The kids noticed right away that my husband and I were not doing some of the things that we usually do every day, and were doing some new things instead. And yes, it was hard not to notice the cross of ashes on my forehead. Of course they asked why. I tried to explain why our church observes Lent, and why a lot of us choose to give up some things, and add new things, in our daily routines. “It’s making a sacrifice of something we like,” I told them, “to bring us closer to Jesus before we celebrate his resurrection at Easter.” It seemed an inadequate explanation, but it was the best I could do on the fly, as we rushed to get homework and violin practice done, before packing lunches and reading the next chapter of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets together at bedtime. By the next day, my Lenten disciplines were in a way bringing me closer to Jesus, but maybe even closer to punching a total stranger.
I tend to think that I don’t have much of a temper, that I’m certainly not a violent person. And I can count on my fingers the number of times I have really truly wanted to punch someone in the face, so badly that my clenched fists were shaking, eager to feel the crunch of bone as my knuckles made contact. All it took to get me to that point on the second day of Lent was one rude woman at the gym. I was nearing the end of the 30-minute circuit workout, with only two weight machines and two step stations left to go, when she came into the circuit area and sat down at the last machine. No problem, I thought, she’ll be done before I need that machine. But I completed the other stations, and she was still there. I waited a few more seconds, as the light turned green again, hoping she would move. When it became obvious that she wasn’t going to, I approached her, out of breath and a little annoyed. “Ma’am, can I please use this machine?” I asked. “It’s the only one I have left in the circuit.” She told me she was still using it, and then I tried to explain how the circuit room works, that a red light means it’s time to change stations, and that she had been using the machine for several light changes now. “I know how it’s supposed to work,” she told me, and gathered her things as she left.
A minute later, finished with the whole circuit, I was wiping down the machine when a gym employee approached me. “Hi. I understand there was an altercation with another customer,” she said. “I just wanted to get your side of things.” The woman who had reported me stood a few machines away, looking at me with a satisfied smirk. Overcome with righteous indignation, I told the employee in detail about how I had been the one following the rules, how she had been the one doing something wrong, not me. I felt the heat rise in my face, exhaustion from my workout now mingled with both embarrassment and anger. It was all I could do not to cross the room and tell that woman I’d be happy to finish our “altercation” outside in the parking lot. Instead I kept my shaking fists at my sides, and promised the employee that the next time there was an issue with another customer I would approach someone at the desk to talk to them, rather than handling it myself. The ten-minute hydromassage that I usually found so relaxing was spent forcing myself to take deep breaths and trying hard not to hate this woman.
What is wrong with me? I asked myself on the way home. This is not like me. But the truth is, this is me. Part of the reason for Lenten fasts is to sacrifice something important to us, yes. But it is also to strip away something that we might be using to hide, to insulate, to distract. I had given up sugar and social media, both of which I use far too often to soothe myself, to escape boredom, loneliness, anxiety. Less than 48 hours without them was all it took to create a crisis. On any “normal” day, the rude woman at the gym would have annoyed me, but I wouldn’t have felt the rage that I did this week. It was only the next morning, reading the devotional book our church is using this season, that I realized this was just a different way my Lenten fast is bringing me closer to Jesus. “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me,” I read from Psalm 51. The truth is, usually my sin is not ever before me. Most of the time, I don’t allow myself to feel sorrow for my sins or regret for the ways I have wasted gifts and opportunities God has placed in my life. It’s too hard to feel those things, so instead I go and like someone else’s vacation photos, or get sucked in to the comments section on a news article, or take a quiz to find out which Star Wars character I am, or I follow Liz Lemon’s example and “go talk to some food about this.”
Now, without those things, I am left with the realization of just how much I need forgiveness, of just how far I have to go to become more like Jesus, of just how selfish I often am. It was only the next morning during my devotional reading that the thought occurred to me that maybe the woman at the gym isn’t usually like that either. She deserves the same benefit of the doubt that I do. Maybe she was having the worst day of her life and came to the gym to get away from it all, and I ruined it for her. Or maybe she was fasting, too. Thankfully, there’s grace enough for both of us. And I have another five weeks of Lent to keep learning.