This is the time of year when people start to talk to me about what they're giving up for Lent. With Ash Wednesday today, many were trying to figure out over the past few days whether it would be chocolate, soda, or (perhaps the greatest sacrifice of all) Facebook.
I often ask people why they're giving anything up at all. They look at me confused and answer, "Because it's Lent. You always give something up for Lent."
That's certainly what many Christians have always done. We choose something to give up and for 40 days we do our best to abstain from it. About halfway in, I often hear friends vocally ache for Easter morning when they can do whatever it is they haven't done for weeks now. The simple act of giving something small up evokes a sort of minor suffering that is miraculously lifted on Easter morning.
This is Lent to countless Christians.
And maybe it's not an inherently bad thing. Learning to endure small sacrifices isn't wrong in and of itself. But giving something up is not the only way, or maybe even the best way, to observe Lent.
Each Ash Wednesday I make the sign of the cross with ashes on the foreheads of all who come to my church. I tell them, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." It's the ultimate reality check. The truth of our mortality writ large and ashen on our foreheads.
And at the end of the service, just like pastors from a variety of denominations, I invite all in attendance to the observation of Lenten discipline. And, though I don't minimize the sacrifices of those who log off Facebook or give up their daily Starbucks latte, I'm clear that one does not need to give anything up at all. In fact, the spirit of Lent can be best observed when one decides instead to take something on.
Lent is ideally a time of deepening our spiritual life and our connection to Christ. That might be a spiritual practice like prayer, worship attendance, or Scripture reading. But, ideally, it can be something that doesn't involve only our own lives. It can be something that changes the lives of others as well. Lent has a long, sometimes forgotten, history in the church as a time when we are especially reminded to work for justice. Which makes sense when you think of this as a 40 day journey that we make with Christ, the one who taught us to love our neighbor as ourselves.
So what could a justice-oriented Lent look like? What would it look like if instead of passing up a Snickers bar, we passed on the love of Christ by feeding our neighbors who don't have the luxury of turning down food? What would it mean if instead of logging off, we logged on and made a donation to a worthy cause? Or what if instead of giving up something we already have the right to do everyday, we instead decided to devote our energy to making sure all of God's children have the same rights?
Lent could be radically different if we reclaimed it not as a time of giving up the small things, but instead of taking on the big things. If we really want to walk with Jesus during these 40 days, why not first start by going to the places we are likely to meet him and already find him at work? Why not use these 40 days to try to become the people Christ talked about his disciples being during his own walk towards Good Friday, and ultimately Easter morning? People of love and compassion and justice.
I've come to believe that the mark of a good Lenten discipline is not whether you are able to keep it up for 40 days, but whether it continues to change your life even after those 40 days are over. If Easter morning becomes a finish line, and not a starting line, we've missed the point. Lent is not 40 days of misery to be forgotten with the first sip of that illicit latte. It's our preparation for the Resurrection; our chance to grow spiritually before we once again proclaim that the love of Christ overcame even death.
This Lent I'm giving up on giving up. I'm giving up on the idea that my faith is something that can only change my own life. I'm giving up on judging the character of my faith life by how many times I log on to Facebook. I'm giving up on the notion that God is more glorified by our minor material sacrifices than God is by our best expressions of love.
But most of all I'm giving up on an understanding of my faith that only requires me to make the tough choices 40 days a year. Because come Easter morning, I'll still believe the words of love and justice Christ shared on his way to the tomb are the keys to a spiritual life. But, more than that, I'll believe they are the keys to the joy that Christ wants us to have in every season. Lent included.