Lent: Tweaking? Or transformation?

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What does it take to get excited about Lent?

For me, that’s like asking what does it take to get excited about training for a marathon, or the Birkie.

I am not an outdoor enthusiast by nature, but my almost-15-year-old son’s involvement with cross-country skiing has given me great admiration for those who are and who choose to be. After participating in the Junior Birkie 5K last year, he jumped in with both skis for the Kortelopet 29K this year.

Since I was just accompanying him to the starting line, I felt a little out of place not carrying skis and poles onto the shuttle buses. I looked like most of them, I was even wearing a Birkie hat, but I wasn’t “one of the crowd,” and something about the environment and their enthusiasm made me want to be. They crossed the finish line – young and old, men and women – with exhausted strides, but also with giant exhales of satisfaction.

The crowds were cheering and ringing cowbells. Announcers welcomed each skier by name to the finish line. Hard work, determination, self-discipline and committed training were celebrated and praised.

The thousands that crossed that finish line proved to the tens of thousands watching that it was all worth it. And they made me believe that I could do that, and that it would be worth it if I was motivated enough and willing to invest myself.

Like I said, I’m not an outdoor enthusiast, but I can say that I am enthused and committed to training in my spiritual life. I hope to wear a Birkie, or at least a Korte, finisher medal around my neck one day. But the real crown I’m working towards is the one Our Lord will offer me with the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant” at the end of my life’s race.

And so, while I can’t say I’m exactly excited about Lent, I can say that I am looking forward to this season of more intense spiritual training and what it can lead to.

Many parishes in the dioceses gave out copies of Matthew Kelly’s book “The Biggest Lie in the History of Christianity” to Mass-goers at Christmastime.

Spoiler alert: What Kelly presents as the biggest lie is “Holiness is not possible.”

He expounds: “It is astounding that just one lie can neutralize the majority of Christians. That’s right, neutralize. This lie takes us out of the game and turns us into mere spectators in the epic story of Christianity that continues to unfold in every generation…”

The history of the Birkebeiner ski-marathon dates to 1206, when Norwegian Birkebeiner warriors rescued their infant prince and skied him to safety through treacherous mountains and rugged forests.

These men didn’t set out to become symbols of courage and endurance, but in completing the arduous task they were faced with, they have inspired hundreds of thousands of athletes around the world in the last century to accept a challenge, a mission and complete it.

In a later chapter, Kelly writes about mediocrity and how easy it is to be “comfortable with who we are where we are.”

I was comfortable on the sidelines of Main Street in Hayward, but I was definitely moved, stirred by example to question if I had it in me to accept the challenge of their effort. Another thing that struck me was the number of people I heard saying the race was their 10th or more, and that they’d be back next year. I love that my son is exposed to that philosophy during such formative years.

And it’s a philosophy I can humbly say he sees at home – as he watches his dad and I fumble through the training ground of family life. We don’t give up, we keep coming back for more, we fight on even if isn’t always pretty.

The most convicting lines of Kelly’s book are his affirmation that “We are not interested in transformation, but we want some tweaking.” He follows it with the powerful, slicing words, “God is not in the business of tweaking. God is in this business of transformation.”

Lent isn’t offered to us as a time for tweaking, but for transformation.

Are we ready and willing, motivated and committed to embrace the opportunity for self-denial and discipline as one leg in a relay of heroic virtue and the pursuit of holiness?

I think a good Lent would be one that, when Easter comes, we choose to continue our spiritual and aesthetical practices. One where the goal isn’t to lose a few pounds or feel good about the coffee money we added to the Rice Bowl, but a season that carries us forward wanting more, conditioned to push ourselves and our spirits further.

And I think a great Lent would be one that leaves us feeling inspired by those we are training alongside, more connected to other “spiritual athletes.” A “cloud of witnesses” not just watching us from the sidelines but encouraging through shortness of breath, side by side through the final exhausted strides, sharing in a giant exhale of satisfaction and receiving Our Lord’s crown of victory.

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