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.