In a gesture toward what I like to call "involuntary poverty," I gave up my car for Lent -- or rather, my car gave me up. There's a joke being played on the atheist forced to observe in this way, even if there's no one there to play it.
Lent, as a season of fasting prior to Easter, has been part of liturgical life longer than Christmas has, and for some reason, even though I'm not a terribly devout observer of Lent (or terribly devout in general), I like that it exists.
Eugene Peterson, in Reversed Thunder, writes that one of the good things about church is that it goes on without us. Whether we pray or not, people are praying. Whether we're even there or not, people are gathered. Somehow this is comforting. I feel that way about Lent.
I'm not sure why this is. My friend Daniel, a Catholic convert, told me, "I think it is interesting to see the attraction Lent has for my non-religious, atheist, agnostic and even Jewish hipster friends. Of all the things within Christianity that is culturally accessible I wouldn't have chosen Lent to be it."
I wouldn't have chosen to give up my car, either, and I do hope I get it back before Easter. About a month ago (before Lent began, actually) it broke down on the way out of Ann Arbor -- I hadn't even made it out of the city -- and has been stranded there ever since awaiting an engine replacement.
I'm learning to appreciate, however, the way this forces me into a discipline I did not choose. I'm walking more places, obviously, and to be honest I'm enjoying the exercise: except for some rudimentary (and sporadic) calisthenics, I don't work out. A 20-minute walk can do wonders for the otherwise sedentary, and I've enjoyed quite a few 20-minute walks.
It also throws me upon the mercy and generosity of others. The illusion of independence is shattered and I am forced to both ask for help from others and allow them to help me without the pretense that I'm going to be able to meaningfully pay them back. There's a certain paradoxical charity in allowing others to be charitable without trying to reciprocate (cue Derridean reflections on the gift).
I see this more generally as well. I'm staying during the week with a younger couple, and I try to be the model houseguest. I'm quiet. I'm neat. I also have an almost obsessive-compulsive need to be helpful: I do the dishes, or fold the load of laundry I find in the dryer when I do mine.
I sometimes notice, however, that these efforts also have the potential to subtly rob my friends of their opportunity to offer me hospitality. I'm not saying I shouldn't do them, but it introduces an element of payback. It hints at a calculus. Sometimes I duck out of the house on foot before I can be offered a ride; there's just a whiff of passive-aggressiveness about it.
There's a lesson to be learned here, and a balance to be sought. Maybe I'll find it. Maybe, on the other side of my reluctant Lent, I'll have grown in some sort of discipline of receiving charity.
Or mabye I'll just have killer thighs. Either way.