The idea behind Lent is to take a look at our lives, to do an honest assessment of our journey to/toward/with God and to repent of the things that are distancing us from God – to turn away from those things. Considering how many things we have in our lives today, the distractions, the obstacles, that get between us and our ability to follow the teachings of Jesus, I just can't help but think that Lent may actually be more needed now than it has ever been.
But I also have to say, I dread THAT question. You know the one. It pops up about this time every year. Say it with me, “What did you give up for Lent?” Ugghh.
It has almost become a benchmark of righteousness.
“I gave up alcohol.”
“Oh. Well, I used to give up alcohol, but it was too easy. So, I'm also giving up meat and television.”
At times, it feels like a one-upsmanship of devotion. “I'll see your night-time glass of red wine and raise you red meat and the bliss of zoning out to American Idol.”
I know this game so well because I fell into that Lent trap many years ago. It just feels so right, so normal, so … self-righteously-holy. It got to the point one year that, and I kid you not, I gave up all beverages other than water, all meat, TV (except for the NCAA tournament – a boy's got his limits), sweets (except for my Birthday Cake – c'mon, it's my birthday!), late night snacks (even ones of the non-sweet persuasion), and I added daily exercise and daily devotions, increased my giving to charities and told at least one person a day how good they were at what they do.
Why so much? Well, I'd been giving up and adding things to my life during Lent for quite awhile. It was my understanding that a big part of doing it was to identify with the sacrifice that Jesus made for us (you know, atonement theology stuff). Each year the “giving up stuff” was easier and easier, and just felt like it wasn't much of a sacrifice. So, I went from easy things, to harder things, to adding as many harder things together as possible, in order to feel the sacrifice. (I actually did give up the NCAA tournament one year... AND my birthday cake – you have no idea how much I love cake).
Upon reflection and in all honesty, I think part of giving all that stuff up was also so that when THAT question was asked, even if I didn't “win” the righteousness game, I would at least finish strong.
Then one year for Lent, I gave up... Lent.
Done right, at least by my assessment, Lent acknowledges the places in our lives that we are falling short of God's desires for us and strives to remove the things that cause those places. Soda, Cake, TV (while not necessarily the best things for our relationship with God) are not likely to be the things that most get in the way of our walk to/toward/with God.
So, why are those kinds of things what we most frequently give up for Lent? I'd say it's because the way we practice Lent has turned it into nothing more than a time for religious New Year's resolutions. The timing is perfect too. We've had just enough time to not follow through on our actual New Year's resolutions and to start feeling guilty about it. Lent gives us a second chance to not follow through... um, I mean succeed.
I'm actually not encouraging people to give up Lent. I'm asking you to give up practicing it the way far too many people have practiced it.
If discipline is helpful to you in your walk, Lent is perfect for you! But you do have to do it right. Assess what is getting between you and your relationship with God. (Here's a hint: it is much less likely to be your desire for sweets and much more likely to be your desire to keep up with the Joneses; it is much less likely to be the glass of red wine you have at dinner and much more likely to be the attitude you have towards those who are not like you or disagree with you). Give up something that really gets in the way of your relationship with God.
It does not have to be something that you know you can consistently do. That's one of the traps of what Lent has become. We think that we fail at Lent if we don't actually make it through all of Lent having not done what we set out to not do.
Let's be real. If the thing you are giving up, if the thing that gets in the way of your relationship with God, is marginalizing people in need out of fear of losing your own comfortable lifestyle... you are going to mess us. You just are. Isn't that all the more reason to try, to be okay with messing up some, to begin to be more aware of it and to move toward the life that God desires for you?
In my eyes, that's what Lent should be about. Honestly, it's a lot harder than giving up cake... and a lot more rewarding.
Given that, why did I give up Lent? Well, it happened a number of years ago. I had finally stopped the religious New Year's resolution thing and had been trying to give up something that really distanced me from God's desires... and I had messed up. A LOT. All Lent long. So, when Easter hit, I didn't quit. I just kept going.
Maybe I didn't give up Lent, maybe I just decided to live in it.
And I still mess up. A LOT … but I just have to keep trying.