One of my favorite episodes of Father Ted is the time Father Ted, Father Dougal and Father Jack try to give up ‘ cigarettes, alcohol and rollerblading’ for Lent. They enlist the help of Sister Assumpta, a very austere nun who uses very unusual measures to get the lads to comply with their Lenten discipline- including making them take ice cold baths outdoors, drag them around a field, replace their mattresses with bricks and replacing their breakfast with a bowl of cold water. Shortly after, the lads receive a gift of chocolate from the local shop and come home to find Sister Assumpta covered in chocolate, victim to her own inability to have self control. While it is all hilarious to watch, it also reminds us that some times we set ourselves up to fail and instead of identifying with Christ’s suffering, we end up identifying with our own failures and feeling even worse for them. The positive aspect is that we can realise how much we need God in our lives, but, there could be another way to realise that.
There is a long standing tradition of giving up something for Lent (which begins this coming Wednesday on March 1st and lasts 40 days), which is why we see so many festivals like Carnival and Mardi Gras happening just before Lent begins. In my culture, we often eat pancakes, which represent using up all the ‘good stuff’ like flour, fat and sugar to prepare for the impending austerity of Lent. These celebrations are usually communal events, not done in isolation or on an individual basis. Some of these celebrations bring strangers together in community halls, parades and churches. Hang on to that thought for a moment.
This is also similar practice in Judaism just before Passover, where certain foods are cleared away and cannot be eaten. In my own culture and denomination giving something up for Lent was not something we even considered until the mid 90’s when ecumenism between denominations became a serious endeavor and some cross pollination of practices were encouraged. So, giving something up for Lent was not something I grew up with but something I practiced for many years- some years with great success and others with very little self control.
Many Christians around the world will ‘give something up for Lent’ in order to identify with a self depravity of identifying with Christ’s suffering . It is my assumption that these spiritual practices are meant to encourage discipline and identify with Christ’s passion. Recently, my ‘giving up’ for Lent often involved a certain kind of food that I loved or other things like ‘giving up Facebook’.
But recently, instead of giving something up, I have taken something up. Why would I do that? In taking something up, we also give something up as well!
Because it shares the focus of the personal with the communal. If giving something up for Lent is about identifying with the suffering of Christ, there are many aspects to that suffering that may not need to be about ‘giving something up’. Taking something up can also lead to a new awareness that still honours identifying with Christ- His mourning for the state of the world because it didn’t/ doesn’t need to be like this. This is more of a community/ communal identity rather than focusing on a personalised self depravity- something which most of us do on a daily basis anyhow, from what and how we eat to wrestling with our latest personal purchase. In personal austerity the focus is on the self and bares little impact unless one is ‘successful’ at achieving the end goal- set by the self, regulated by the self, and, determined to be ‘successful’ by the self. And if we don’t meet that ‘success’, however we choose to define it, can lead us down a personal path of feeling like a failed Christian. Well, failing as a Christian comes with being a Christian, the difference is how we deal with that failure. But, the focus is on the self.
While self focus can be good for personal change, personal change rarely happens in isolation (unless you are one lucky person and have had the privilege of being a hermit and experiencing profound transformation). Personal change happens in and through relationships with the self, another person, and especially in community (and that learning is transmitted in community so a collective wisdom is shared).
In recent years most of my choices have been about economic witness- everything from buying fair trade to supporting local independent farmers, spending less money, stepping up with tithing (which is giving something up but also taking something up), giving money to people on the street without bias (even those I know who are being exploited by organised crime). I found the experience enriching and helped me challenge some of my own mind sets.
If you are reflecting on Lent and want to have a Lenten practice of giving something up or taking something up, here is a little guide to get you started.
Have a quiet moment with yourself and ask yourself a few things:
Do I want to give something up for Lent? Why? Is it reasonable and something that I can do on a daily basis? How will I measure if I have done what I have set out to do? How will I feel if I don’t accomplish this? Will this help me become closer to God and prepare me for Easter? What will I give up that will have an impact on my life and help me help others?
Do I want to take something up for Lent? Why? Is is reasonable and something I can do on a daily basis? How will I measure if I have done what I have set out to do? How will I feel if I don’t accomplish this? Will this help me become closer to God and prepare me for Easter? What can I take up that will have an impact on my life and help me help others?
Some ideas for taking something up (that may also involve giving something up).
- Choose to buy less or purchase differently- choose within your budget, fair trade, local farmers or suppliers, lesser known restaurants that have hit hard times, purchases with less packaging, buying a more expensive product with better ethical standards and sustainability (read labels and do a bit of research first!).
- Use less water and electricity, becoming even more aware of what is used now.
- Buy a book- buy the book you have been wanting to buy for a long time but just haven’t allowed yourself to buy it. Buy something you normally wouldn’t buy and have a read from it on a daily basis.
- Eat differently- this may sound really extreme, but try eating only rice for lunch for Lent. In doing so we understand how many people around the world will eat every day of their life. Try eating alone in a restaurant (for some people this is truly frightening but it can make one very aware of the loneliness in the world). Concentrate on eating more slowly and enjoy the food. This is taking something up and giving something up at the same time.
- Give without judgement- Instead of not giving to the street person that you KNOW is being exploited by others for profit, give anyway. If you know the person is going to spend your spare change on drugs or booze, instead of not giving money, give money to learn how to give without attachment and judgement.
- Read the Bible- Read a chapter a day from the Bible (if you really want to go deep and dark, read Lamentations).
- Tackle that closet or cupboard- once a week, pick a shelf, or a space and get rid of the stuff you keep for no reason other than to keep it. Donate it or upcycle it.
- Tithe with money– step up your tithing and give to a charity that you know uses most of the funds for work and not administration, the food bank or a shelter. Ask people around you which organisations are struggling and could use a bit of extra help. Even a small amount can help.
- Tithe talents– maybe you are very good at something and could share your talent with others- help refugees learn the local language, use that skill of making great resume/CV and help someone looking for work, knit or crochet something (lots of places accept handmade sleeping mats made from plastic bags), sew some reusable towels/sanitary pads for girls in developing countries who often have to drop out of school due to lack of monthly hygiene products (there are a LOT of organisations to choose from. Message me for some suggestions), read to people at the local library. The choices are as varied as our human talent. What are you good at that you can share?
- Tithe time– take a few moments every day to pray for those we wouldn’t normally pray for- sex trade workers, murderers, whose who are cruel to animals…the people and situations we don’t like to talk about or personally have trouble even thinking about. Take a few moments every day to pray about the things that we ‘shut down’ about. Or, take a few moments every day to pray for that person who makes our blood boil with anger because they have caused pain with you or someone else.
- visit, ring or send a letter that person you know you should have and just can’t bring yourself to do it- for whatever reason.
- Spend time with yourself. Maybe there are some issues being avoided that need some attention- for about ten minutes a day- to reflect on.
- Body talk- take a few minutes every day to move differently. Try a bit of yoga, observe how you walk, sit up straight (my mother’s favourite!), deep breathe from your belly or stretch.
- Music- some good old fashioned classical music for a few minutes a day can feed and stir the soul. Bach’s Passions (Matthew or John) are a good place to start. Listen to something you normally wouldn’t (I have often listened to inner city rap- it gives perspective on life that most of us are oblivious to. Tupac’s Changes from two decades ago is still, sadly, relevant and one of the pieces of music I listen to pre sermon writing).
Have any of your own ideas? Leave a comment!
May your Lent be a blessed time of reflection, change and a deeper relationship with God.