What's Lent good for? Ask the baby chipmunk.

What's Lent good for? Ask the baby chipmunk.

Lent couldn’t have come at a worse time this year. For one thing it was too early. I had just finished being all reflective and trying to get in touch with deep spiritual truths during the Advent/Christmas season, and then ba-boom! Lent arrives and I’m supposed to do that again? The whole “give up stuff for Lent, in order to turn my heart and mind and soul towards what really matters,” kind of deal? Really?

For another thing, I have a too busy job and a killer cold and it's winter, for heaven’s sake.

I feel it would be a lot easier to be all Lentenly and holy-ish if I lived in a monastery in the south of France.

But like it or not, Lent is here. We’re a couple weeks into it, in fact. And I haven't officially "given up" anything.

There’s a part of me that feels bad about that. And there’s another part of me that’s like… “What difference does it make anyway?” I mean, the world is a mess, and God seems far away and honestly, whether or not people eat sugar or bread or spend too much time on Facebook, or deal with other various and sundry first world problems... how much can that possibly matter? Is it going to make the damage that’s been done to children because of toxic water in Flint, Michigan go away? Is it going to solve the refugee crisis? Is it going to make Black Lives Matter?

For some reason, out of the blue, today, though, I started thinking about this dog Gary and I had, a long time ago, a Norwegian Elkhound we named Rilke, yes, after the famous poet. The name did not inform the dog. Rilke was a crazy, wild, barking, running, growling, hyper 60 lbs. of muscle and fur and angst. Not even remotely well-behaved. He loved me and Gary and no one else. And was obvious about it. As our friends found out.


One day Rilke got off his leash and when we finally spotted him, across a wide expanse of field, he was gleefully tossing something into the air, again and again. He looked so happy, it was hard not to feel happy with him. Until we got up close and realized what he was tossing into the air was a baby chipmunk. He hadn’t killed the chipmunk…yet…he was just enjoying the game of tossing it and then picking up the dazed little animal and hurling it skyward again. The chipmunk, for his part, was letting out little squeaks and I think beginning to realize life, as he knew it, was about to be over. And as I stood there, feeling terrible for that baby chipmunk, I also knew that Rilke was just doing what he was bred to do, what his self-preservation and hunter instincts told him to do. He wasn’t trying to be a jerk, necessarily. He was just doing what came most easily, most naturally, what felt good and right in the moment.

I think I may have remembered that scene today because I sometimes feel that I am both Rilke and the chipmunk. I am the toss-er, wildly doing whatever feels good enough right now, to give me some comfort, some small measure of pleasure, some feeling of security, and I am also the chipmunk, the toss-ee, feeling caught and scared and broken, hanging on for dear life.

I am my own worst enemy.

For example, I drink diet Pepsi because I like the taste and the caffeine and possibly I love to do something that isn’t good for me, feels a little rebellious, a little bit of an FU to the responsible, hard-working, straight-A-seeking part of me, and everyone who I have in my head who I imagine expects me to be responsible, hard-working, straight-A-seeking. It's a sorta bad thing I can do, while not actually harming anyone else.

diet pepsi
But it does harm me. Not in a drop-dead tomorrow sort of way, but in more of a “you really want to keep knowingly pouring that amount of chemicals into your body, at your age?” way.  It’s not loving. Or kind.

I somehow don’t think I’m alone in this.

This past week when 6 people in Kalamazoo, Michigan were mowed down, victims of random gun violence, I thought, who wants that kind of thing to happen? Not most gun owners, I imagine. But happen it does. This was the 42nd mass shooting in 2016 and as Reverend Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, cried out in her recent piece in the Huffington Post, “It’s only February.”

Why does this happen? Because we value gun ownership and gun owners’ “rights” more than human lives? I don’t think most gun owners would say that, if you put a gun to their heads. And yet, that’s how we act.

Because we are our own worst enemies.

And our desire for self-preservation and security and momentary pleasure ends up shooting us in the back. Shooting our communities and countries and world in the back.

In the wake of the record-breaking, devastating cyclone that hit Fiji a few days ago, in which at least 29 people lost their lives, and more than 13 thousand have been left homeless, many climate specialists warn that we should expect a lot more Category 5 storms like this to be heading our way in the coming decades. Now, of course, none of us want horrible things to happen to our environment... but the small choices we make everyday contribute to global warming and climate change.

We are the crazy, happy dog today, but we will be the baby chipmunk, breathing its last, tomorrow.

Our own worst enemy.

I think that’s sometimes difficult to see, especially when it comes to the little things. At least for me, it is. More frequently than I like to admit, I’m like Rilke, caught up in the moment, running on instinct, or habit, and looking for whatever’s easiest, most convenient, because frankly, I’m mostly just trying to make it through my day without messing anything up too badly.

I ran across this quote from Parker Palmer yesterday that really got me. “No one ever died saying, ‘I’m sure glad for the self-centered, self-serving and self-protective life I lived.’”

Most of us, I imagine, me included, would never set out to live that kind of life. But our lives are made up of all the choices we make moment by moment, every day, little ones and big ones, and for me, when I break it down, too often those choices are possibly what you could call “self-centered, self-serving, self-protective.”    And there are consequences, repercussions. Repercussions in my quality of life, and in the quality of all our lives on this planet. If you have any doubt about that, ask those parents in Flint. Ask the people of Fiji. Ask the families of the victims in Kalamazoo.

So that seems to be a good place to start this Lent… to stop being my own worst enemy. To give up, as much as I can, choosing to ignore the consequences of my choices. Whether that choice is to drink diet Pepsi or to run the water when I brush my teeth in the morning. Whether that choice is to eat sugar or to enjoy my white privilege and let Black Lives Matter to someone else.  The list could go on.

I'm going to start there, today.

Will this little Lenten discipline make a difference in the world? I don't know. Strangely enough, I think it could. If possibly a few of you joined me. As Margaret Mead famously said, "Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. For, indeed, that's all who ever have."

And if you happen to hear a squeaky sound when I’m around, it just might be the baby chipmunk inside me, screaming out with something very close to hope.

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A post about Lent from last year, in case you missed it: What I learned from Nelson Mandela's prison cell.

Another post you might enjoy: Maundy Thursday, foot washing and the uncomfortable mess of love.

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