Note: I wrote this a few years back, reposting it for this year. As always, thanks for reading.
You aren’t supposed to talk about what you are doing for Lent. Don’t “let your right hand know what your left hand is doing” and “don’t be like the Pharisees.” But people often ask me specifically how I practice Lent. Sometimes its helpful to hear what others are doing to keep a Holy Lent, and so I’ll share my experience here. This is (mostly) not a “how to” or specific guidelines, it is a report of my experiences with Lent.
Preparing for Lent
I do not prepare for Lent. In fact, I don’t believe in preparing for Lent. Lent is preparation for Easter, so it is redundant to prepare for preparing for something. I like to have Ash Wednesday show up and hit me in the face. Feeling unprepared, a bit shocked, as if I’ve been suddenly woken up from a dead sleep is part of my Lenten journey. We usually go to the early Ash Wednesday service, and so often I am literally awakened from a dead sleep when I suddenly realize someone is putting ashes on my forehead and reminding me that I will die. Kind of kick starts Lent.
Giving Something Up
I give up either sweets or alcohol. I am very specific, and I don’t give up things that are harmful, only good things (even though I usually overdo it on the sweets). If its sweets, then I give up cake, candy, ice cream, but not Splenda in my coffee or Honey Bunches of Oats cereal. Its not fun to find yourself wrestling with the definition of “sweets” during Lent. Be specific about exactly what you are giving up.
Giving something up, for me, is not tied to “giving something away.” Some folks will give up going out to eat, and then give away the money they would have spent. I’m not sure that’s a good idea. If I tie the two together, I end up being proud of myself. It goes like this, “sure, I am not going out to eat tonight, but at least the money is going to help someone in need.” Tying the two together helps me be proud of myself instead of helping me feel my need.
I fast on Ash Wednesday and on Fridays in Lent. Since I am subject to migraine headaches (and am a wimp), I eat vegetables on fast days. I have never walked through a Lent in which I actually kept this discipline completely, or any of the disciplines for that matter.
I have written previously on how important it is not to fast on Sundays, but to feast (see “Lent and the Great Feast”). The Feast is the point. The fast is only preparation and a time of contemplation for that great feast. Sundays, for me, are not “exceptions” to Lent. Lent is actually the “exception” to our Feasting. Fasting is a temporary part of our life, while we await the Bridegroom’s return. Fasting will pass away, but feasting will remain forever. Sundays are a day when time stands still, and we celebrate the resurrection, and when the Bridegroom appears and makes himself present to us. So on Sundays, I usually intentionally partake in whatever it is I’ve given up for Lent.
What is the difference between contemplating the reality of my fallen condition, and my own expression of brokenness, on the one hand, and shaming and guilting myself into condemnation, on the other hand? I don’t think there are words to exactly describe the difference. Instead, it is in walking through Lent, contemplating God’s grace and seeking to be honest about my own, real life thoughts and feelings, and actions, that I can begin to glimpse it. We can’t learn how to repent and accept God’s radical grace except by experience, contemplation, forgiveness, and fasting.
In my attempt to experience repentance and grace, I read a book and meditate on that each year. This year, I am reading Original Sin by Alan Jacobs. My goal is to understand the true and real state of humanity without the rose colored glasses, and to meditate on my own expression of human fallenness.
As a family, we practice some form of giving each Lent. For some reason, this always seems like the most difficult part for me. Giving money is not so bad. For some reason, as much as I believe this is important, I feel a lot of guilt. I feel like I should be doing this more often. I then feel ashamed of how proud I am that my family is helping others. Then I alternate back to feeling guilt, this time because we have so much and there are so many others who have so little. Then I feel proud of myself for feeling bad that others have less than we do. But when this guilt cycle ends, I usually realize that the practice of giving our time and substance helps me to face my own abundance and honestly encounter the feelings that emerge as we seek to give.
Every Lent, in each and every way, I fail to keep my disciplines in some major or minor way. This is a great opportunity to be reminded that failure is the point. In other words, if I finish Lent with a greater awareness of my own failings, and so am more aware of my need for God’s grace and the forgiveness of others, then my Lent has been a holy one.
Third Week…or Second Week
By the third week, or even the second week, of Lent, I have stopped feeling like Lent is a “cool ancient tradition.” This is the time when it starts feeling like a real bummer. I want to avoid feeling gloomy, because that’s not really the point of Lent, but unavoidably it happens. This too, for me, is a spiritual discipline. Walking through Lent is not about my own fortitude or about feeling “awesome” about it. Its about just doing it. Just walking through those days on the calendar called Lent, and seeing what there is to see through the experience. After about 10 years of walking through Lent, I feel like its becoming more and more a part of my internal journey of Faith in Christ. But that second week is still a killer.
When Holy Week and Easter come, I am so glad Lent ended. So glad. And I feel like that’s healthy. We were not made to fast, we were made to feast. Our Easter celebration is so much more vivid and emotional after walking through the wilderness, at least in some measure. Now its time to enjoy a taste of the new earth, around the table of the Lamb.
I hope this has been helpful to you as you journey through Lent. I’m sure there are better ways to keep a holy Lent, but this has been my way for a while. I’m starting to get comfortable with these practices, so maybe its time to shake it up a bit. Or maybe not. Please feel free to share your thoughts, questions, or Lenten experiences in the comments below.