Discipline often seems like a negative word–in fact, we sometimes use it as a synonym for punishment. But this is not what it is really all about…it’s not a bad word
I’ve noticed something interesting over the past few years, and it’s a trend that others have noted as well–Lent is making inroads into many churches that have traditionally rejected its observance. No longer is it out of the ordinary to hear of Christians from Presbyterian, Methodist–even Baptist–backgrounds taking up various Lenten traditions and making them their own. Often, especially in the case of non-denominational or so-called “emerging” churches, this is done with a twist of some sort to make the observance of Lent fit more naturally into their context. Indeed, there are also movements afoot to change the way people from Churches like ours–which never stopped observing the Lenten season–reflect on its deeper meaning.
One such movement that has recently attracted some attention in the Tennessean and elsewhere is called Cool People Care. Dixon Kinser, the youth director at St. Bartholomew’s in Nashville has gathered folks from their parish and gotten involved in this movement. The idea of Cool People Care is to get people plugged into possible acts of charity or activism. Cool People Care is not strictly a Lenten thing–they plan for their work/ministry to be ongoing–but Dixon and others have decided to make these elements of community service part of their Lenten season. One of the motivations behind this is the simple fact that so many people have a concept of Lent that looks like a combination of diet and masochism. We make promises to give X up for Lent–and what we literally mean is that we’ll “sacrifice” our pleasure or desire for a set period, but then, come Easter, we’re right back where we started and we actually haven’t changed anything in our lives. As Dixon said in the Tennessean “I realized that I’ve made these Lenten pledges in the past to abstain from things I shouldn’t be doing anyway.”
What Dixon and the other people involved with Cool People Care have seen, is this: we need something more for our Lenten discipline than just giving up the second serving of ice-cream, our favorite candy (which we eat too much of anyway) or the three pack-a-day habit. These are things that we should pursue in moderation, if at all, at any time and not just in Lent.
I think that the focus of Cool People Care on community involvement and activism is admirable, however, one of the ways traditional (and appropriate) Lenten observances can contribute to this desire to live out the faith is through personal formation, which is something that comes through spiritual discipline. It might be helpful to reexamine the word “discipline”, since it often gets attached to these pledges we make during Lent. Lenten disciplines aren’t intended to be second chances at New Year’s resolutions. They’re meant to be the means of establishing habits of being, that is, they are a means to change old–often harmful but at least not helpful–behaviors and replace them with helpful and fruitful spiritual disciplines and habits. For instance, just as Dixon reminds us, we shouldn’t be using Lent as a time to temporarily fast from something that we shouldn’t be doing anyway–that just reinforces harmful behaviors of denial for a season only to have it capped off by bingeing. Instead, we should look at Lent as an opportunity to grow in our walk with our Lord Jesus. If there are things in our lives that have taken on the role of separating us from Jesus or our loved ones, Lent is a time to take advantage of the new life promised to us if we repent, by putting way these harmful habits and never picking them back up again.
Lent is also a time to begin helpful practices or habits that can bring us closer to Christ. For example, if some of us have never taken the time to engage in a schedule of daily prayer, Lent is a time to begin a good habit of praying at a particular time (or times) each day, one that will hopefully extend beyond the season.
Finally, during Lent, our spiritual discipline may be some sort of community activism, such as that supported by Cool People Care, and God willing such activism will not end with Lent, but would help us establish a pattern of involvement, and only be the beginning of the ways we find to be involved in Christ’s work in the world.
So does all this mean that we shouldn’t give up our favorite ice cream only during Lent? Not at all… it just means that, as I mentioned earlier, Lent is not about a second chance at a self-centered New Year’s resolution. Instead, the point of all the things Christians engage in or abstain from during Lent are meant to bring us closer to Jesus Christ. Whether that means coming closer to him in prayer by picking up a spiritual discipline of prayer, or a special act of self-denial so that we can better understand and reflect upon all that Christ gave up in order to offer us salvation, all these practices have the same point.
I think the collect that is said at the beginning of the Way of the Cross service is a fitting reminder of the point of Lent as a whole:
Assist us mercifully with your help, O Lord God of our salvation, that we may enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby you have given us life and immortality; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.