I had decided to give up my favorite chocolate biscotti during Lent. The server in my favorite coffee shop was surprised that I wasn’t having “my usual.” When I explained, she said, “Oh yes, I know about Lent. In my family, we always gave up meat for Lent. I don’t really know why, and I don’t go to church, but I still do it.” Ah, the power of long habit: we do things without thinking about them! So why do we “give things up” for Lent?
Everything is connected to everything else. I have a working hypothesis that everything in church and the Christian life connects to Jesus’ announcement of the Gospel—the Good News—that God is at work putting the world to rights. Jesus summarized that work by calling it “the Kingdom,” but it’s the same thing.
As soon as Jesus had announced that the Kingdom was “at hand” (without drawing attention to the fact that it was being ushered in by the King!), he began to call disciples. In an earlier article, I suggested that a “disciple” is not something weird or religious, but is best understood as an apprentice, someone who follows Jesus in order to learn from him the skills of the kingdom—reconciliation, generosity, healing, passion for justice, and so on.
So how is this connected to Lent? There are two dimensions to God’s work of “putting things to rights”—the personal and the societal. We often focus on the second—pursuing justice in the structures of our society—and that’s essential. But the personal is equally important. What is wrong with the world is both “out there” and “in here.” And the Good News is that God wants to deal with both.
In this way, being an apprentice of Jesus is different from most other apprenticeships. You can learn to be a perfectly competent plumber without your character being changed. If you are a kind person when you began your apprenticeship, hopefully you are still so by the end. If you were a jerk when you began, well, I don’t think there is anything intrinsic to a plumbing apprenticeship that will change that. But in the trade school of Jesus, personal change is right there at the heart of the learning.
Of course, facing the personal change that God wants to bring about can feel like going to the dentist—we put it off for as long as we can. (Hasn’t COVID-19 been a great excuse?) But, also like going to the dentist, it really needs to be done.
Hence Lenten disciplines. Of course, no effective apprenticeship can be completed in only forty days! And apprenticeship to Jesus is in any case a 24/7, lifelong business, never complete in this life. So why make a big deal of Lent? Maybe we should think of it as a six-week intensive during our apprenticeship, a time when we undertake specific, personal, learning projects.
What might the Spirit bring to our attention as projects needing work? Here are some of the things that seem to be on the Teacher’s personalized curriculum for me, to be worked on during Lent. You will have your own list, but maybe there is some overlap.
Trying to take more pleasure in prayer, rather than regarding it as a chore.
Praying specifically for the people I find most trying in my life, asking that God will bless their socks off, and help me appreciate their strength and beauty.
Giving up some of the things that I know I can become dependent on in an unhealthy way. (The word “Facebook” comes to mind. And Netflix. And coffee.) It could be anything that is a good servant when we treat it as a gift of God—but a harsh master when given too much authority.
The danger of Lenten disciplines, of course, is that we treat them as negative things simply to be endured for a season, after which we go back unchanged to normal life. Instead, we need to view the disciplines as a means to an end: they are one of the ways our Creator uses to shape us into the people we were meant to be.
Our son Ben first trained as a jazz trumpeter, and a story from his teenage years helps me get my head around this whole thing. After some years of learning trumpet, Ben got as a new teacher one of the top trumpet players in Canada. The teacher listened to him and said, “Ben, you’re doing it all wrong. If you want to develop in your playing, you’re going to have to start over, and relearn your embouchure.”
Did Ben do it? He could have said, “No way. I’ve spent years playing this way, and I feel comfortable with it. I gotta be me. Don’t cramp my style.” But he didn’t. He accepted the discipline recommended by his teacher and as a result was able to move ahead in his playing, way beyond where he would have got to otherwise. (I think he’s pretty good these days, but I may be biased.)
Lent is the gift of a loving God who wants only the best for us. The Gospel is that God in Christ is “making all things new”—and that “all” includes making us new—in order to give us joy.