by Joanie Butman
Choosing to visit South Beach while attempting a Lenten fast is equivalent to traveling to Sodom and Gomorrah for a spiritual retreat! I doubt there are many Lenten observers in Miami, unless fasting from wearing clothes counts. I certainly wasn’t going to find any encouragement within a community of excesses in every imaginable form – which brings me to my first choice point and an important admonition Paul gives the Corinthians: “Do not be misled. Bad company corrupts good character.” Not that I’ve ever needed any help with pushing the envelope.
As I do every year, I’ve been remiss in regard to my Lenten fast. This year was even more half-hearted than most because mentally I’d given myself a bye. Haven’t I suffered enough over the past two months? I gave up my spleen and various other pieces of my innards! Surely, I must deserve to eat, drink and be merry? Haven’t I ‘earned’ it? HA! If I got what I ’earned,’ it wouldn’t be a trip to South Beach but a one-way ticket to someplace much hotter. Thankfully, Christ gives me what I need, not what I deserve.
My fasting failure is a familiar refrain, and you might wonder why I go through this exercise in futility every Lent. You’d think it would be discouraging, but actually it’s an excellent reminder of just how weak I am and how desperately I need God’s grace and mercy – again and again and again, which is brought to the forefront by my feeble efforts. As Joni Erickson Tada explains, “Fasting reveals the stuff inside of us. It shows us what we are made of, what we prize and prefer. You will see it, be confronted by it, and have to deal with it.”
My Lenten lapses reveal my innermost need of God’s grace available only through Christ’s sacrifice on my behalf. Even on the few occasions when I’ve been able to stick to my Lenten fast, pride seeps in undermining the effort because my success makes me feel more ‘worthy’ and shifts the focus away from Christ’s sacrifice to my own. It’s a no-win situation, which is exactly the point. I’m hopeless on my own. A good reminder anytime but especially approaching Easter.
Lent is all about recognizing our need for and experiencing God’s mercy and acknowledging the enormous cost paid for us to receive it. If I had to earn my own salvation, I would be doomed. Something the nuns reminded me of daily growing up. By the end of grammar school I had committed so many transgressions, they convinced me I was a lost cause and even Christ couldn’t save me. Who knew that talking during a fire drill, passing notes, chewing gum or missing mass would hold such dire consequences? It’s not surprising that I gave up. I wonder what those nuns would think about Pope Francis’ dictum, “Mercy will always be greater than any sin; no one can place limits on the love of God.” He never met Sister Rita DeLourdes.
It took me decades to finally understand and embrace that God is the “God of second chances. And third chances. And fourth chances. There is no limit to His mercy or His love.” Nothing I can ever do will make Him love me any less or any more. God doesn’t love me for what I do; He loves me for who I am – His child. That’s not to say He isn’t pleased with anything I offer Him. He can take my smallest, most pathetic efforts on His behalf and use them to draw me closer and glorify His kingdom.
When I offer my desire and perseverance to try to do better – regardless of how imperfect, God “multiplies this little gift and fills it with the transforming power of His love” strengthening and encouraging any effort on my part. In God’s Upside-down Kingdom, it's my failures that actually bring me into Christ’s presence better than any of my accomplishments because it reminds me that “His grace is sufficient for me, for His power is made perfect in weakness.” The more I recognize my need for grace, the greater my understanding of its power and the greater my appreciation of the gift I celebrate on Easter and every day.
Finally, South Beach may not qualify as a ‘spiritual retreat,’ but it’s a glaring example of the countless worldly distractions that often cloud our vision and judgment. It’s also a vivid illustration of how easily our environment can affect our choices. A moral relativism creeps in because regardless of whatever I was doing, compared to those around me, even Sister Rita DeLourdes would have thought I looked saintly.