The other day I took a break from work to grab coffee with a friend. As we paid for our cups I turned to my friend and said, casually, "What are you doing for Lent?"
We're both interns at Sojourners, a Christian organization, so this wasn't a totally odd question. Her face lit up. "I have so many ideas," she blurted out with enthusiasm. "I want to give up sugar, and credit-cards, and alcohol and I want to stop looking in the mirror. I want to get up early every morning and pray before work and exercise and--"
As my friend regaled me with her personal and spiritual goals, I couldn't help but share her excitement. Lent is an important time of reflection and renewal for me too, and I was eager to make the most of it, as my friend was doing.
Later that day, Lent came up again in a conversation with some of my housemates. One young man said, "I wasn't really raised observing Lent, but I started doing it in college and now it's meaningful to me." A young woman said, "Yeah, I gave up soda during Lent for the first time in college. Even though it was something small, it served as a constant reminder that I'm on this journey with God." While other housemates nodded in agreement, I reflected on my own first experience of Lent, also during college.
As a freshman, I decided to give up all sugars (except for some fruits). I had never observed Lent before, but I was on a journey, like many other young people leaving home for the first time, of carving out my own spiritual identity. What do I believe? What does it mean to be a Christian? I was asking a hundred questions and fumbling with unsatisfying answers. For whatever reason, doing my small part to observe the Lenten season that year felt right. And it was. After my 40-day sugar fast, I celebrated Easter with a heart ripe for resurrection. I felt renewed, rejuvenated, reconnected and ready to embrace the tough questions ahead.
College is a meaningful time for all young people to challenge and define their relationship to faith, God and religion. For Christians, Lent is a particularly fruitful time for spiritual wrestling. The practice of imposing a restraint, no matter how superficial (like giving up sugar), or adding a spiritual discipline (like early morning prayer), forces us to remember our relationship to God and Christian tradition, and can inspire us to face our biggest questions, doubts and fears.
If you want a real challenge this Lent, try giving up or adding something that takes you out of your comfort zone. Try reading the holy text of a different religious tradition; ask friends on campus if you can go with them to one of their religious services; ask students and professors of different faith traditions to share their stories with you; try to build a relationship with someone of radically different beliefs. Challenge God to walk with you as you challenge yourself -- and allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised to find that God will.