I was raised in the Protestant tradition, first Congregational, then Lutheran, and my earliest recollection of Lent is likely a common experience. I gave up candy from Ash Wednesday (the start of Lent) to Easter morning. Oh, how delicious the chocolate tasted that morning as I unpacked the Easter basket that waited for me!
Over the years, much like New Year’s resolutions (and frankly, just as successful!), I would choose something to give up. My mother, a woman who converted to Christianity from Judaism and was baptized with me when I was an infant, grew my theological understanding and awareness about my Lenten “fasting,” or sacrifice, as a daily reminder of the suffering and sacrifice of Christ. Giving up candy was the least I could do, given all Jesus had given up for me. It was a small price to pay, indeed.
Now as the pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of Hartford, in Connecticut, I have a very different understanding of Lent. In the Bible, Hebrews chapter 10, we read that sacrifice is no longer required — for the one sacrifice that was made by Jesus the Christ is sufficient. So then if we, as Christians, hold this as sacred truth, what might Lent become if no longer our sacrifice for his suffering?
As a transgender man, I know all too well the sacrifices made and suffering incurred by the LGBTQ community. We have sacrificed our sexualities and our gender identities to conform, with the hope to be acceptable. We are keenly aware that nonconformance can result in harm, discrimination, and even violence against us. Though we won marriage equality last June, still 52 percent of the LGBTQ population live in states that do not provide employment protection under the law. Hateful speech and hate crimes persist, and annually we host the International Transgender Day of Remembrance to remember our dead — the many who have been heinously murdered simply for being who they are.
There are steady reminders that we are seen as less than, broken, damaged, sinful, and “other,” relegating us to media fodder and expendable political, religious, and economic capital. Religious acceptance suffered a major setback just last year when Pope Francis implied that transgender people are equal to nuclear weapons.
I believe this is a great time and opportunity to reclaim Lent, what is better understood to be a season of spiritual awakening and growing deeper in relationship with God and with one another. So let us make this a time to add back (rather than sacrifice more). Let us add back dignity and worth, for we are all made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). Let us add back being cherished by God as God’s “beloved” (Ephesians 6:1). Let us add back love, for God commanded us (not a mere suggestion) to love ourselves “as,” or equally with, loving others (Matthew 22:39). Lastly, let us add back joy, for we have been given a spirit of joy that is as complete as it is unconditional (John 15:11).
What if we lived this truth? Perhaps we would then make a truly necessary sacrifice in giving up depression, suicide, addiction, abuse, low self-esteem and self-worth, and the many other consequential responses to oppression, discrimination, and injustice? I believe God has “lent” us this time to rethink, reevaluate, and to redirect our minds, hearts, and spirit toward love — by God who is love. Divine love cannot be privileged to a particular sex, sexual orientation, religion, race, or any other limiting human category. God and God’s gifts cannot be limited by us (no matter how hard we try), and love is a gift from God. Love is not a human creation and cannot be controlled by us — though we may judge and condemn love’s expression.
So then, let us seek to rediscover and reclaim Lent. And, what better way — than through adding back dignity and worth, love and joy, and allowing ourselves to be cherished by God? In particular, for those in the LGBTQ community, I pray we add back into our lives and into our very selves these essentials — that we might discover (perhaps for the first time) the sacred truth of God’s unconditional and eternal love for each of us. As we claim these for ourselves, let us also share them with others. For it is this sacred and holy truth that will indeed “set us all free.” (John 8:32).
I imagine that God has taken great delight in creating us as divine “candy,” sweet and precious in God’s sight, loved and lovable. And I am certain that none of this candy was ever meant to be sacrificed or made to suffer, during Lent … or ever.