In the weeks leading up to Lent, which began on Ash Wednesday – February 18 this year – I heard lots of excited chatter in my church. The children and youth were asking each other, “What are you giving up for Lent?”
For young disciples, the disciplines that are meant to draw us closer to God during this holy season are often boiled down to these 7 simple words. And for most of them, like most Americans, and perhaps like most Christians in general, the discipline doesn't go too deep. We often choose things that we’ll miss – like chocolate – but that aren't central to our being. And the food fasts often serve as a sneaky “holy” way of dieting.
It’s not the best way to honor God. The tradition of laying something aside for Lent was intended to remove a habit in order to give ourselves time to pray, study scripture, and give the money we would usually spend on ourselves to those in greater need.
And these disciplines were definitely not meant to be ways to brag. That’s why I usually resist sharing my Lenten discipline except in hindsight. While I hold myself to the high ideals of the Christian life that all of us, but especially church leaders are called to, I am reluctant to toot my own horn too much. As we read in Matthew, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (6:1).
I will say I usually take something up rather than give something up. I’m terribly fond of eating regularly, so fasting has always been my least favorite discipline. But, ask me sometime, and I can tell you funny stories about the time I was in New Orleans on vacation on my fast day. Suffice to say those beignets from Café Du Monde don’t quite taste the same after they've sat on the kitchen counter overnight…
So, during Lent, I usually commit myself to more – more Bible study (not just sermon preparation!), more prayer (not just in worship!), more time with my God. But in this season of my life, more was just going to be an exercise in futility, so I prayed to find another way.
I found one. And because I believe that it’s something many folks struggle with, I want to share my experience so far because it’s been humbling and life-giving.
I gave up my voice for Lent - I gave up yelling. I vowed to God – “I will not yell at my children, unless someone is in immediate danger.”
You may wonder just how much I yell at my kids if this was what I felt compelled to give up. And the truth is, probably not as much as some folks and a lot more than some others. But I can tell you this – every time I yelled at my children, I felt how contrary it was to my great love for them. I could see how wrong it was for me, who has all of the power in the relationship, to verbally crush and castigate the fledgling life entrusted to my care. It was a way I resorted to overwhelming them to obey me instead of guiding and teaching them.
It’s been a tough discipline to maintain. And it’s been a great way to draw closer to my God, who rarely yells at me, but has embodied relentless, unconditional for me and for all. Repeatedly in our Scripture, we ask “who can stand?” if God were to come in all his glory and might. No one – none of us can stand before the tremendous majesty of the Lord.
So, like a gentle, patient parent, God comes to us with love. God’s voice, God’s word, who we name Jesus Christ, is life-giving, not soul-shrinking like the yelling I found in myself. Like Elijah, I realized that God was not in the great wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but in the sound of sheer silence (1 Kings 19:11-13).
Now, I’m not perfect. I can already count the times I've slipped in my discipline this Lent. But those have been opportunities to repent, apologize, and continue trying. My hope is that a discipline begun for Lent will become my holy habit as I grow in grace. I hope that you have found a life-giving, soul-stretching discipline this Lent.