Wednesday, February 17, 2010

For Lent I'm giving up telling people what I'm giving up for Lent

So today is the first day of Lent, which for me, is a fairly recent event to consider. I didn’t grow up in a tradition that recognized Lent as a significant part of the Christian calendar so until the past few years I’ve more or less ignored it as a religious tradition that I needed to participate in - especially because I tend to avoid hollow religious traditions like the plague. But I’ve come to the realization that Lent is a significant time to reflect and to spend forty days, in Eugene Peterson’s words, “recovering the rhythms of grace.” Unfortunately, I’ve also come to realize that Lent can be every bit as “commercial” as the other big (formerly) religious holidays.

Although there are no fat men in red suits or chocolate bunnies laying candy coated eggs, Lent has nevertheless joined the ranks of the “let’s make this all about me” events we celebrate each year. How many people do you know who publicly make pronouncements about what they are giving up for Lent? It’s one of the top trending topics on Twitter today for cryin’ out loud! Need some ideas of what to give up? Try out one of these:

• “I think I’ll just try to swear less and use my computer less.”
• “Bye bye fast food…anywhere with a drive-through menu.”
• “No buying purses.”
• "I’m givin up cussin for Lent.”
• “Negativity. I hearby give up giving up for 40 days.”

And my favorite of all…

”Giving up refined sugar for Lent in an attempt to finally reach my goal weight. And, you know, for Jesus.”

I’m pretty sure the author of this post was trying to make a joke and a bit of a biting comment at the same time (I love satire!) but she pretty much hit the nail on the head. We all want the world to know that we are making a supreme sacrifice by giving up chocolate or coffee or swearing…for forty days anyway… but just like Christmas and Easter the focus of Lent has shifted from Jesus to ourselves.

I’ve also heard of some folks who are using Lent as way of sacrificing something they love to raise money for those who are in need. “Add up the money you would have spent on coffee each day and give it to the relief efforts in Haiti.” Now, I’m all for supporting the relief and development work around the world (I work for World Vision!) but despite these good intentions, turning Lent into a fundraiser is just another way of putting the focus back on us instead of Jesus.

I’m reminded here of Jesus’ words during the Sermon on the Mount:

“And when you fast, don’t make it obvious as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting except your Father (God) who knows what you do in private. And your Father who sees everything will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-17 NLT)

Jesus talked a lot about doing things in private so as not to put the spotlight on ourselves but keep it on God the Father where it belongs: “Don’t do your good deeds publicly…” (Matt 6:1), “Give you gifts in private…” (Matt 6:4), “Pray to your Father in private…” (Matt 6:6), etc.

And why did Jesus tell us to do this? To avoid being hypocrites.

And what great sin the church is always accused of? Being hypocritical.

So to those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus, who are participating in Lent this year, please…keep it quiet. Lent is between you and God. Your sacrifice is important but it is also meant to be a reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice for all humanity. Keep the focus on Jesus’ sacrifice of his life and his resurrection and not on the extra-hot, half-sweet, grande cinnamon dolce latte with whip that you’ll so desperately be missing. Let’s not add fuel to the fire of those who already consider us hypocrites.

I’m off to my closet now…

I received a thoughtful comment from James who pointed out an unintended error in what I had written above. I did not mean to imply that you shouldn't give to worthy charitable organizations as a way of expressing concern for others during Lent, but simply to keep that between you and God. Thanks James!


James Diggs said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post about Lent. Though I am not sure how posting what you are doing for lent counts as "giving up telling others what you are doing"?

I would also like to push back a bit on this statement of yours:

"Now, I’m all for supporting the relief and development work around the world (I work for World Vision!) but despite these good intentions, turning Lent into a fundraiser is just another way of putting the focus back on us instead of Jesus."

While I appreciate not wanting to use Lent for our own self promoting purposes, I don't think that focusing on OTHERS during Lent takes anything away from our focus on Jesus. In fact I think the opposite might be true.

Remember, as much as we have given to the least of these we have given unto him. Our love for God and our love for others can not be separated. God found solidarity with all of humanity through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, even though it meant he would meet us through the cross in the worst humanity has to offer- the reality of sin, injustice, suffering and death.

Accepting that offer from God to have solidarity with him, means that we join him in the Way of the cross as we find solidarity with our fellow human beings as Jesus himself does.

Jesus saw our needs as his own and embraced them as such. We should do the same and see the needs of others as our own. Lent gives us the opportunity not just to participate in an exercise of self denial for own spiritual benefit, but to identify with those who "have not", and maybe begin to meet their needs as our own too.

I apologize if I came across too "preachy". I am sure working for world mission you have a heart of compassion that stems from your love of God and others. My comment is not meant as a personal rebuke because I simply don't know you and wouldn't dare to presume. I was just trying to share a different theological perspective from what you shared. I honestly did appreciate the spirit of humility and authenticity you were encouraging in your post- this is vital. Thank you for the reminder.

You may not be interested in this, but I would like to welcome you to one of those "turning Lent into a fundraiser" kind of things on facebook. Though I don't think I would call it a "fundraiser".

I am encouraging people to take what they save from "fasting" during Lent and give it to the charity of their choice to help Haiti. You are welcome of course to keep the particulars of your fast a secret. I in no way want to undermine the spiritual significance of such a practice for the individual, but rather connect it to the very real communal aspect of the gospel.

If you are interested in joining us in our facebook group "giving up something for Lent to help Haiti" I would love to have you.

Brad in the 'Loo said...

Hi James,

Thanks for the comments. I always appreciate thoughtful critique of what I've written. Just a small clarification...the title of my post isn't really intended to tell people what I'm giving up for Lent, it's just a smart-alecky title I came up with. True to my comments, my Lent activities are between me and God.

I want to say thanks for stating so perfectly how Jesus' concern for us should reflect itself in our concern for others:

"Jesus saw our needs as his own and embraced them as such. We should do the same and see the needs of others as our own."

Beautifully said!

You are absolutely right and I need to go back to clarify that. I hadn't meant to say we SHOULDN'T give to charitable organizations with our "Lent savings" but simply that we should keep that giving personal between us and God and not go "blowing our trumpets" in the streets.

Blessings James!

P.S. I'll check out your FB page and blog as well.

Marie said...

I understand telling others about sacrifices can be a way to hope for honour and social rewards, which undermines the whole point of lent. But making a public pronouncement can also a means to help us commit and to get support from others who can help by diverting temptations. We're not all as strong as we'd like to be all the time. Sometimes we need a bit of help from our friends.

And anything can be made hollow or commercial, but it doesn't have to be hollow or commercial for you.

Laura Lu said...

I was happy to come across your post. I have been feeling the same way about this over the past week. Every time I have logged onto my social media account, it has been post after post about what is being given up for Lent. I am glad I am not alone in keeping my promise private. Thank you!