Lent and Belly Button Lint

By: Rev. Gregory S. Neal

When I was a precocious little boy of five, before I learned how to spell “lint,” I thought that “Lent” was the fuzz found in my belly-button. It was never there in the morning, when I got dressed, but at night, when I took off my clothes, I usually found a small scrap of lint in my belly-button. My mother will probably kill me for saying this, but I can remember her telling me that an angel had put it there to remind all little boys to take their baths at night. I must have believed that the “lint angel” was related to the tooth fairy because I would put my lint under my pillow before going to bed at night, even though no money ever appeared in the morning.

As I got a little older, I discovered that “lint” was also what my Mom called the blue-white stuff that she took out of a special slot in the dryer door and threw away. Its origin was as much a mystery to me as was “belly-button lint;” after all, it wasn’t there when you put the clothes in the dryer, but it was when you took them out! One day, Dad explained to me that dryer-lint was “left-over clothing,” but that theory was never satisfying to me. (Confidentially, I have developed my own solution to this particular mystery. I believe that dryer-lint may be the remains of that proverbial sock which the dryer always seems to eat to ensure that I don’t have a matching pair in the morning.)

When I got old enough to understand what was going on at Church, I learned that “Lent” was also a term that popped up just before the Easter Bunny came. Well, you don’t have to be told what a little boy’s imagination did with that one! The one thing I was sure of was that Lent was not a happy time in Church, and everybody seemed to be expecting me to beat on myself for all the bad things I had done. Well, as long as Mom and Dad didn’t find out, I was happy.

The mystery of Lent is an on-going saga in the Church. Every year, the 40 days prior to Easter are set aside as a period of self-examination and preparation. During these days it is appropriate for us to spend some considering our lives, our Christian walk, our dreams and aspirations. When I was a child, I thought that meant that we were to “beat on ourselves” because we had done so many bad things. But, nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, “beating on ourselves” is absolutely the wrong thing to do in the Lenten season.

As a boy I never could separate the same-sounding words “lint” and “Lent,” and confusion reigned as result. But, many Christians--not just little boys with overactive imaginations--are confused about the Lenten Season. We’re not supposed to feel bad in this season. We not supposed to be depressed about our failure to follow God as faithful disciples. We are not supposed to focus upon our sins, which drove our Lord to the cross. We are supposed to be focused upon the cross, and upon He who hung upon the cross. Yes, we crucified Jesus, but recognizing this should compel us to look at why Jesus came in the first place!

Why did Jesus come? Why was he born of the Virgin Mary? Why did he grow up, hammering nails in the carpenter’s shop? Why did he gather the disciples and preach and teach about the coming Kingdom of God? Why was he nailed to the cross? Why did he suffer and die? God the Son became one of us, taught us, and then died for us because God loves us all so very much. We separated ourselves from God through our sins, making it impossible for us to reach God. And so, in Love, God reached across the gap we had dug to reclaim us as His very own children. God became flesh, dwelt among us, died for us, and was raised from the dead for us because He loves us.

My mother has a wooden plaque on her kitchen wall at home. On it is a picture of Jesus, standing in the clouds, and underneath are the words:

I asked Jesus how much he loved me, and he said “This much” ... and he stretched out his arms and died.

I can never shake these words from my mind. They echo through my head whenever I “survey the wondrous cross.” That God would give His Son to die for you and me really goes beyond our ability to understand. It is part of the mystery of Lent, a mystery which we experience each and every Sunday when we come to hear the Word proclaimed, pray, and receive the blessed Sacrament of Holy Communion. The mystery of God’s real presence, with us and within us through the power of the Holy Spirit, is a glorious mystery which we proclaim as a forgiven people. It is a promise of Divine presence which God desires to give to all the world, if only they will receive the gift which was offered, so long ago, on Mount Calvary.

In Lent we are called to examine our lives while keeping our eyes fixed upon the cross and upon He who died for you and me. Instead of focusing on ourselves as we engage in this self examination, let’s focus upon Christ!

Oh, and a final word to all the little boys and girls out there with imaginations too big for their own good: “lint” is not “Lent.” They’re not even spelled the same way. But, you should still take the lint out of your belly-buttons.

© 1993 Rev. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

Stacks Image p13_n9
The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.