning?”
“No,” said the dog. “I raced for 10 years. Ten years of running around that track day after day, seven days a week, with other dogs chasing that rabbit. One day I got close and got a good look at that rabbit. You know what? It was a fake! I spent my whole life chasing a fake rabbit! I didn’t retire. I quit!”
It’s not easy to quit chasing fake rabbits. Some things are shiny but worthless. Other things are both enjoyable and worthy of our time and energy. It’s not easy to make room for something better.
Jesus taught that the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field. When the person discovered the treasure, he sold everything to buy the field so that he could possess something greater.
Let go of something to remember what you truly possess. Give up something to take hold of something better. Deny yourself for a season. Why not give it a try?