Today is Shrove Tuesday, otherwise known as Mardi Gras (translated as Fat Tuesday). Generally, today is the day where Christians are meant to consider their lives prayerfully and decide on what the shape of their Lenten fast will be—whether it’s a giving up of a vice or addiction, or taking up of a devotional activity. Lent is the 40 day period between Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday of Holy Week, when the Passion of Christ is remembered. Depending on the tradition, fasting takes place Monday through Friday (Orthodox) or Monday through Saturday (Catholic and other Protestant denominations), with Sunday being a feast day.
While I’ve been thinking about what God is calling me to this Lenten season for at least a month, my heart hasn’t quite landed on anything particular yet. The penintenial time of Lent is meant to be a response to God’s longing call in Joel 2, “Return to me with your whole heart!”
In those words, I hear the ache of a father whose son has rejected him (Luke 15:11-32), the cry of a lover who longs for the beloved (Song of Songs 2), the agony of Christ on the Cross (Mark 15:25-37).
In those words, I hear the invitation of God to look at my own heart, and consider the things that keep me from deeper intimacy with a God who loves me beyond anything I could ask or imagine. Why do I choose Facebook over time communing with Him? What is it about food that I go to the pantry to numb myself instead of the comfort of His arms? How is it that my heart would rather repeat nasty things about myself than choose to engage in the very practices of writing and speaking that He has annointed me for? He calls me His beloved, do I believe it?
Contrary to popular culture, Lent isn’t about giving something up just to prove that you have control of your addictions, or that you’re better than the chocoholic next door. Instead, it’s about making space to receive more of God’s love, His tenderness and your true identity in Him.
I’m still not sure what Lenten practices God is calling me into this season but if, like me, you’re still considering, here are a few ideas that might spark something for you:
In our world of social connectedness, Facebook is the new chocolate for the season of Lent. There have been studies done and articles written about the fact that our interactions on social networks like Facebook produce in our brains the same chemical reactions as when we are hugged or touched. Much like the phenylethylamine in chocolate, time on Facebook spikes our “feel good” hormones with a rush of oxytocin. This, in turn, fuels our desire to get another “hit” of the chemical, and we find ourselves refreshing our News Feed every 30 seconds instead of tending to our crying child. While I don’t think Facebook addiction is going to cause the kind of dystopian social meltdowns that some doomsdayers say, it might be worth your while to see how much control you have over your social network use—or how much control it has over you. If you find yourself checking Facebook before you get out of bed in the morning, it might be time to call it quits for 40 days. If that makes you feel panicky, don’t worry, Sundays are feast days.
2. Saying “Yes”
Ever find yourself committed to something that you didn’t really want to do? Like bringing over that casserole to a new mom you hardly know, or getting that extra project done at work despite the fact that you’re going to have to miss your daughter’s soccer game—again?
Some of us say “yes” so often that we don’t even realize that it’s our addiction to being “useful” or “necessary” that is driving us to overcommit, which leads to being completely overwhelmed.
Perhaps this Lenten season you might be led to a season of hiddenness and humility, where instead of saying “yes” to babysitting your friend’s children one more time, you make room for yourself, your family and your heart by saying “no” to every extra request that comes your way. This may be a tough one for those of us who get our self-worth from how much we can do, instead of how beloved of God we are. It may be tougher for those who have great opportunities come their way during this season (and, believe me, if you’re led to take up this fast, they probably will), but saying “no” can produce the kind of incredible freedom that says that your reputation, career, self-worth are determined not by how much you do for others, but by a God who will care for you, if you only give Him the chance.
In her book, Girl Meets God, Lauren Winner talks about giving up reading for Lent. While this may not seem like much to you, for this self-avowed bibliophile, giving up books was like giving up eating for 40 days. Books soothed her, told her she wasn’t alone, and kept her occupied in a way that allowed her to avoid her feelings.
While you may not be led to give up reading for Lent, is there an activity that you go to when you’re sad, alone, or scared? Something that you do that allows you to numb out or avoid sitting with what’s going on in your own soul?
If so, consider stepping away from that practice for the duration of Lent. Invite God into those lonely, sad, frightened places. You may find He fills them with something you would have otherwise missed.
4. Eating Out
It’s late, and you’re hungry. What could be easier than picking up some Chick-Fil-A on the way home, or driving through Sonic to get some tots?
Sometimes the conveniences of Western living leave us blind and insensitive to the economic realities of the majority of the world’s population. For a lot of people, there’s not such thing as fast food, and convenience eating is a thing of day dreams. When others live on one meal or less a day, choosing to let go of eating out (in restaurants, fast food chains or even your work cafeteria) can begin the process of opening your heart not just to your own needs, but the needs and sufferings of those around the world. It helps you remember that you’re not the center of the universe, and that God suffers for and with those in poverty—His heart breaks for them.
If simply giving up eating out doesn’t feel like it will soften your heart, perhaps consider eating only rice, beans and water for this season. In your body’s needs, you’ll be feeling the needs of the world. And that is guaranteed to change you, to open you, and to allow God’s compassion to flow through you.
While we’re on the subject of food, you could consider giving up chocolate for Lent. This is a slightly different form of fasting than the food fast mentioned in #4. Giving up chocolate, or those foods that offer you comfort, you’re choosing to turn to God when your psyche and your stomach would rather you turn to Lindt Truffles. While this seems a simple fast, it usually reveals how quickly and how often we use another source to offer us life (Scripture calls this idolatry). If chocolate isn’t your go-to, consider coffee, or something else that offers comfort and distraction, whether that’s carbs, meat or anything else.
Sarcasm, judgement, criticism. More often than not, I use these tools to defend myself against other people, to categorize them rather than really listen to them. The root of the word sarcasm derives from a Greek word that literally means to rend flesh. Giving up sarcasm for Lent means that I choose to look at people through God’s eyes, and to spend energy noticing when I’m choosing my own interpretation of their actions or words instead. Some people call this fasting from critical words. I just call it choosing to love.
At the risk of quoting too many of Lauren Winner’s books in one blog post, I’m nonetheless going to share what Winner describe giving up for Lent in her most recent book, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. This time, instead of reading, she was charged with giving up her addiction to anxious thoughts (which manifested themselves in obsessing about whether or not she’d turned off the tea kettle to checking her bank account multiple times a day). Instead, when wracked with anxious thoughts, Winner took a few deep breaths, and allowed God to hold her still for 15 minutes. During that Lenten season, she admitted to living by those 15 minute incriments.
You may not struggle with anxiety over your bank account, but what about your kids? Do you choose to indulge in worry rather than trust on a regular basis? Instead of resting in the provision of God, are you thinking about how to control your 401(k), your retirement, your future?
What mental habit might God be inviting Himself into, asking you to let Him handle that part of your soul for the next 40 days? Can you screw up your courage and say ‘yes’ to life lived without obsessing over what tomorrow may bring?
With a full seasons of my favorite shows on Netflix to catch up on, this might be a tough one for me. But how often do I chose television as a way of numbing out instead of interacting with my husband at the end of the day? As someone who works at home, I sometimes turn the TV on just to have voices in the house. What would it be like if I asked God to speak instead?
What might you do with 40 TV-less days? Perhaps you might take more walks, and discover a coffee shop in your neighborhood that you never knew existed. Perhaps you might read more, immersing yourself in stories that catch your imagination on fire. Maybe you’ll take up a new hobby, or choose to read through the Gospels (a traditional Lenten undertaking) instead of catching up on Cupcake Wars. And maybe, just maybe, God will sneak up on you and transform your relationship with Him into something way more interesting than reality TV.
Doesn’t sound too hard, does it? Giving up on being cruel probably appears, on the face of it, to be a sacrifice already accomplished. You don’t kick your dog or hit your spouse. You’re not apt to road rage or deliberately sabotaging your coworkers.
But how about how cruel you are to yourself? What is it that you tell yourself when you’ve failed, missed a deadline, broken a glass? What names do you call yourself by? What kinds of things do you say to yourself? Stupid idiot! What a failure! You’re worth less than nothing!
These words we would never say to our child or our friend, but we say them to ourselves, often hundreds of times a day.
What if, during Lent, you began to let God speak in those times of self-cruelty, instead of berating yourself. What might you be surprised to find He says over you?
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.’ We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” (A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles”, Harper Collins, 1992. From Chapter 7, Section 3])
How are you doing?, we ask one another. Oh, fine, we laugh breezily. Busy!
Busyness is the plague of our time. It is so easy to be busy, so easy to be full of things to do, people to see, work to accomplish. What if Lent this year is an invitation to spaciousness? What if it is a call to let go of social obligation and a schedule full of activities and instead choose for leisure, rest, renewal? Lent doesn’t have to be a muscular grasping for spiritual strength. What if, instead, it is a relaxation into the arms of the One who holds us all.
What if you gave up being busy for Lent? What if at Easter someone asked you how you are doing, and you were able to answer, Not busy at all!
I suspect I’m not the only one among us who has a junk drawer in her kitchen. It’s the drawer where all the odds and ends go, the place where loose paper clips, dead batteries and bits of ribbon end up. It’s full of things that I’m going to organize one day. But you know and I know that I’m avoiding looking at the things that I don’t know what to do with—I’m tucking them away so that I don’t have to deal with my own helpless questions about whether or not I actually need that third tube of super glue, or whether I’m ever going to become the kind of woman that sews lost buttons onto shirts.
What if, for Lent, we gave up avoiding those questions? What if together, God and I tackled some of those places of clutter and avoidance—in my kitchen drawer, or in my own heart? What if I gave up avoiding having that hard conversation with my friend, or avoiding the fact that I’m not going to ever be the type of person who knits? What if, instead, I called her up and told her what was going on, what if I just threw away that unused ball of yarn and gave up the pretense of being anything other than who I am?
What kind of Lenten freedom might that be?
Perhaps this is a bit more of a taking up than a putting down. Or perhaps you are putting down the habit of relying on yourself and your own strengths.
Giving up prayerlessness for Lent could involve picking up a practice of prayer that brings joy or expectation to your day. What if that’s praying by doodling? (See Sybil MacBeth’s Praying in Color.) Or maybe it’s praying a fixed hour prayer, using a psalter or prayer book (I recommend The Paraclete Psalter or Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours Pocket Edition or J. Philip Newell’s Celtic Prayers from Iona.) Or maybe it’s picking up a practice of journaling, dialoguing with God about your day, inviting Him into all of its nooks and crannies. Or maybe it’s walking prayer, letting your steps be the imprecation that brings you deeper into His heart. Or maybe it’s song, or silence, or lighting a candle. Maybe it’s praying the Psalms.
Whatever it is, let it be joy. Which isn’t to say that each moment of prayer will be divine bliss—or any moment for that matter. What it is to say is that prayer doesn’t need to be a grinding, painful process. Giving up prayerlessness means showing up to a relationship.
I promise that God will show up, too.
And here’s the last suggestion. It may be the hardest. Give up yourself. For Lent, let go of wanting to be right, needing to be right, believing that you are right. For 40 days (you can be right again after that!), give up winning arguments by running over top of people (heck, give up arguing). Give up needing to be noticing when you walk into a room, or needing other people to agree with your [fill in the blank]. In an election year, that could be giving up needing people to agree with your position on an economic policy, or (*braces for the angry emails*) your position on abortion.
Letting go of self-righteousness means giving up the burden of having to be holy. It means accepting the free gift that God gives us in Christ, and choosing instead to turn toward the holiness that He gives us. It means letting go of striving and rule-keeping, abandoning our ability to define ourselves by what group we belong to or accolades that we’ve earned. You could even give up needing to pick the right practice for Lent.
Giving up self-righteouness means giving up being right, and picking up being God’s.
So, what about you? Have you decided on a Lenten practice that brings light and whole-heartenedness? Where are you in the journey?