As a small-town Southern Baptist, I had little if any idea what Lent was until I lived with Scoop.
Scoop, my junior-year roommate at the University of Georgia, was a somewhat intermittently practicing Catholic — he called himself a “High Holy Catholic” since he rarely attended Mass other than on the holy days of obligation. He did observe Lent, though, receiving the imposition of ashes and giving up a whole host of things (from meat, to candy, to profanity), which promptly made him miserable and surly.
Needless to say, 40 days is a long time, especially for a college student, and Scoop’s initial surly resolve eventually gave way to guilt-riddled lapses, with the avoidance of profanity being the first casualty. In short, my first impressions of Lent were less than favorable.
As I’ve aged and taken on a bit more of a liturgical bent, though, Lent has become more important to me — and much more personal. Oddly, my own thoughts and prayers throughout Lent inevitably circle around the narrative of Genesis 32:22-32.
You know the story, and it’s a really strange one, even by Genesis standards. Jacob has an all-night wrestling match with God (at least in my Protestant tradition’s reading of the text). He comes away from the encounter with a blessing, a new name and a permanent limp.
I don’t want to discount the importance of the new name or the blessing but, for me, it’s the limp that takes center stage during Lent. From my perspective, in fact, there had to be a limp. Otherwise, the story would make no sense.
What is a limp? It’s something out of place and out of step. It’s unnatural. It’s halting, painful and unseemly. It’s noticeable, but not endearing. It stands out in the crowd, but more in the way of contempt than honor. Nobody wants a limp.
If we’ve really encountered God, though, and actually been touched by God, shouldn’t we have a limp? God calls us to love those who hate us. To treat the poor, the sick, the prisoner and the stranger with honor. To seek peace, not war; to value others more than self; and to live as if we think the Lord’s Prayer is factual and present-tense, not aspirational and distant.
“If we’ve really encountered God, though, and actually been touched by God, shouldn’t we have a limp?”
In short, God calls us to walk with a limp — to be plainly out of step with the rest of the world. That is sometimes painful, and often embarrassing, but it is vital.
How do we claim to have been changed by an encounter with the living God, if we walk, talk, look and sound just like everyone around us? We can’t. So we limp, but with the assurance that — when we finally see God in all of God’s glory — we’ll realize that the place where God touched us and changed us isn’t the one broken part. It was the one part healed, and our limp came from the rest of our lives still being out of joint, waiting to be touched by God, as well.
For me, Lent has become the season of being mindful of my limp, more than adjusting my diet in the vain hopes of killing two birds with one stone — of showing my love of God through abstaining from foods I shouldn’t eat anyway, hoping to shed a few pounds as a bonus. Rather, I try to be mindful throughout Lent of those occasions where my faith does manifest itself enough to actually leave me out of step with those who do not share in it. I try to be equally mindful of areas in my life where I should see a limp, but don’t. Think how different a stride forward we would see, both as individuals and as a nation, if Christians just focused on their limp.
And, learning from my time with Scoop, I try to leave room for grace rather than guilt. I try to realize that my failures to limp as often as I should just tends to show that God hasn’t stopped our wrestling match quite yet. Thanks be to God.
Chris Conley is an attorney and graduate of the University of Georgia and of the Emory University School of Law. He and his wife, Mary, live in Athens, Ga., where both are members and deacons at First Baptist Church. They have one son, Aaron, who also is an attorney, and a miniature schnauzer, Oso, whose career path remains uncertain.