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Thinking Outside the Box during Lent

by Susan Pigott

I well remember my first Lent as a wanna-be Episcopalian. I knew, in a vague sort of way, that Lent was about giving something up—usually a favorite food. Not having the courage to give up chocolate, I decided to give up iced tea (one of my favorite drinks), and I considered myself properly filled with austerity for Lent.

I went to lunch with my friend, Emma, who was a cradle Episcopalian. She noticed my iced-tea abstinence, and I proudly said that I had given it up for Lent. She smiled and we conversed about the purpose of Lent over our meal at Chili’s. I asked her what she had given up for Lent (which is not proper Lenten etiquette), and she said, “I don’t usually give something up for Lent. Instead, I add a spiritual discipline. This Lent I’m reading a book that will help me to grow spiritually.”

I was stunned into silence for a moment. “You mean, you don’t have to give something up? You can add something?” “Of course,” she said. “It’s a very personal choice. The season of Lent can certainly be a time to fast from something, but I’ve found, for me, that adding a practice helps me focus on Christ more fully. I am actively participating in the season by growing as a disciple.”

This made me think hard about what, really, my act of giving up iced tea accomplished. Sure, I missed having the drink at meals. But what purpose did it serve other than giving me something to say if someone asked me what I had given up for Lent? Did giving up iced tea help me grow as a disciple? Or was this (admittedly tiny) “sacrifice” merely a self-congratulatory act whose only purpose was to make me think I was participating in Lent?

Please do not hear me say that giving up something for Lent is automatically self-serving or that it is an empty practice for everyone. Fasting is an ancient practice of the church, and Jesus commended it to his followers. Giving up desserts or meat or coffee for Lent is a spiritual practice that helps many people grow because our lives are so centered around food. Spiritual practices are deeply personal, and what I discovered for myself was that giving up one item of food for Lent was, for me, an empty act.

I began to think about practices that would enable me to feel more engaged in Lent. First, I took Emma’s, advice and started reading a book during the forty days of Lent. One book that was especially challenging and mind-expanding for me was The Last Week by Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan. The book examines Jesus’s last week using the Gospel of Mark, and it helped me see Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter in a whole new way.

There are so many ways to add a practice for Lent that can help us to grow as disciples. Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Turn off the Wi-Fi/Cellular in your house for an hour each day and spend that time in personal prayer or reading. Or, you can get the entire family involved. During that hour, you could say Compline or read a book aloud together or simply spend time reconnecting and praying with one another without the interruption of electronic devices.

  • Create a labyrinth in your backyard. You can find examples of labyrinth patterns on the Internet. Use chalk or rocks or whatever you have handy. Choose a time each day to walk the labyrinth.

  • Plan mini-pilgrimages to spend time in nature (leaving electronic devices at home). Go to a park you’ve never visited before. Walk the paths. Sit under a tree, listen to the sounds, breathe in the aromas. You could even collect leaves and other small items and create a pilgrimage collection to display on your mantle or to record in a nature journal.

  • Try a new practice, such as Centering Prayer (Tuesdays at 4:00 in the library at Heavenly Rest) or using Anglican Prayer Beads.

  • Keep a Lenten spiritual journal, perhaps using the scripture readings from Morning Prayer as a beginning point for meditation and sparking your thoughts.

  • Try spending a day each week without a watch or a device that constantly alerts you to the time. Observe the natural rhythms of the day, noting where the sun is in the sky. Eat when you feel hungry and sleep when you feel sleepy. Release yourself from Time’s tyranny.

  • Face one of your fears during Lent. For example, if you are afraid of failing (who isn’t?) commit to trying something you think you cannot do. Maybe you will succeed, but maybe you will fail. Either way, you will probably learn something about yourself through the experience—and maybe you’ll discover that failing isn’t the end of the world.

  • Individually or as a family, commit to spending an hour each week helping others. Join existing ministries like Soup Sisters or Hands-On Outreach or volunteer at a local city-wide ministry.

  • Commit to calling or visiting one person each day of Lent. If you’re anything like me, you probably find it much easier (and safer) to text or email people. But actually calling someone and talking to them or going to visit them means we must make an effort and engage with people. We are forced out of our comfort zones and, in the process, we might help assuage someone else’s loneliness.

  • Spend a portion of each day memorizing your favorite prayers from the Prayer Book or favorite Scripture texts. With all our access to information these days, we rarely memorize anything. But committing prayers and scriptures to memory helps us to meditate upon them. More importantly, we have them available to us whenever the need arises.

These are just a few ideas to help you think outside the box during Lent. I’m sure you can come up with many more. As we prepare for the season of Lent, spend some time planning which spiritual practices you would like to try as you seek to follow Christ.

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