Magazine article The Christian Century

Making Lent Difficult: The Case for Rigorous Disciplines

Magazine article The Christian Century

Making Lent Difficult: The Case for Rigorous Disciplines

Article excerpt

EVERY YEAR I FIND myself wondering what to do for Lent. What should I give up? Or should I take something on? These questions have been with me for a long time. When I was six or seven, I learned in Sunday school that I should give up sweets for Lent. I also learned how to put tabs into slots to assemble a box to hold the extra offering I would give to One Great Hour of Sharing. And I learned to be extra sure to say my prayers at night. It was a Midwestern mainline Christian's version of the venerable Lenten triad of fasting, almsgiving and prayer.

After a summer or two at a camp run by Texans, who taught me a prayer they said would keep me out of a hell I had not known to fear--the camp was more fun, and more serious about sports, than anything my denomination offered--I came to Lent with a new intensity. Jesus suffered and died for me on the cross, and in recognition of that great sacrifice, I was--giving up candy? I resolved to take on more rigorous regimes of prayer and fasting. If I was not quite sure why I did these things, I took comfort in their difficulty. And if I failed every year to live up to my intentions, I enjoyed the satisfactions that came with failing at something grand.

Even as a teenager I had some sense that there was more narcissism than discipleship in these Lenten dramas. It felt like they involved a privileged and privatized piety that was all about my personal righteousness. Reading Walter Rauschenbusch, Mary Daly and Gustavo Gutierrez in college helped me make sense of these instincts. And I heard Isaiah 58 with new ears:

   Is 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?

   Is 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?

(vv. 6-7, NRSV)

With Isaiah's words in mind, Lent became a season not just for giving things up but for taking things on" working in a homeless shelter, writing letters for Amnesty International, doing community organizing and more. Over time I came to think that fasting and prayer still had a place alongside attempts to loose the bonds of injustice. Sometimes I gave up foods that I really shouldn't have been eating anyway, at least not in any quantity. Sometimes I tried to give up habits I had been wanting to break for some time. And sometimes I made an effort to take on some kind of spiritual discipline that I would intend to continue after Lent. In making these choices, my focus was on finding the right balance between piety and justice.

I still think it is important to seek out disciplines like these in everyday life. But I have come to think that my understanding of them missed the particular gifts and demands of Lent. In focusing on a presumed tension between piety and justice, I missed the deep feature that all of the disciplines I considered had in common. Both the disciplines I associated with justice and those I associated with piety involved things I thought I should be doing all year long, at least ideally. Fasting turned into responsible eating. The prayer of Lent became an extra fidelity to daily prayer. Almsgiving became social ethics. My Lenten disciplines became like New Year's resolutions: promises to live a little more the way I knew I should live all the time. Undertaken as booster shots for everyday ethics, Lenten disciplines would be "fulfilled" if they turned into durable habits that would inform the rest of life. Lenten disciplines like these aimed for sustainability.

Sustainable Lenten disciplines anticipate an Easter in which those disciplines will continue. They hope for a resurrection life--of whatever shape and content--that is continuous with an improved version of this one.

But surely Easter hope is for something more than a better performance of our present obligations, more than a new year in which we keep our resolutions. …

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