What are you giving up for Lent this year? How many times have you been asked that question already?
I really don’t like it when folks ask me that. I’m sure it’s because they assume that I have something really holy to offer.
Yet I don’t. I’ve never really fasted more than a couple of days. I am never one for long, silent retreats (I just think I like talking too much). Or anything else you could name in the super holy category.
Since being serious about Lent in seminary, let me tell you my greatest hits of “giving up something” for Lent:
- Diet Coke (because I was addicted and still am).
- Sugar (especially cookies because I love them a lot too).
- And last year a Whole 30. (It was intense).
In the past, these practices have helped me remember that I am not my cravings. What gives me comfort and life and health is more about what I eat.
But this year, I’ve decided that I’m not giving up anything for Lent. Nope. Not a thing.
Reading the gospel reading set for Ash Wednesday helped me arrive at this place: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1).
These were Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount. They were a conversation changer when it came to how Jesus spoke to his disciples about actions and faith.
I would sum up his message like this: If you are going to do something for the sake of doing something – to have something “good” to talk about – don’t do it.
There’s no reason to have piety for the sake of piety. If an action means nothing to you, just don’t do it. Full stop.
Maybe this is why Jesus would later give instructions about fasting saying, “Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting.”
Or a modern paraphrase would be “Don’t go out to dinner with friends and make a big show of it when you’re just ordering water.”
Or “Don’t announce loudly at a dinner party that you’ve given up chocolate for Lent.”
Or “Don’t bully your partner into fasting if you are.”
But hear me say that I don’t think that Jesus is anti-fasting. There are certainly stories after stories of the spiritual practice of prayer and fasting throughout Scripture.
Fasting helps us rid ourselves of distractions. Fasting helps us align our daily life with spiritual rhythms of prayer. If you feel called to fast, fast. I’d think Jesus would say do it. But don’t make a big fuss of it.
For outward faith without the inward work gets you no benefit, really. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:19).
Because here’s the point of Lent, really: Forty days of spiritual preparation for the season of Easter.
Lent helps get our shoes ready for Easter. The time when we get to shout and dance and sing Alleluia all we want. The time we get to celebrate the worst endings to stories never being the end. The time when hope is born again.
That’s a lot to prepare for, wouldn’t you say? So, here’s what I’m doing for Easter in lieu of giving up something:
- I’m going to stick to the spiritual journey I began at the beginning of the year during the season of Epiphany.
- I’m going to remember the star word that has guided me so far in this new year: mystery.
- I’m going to trust that even when my life seems out of control, it’s not.
Faith comes in when I believe the master Creator is orchestrating a beautiful plan I couldn’t see coming, even if I tried to dream it up now.
And practically, what that means as far as daily discipline, I’m going to keep to myself (in other words, not making a big show of it). And do it.
What about you? How can you find your way to what it means to live out Lent this year?
Here are three suggestions I have as you decide what to do or not to do this season.
- Take 30 minutes and be silent.
This could be in your car. It could mean getting up a little earlier or staying up a little bit past when your family goes to bed. Be still. And ask God to guide your desire for spiritual growth in this season.
Often, we’re so busy that there is no stillness in our day to simply listen to the voice of the Spirit, what our calling is for now. Listen. And you’ll have some clarity. You really will.
- Have a conversation with a trust friend or partner.
Talk through what frustrates you most about your daily routines. Ask for their wisdom about how they see you thriving or living in frustration. Often, the clarity we need for spiritual practice is right in front of us, and all we have to do is ask and wisdom will appear.
- Connect with a faith community.
Lent is a season of the year when churches of all flavors open up opportunities for spiritual growth that don’t happen any other time of the year.
Is there a prayer group you can join? A class you can participate in? A practice you could learn more about because it’s what your pastor is leading you in worship?
There’s nothing better than engaging in a spiritual practice in community. Maybe what you’re looking for is already right around the corner from your house. You just have to go.
Wishing you a blessed Lenten journey in whatever way you decide to practice. Know that as you discern what comes next for you in this holy season, God is with you.
And regardless of your piety or not, God looks at you and says, “You are my beloved child in whom I’m well pleased.”
Elizabeth Hagan is senior minister of The Palisades Community Church in Washington, D.C. Other hats she wears are as a preacher, author and executive director of Our Courageous Kids, a foundation dedicated to orphan care.