Sunday, April 20, 2014

Taking the Lessons of Lent Into the Rest of the Year

For many people, the 40 days of Lent prompt resolutions, good intentions, and plans for habits to pick up and habits to drop.  A sign on a Catholic church near my home referred to the Lenten season as a time for “spiritual spring cleaning,” and indeed the word Lent comes from the Germanic word for springtime.  Just as we achieve a sense of spaciousness and freedom by de-cluttering and cleaning our homes, we can de-clutter and cleanse our interior lives to make more space for Christ and the life we are instructed in God’s Word to live for Him. 

If you’re anything like me, though, your plans for Lent feel a bit like New Year’s resolutions, and, sadly, often meet the same fate. Suddenly the 40 days have passed, and as we celebrate the tremendous joy of the Resurrection, we can’t help but feel some regret that we never followed through with our good intentions.

As holy an observance as Lent may be, it is still a man-made construction.  There is no biblical directive to observe Lent, no commandment from God to give up chocolate for 40 days, and no teaching from Jesus to stay off the Internet to spend more time reading scripture.  But the intended purposes of Lent are undeniably beneficial:  using 40 days to set aside distractions, demonstrate penitence for the sins that sent Jesus to the cross, grow closer to God, and prepare our hearts to receive again the tremendous gift of God’s grace and mercy through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Lenten traditions seem to focus especially on fasting, prayer, charity/mercy, and reading the Scriptures.  There is nothing on that list that needs to be left behind when Lent draws to a close!  Rather than feeling that I’ve “lost my chance” to fulfill my Lenten resolutions, I am going to recognize ways to carry those practices and disciplines into my spiritual life for the rest of the year.  Instead of spending just 40 days focusing on how to live more like Christ, allowing God to transform me into the image of His Son (2 Corinthians 3:18), I am going to make it a daily blessing for the rest of the year.  Here are some ideas I’ve had, in case you would like to join me:

Some people observe some form of fasting during Lent, following eating restrictions that are traditional to their denomination.  Others “give up” something that they really enjoy in order to develop self-discipline and share in the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ life and death. 

I know of several people who re-interpreted this idea of “giving up,” and got rid of a bag of “stuff” each day—40 days, 40 bags of stuff removed from their homes.  The items were donated, gifted, recycled, or trashed, as appropriate.  Doing this on a daily basis for the whole year may not be practical, but it is certainly worthwhile to set de-cluttering goals each season.  The activity helps us in our effort to find our security not in things, but in God.  And it helps to create a physical, and even mental, space to concentrate on the non-material world.  When we stop focusing on shopping and bringing more things into our homes and our lives, we lose less time trying to find places for our stuff and less energy keeping it cleaned and maintained, and we open up all sorts of new opportunities to focus on the things of God and all that He has created us to do and to be.
Another type of “fasting” involves giving up a media-related habit:  hours of watching television, checking out Facebook, surfing the Internet, or texting.  Carrying this idea into the rest of the year might involve setting limits for ourselves.  It will be different for every person: perhaps a “power down time” every evening well before bed, a certain number of television programs in a given week, a time limit on computer use or electronic games.  Once we determine our goals for limiting our media habits, we can decide what limits will help us to reach those goals.  Perhaps one person is aiming for more quality time with her family, while another seeks more opportunity to work on a hobby he enjoys, while yet another individual wants a chance to start up a Scripture reading or prayer practice (more on that soon!).  When we decide how much time we want and need to pursue such goals, we can figure out how to reclaim it from the more mindless or pointless activities we’ve been pursuing.
There is no better way to grow closer to God than to spend time in conversation with Him.  Prayer is a completely portable pastime:  it can be done anywhere at any time!  No one has to wait for the season of Lent to begin a prayer practice.  You can begin a conversation with God this very moment.  Some people like to use some sort of prayer tool or system to help them, such as the Five Finger prayer or ACTS.  You may want to create a prayer journal to keep track of the prayer needs of the people in your life, as well as your own praises, confessions, and requests.  A lot of people like to record answers to prayers, too.  In a future post, I’ll share my prayer journal, which has organized and enriched my own prayer practice.

Keeping a gratitude journal can become a form of prayer.  By taking time each day to notice, write down, and thank God for the blessings we’ve encountered over the course of our day, we begin to notice even more blessings, and live in a more positive frame of mind.  As we spend more time and effort focusing on the good things, we will take much less notice of those things that are not quite right.  A gratitude journal can include the simple pleasures in a day; natural wonders that we experience; ongoing blessings we enjoy, such as health, family, work or home; events that stand out from the day; or acts of kindness we encounter.
There is no reason to focus on the needs of others just 40 days out of the year!  We can all benefit from developing a more generous spirit every day of our lives.  Sometimes during Lent, people will try to write a note of encouragement or thanks every day for 40 days, or connect with people in person, or by phone or letter (rather than by email or text).  It may or may not be feasible to maintain this as a daily practice, but it could certainly become a weekly or monthly routine.  It works much like the gratitude journal; as we write letters of thanks, we discover more and more things that we want to thank people for!

Some people engage in Random Acts of Kindness during Lent, finding small, often anonymous, ways to bless people each day.  Internet sites list all kinds of RAKs, like leaving notes (“You are beautiful” or “God loves you!” for example) on the mirrors of public bathrooms, or leaving change in vending machines, or paying for the meal of the car in line behind you at the fast food window.  Even easier are the acts of kindness that show basic human decency and friendliness:  holding the door open for the person coming behind you, smiling as you pass people in public hallways, meeting the eye of the check-out clerk as she hands you your receipt, saying thank you when the server refills your water glass at a restaurant.  How did we get away from treating one another with such basic decency?  It’s a simple fix to get back to it in our own little corner of the universe. 
Some people begin a scripture reading practice, such as reading one of the Gospels over the 40 days of Lent.  This year, I read the Book of John, and really benefitted from my leisurely but focused journey through that Gospel.  I tried a new practice, too, marking up a Bible I had purchased from a store’s going-out-of-business sale.  I used different colored pens to circle, underline, and box in words or phrases that stood out as significant.  It made me notice John’s tremendous attention to time and place, to all the ways that Jesus was identified during his earthly ministry, to all the “audiences” of Jesus’ words and actions and the different ways they responded to him.  I am planning to continue this Bible-marking strategy as I carry my Bible reading beyond Lent.

Just like with prayer, there is no reason to wait for Lent to develop a devotional practice that involves reading scripture.  For our own good, we need to take time each day to re-center our lives on Christ.  A devotional practice includes reading scripture and praying.  It may also involve creating a Bible reflection journal where we write down something important about what we have read; listening to some form of Christian music; or meditating quietly.
The ideas I have shared here are not a checklist that I intend to hold myself to on a daily basis for the rest of the year.  That approach is likely to leave me worn out, frustrated, and even a little resentful.  Turning these blessings into regimented duties denies the freedom that Christ promises to us through God’s Word.  Rather, I want to invite Christ to direct my life each day, to draw me closer in relationship to Him, and to transform me more fully into the person God has created me to be.  Making space for that relationship, maintaining it through prayer, understanding God’s will through His scriptures, and reaching out to others with the same grace God extends to me will make those things possible. 

When we learn our lessons from Lent, and carry the spirit of the practices into the rest of our year, spiritual renewal becomes a daily blessing.  After all, “God’s mercies are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:23).

Hallelujah!  Praise God!
Please visit The Practical Disciple for more ideas about HOW to encounter God and grow spiritually.  On his site, John Arnold talks about some of the Lenten ideas I've included here, along with many others, as well as additional strategies for practical discipleship throughout the year.

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