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The 40-day Lenten journey

In the immortal words of someone I know and love, it's the "Lentil Season." It was a slip of the tongue one Sunday when he was leading worship in the tiny Wellpinit Presbyterian Church.

Granted, there are a lot of lentils grown in the farmlands east of Spokane, but not at this time of year. Instead of a time set aside for cooking up our favorite red-brown stew, my husband was referring to the Lenten Season, when we stew over where we've come from and where we're going.

Lent is a journey - a journey of 40 days that our early church fathers patterned after Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness. Mark's Gospel tells it like this: "...and the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him." When he emerged, "he began to proclaim the good news of God."

For us, as for Jesus, the 40 days are a time of discerning what God intends for us to do with the tools we've been given. It's a time of overcoming temptations and focusing on the important things. Most of all, Lent is a particular time for us to be intentional about our spiritual growth.

As we begin the journey, there are things we need to take into consideration. I'm reminded of a "camp" I went to one summer when I was in high school. The "camp" was actually a 50-mile, week-long backpacking trip in the North Cascades, led by two pastors taking a "break" from their churches.

The instructions we received in the mail at the beginning of the summer outlined a strict regimen of preparation before the start of the trip. Each hiker had to acquire a backpack for starters, then a pair of hiking boots.

All of us campers were expected to carry our share of the food and cooking gear, in addition to our own sleeping bags and personal items. So we were advised to practice carrying our backpack with 45 pounds of weight in it for miles at a time. We needed to get in shape so we wouldn't wilt on the journey uphill and down dale. We also had to get our boots in shape, so there wouldn't be a bunch of blisters on our feet that would impair our hiking ability - no "agony of de-feet" allowed on the trip.

Training for the journey was important and so was figuring out what to take. Since we would be carrying it on our backs every step of the way, it was in our best interest to limit our burden to the things we couldn't live without.

Even chocolate was eliminated from my pile: Sleeping bag, no pillow (roll up a pair of jeans instead), one change of clothes, no slippers, six changes of underwear (not a place to skimp), toothbrush, no makeup, swimsuit, no towel, raincoat, no sweatshirt, flashlight, no lantern, Bible, no commentaries. Hard decisions for a teenage girl, but every mile I hiked in practice made me thin out the pile of baggage even more.

It was a soul-sifting process, which prepared me for the actual experience of the trail. Like Jesus, in his 40 days of solitude and temptation and discernment, I was about to discover new things about myself and about the companions I had never met, testing what I had believed before and moving into new realms of faith. Nothing in the instructions led me to believe that I would be changed by this journey. And yet I was preparing for something I had never experienced before. I was going off on my own into the wilderness, accompanied by total strangers. Anything could happen. (What were my parents thinking!)

As it turned out, several kids got blisters because they had brand-new boots. One girl wore brand-new Converse tennis shoes with no socks. Some of us had to take more equipment in our backpacks to relieve their burdens. There was the usual grousing about the delectable dehydrated food and all the other discomforts of life on the trail.

But the greatest test came when we got lost in the woods. A late thaw in the high country left swamps over parts of the trail, which made it impossible for our guides to find the way. At the end of a whole day of wandering, we emerged from the forest on the edge of a cliff - a mile above the lake we were supposed to have reached by noon.

There was no way to get there and so our journey was reversed - once we found the trail we had been on the day before. During that exhausting and fearful week, our faith was tested like never before. We faced the danger of wild animals, we wondered if we'd ever get out of the wilderness alive, we confronted our own demons and we learned to appreciate the unique gifts of our companions. We also came a bit closer to understanding the elemental things about life and what God was calling us to be and do. The trivial was stripped away and we journeyed deeper into our spiritual life with God.

I prepared beforehand for that journey but I was still taken by surprise. Maybe that's all we're expected to do on our Lenten journey.

Choose to take the trip and prepare as best you can, but be open to a life-changing experience. In the wilderness, anything can happen.

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