Lent looms ahead of us, and that can at first seem quite ominous. Perhaps it’s because I’ve just used the word “looms” and that really isn’t helping.
I have had mixed feelings about Lent in the past. It feeds into my regimented, “I need to do X, Y & Z in order to be good enough” mentality and really isn’t healthy. One year I had a spreadsheet. All the things I was going to do and not do, all the books I was going to read. Lent eventually became another reason to beat myself up and to set myself up for certain failure.
Lent is perceived to be a solemn time of year, with its emphasis on repentance and self-examination. Ash Wednesday seems to be a rather bleak day as we are made to face our mortality with the imposition of ashes. But Lent takes its name an old Anglo-Saxon word len(c)ten, meaning “spring season”. The lengthening of the days is a key clue to the season here, as we set aside a time for self-reflection as we prepare for the renewal of life at Easter.
Yes, it begins with ashes and “Remember that you are dust”, but Lent is actually a time of growth. In order to grow well, yes, some pruning may be involved, but the aim of Lent is to provide the adequate conditions to ensure that we thrive and flourish.
How can I do Lent corporately?
Lent is a journey we go on together. I think a lot of our ideas about Lent can tend to be quite self-obsessed and we can risk navel gazing (I am preaching primarily to myself here). As a community our primary Lenten activity will be our Book Group, discussing Paula Gooder’s Lent book, meeting on Sunday afternoons. Of course, throughout the week, we will read as individuals but we will gather together as a community to discuss themes and ideas that have arisen from the readings. During the week, there is always the Facebook group or the blog as a way of keeping this communal discipline going.
Other things you may want to consider are:
- Making a commitment to attend a particular service, say evening prayer on Wednesdays.
- Going to a meditation group or taize service throughout Lent as a way of anchoring yourself in Moot’s communal life. Notice I say “a” thing – this is totally dependent on capacity.
- Maybe, in some cases, a more faithful Lenten practice would be to stop attending a certain thing each week – providing that it is appropriate to do so!
And how about individually?
For 2017, I’ve been reading Daily reflections from Frederick Buechner and there was one recently on the theme of Lent. It framed Lent in a way I’ve never thought about before. 40 days is roughly a tenth of the year, so Lent is a kind of spiritual tithe: a period which we commit to God in a specific way. For some that may mean adding a new daily practice, say setting 10 minutes aside each morning for silent meditation or committing to praying the examen. For others, the giving up chocolate thing (*or booze, TV or whatever you fancy) may be just for you! What matters is the intention. How is this commitment to abstain from X, Y or Z going to make me different come Easter Sunday?
I gave up my daily habit of watching Neighbours one Lent at uni, to which a friend said “What’s sinful about Neighbours?” She was right. There was and is nothing wrong with watching antipodean soap operas. But I gave it up as a way of committing that time to God. The tithing analogy is useful here: just as I set aside a proportion of my money, by abstaining from something I am setting that apart as an offering.
Some ideas for your own personal Lenten tithe can be found on Rachel Held Evans’ blog – she hasn’t done it recently (I think parenthood has other demands on her time!) but in the past she has compiled “40 ideas for Lent”, which I have found really useful. 40 ideas doesn’t mean doing 40 things: but it is a good starting place for thinking about things that might help you grow in this season.
Whatever you do, don’t make a spreadsheet. What I mean is, don’t follow my mistake of piling expectations on yourself so that Lent becomes another burden rather than a gift. To end with an observation from Buechner:
“[Lent] can be a pretty depressing business all in all, but if sack-cloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.”