Mar 9, 2011

reclaiming lent beyond religious baggage

Lent is a season of preparation... of opening your heart up in fresh ways to God.

Unfortunately, for many of us it's something that has religious baggage to it.

I probably need to clarify, because when I say "God" many people think I mean "religion." The two are very different.

Yet for many, Lent is a "Catholic thing" or some other denominational affiliation. Others turn it into "New Year's Resolutions Pt 2" where we try to be better or give up something for a month and a half.

At its true core, Lent is a non-religious thing... it's instead a spiritual conversation between you and God. During this "season of 40 days" (with Sundays being their own days outside of this), we intentionally reflect with God on where we may be falling short in our heart, soul, mind, strength and relationships. It’s more than changing our diet, giving up a vice or "not playing internet poker" during this season… it’s about sacrificially making room for God to grow us as we trust in His goodness to be our God (even in places it isn’t easy). All of this “preparation” is to help us make the most of when we eventually celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Instead of giving up something inconsequential, what if instead you took on something that has ripples relationally and spiritually? Here are some ideas:
  • Heart: Use a notebook to daily journal thoughts about a family member you love. Write down what they do each day that encourages you, and what specifically about that day you appreciated that they did for you, themselves, another, or God. Give it to them on Easter.
  • Soul: Turn your household or friendships in a prayer-based one. Put out a box or bowl with notecards next to it. Ask others to write down and drop praises and prayer requests into it, and set aside time to pray for them – be it something that happens together daily or weekly, or on your own. Use email or create a private Facebook page for relationships that may be across the miles.
  • Mind: Find a passage of Scripture to memorize by yourself or with others. Pick something that is a reasonable challenge, such as all of Psalm 1 or a section of the Sermon on the Mount (Mathew 5-7). Look at the books of James or Philippians for great paragraphs full of amazing truth.
  • Strength: Spend the money you normally spend on indulgences (fancy drinks, movies, etc) in a more productive place. Set it aside when you would have used it, and then give it in the name of Jesus to someone in need, a local cause, a global ministry, or a church you believe in.
  • Relationships: Have the “conversation you keep putting off” with other people. Where there has been a tension, don’t ignore it and go the final 10% of reconciliation instead of backing away out of a reaction. If someone doesn’t know Jesus personally, walk across the space of awkwardness and share your story with God. If you know someone needs encouragement, stop being too busy to offer it. In every area of life, “raise your antenna” to the Holy Spirit and do whatever He asks you to do – not just what’s easy.

A few other ideas:
  • Money-free Mondays: Go through your entire day without spending money on anything.
  • No-TV Tuesdays: Keep the TV off (or any screen where you watch things for entertainment or play video games on). Invest into something else that nurtures friendships, such a board games.
  • Weird Wednesdays: Try new foods individually or as a household that you normally wouldn’t. Recognize and celebrate the creativity of God as you do.
  • Thumbs-Free Thursday: Give up all cell phone activity, including text messaging.
  • Friendship Friday: Pay attention to those who may often get overlooked, and seek them out in friendship through your time and encouraging words.
  • Something-New Saturdays: Do something productive/guilt-free that you haven’t ever done before.
  • Sacrificial Sunday: Make a sacrifice to grow with God. Be consistent in an area you aren’t, like being a regular part of a church community or making prayer more personal. Or take a bold step in a new way of worshiping or relating to Him, like finding some new songs to sing out to Him in praise.
Obviously, it's easy to look at those lists and say "THAT ONE!" But again, that's not the point. Lent isn't about finding something religious to do, but using intentional choices to better connect with God. Giving up desserts or your favorite television show is not at the heart of this season, but if giving up something helps you to become more receptive to receiving the gift of deeper life from God, then, by all means, give it up.

Which leads to the true purpose of Lent. It's "emptying ourselves." We need to let go of whatever is clogging up the space God wants to live in our lives. Many of us have allowed random "neutral" things that steal our time (Facebook, gaming, TV, texting, etc) to push out any open space in our lives. Others of us have rebelled on purpose and are taking part in things that turn our hearts and minds away from God.

That's why Lent seems to always track back to Matthew 4 where Jesus fasted for 40 days before beginning His active ministry on earth. During the tail end of that time, the devil tempted Him with some short-cuts to power, fame and prestige. Each time, Jesus gave up those temptations to make space for something better.

I invite you to do that, just as I am and many I know. Whether or not today means "Ash Wednesday" or "Lent" to you, or if it's simply something you've labeled as a "religious activity," let go of your past experiences with this and jump into something amazingly authentic.
"But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (Jesus, Matthew  6:17-18)

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