I suspect that in the minds of most people Lent just can’t seem to compete with Advent. Advent has a lot of fun things – candles to light, sanctuaries to decorate, manger scenes to enchant the children - and this is just on the religious side or the equation. You broaden it to include the secular traditions and you have Santa, reindeer, elves and presents. The season of Advent abounds with joy.
When the word Lent comes up in conversation, I bet the word that leaps to mind is sacrifice. Sure, there is the bunny thing going on as you approach Easter, but even the bunny can’t hop around the fact that the season of Lent leads up to Christ’s death on the cross. Instead of Advent wreaths, angels and shepherds, we see a crown of thorns, a rugged cross, and a crowd that turns on Jesus. Christians know that this horrific scene ultimately leads up to Christ’s resurrection and the promise of eternity for those who accept Christ as their Savior. But non-Christians may just see a gory death that occurred 2000 years ago – and a tradition of people giving up really great stuff for Lent. Chocolate, alcohol, dessert, are just a few things that come to mind that people pledge to give up for the 40 plus days of the season.
But I think that Lent needs a better press agent because Lent is about so much more, at least in the Christian tradition I observe at my church. I would emphasize that it is a time that is devoted in small part to sacrifice - but mostly the time is for understanding what happened so many years ago and the great blessing that was the result of that event. When you think about it, the season is full of opportunities to enrich your faith. But I will also admit that it really wasn’t until my heart failure caused me to retire 7 years ago that I began to welcome and value everything that the season of Lent has to offer. I am especially grateful for the opportunities for meditation and spiritual growth.
For example, a year or two after I retired, my sister visited me during the season of Lent. Our church had a time where we could learn about the stations of the cross. It was at this session that I learned about where the ashes used on Ash Wednesday come from. As you may know, Ash Wednesday is at the beginning of the Lenten season, and it is the day that the minister or priest will trace a cross on your forehead with ashes. The ashes are made by burning the palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday. The significance is to link us to the events that led to Christ’s death and resurrection for us. When the ashes are put on the forehead the minister will usually encourage you to repent and also add something like “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
A few years later when I was an elder, I participated in a Good Friday service where I had to read some Gospel passages and provide my thoughts on the last words that Christ uttered on the cross. I spent a lot of time reading commentaries about the scene of the crucifixion. I think it was the first time I ever studied the Gospels in depth regarding Good Friday. As always, I was struck by the cruelty of the crucifixion. But I was also amazed that despite being deserted by most of humanity, Christ was pleading for compassion for his tormentors from the cross (Gospel of Luke, chapter 23, verse 34: Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”)
It was hard to read the verses and witness the cruelty, pain and indignity that Christ suffered. I found it hard to understand why God didn’t take humanity out with a lightning bolt. But it was this sacrifice of his beloved son for us fallible humans that proves how very much God loves us. Easter inspires a covenant with God with each Christian that walks on this earth.
Several years later, the worship leader at our church asked us to make crosses to be displayed on Good Friday. Of all the things I’ve had to do related to Lent, this has to have been the hardest. I find it much easier to study verses and to come up with a prayer or a commentary to present to the congregation. Let me be clear: I have absolutely no craft skills. But I wanted to participate because I thought the exercise would help me grow as a Christian.
What could I make that would even slightly resemble a cross? I started googling “crafts” with an emphasis on projects that were easy enough for a child to do. I came across a webpage on how to make ornaments out of salt dough. That intrigued me for two reasons: First, the dough recipe ingredients were simple and easy to find: flour, water and salt. Second, I liked the symbolism of a salt cross constructed by me, the heart failure patient. By the time I made this cross, I had been under a salt restriction for about 4 years. Salt had become one of my crosses to bear. I was able to mold the dough into an acceptable version of a cross and bake it. I even got a number of comments from the folks at church, especially those who understood my issues with salt.
The crosses that were made by other members were so beautiful and creative. But I think my favorite was a cross carved out of a tree limb. It was made by the husband of one of our members. She is Christian and he is Jewish. He had done some research and found the type of tree that the cross was made from, and he carved his cross from a branch of the same tree. I found it touching and uplifting that he would spend time and effort to create something that was central to a religion other than his. I think this is a wonderful example of how interfaith relations makes our lives richer.
I was unable to make it to the evening Ash Wednesday service this year. I had doctor appointments throughout the week, including one on the morning after Ash Wednesday. I wanted to get some rest and focus on the things to discuss with my doctor the night before the appointment. Fortunately, my minister for several years has gone to a local coffee shop to offer ashes and prayers. So, I stopped by the coffee shop and got my ashes and we prayed.
During my time in the coffee shop, I shared some details about my heart condition, as well as the clinical trial I have joined. My life with and without heart failure started to fall into perspective as I sat in the coffee shop and throughout the rest of my week. Yes, chronic illness is intimidating. But when you look at the scale of my life, the blessings I received over the years far outweigh the problems I encountered. I’ve lived a full life even though it has been with a very human body that turned out to be very vulnerable. But that vulnerable body and heart continues to excel.
Looking back at the last 7 years in my career and then at the next 7 years with a heart in failure, I concluded that I’ve grown as a person and become more compassionate. Regardless of the damage done to my heart, it has not been a time of loss. When I think back over the people I’ve met, the places I’ve been and the cultures I’ve witnessed, I realize it is wonderful to experience the world God made (Maybe at just a little slower pace because of shortness of breath!) Hopefully I also have made a difference through this blog, through the chronic illness group, and through the volunteer work I’ve done.
After I received my ashes, the minister made sure I had the set of devotions our church will be reading for each day of Lent. They are designed to help our congregation break chains that are holding us captive, to help us understand how God is at work each day in our lives, and to understand and discern where he wants us to go as a Christian. As we consider each devotion, hopefully faith will multiply not only in our own lives but in the lives of those we touch.
The devotion for Friday especially spoke to me. We were supposed to finish a phrase that started “the best thing about…”. The devotion gave some examples like: The best thing about this neighborhood, springtime, etc. is ___. You may wonder how I finished the phrases? Here is what I came up with:
How did I reach these epiphanies? During the past seven years, I continue to turn to my faith to help me quell my anger at having been afflicted with heart failure when I did everything possible to protect my heart – I saw my doctor regularly, had the appropriate screening procedures, followed a good diet, and exercised regularly. I had done nothing wrong – or at least that was the position I maintained for the first year post heart failure.. But as I turned to my faith, I realized that I had let my pursuit of career goals overwhelm my need for balance. I downplayed the need to put aside time for spiritual retreat. I created my own stress and it eventually took me down.
During this 7-year journey into my faith, I began to realize that heart failure while an awful event was also a good thing because it gave me both my physical and spiritual life back. But I only recently began to focus on the upside of heart failure and what I am being called now to do. I began to put it into words when I as a church elder I had to pray during a service that focused on the following verses from the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 5, verses 3 through 11
Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, For they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, For they shall inherit the [a]earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, For they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, For they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, For they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
What I realized as I studied these verses, known as the Beatitudes, is that Christ was assuring us that God’s kingdom is open, especially to those who are meek, mourning, hungry, thirsty, and oppressed. What great comfort that provides in a world where sometimes things seem less than fair. What I also take from this is that as a Christian, accepting Christ as my Savior, means I can overcome anything. My soul will be strengthened and I will prevail.
But as a Christian, I need to do more than just sit back and feel blessed. I need to be a voice of reason and faith to others who are struggling. I call this becoming an instrument of Christ's redemptive engagement. I am required to plant peace instead of discord, nourish mercy in a land of intolerance, and salvage lost souls. I can’t do this if I am at war with my heart.
This hopefully explains the statements that I finished as part of the Lent devotional exercise. I realized that my heart has not failed nor has it let me down. I needed to become more humble and realize that I am not here to be powerful but to empower others. And I can only do that if I listen and empathize and help them cope. And I also have to recognize that with heart failure, there might be bad times ahead. But I can get through them because while I have let God down many times, he has never deserted me.
The bottom line is that I am renewed during the season of Lent because each day I realize the things I’ve given up over the last 7 years have resulted in greater bounty . I’ve opened my heart to my faith and I’ve reconciled with what used to be my enemy but has now become an ally. I am truly blessed.
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. She spent the next 7 years learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth. Then in October 2020, she received a heart transplant. This blog is about her journey of the heart.