03/23/2012 12:10 pm ET Updated May 23, 2012

Life, Death and Lent

I'm not giving up chocolate. Isn't that what I'm supposed to do during the Christian season of Lent?

This year, I notice that this period of time leading up to Holy Week and Easter is less about whatever "give I up" I try and more about what I pay attention to.

Those of us planning worship for First Church Berkeley chose for our Lent theme "Matters of Life & Death." It's a bit "straight-to-the-heart-of-it" don't you think? If we're going to take the story of Jesus seriously -- he wandered the earth, he was executed, he claimed new life -- what better time to examine some deep questions. Jesus spent time thinking things over in the wilderness before he returned to Jerusalem to meet his fate (which he may have anticipated) and to experience a transformation (which may or may not have caught him off-guard.)
We, too, have a chance to think things over, whether or not we really stop or slow down our normal lives for a period of time.

Having raised this "life or death" stuff in my own attention, I suddenly notice that it is swirling around me in direct and indirect ways all the time. I'm more aware of the deaths in my friends' lives -- parents, siblings, pets, dreams, hopes, health. I see how attitudes toward life and death can shape political attitudes -- what inspires us and what is deadening. I see which of the paths I take lead toward little or large pieces of new life and which don't.

My mom is 92. When folks ask how she is doing, I often describe her state as "doing a very slow fade." She hasn't had serious medical deals, but is slowing down in a variety of ways. I confess that for the last few years at least I have tried to imagine how and when I might receive news of her death. Losing her at 92-or-older will be different than my father's death at 78. She could go soon or she could live to be 100. Who knows? I certainly don't. And yet I wonder about it regularly.

I witness my own physical state and (at 58) begin to wonder (and predict) which parts of myself will "go first" as I get even older. Death is sneaky and we should probably prepare for it or at least entertain its inevitability before it whacks us upside the head. Being in some sort of distress is a bad time to try to learn the practices that might help you be in that state. Yet it is hard to take those on when we aren't forced to.

Jesus' story opens up some marvelous possibilities for amazing things to happen. When we consider "life and death" we should not focus solely on the second part of the phrase. One of the primary purposes of getting our death-hat on straight is to claim the wonder of life, to make us seize the reins, to join the party, to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start all over again. We will experience loss and we can live again. We can suffer and rejoicing can likely follow. We can watch things end and expect new beginnings.

Where we will end up "in glory" can only be imagined, but life on earth is at least a mini-waltz with death every day. Knowing about resurrection gives us a signpost to the possibility of the new life that we can claim over and over again.

And Lent, whether you are a dyed-in-the-wool practitioner or not, can be a great time to pay attention, to "go inside" and take a look around, to dance in a different way.