As a teenager, I recall the pastor at our church distinguishing our United Methodist practices from the Catholic majority in the community by encouraging us to ìtake upî something for Lent instead of ìgiving upî something for Lent. Then he would invite us to put an additional devotional reading or time of prayer into each day, or to serve our neighbor or the church or the poor with renewed vigor, or give an additional amount to the church or to a charity. And so through those years, our family would ask each other, ìwhat are you taking up for Lent?î The practices added new texture, focus, and energy toward Christian service and reflection.
We are entering the season of Lent, the days of preparation that focus our hearts on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This period is marked by renewal of faith, repentance, a focus on the teachings and sacrifice of Christ. We prepare ourselves for Holy Week, the crucifixion, and ultimately, the resurrection of Christ. Think about how you learned about Lent and what practices shape your faith during this time.
Even with the focus on ìtaking upî in our church, many times the language moved to ìgiving upî something for Lent. I have known many people who have used the added inspiration and communal covenant of Lent to help them quit smoking, lay off gambling, or otherwise leave behind habits that were not conducive to fullness of life. For many others, Lent was not about letting go of habits we never should have taken up in the first place, but about sacrificing something we especially enjoy. Therefore, I also recall stories of people going six weeks without chocolate, or sports on TV, shopping or eating out. I have to confess that sometimes my cynicism rises too quickly to the foreground when I picture giving up sweets for Jesus, or running a couple extra laps a week for the faith. I begin to fear weíve slipped down the slope of using this time of spiritual focus to confirm our cultureís shaping of what temptation and sacrifice mean.
About twenty years ago, I started taking seriously the notion of fasting, a practice that finds its roots in scripture, in the teaching and practice of Jesus, in the early church, and in our Methodist heritage. Wesley spoke of fasting with as much enthusiasm as he did the sacraments, and throughout his life he commended it as a spiritual discipline. Iíve known many people who fast one day a week during Lent, or avoid beef during the season, or refrain from alcohol. Others fast one or two lunches per week, and give what they would have spent to missions. For these people, itís not that thereís anything wrong or sinful about beef or Friday lunches or eating out, and itís not about weight and fitness. Thereís a power in intentionally attending to our relationship with God, and shaping our regular and necessary eating habits becomes the daily tool to help us do so.
I appreciated one writerís take on fasting that I read long ago. He basically said that fasting involves voluntarily setting aside something ordinary in a disciplined way in order to draw our attention toward God.
The early Methodists adopted practices and personal disciplines of worship, scripture study, the sacraments, fasting, prayer, giving, and service to place themselves in the most advantageous posture for perceiving and responding to Godís word. These patterns created openings and pauses in their daily lives where Godís grace, mercy, and hope could break into their conscious awareness, and thereby shape their behaviors and help them starve the old nature and feed the new, and to develop in them the mind that was in Christ.
Sometimes I ìtake upî something for Lent. Usually this involves a special Lenten study or devotional reading, or a renewed commitment to worship or service. I believe churches should offer many and diverse means by which people can gather during Lent for prayer, for book studies, scripture studies, or service projects.
Sometimes I ìgive upî something for Lent, and so I let go of some patterns and behaviors that have become comfortable to me, but not helpful to me, in becoming what God created me to be.
And each Lent I practice fasting in some private form, in order to cause myself to pause in each ordinary day to draw my attention to the extraordinary gift that is ours in Christ.
What are the Lenten practices in your congregation, and in your walk of faith that strengthen you in the ministry of Christ?
Grace and peace,