Popularly Lent is about giving up chocolate or other sweets. But there can be much more to it than that.
The purpose of adopting restrictions and disciplines during Lent is not to diminish our joy in life; but to help us become more fully alive; more in tune with God’s love and grace. Many painters, musicians, and poets express an awareness that creativity thrives within constraints.
So what are the seven habits of a highly effective Lent?
First; use Lent to take a look at yourself; not your hair or skin that is, but your inner self; your heart and soul. Lent is a good time to clear some spiritual space in our hearts; to let God have some more room to be, and to grow, in our lives. Long held assumptions; unresolved grievances, the embers of old angers; guilt yet to be dealt with; these and other encumbrances of the heart can accumulate like spiritual clutter. God in love and grace longs to help us leave behind the clutter and be more free, entering the life in abundance promised to us. We can pray for help to let God take these things away. In his reflection on this topic the Rector of St Martin-in -The-Fields church in London, Sam Wells, says that we might also find things which we had neglected. From such re-discovery new dimensions in life can grow.
Secondly, don’t let a day go by without praying. Use any kinds of the many varieties of prayer which there are – formal, written prayers; spontaneous and informal; pray when walking along: sit, or stand, still in silence to be intentionally in God’s presence, even if only for a moment.
Thirdly; give up some food. This is the most well known discipline of Lent. Choose not to eat something that is perfectly available and acceptable. Giving up something that you should give up anyway, like smoking perhaps, or consuming more than the recommended daily intake of alcohol, isn’t really a Lenten discipline because you are best advised to stop it forever. Giving up a kind of food we eat usually or maybe a particular meal (if health allows) trains us to remember that we “do not live by bread alone”; that is; we eat to live not vice versa. It is also an act of solidarity with those one billion people in the world who have no choice but to go hungry every day. It may encourage our prayer and our action on their behalf which will continue beyond Easter.
Fourthly; give money to the causes you really care about. Perhaps you already give away a proportion of your income to good causes including the church. Is it enough? Does it really and truly reflect both what you believe is important to you and the resources at your disposal? In Lent “get real” about what money you give away.
Five – read your Bible. It is the Bible which contains words of life. The Bible sets before us the life, work and message of Jesus whom God gave to bring us into fullness of life and relationship with God. If you feel all at sea with the Bible and don’t know how to read it with understanding in a disciplined way, please ask one of the clergy for help; or visit the websites of the Bible Society or the Bible Reading Fellowship (BRF) as good starting points.
Six – make peace. Is there a relationship in your life which needs healing and reconciliation? Do you need to forgive someone and yet have put off really dealing with it? Is there a family member or a friend you’ve neglected who is waiting for you to call them? This Lent may be a time to decide to act in some way whether it’s a direct approach or a simple gesture; or even a commitment to pray often that healing will find a way to happen in the future. Making peace is the heart of the gospel message.
Seven – don’t take yourself too seriously. Remember God loves you as you are right now and longs to pick you up when you fall flat!