Reflections on Lent, Charlie Sheen, and Our Possibliities

Forty days, forty strangers.

Posted Mar 08, 2011

Today is known around many parts of the world as Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday. It's a type of crazy, free for all prior to Ash Wednesday, the first day of forty that mark a type of significant somberness. A spiritual withdrawing from exactly those types of self-indulgent celebrations and a time to cleanse the soul of a little accumulated trash - be that a lust for chocolate or a fascination with Charlie Sheen's current dilemmas of the day. The Spiritual significance of the number forty is easy to discover and runs like a cohesive thread through several religions including Christianity, Judaism, and Muslim faiths. It's a sacred number in as such that it is usually keyed to major spiritual announcements, pronouncements, judgments, and linked to a type of search for spiritual wisdom and discipline. Some people use this time to walk away from the thing that they know has been eating their lunch, possessing too much time, or is leaving them emptier than they were when they began that mass consumption of cultural malaise or raw cookie dough. It's a time to look in the mirror; pull one's self up by the bootstraps and say, "Enough is enough." A time of cleansing, healing, and introspection.

Let me set the record straight on something. I love the season of Lent. It's a simple thing. My mother decided when I was eleven after some consideration to join the Episcopal Church although she had been raised in a historically country Baptist upbringing. Nothing wrong with either of those things - it just felt like the right move at the right time for our family. After further exploration she chose a small, Episcopal chapel as our "home" church of choice. It wasn't the most convenient but it was the right fit. At the time a retired Bishop was filling the shoes of a missing priest (pastor). A part of the Episcopal tradition includes taking lessons on the church history, which is pretty much an explanation of exactly what those church aerobics are all about. So once a week my mother and I drove along the Gulf Coast, gazing at the white sand dunes glinting, and the crashing waves towards the Bishop's little, unassuming house. It was a drive that most likely lulled us right into a quiet mood for academic exploration. This is how we arrived on those afternoons, slow, hushed, monastic, the Bishop in his collar smoking his pipe, white haired, blue eyed, and quick of wit. His wife, a double for Mrs. Claus, made us Russian tea and served us cookies. What wasn't to like? In that calm, reflective space, I learned all about Lent and about how we observed it collectively as a church and personally for spiritual reflection, introspection, and growth. Even at eleven years old I knew I was "made for" this type of quiet contemplation. 

What I never felt made for was embarking on this stranger business. This interacting and talking to people on a pretty regular basis, actually telling them that they are my special stranger, that they will be kept in my prayers, first as a New Year's resolution, then as a part of a regular spiritual discipline. Many early readers of the Praying for Strangers: An Adventure of the Human Spirit memoir have written to me saying they want to incorporate the book into their Lenten practice. Having a personal understanding and attachment to the forty days of Lent I can understand why. There's always the quest for what one should "give up" during Lent and although this practice of praying for a stranger every day requires making a commitment to take action rather than deny something, it seems the perfect sacrifice of both focus and connection. Forty days - forty strangers. To simply choose a passing face in a crowd, to remember them, and then to offer a prayer of blessing for them before falling asleep that night. To tell that person or not to tell them? Personal choice. My history of that moment unfolding is detailed throughout the book and website. (And an audio about that forty days and forty Strangers can be listened to here.) I recommend to those embarking on this forty-day Lenten adventure to pick up a journal and begin to record their thoughts and observations daily. Even for those who don't normally diary or journal as a habit - forty days and a short paragraph is just downright doable. 

In a world where everyone knows the minutia of Charlie Sheen's latest interview, and where we have no hesitation in discussing his situation with strangers in grocery store lines, perhaps we can exchange one cultural habit for one a little more worthy of our greatest potential. One much, more beneficial to ourselves and those around us. Just imagine, all that national interest, passion and curiosity channeled into doing this one tiny thing every day for a complete stranger. I'm guessing on the other side of this forty days of Lent, Charlie Sheen and other cultural icons will still be wearing their woes on our public sleeves -- but maybe, just maybe, forty days of a greater awareness of the extraordinary people around us will leave us a little less interested in the fascinating, public demise of those in the limelight, and a little more interested in those who are a simple, sacred part our everyday world.

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