In three days, it will be Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Naturally, folks are all abuzz about how to best observe. As I read through Facebook comments, tweets, and blog posts, I find that I have had all of the typical responses.
- “I’m gonna give up chocolate or alcohol.”
- “Giving things up is ridiculous. God wants us to live fully live. This whole practice is just stupid.”
- “Instead of giving something up, I’m taking something on this year.”
Like I said: I’ve said and done each of these things. I’ve given up something that was that important, I’ve wholly rejected the practice as a part of my rejection of conformist religion, and I’ve tried to reframe “self-denial” into “self-giving.”
But each of these responses makes a mistake, in my opinion. Notice that all of them are about me. They have very little to do with what God might be doing, but about something that I’m doing. Each of these responses betray a belief that I am the one in control, that I am the one, ultimately, who matters. As Richard Rohr says,
Resurrection takes care of itself. It’s getting people into tombs that’s hard. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, most contemporary people, both liberals and conservatives, abhor boundaries.
This realization was a hard truth for me, and so I have returned to the classic Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. I encourage you to do the same.
Prayer is not about asking God for things. It is about establishing, maintaining, or strengthening your connection to God in Christ. We do this so that we can begin to see the world as Christ sees it.
This is the first, most foundational Lenten practice. If you do nothing else during Lent, commit to the practice of daily prayer (preferably silent and contemplative, like Centering Prayer or praying with beads). Lent is the perfect time to reignite your prayer life. It is the time of the year when we intentionally focus on dying in order to rising.
Fasting (what we typically mean when we talking of “giving something up”) is not about doing without “something you LOVE,” but doing without something you need. We should be limiting our chocolate and alcohol intake anyway. What do you say we not use Lent as an excuse to go on a diet?
The point of fasting is to recognize our dependence on God’s provision. Typically, fasting is done once or twice a week. Try John Wesley‘s practice of sundown to sundown on Mondays to Tuesdays and Thursdays to Fridays.
If you are submitting to Christ through prayer and fasting, you will begin to see Christ in “the least of these.” When you do, offer yourself to the Christ you find in them. It’s really very simple, and it can be planned or spontaneous. Either way, it will be countercultural.
If you’re anything like me, you have to fight making spiritual practice into a self-improvement project. The Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the best ways to avoid that impulse that I’ve found. As Craig Dykstra wrote in Growing In The Life of Faith, Spiritual practices are actually not ours. They are the practices of the Holy Spirit that we get to inhabit. That these practices are not mine is important, in my opinion. Whereas Lenten disciplines are intended to remind us of our dependence on God, we more often inhabit these practices as if we are the ones responsible for the outcome of our lives and the world.
In the end, whatever you do during Lent is between you and God, but let’s commit to engaging in disciplines that remind us of our dependence on God not ones that prop us up as the saviors of ourselves.
I found your blog through Rachel Held Evans’ blog. This is such a good insight. I have been trying to figure out what I want to do for Lent this year and the ideas of giving something up,(food,soda, facebook) just didn’t seem meaningful. They seemed, just like you said, more about me and more about making myself a “better” person.
I also like how you’ve pointed out that Spiritual Diciplines are not ours, but the workings of the Spirit while inhabiting us. I had never heard it put that way before. I have a lot of friends who cringe at the talk of Spiritual Diciplines because they seem more like a “self-help” list. I’m getting some ideas for my blog post this Wednesday and you have given me a lot to think about. Thanks!!
Thanks, Micky. I’m glad you found it helpful. I know when I first read those thoughts from Craig Dykstra it was revolutionary for me. I’m so glad there are smart folks like him around!
May your Lenten journey be easy.
This is wonderful. Thanks so much for the insight. I shall pass it along.
I appreciate the emphasis on Almsgiving along with fasting. Good work.
Thanks. I also had the thought after I posted that the mealtimes when one would be eating are good times to devote to prayer and scripture reading.
I think this is beautifully written and very insightful. It has given me a lot to think about as I contemplate my own Lenten journey.
The only thing I’m attempting to give up this year is anger at a particularly difficult situation in my life because it does stand in my way from developing a stronger relationship with God. In thinking about what you said about giving up chocolate or alcohol or whatever, I can see how that act can actually be a spiritual discipline, especially when paired with prayer, fasting, and alms giving.
You remind us that Lent is about reminding us of our dependence is on God. Too often we give our dependence to these external forces like chocolate or alcohol. If we can give up our dependence on these things so that we give our dependence back to God, then it isn’t just about jump starting a diet.
I guess for me, whatever we do, be it giving up or taking on, it really comes down to our motivation and our focus. Like you said, the focus needs to change from me to God.
Thank you again for your words and wisdom.
Rachel, I see merit in what you say here, even though I loved the ideas in Landon’s entry. I am an addict and although I am in recovery, I will always be an addict. My substance of choice is what gets between me and God. It is the “giving up” action that enables me to develope a relationship with my Higher Power. For me, “giving up” is not about me, it is about reaching out to God and making contact, something that is impossible if I am using.
Thanks a lot for the information n the guidance. It’s a good way to start my Lenten period with a good guidance. Thanks for the article. It’s really what I believe too but I never found the right words to explain it to others, now I just need to show this to them 🙂
Thank you for this post. It chimes with what I have been thinking recently.
May you have a fruitful Lent.
Terrific post. Makes me want to go back and read what I wrote about Lent. I hope you have a good Lent, filled with insight, change, and growth.
This is my first visit to your blog. If found this post very meaningful. I put considerable thought each year in to what I will “do” or “not do” during Lent. I am a pastor and encourage others to engage in important Spiritual Disciplines during lent. Your post gives some helpful language that I can direct them to.
I appreciate this very much. I am expanding the “almsgiving” to being consciously more loving and less critical of others. “What the world needs now, is Love, Sweet Love.. . . ” and that’s what God tells us he wants through the loving, counter-cultural choices Jesus modeled for us. Fasting is tough for sure – a good challenge, so thanks! Prayer – up 15 minute early every day.
Landon thank you for sharing this, I am passing it along to faith community I serve!
Thanks, Sarah. I appreciate that.
“…fight making spiritual practice into a self-improvement project.” Crap! The Protestant Work Ethic always tricks me into thinking it can be used in place of actual ethics.
Thanks Landon for this! I’ve never practiced Lenten rituals because they never made sense to me but this makes it clear why! Giving up M&Ms doesn’t get me closer to God. Waking up for 40 days praying and reminding myself why I am praying to Him does. After a while, that becomes normal and the “ritual” feeling becomes a lifestyle. Really appreciate your post here 🙂
I’m going to give up being such an a******. Well, I’ll try to.
That’s it. You win Lent.
Thanks, Landon. I’ve been struggling with what to do with the Transfiguration in my sermon this Sunday, and I think you have unlocked it for me. May I liberally steal…er…quote this?
I’m an open source guy, so absolutely! Just name me and do what you’d like with it.
Like preacherjean, I, too, have been struggling. Not with my Transfiguration sermon but for my Ash Wednesday sermon. You have put in different words what I try to say almost every year. So I will certainly credit you as I try to pass your wisdom on to my congregation. Thanks for the help.
Stellar. Sharing on our church’s FB page.
Thanks, Landon. You had me at “Giving up chocolate and beer for Lent in not what Jesus had in mind” and then nailed me with the insight of how much of what I have tried to do with Lent has been more about control than about loving God and getting closer to Jesus. And I love the idea that spiritual disciplines are practices of the Spirit that we get to inhabit. Excellent food for thought while I am praying, fasting, and giving alms. Hope you have a blessed Lent.
I was thinking similar to this earlier this week, but my conclusion came to why give up something for Lent, but instead give something to God? Like daily prayer or some sort of other practice. I understand giving up something can be seen as self-sacrifice, but I think Lent can also be practiced in a more positive light.
Hi, Landon – I’m with you on this. Very insightful and wise post. The questions that linger for me are in the final paragraph. . . where you say:
“In the end, whatever you do during Lent is between you and God, but let’s commit to engaging in disciplines that remind us of our dependence on God not ones that prop us up as the saviors of ourselves.”
Every spiritual practice emerges in a community of faith and also nurtures that community. Spirituality is not a solo-enterprise, so when you say a Lenten practice is “between you and God” I get it that you mean you don’t want to interfere or make a rule for other people’s lives. I want to add: we live enduringly in a tension between our individual liberty of conscience (given to every human being) and our communal connections. We can’t live with just one or the other. We would not even know any spiritual disciplines without the graceful handing on of traditions from, through and with communities. In fact it is community and tradition, which correct the kind of missteps you are pointing out in your post. Human beings have tried and come up short in the ways you note, but they have also found more profound and sustainable ways – narrow paths, if you will – through the shared life of faith.
I often write about the practices, disciplines and gifts of prayer at my blog, and when I teach seminarians or teenagers, I remind them that we are not alone in this enterprise. Rather we are stewards of tradition and actors in each other’s stories and part of improvising in a community of faith. Even when we can’t see these things exactly. (http://eileencampbellreed.org/blog/2011/12/14/advent-v-3/)
I think you already get the point I’m making, but it seems worth highlighting here on the brink of Lent…
Peace to you,
Yes! Thank you! Sharing.
Thank you for the reminder that we too often use Lent for our purposes, rather than allowing God to use us for divine purposes. It is not about us.
Just found this post for Lent 2013– love it!
I think there is biblical precedent for giving up a pleasure rather than a need: 1 Cor 7:5, where Paul advocates giving up marital sex for a time, to devote oneselves to prayer. My point is a discipline such as giving up chocolate (or sex) may help to remind oneself to pray. It’s not necessary but if it works for some people, why not?
Reblogged this on from the armchair.
Thanks for the reminder. It’s not about me!