For Lent, start by giving your heart

The day after Christmas, I was sitting in our kitchen at home. I was looking out at our backyard and at neighboring trees. The trees all looked a bit crooked. I wondered why.

It dawned on me that our house had been made “level” by human design. The basement blocks, the floor joists, the studs, the walls, etc. had all been carefully leveled and made to be “flush” with various carpentry instruments.

No wonder the trees looked crooked. My house was sitting at 90 degree angles and the trees were not. Nobody had leveled the trees. They are a part of nature. And nature does not always grow things completely flush and straight. But then a further question came into my mind.

Who’s to say that my house is in the right position? Who’s to say that the trees are in the wrong position? Maybe my manufactured right angles are not completely “right.” Maybe my house is “crooked” in the larger scheme of things. Could it be that nature is right and I am wrong?

For me, this is a metaphor for what the season of Lent is all about. I assume that I am perfectly fine and the rest of the world is crooked. I assume my way is the best way and that any other way must be in error. But what if my way is the way of error?

Lent is a time to realize that what I think is right and straight might be crooked. Lent is a time to ponder how my perceptions might be “bent” and to ponder ways in which God is calling me to straighten out, so to speak.

Scripture aptly says: “Every way of a man is right — in his own eyes” (Proverbs 21:2). The Bible describes the time of the Judges as a time when “there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). We seldom think we are in the wrong. We will usually find subtle and logical ways of determining that our view is the proper view, that our actions are right and good.

Years ago, I read a book on sales that was titled “Influence: The Power of Persuasion” by Robert Cialdini. In that book, Cialdini cites research that demonstrates one of his favorite aphorisms: “Commitments Grow Their Own Legs.” What does that saying mean?

It means that people will almost always find ways to justify their current views and practices. On top of that, people will usually keep adding to their reasons why they behave or relate in the way they do. Indeed, their prior and current “commitments grow their own legs.”

For example, a young woman who is in an abusive relationship will often give “good reasons” why she stays in an abusive relationship. Her prior and current commitment will be supported by several reasons that she will see as “good reasons.” Today, we would say: everybody puts a spin on their circumstances, and they will find more and more ways to defend their spin.

What we think is good, true and beautiful is not always so. I was reading about the fact that Lake Michigan is much more clear and beautiful than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Many people celebrate how “clear” the waters of Lake Michigan have become. However, there is another side to that story.

A big part of the reason Lake Michigan’s waters are more clear is that a species of water life known as “mussels” has invaded those waters. Those “mussels” have hurt and decreased the population of other species, including edible and commercial fish.

Therefore, the current clarity of Lake Michigan, while pleasing to the eye, is actually a sign of an increasingly unhealthy lake. This is an example of how we can make serious mistakes in our evaluation of the world and of ourselves.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Cat’s Cradle,” there is a humanly manufactured substance known as “Ice-Nine.” In the novel, Ice-Nine is invented to freeze mud so soldiers will have an easier time treading on it. Unfortunately, Ice-Nine can also freeze the oceans and also human beings. At one point of the novel, the negative side of Ice-Nine threatens all human life. In trying to “better ourselves” we can be very destructive.

Lent is a “season of repentance.” In other words, the 40 days of Lent are good days in which to take stock of our lives. These 40 days will be a time to re-evaluate and re-assess where we are as individuals and as a society.

Lent is a time to re-evaluate the ways in which we try to “better ourselves.” A great Christian speaker, Oswald Hoffman, once defined “repentance” in this way: “Repentance means to give up on yourself and give in to God.”

This year, Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, falls on Valentine’s Day. Maybe this year, Valentine’s Day will be a good day to examine our loves, our heart’s desires and our commitments. Perhaps, Valentine’s Day is a good day to allow God to put a question mark after our values and to “switch the price tags” we have placed on our priorities.

The Rev. Larry Isbell is pastor of First Lutheran Church in Columbus. He can reached at