My Problem with Lent

I had breakfast today with my good friend who is a Church historian and he was telling about the Lenten regulations from the early 1900’s about when to fast, abstain, eat, etc.    This weekend, I had been thinking about what I planned to do this Lent.   While I certainly appreciate the freedom that we have to tailor our Lenten renewal and not have to follow a strict regiment, I began to think more about the whole Lenten experience and how it fits in with big picture, and particularly how it connects with mission.

I find myself sometimes thinking of Lent as primarily a personal renewal program.    There is certainly some need for that and ongoing personal conversion and renewal are essential and important.   But I think that there is a problem if that is all there is.   Personal conversion and growth are only one part of the Gospel.   It’s never solely about our own relationship with God.   I’m reminded of that in the parable of the final judgment in Matthew 25 involving the sheep and goats.   None of the criteria of salvation were individual.   Rather they specifically had to do with relationship with others, particularly the most vulnerable in society, such as feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoners, etc.   The sheep find salvation because of their relationship with others.

At our Mission Education Training Program last weekend, we had great reflections on how we are baptized into the mission of Jesus.  In other words, with baptism comes a job description to carry on the mission.
Thinking of Lent in the context of mission helps me shift the focus from inward to outward.   On Ash Wednesday we will hear again from the Gospel about the three time tested disciplines for spiritual renewal:  fasting, giving alms and prayer.    I thought it might be good to reflect on them in light of criteria of the parable of the final judgment and how we are called to carry on Jesus’ mission.
  • Fasting:   How can fasting connect us with others?   One thing that comes to mind is that my attachment to all the things in my life may be distracting me from connecting with others.   I can’t help but wonder if I am so comfortable that I am blinded to reality of the majority of the world that lives on less than $2 a day.   Would intentionally making myself feel hunger through fasting help me to better appreciate their suffering and grow in solidarity with them?  Would physical hunger help me realize my spiritual hunger and my dependence on God’s love?   That would certainly be a different focus for me than fasting because I need to lose some weight.
  • Almsgiving:   I have some of the same questions about almsgiving as I do with fasting regarding my attachment to my possessions that seem to impact my ability to share well with others.  But I am also wondering whether I need to look closer at how grateful I truly feel because I think that the sharing that Jesus talks about is not out of a sense of guilt or a feeling that I should do this, or even that this is how I earn salvation.   Rather, the Gospel seems to speak of giving that is a more compassionate and joyful, even spontaneous, response arising from deep gratitude that comes from being aware that we are loved by God.   After all, the sheep in the parable didn’t even know it was the Lord that they were feeding and visiting.   The paradox of love is that it needs to be given away or it dies.   Am I sharing the love I’ve experienced with those who really need some love in their lives?  I don’t think giving some coins or a few dollar bills to a beggar on the street, who I don’t even make eye contact with, will do it.
  • Prayer:    At our Program last week we also reflected on prayer as an essential path of mission.   If it’s truly God’s mission and not our mission, our only hope to stay on track is to stay in constant communication with God, through prayer.   This is I know from almost 25 years of marriage:  communication doesn’t happen if only one side is doing all the talking.   So for me, the challenge is to do more listening, which in prayer means being quiet in contemplation and listening to what God is saying in the silence.    My fear of listening to God is that he may tell me that he needs my help showing his love to others, especially people I may not like or feel comfortable being around.  
So my hope for this Lent is that I don’t make it all about me and that my Lenten practices will really be more about moving outward from myself.   If I can do that as we journey through Lent to the Easter Season, I will grow more in my baptismal call to participate in the mission of Jesus, not just for myself, but for the sake of others.    And, that may be my only hope in being less like a goat and more like a sheep.