What Will You Add For Lent?

We are approaching the season of Lent again. For those of you who are not versed in liturgical holidays, Lent is a 40 day period of self-reflection, repentance and self-sacrifice that culminates in the Holy Week before Good Friday.

I didn’t learn much about Lent growing up. The majority of evangelical churches don’t practice it. It’s a mainstay of Catholic and Episcopal/Anglican practice, and a few mainline Protestant denominations practice it as well. As a result of my non-liturgical church upbringing, I have never given Lent much thought. Of course, growing up in a predominantly Catholic area of South Texas, I heard a lot about it. No meat, except for fish on Fridays. Ashes on the forehead. I was surrounded by the symbols and the rituals, but I never thought to ask.

Since becoming a dedicated Methodist, I have been faced with my lack of knowledge of this liturgical holiday every year. Last year, I did a little bit of research, and decided to give up arguing on the Internet. That lasted an entire 7 days. So, this year, I did some soul-searching, and I decided to try a different way.

Every year, I hear the same things around Lent. Many people give up meat. Others give up alcohol. Some give up fast food or sweets. This is certainly in keeping with the way the early Church practiced Lent, as well as the way it is still practiced by the Orthodox Church. The historical practice of Lent has much in common with the Muslim observation of Ramadan: fasting during the day, and devoting the time to prayer and repentance.

But, I take issue with the way that much of the American Church practices Lent. (SURPRISE! I take issue with something American Christians are doing!) I promise that this entire blog isn’t going to be devoted to what I see wrong, but you’re going to have to read (or at least scroll) through the wrong to get to what I think we could do better.

First, let’s stop giving up food. As I said, this is a historical practice, but we have trivialized it to the point of ridiculousness. You’re giving up meat? You’re giving up alcohol? You’re giving up chocolate? How fortunate for you, that you can give up food in excess. You can give up luxuries, while people go hungry in our communities, while people lack for necessities. Your neighbor down the street? She didn’t give up electricity for Lent – the power company gave it up for her, when she couldn’t afford to heat her house anymore. That man you passed while driving to church? He didn’t give up shelter for Lent – he simply has nowhere to go.

Our cute little sacrifices have absolutely no meaning while people go without their daily food and shelter. Our pious abstinence from small pleasures is a hollow gesture in the face of Christians and others being robbed of their lives across the world. We are making a mockery of a faith that already lacks relevance in today’s world – and the reason for that lack of relevance probably stems, in large part, from our inability to self-reflect on how useless the practice of Lent has become for most of us.

My second protest against the way we practice Lent: we do exactly what Jesus said not to do, and we don’t do what He did. On the march to Gethsemane, Jesus feasted. Everywhere He went, He ate and drank with people. He did it so much that the religious authorities called Him a drunkard and a glutton. He was criticized for not making His disciples fast.

And what did Jesus teach about fasting? He taught that public declarations of piety, sacrifice and righteousness during a fast were their own rewards – that these gestures were worthless to God. What do we do when we celebrate Lent? While this is not a universal observation, I have found that far too many people make their Lent declarations for the whole world. Then, they spend 40 days talking about how difficult it is to give that thing up. I think that the latter is more troublesome than the former: I take little issue with public declarations, when they’re made for the purpose of accountability. I take great issue with the way we cast ourselves as noble, suffering souls, just because we’ve decided that we can’t eat a steak.

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I promised that I would talk about a new way, and I shall. We rely heavily on tradition in the Church, but there comes a point – and that point comes far more often than we’d like to admit – when our traditions just don’t work anymore. I think that we have reached that point with the liturgical holiday of Lent. We’ve trivialized it, and made it into something that is almost anti-Christ. So, here are my suggestions:

1) Forget about giving up anything this year. Add something to your Christian walk instead. Better yet, add something to someone else’s life. Offer to pay the electric bill for your struggling neighbor. Surprise the homeless man with a $50 bill, instead of spare change (or, actually let him into your car and take him somewhere warm.) That extra money you have at the end of the week? Send it to a relief organization, to help refugees and persecuted people in our country and elsewhere. And do it all in secret.

2) If we’re going to make any public observances or declarations, don’t make public declarations of piety. Make public declarations of humility. Do public repentance. We, as a faith and a Church, have a great deal to repent for, and even more to be humble about. For too long, our discourse with the non-believing world has been from a position of demanding repentance, instead of offering it. We have taken a position of pride and power, and demeaned the name of the humble carpenter and rabbi that we claim to follow. We have scrambled to be first in all things, and we have forgotten how to be last. If we are going to dedicate 40 days to spiritual reflection and acts of righteousness, let’s start with humility and repentance.

3) We need to focus our eyes on the Cross. What did Jesus do as He was marching towards sacrifice? He rejoiced. He dove deeper into relationships with the people around him. He worked for the good of others. He blessed little children. He comforted His disciples. Everything that Jesus did in the 40 days leading to His execution was for the good of those around Him. He did not weep and wail for the cruel fate that awaited Him. He brought comfort to all He met. We, as followers of Jesus, need to act as though we are going to the cross with Him at the end of this 40 days. We should spend this time of reflection comforting those who need comforting. We should spend it by forgetting about the spiritual safety and security of our houses of worship and going into all the world, to bring hope and peace to those who have never known it.

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I have a few ideas on what I’ll be adding to my life, and I know what my public declaration will be. For 40 days, I will be using my great love of social media to post prayers for the many people in our world who need prayer. Any other acts will be between me and the Spirit. I encourage you to share in public declarations with me, even if those declarations are to pray with me for all the hurting people in our world.

I’ll finish with a story: we sang “Blessed Assurance” this morning in my church. With great respect to those who love the hymn, I think it is my 2nd least favorite hymn of all time. The reason I’m not crazy about it is that we have carried Jesus around as our “blessed assurance” for far too long, and we treat the Lent and Easter seasons as a celebration of the hope that we have received – rather than a celebration of the hope that we have a responsibility to give away in great abundance. I look forward to the day when we stop seeing Jesus as simply our blessed assurance, and start viewing Him as the fire lit under our butts to get us moving in the right direction.

May Lent be a season of humility and repentance for you. May you give all that you are to the world, and add to the lives of others.

Amen.

One thought on “What Will You Add For Lent?

  1. I agree with many of your observations about inconsequential sacrifices, but I would add that this is far more systemic than just lent. We exist in a culture steeped in the idea of acceptable sacrifice. The lives of the oppressed or inadequately represented are often that acceptable sacrificed. They are the sacrifice in the name of maintaining a multitude of illusions. Piety and lenten sacrifice is a great example, but it just scratches the surface.

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