Yesterday I ate king cake someone made and brought to our staff meeting and saw guys and gals sporting mardi gras beads when I went out to karaoke at an Irish-themed pub. And now today I've seen folks wearing ash on their foreheads, the start of the Lenten season.
"Man, I hope people don't give up stuff for Lent!" one of my RAs mentioned in our staff meeting a couple of weeks ago when we were discussing upcoming programs and what food to serve. In the previous meeting, I had talked with them about offering more food choices to be inclusive of all residents and their diets, whether for religious or health reasons, so I just gently reminded the RA that this is another reason to offer different food options at our programs.
Her response stuck with me, because I think that's how many people view Lent. Some sort of hassle for Catholics or all Christians to give up something that they usually enjoy. Just another example of Christians doing something that doesn't sound fun, going against our society's emphasis on instant gratification. I'm not Catholic, but I started adopting Lenten practices of fasting from something for a season in high school when I gave up drinking sodas during Lent. I thought Lent was about giving something up until I talked with a Catholic friend in college about it.
"What are you giving up for Lent?" I asked him. "Lent isn't about giving up things," he explained, "It's a season for spiritual renewal. That can take the form of a fast, but it should also be a time when people do things and make changes, like being more generous or forgiving." Since then, when this season rolls around, instead of praying, "What should I give up this year for Lent?" I think about what I should do for Lent and what it should mean for me this season.
Recently, I asked my boyfriend if he was going to do anything for Lent, and he said no and shared some of this thoughts about why he believes Lent isn't something he should practice. I'm not going to recap what he said because it probably wouldn't do his opinions justice, but I do want to share the thoughts that it prompted. The first is the idea of "seasonal holiness," of doing things to make oneself holy for a season or doing something that would please God for just a few weeks, but then not doing it the rest of the year. There is something hypocritical sounding about it. But for me, Lent isn't about making myself holy or more pleasing to God during this season. It's about practicing something new and different for a season, and maybe I'll continue that practice after Lent, and maybe I won't. I don't think that God necessarily expects the same things from his followers all the same. I might do something that for a season is beneficial to my spiritual health and is what God wants for me at that time, but at another time, as I grow and mature (hopefully) and face different circumstances and challenges, then God may want me to do something different. I don't think there's some point of spiritual practice that I'm supposed to "arrive" at. I don't think I should keep striving until I read my Bible, pray, fast, etc every day. I don't think my prayer life should always look the same. I think there will be ebbs and flows and differences across time, and I see Lent as one of those ebbs.
The second thing I took away from our conversation is the idea of trying to make changes based on my own effort. I struggle with spiritual disciplines, even when I enjoy them and see the good in them. Lent is the exception. I can make drastic lifestyle changes during Lent that I wouldn't always have the willpower to carry out the rest of the year. It's the conviction of the Lenten season and the accountability of other Christians all around the world doing something similar that helps me to stick with my Lenten convictions when I don't keep other promises. But is Lent something that's about me and my own willpower and my own dedication to do or not do something? Or is it about the Spirit working through me, changing me from the inside out, in ways that I never could? Am I humbled during Lent? Or am I filled with pride in what I'm able to do or give up?
I've decided to do the following this Lenten season:
1. Fast from lunch once a week and spend that solid hour in prayer.
2. Not use the internet after 10:30pm, unless it's legitimately for word.
3. Read John Owen's Mortification of Sins.*
I certainly don't think that all Christians should participate in Lent. I don't know that I'll continue to participate in Lent year after year, but I am participating in it again this year and I look forward to seeing how God will use this season in my life.
*Don't be afraid of the Puritans! Give them a chance. I read Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" sermon in a high school English class, and my Christian friends and I decided that the Puritans were as nutty as those street evangelists in our city who said you were going to hell if you drank alcohol, didn't wear long skirts, or went to see movies. But recently I've been reintroduced to Puritan writers through reading The Valley of Vision, a beautiful and moving collection of prayers, and now John Owen.