Lent: How on Earth?

In my previous post I spoke about the reasons for partaking in Lent. In this post I’ll make a few suggestions on how to do that.

Self-Denial

It’s quite simple to find a few things to deny yourself during Lent. Ask yourself the question: What is important in my life? What do I spent time/energy/money on? What do I find pleasure in? You can leave any of these things:

  • Food/drinks. Meat, candy, chocolate, coffee, alcohol, added sugar, etc. Make sure that you do not make this an unhealthy time. At the same time, don’t stress if your body reacts a bit at first. With coffee for example, you might have a headache during the first few days, but that will go away after that. If you leave meat, than make sure you eat some good alternatives.
  • Expenses. We often spend money easily. We don’t think about what we buy. How about during Lent you only buy what you really need? You can go 40 days without buying new clothes for example.
  • Activities. Movies, series, intensive sports, music, concerts, restaurants. I spend a lot of time watching TV. And I like it, it’s a creativity that sparkles my emotion and inspires me. But it’s always good to leave this for a few weeks.
  • Other. I’m not sure what to call this category (hence ‘other’). There’s definitely things I haven’t mentioned yet, but ask yourself what occupies your life the most. One of our friends a few years ago chose to not wear make-up during Lent. Make-up was giving her a lot of confidence and she wanted to find that confidence somewhere else. She experienced the time of Lent as a cleansing time for that reason. (And has a more healthy attitude towards it now.) What other things occupy you?

Confession

As said, Lent is a great time – while preparing for the Resurrection of Christ – to get rid of some of the rubbish in your life. Which sinful or nasty habits do you want to address during Lent? Our faith is one that focuses on reconciliation, so which of the following relationships need reconciliation?

  • God. Are there things in your relationship with God that need renewal? How could you give him more time/energy?
  • Others. How are your close relationships with other humans doing? Is there a relationship that could do with some improvement? How? Or how is your relation with the poor and weak in your society? How could you improve that? Are people exploited in making the clothes you wear?
  • Creation. How is your relationship with the whole of nature? Are you aware of the production chain of what you consume? Is it environmental friendly? Does it do justice to nature or is it exploiting it?
  • Self. It’s weird to mention the self after a topic of self-denial, but many people have issues with themselves. Do you? If so, what are they and how can you address them?

You’ll have noticed that I don’t see confession as just a passive identification of what needs to improve. It starts with that, but it is followed by a seeking of God and an active improvement of those things.

Prayer

And that is where prayer (or seeking God) comes in. Please don’t see prayer as just sitting quiet for 15 minutes each day. While it can be exactly that, there are tons of ways to seek God’s face. The time and energy you have freed up through the denial can serve a great purpose here. I’ve got a few advices:

  • Read a book. I find it great to read a lot of books during Lent, not just theology, but anything that grows me as a human being because when I grow as a human I become more like what God intended. So I read history, philosophy, etc.
  • Study the Word. Dive into Scripture. Don’t get rid of it too fast, but really dig through Scripture. You can do that yourself, but you can also use guiding books. Kim and I have been reading the Lent for Everyone series by NT Wright in previous years. He wrote one for Matthew, Mark and Luke and they are all great devotionals.
  • Set a time. Take time to spend with God. If you’re not used to this, make a plan and open up time. If you’re already doing it, spice it up a bit.
  • Pick a friend. I’ve experienced that sharing the Lent devotions with someone deepens the journey. Ask around and find people to share it with.
  • Choose a prayer. Again something that is not so common in the Evangelical tradition is to pray other people’s prayer. But it sometimes is nice to use others’ words when your own are lacking. You could for example pray the Lord’s Prayer a few times a day.

Compassion

A last thing to consider is how you’re going to give back to those who need it. That can be through giving some of the finances you’ve freed up by not spending as much, but it can also be in your time and energy.

One of the things I’d advise you here is to first look at what your skills set is. How can you use what you’re good at in service of others? It might be that the answer lies on the institutional level and that you decide to be an advocate in legislative, economic, educational, environment, etc. policies.

However, it might be a bigger challenge to go beyond that and also focus on the individual needs. How can you help the beggar you see daily at the traffic lights? How can you help the sick you encounter? And the drug addict? The prisoner? The foreigner?

A Balance

I have one disclaimer beforehand. And it’s a challenging one. Forty days is not a short time. So when you list the things that you will do/leave, don’t be too hard on yourself. The goal is preparation, not showing how great you are. At the same time, it should cost you something. If you’re going to participate, it’s not really going to have an impact if it’s a walk in the park. Make it a preparation that counts. Finding the balance between not being too hard and being hard enough is difficult.

If you’ve counted well, we’ve spoken about 40 days, but there are 6 Sundays added to that as well. Those 6 Sundays are mini-Easters: we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection on those Sundays as well. Here’s my advice, especially when it comes to self-denial: choose a few things that you deny yourself for the whole length of Lent (including the Sundays), but also choose a few things that make Sunday a small celebration. For example, if you’re not eating meat and not drinking alcohol, you could choose to not drink alcohol during the whole time and only eat meat on Sundays.

Make sure that Lent is about preparation and focus on God. It’s easy to brag about your Lent and show off how amazing you’re doing not doing x or y for 40 days. Try not to draw attention to that.

We’ve also discovered that still celebrating important moments is valuable. So don’t go to a birthday party and miss out on the fun. For example, if you’ve decided not to eat cake during Lent, why don’t you make an exception for that party. Again, Lent is about preparation for Easter.

Celebration

Lent is never the purpose in itself. It is a preparation towards something bigger. So make sure you celebrate at the end of it. Enjoy the good things in life that you’ve denied yourself for a while. Splurge a little.

But put it in context. Make the celebration Easter-focused. Celebrate in church and with your community. If you just celebrate without a focus on the Resurrection, then Lent has not served its purpose of preparation for that very event.

Also, try to keep the good you’ve done. If you’ve denied yourself of things that were bad or just getting too much of your focus, then maybe it’s good to continue that. If you’ve had a renewed focus on God, then maintain that. If you’ve invested more time in giving a voice to the voiceless, then keep giving. Lent is not a time that you can use as an excuse for the rest of the year. It’s a time of preparation and renewal.

To Close …

This will be 9th time that I partake in Lent. Some years it has been life-changing, other years it has not had a massive impact, but in all cases it has been worth it. Easter has never held as much meaning as in the last decade. As my body longs for the end of Lent in denying it certain enjoyments, I’ve come to understand more than ever before how the whole of creation was longing for the coming of Christ and his Resurrection.

I know, it sounds fake and self-induced. But try it, and you’ll see that humans can come to understand things better through tradition and ritual. I highly recommend an annual time of fasting in order to be prepared for Easter and celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord to the fullest.