Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Lenten Practice or New Year's Resolution?

In case you've missed it, Lent begins today. The six weeks leading up to Easter are meant to be a time of penitence, reflection, prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. When baptisms only happened on Easter, Lent was the time for almost-Christians to prepare for the sacrament. Luther didn't really like Lent much, I don't think, which could be why practicing Lent has until quite recently been mostly for Catholics. But now the Protestants are getting into it, and whether it's because of my profession and related circles of friends or evidence of a growing trend, Lent seems to be everywhere. My Facebook feed is filled with people sharing what they're "giving up" for Lent, including those saying good-bye and signing off Facebook for the next 40-46 days (depending on how they're counting Lent).

Last Sunday I preached this sermon, in which I posited that Jesus telling us to take up our cross to follow him was a way of saying "It's not all about you." As it turns out, that same day, a colleague of mine posted this on her blog, with a similar theme.

Maybe we've both been seeing the same thing. See, I'm noticing (and I fully admit I'm guilty of it myself) that Lenten practices are starting to sound a whole lot like New Year's resolutions. I'm seeing very little fasting from something people enjoy for the sole sake of fasting (ie enduring a little deprivation) or even fasting to give way to something more spiritual. Instead, people are doing things they think they SHOULD be doing, or giving up things that have become too important or distracting in their lives, like not checking the phone after a certain time of night or eating healthy or reading before watching TV. Many, it seems to me, hope to continue these practices after Lent; it's as if they're hoping the 40 days provide the discipline enough to make a practice a habit.

As I said, I'm guilty as anyone else. Past Lenten practices have included daily prayer time (stuck for a while, now still a struggle), giving up the word "should," giving up television, saying grace before eating or drinking (I still forget), giving a small amount of money each day to a charity, and doing a carbon fast in which I analyzed my carbon footprint and tried to decrease it somehow (most suggestions I was already doing anyway). This year I considered a whole array of possibilities, most of which sounded remarkably close to what I thought about changing in my life 6 weeks ago, on New Year's Eve.

I think I've settled on something, but am still not sure. It's something that does involve reflection and prayer, and an attempt to repent and change a way of being which I believe blocks part of God's call on my life. But I'm not confident it's not just a delayed New Year's resolution. Tonight in our Ash Wednesday service, I'll be opening up space for silence and prayer inviting those gathered to ask God to show us how we might best experience this Lenten season. I'll be paying attention, waiting for God's answer. Somehow, I bet the words of Isaiah 58 will ring in my ears.

5Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to theLord6Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

May God grant each of us a sense of how She would wish us to experience Lent this year, which may have nothing to do with our own desires for self-improvement.

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