Monday, February 11, 2013

Lenten Discipline

It's almost Lent again--a mere two days until Ash Wednesday means there's not much time to decide what kind of discipline you might want to undertake this Lent.
Assuming, that is, that you observe Lent and that you do so with a discipline.

We don't much like the word discipline, but it's so intertwined with "disciple" that it's hard to ignore the connections. And still the Protestant world has pretty successfully ignored them for a while now, because there is such anti-Catholic bias in so many of our Protestant churches. The idea of observing Lent with purple paraments and no alleluias is about as far as we are willing to go--personal discipline is much too Catholic (or too demanding?).

Where Protestants have observed Lent with personal disciplines, we are fond of the "take something on" approach. I have actually heard people say "We're not Catholic--we don't give things up for Lent." As if personal sacrifice or fasting were the sole province of the Pope (who, according to twitter, trumps us all with what he's giving up for Lent...haha).

I'm a fan of taking on new practices--such a fan that I co-authored a book about it, in fact. But I'm also not willing to let go of the idea of giving up, of fasting. In a world that is SO focused on consuming, on being consumers, on having and doing the most, why do we insist that the only way to be faithful is to DO more? Why can't we practice the discipline of letting something go, and when we want that thing, focusing on our real hunger?

I'm not suggesting we give up chocolate or caffeine for Lent. Though I have done those things, and let me tell you they did not improve the spiritual lives of those around me, let alone my own.

I AM suggesting that we re-evaluate why we are so loathe to give something up. Is it really because that discipline belongs solely to another religious tradition? Or because we're not willing to do it, and we've "spiritualized" the reasoning?

in my case, it actually means NOT eating fast food!
For the past several years I have given up eating out during Lent. It's been partly about using the season to be more aware of what I put into my body and when, and partly about sacrificing something that I both enjoy and is convenient, and partly about noticing how much more money I spend when I eat out. Eating only food I make at home forces me to pay attention, to prepare ahead of time, and to limit how much I work (Can't spend all day and night in the office with only a quick run to taco bell...have to get out at some point, or have to have made lunch and dinner and brought them with me...). It's a nice multi-faceted practice, combining awareness with simplicity with justice with sabbath, that I've tried with varying degrees of success. What has not varied is the response I've gotten from fellow Presbtyerians, who universally disdain the idea of giving something up for Lent. Because the most helpful thing to do with a companion on the spiritual journey is to mock their attempts at discipline. (or to snark about them later, I know!)

So, maybe you don't want to give something up. Maybe it really is more meaningful for you to take something on. I would just encourage all of us to consider why it is we have such a visceral reaction to the idea of a fasting practice...why must we DO more? After all, it's not as if we believe we have to earn God's favor (which, strangely, many Catholics do actually believe, and yet...). What if Lent really was a time for introspection and repentance about our consumer culture? Our reactionary feelings against our brothers and sisters in Christ? What if it really was a time to go against the grain of our social system in order to draw closer to God?

If you do decide to go for a new discipline, I suggest letting something go as well. Sort of a two-sided coin--rather than filling up MORE, make a trade-off. Perhaps take a page from Isaiah 58 (which we read at the beginning of the Ash Wednesday service) and go for a justice-oriented in our fast. Try spending 40 days eating like most of the world, or living on $2 a day, and doing some good works with the money we save. Then we both take on and give up, as well as joining our bodies along with our hearts in prayer for others.

Now, having said all that, here are two possibilities for those of you who do want to take on a new practice: one with words, and one with images. Or here's one that's different every day. Try it out. I will. But you also won't find me at a restaurant during Lent (hopefully...), because I'll be praying in the kitchen and the grocery store instead.
(aside: no year has seen a perfect no-restaurant record during Lent. Sometimes things happen. But that doesn't mean I don't keep trying.)


  1. I don't think we have such a strong anti- against giving things up for Lent here in the Protestant churches in Australia (at least not in mine, the Uniting Church) I have also given up chocolate and caffeine for lent... and I think once sugar... but I've tried to block that memory! Giving up fast food is a brilliant idea... I'll talk about it with my husband and we'll see. No cafe coffees at work or fish and chips at the beach.. will be hard... but I do want to think a lot more about our consumption... so ... I think I'll try to take it on. Thank you for the inspiration!

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Teri. Your post confirmed the direction I wanted to go in for this year. I quoted you in today's blog post.

    Do you participate in Kiva? I am thinking that is where I want this year's "Lent" money to go.

    Well, I'd better go make my lunch and dinner so I don't need to buy something to eat. I'd like my first day of discipline to go well. :)