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Posted: March 11, 2011 12:00 a.m.

About Faith: Giving Up Lent

My friend Jim Cantrell once commented that he was giving up Lent for Lent.

He’s a faithful, spiritual man. His words struck me as odd, but I like his explanation.

Lent is the season of the Christian year that prepares us spiritually and mentally for the glorious celebration of Easter. Many Christians do not follow the liturgical calendar and all the discipline that imposes on them. As a Protestant, I understand our historical inclination to reject all things "Catholic" in favor of the freedom to embrace salvation by faith alone. But if we are to call ourselves disciples, we must exercise the disciplines of the faith. I am grateful to our Catholic brothers and sisters for the gift of Lent, which to me is one of the most meaningful opportunities for Christian discipline.

It is common to give up something for Lent. Supposedly, this reminds us of the great sacrifice Christ made for us. In that moment we resist the urge, we think of Christ and his love, and have the opportunity for deepening our faith.

Giving up something for Lent can take many forms. Some people have "fast" days, in which they eat only one meal. Others give up something that is particularly dear to them, like chocolate or coffee. It may not be food at all, but rather some other indulgence, like golf or watching TV.

It is also a common Lenten practice to add something instead of subtracting. Some people include extra volunteer work in their daily routine. Others give extra money to charity, or visit the elderly. All of these are good ways to grow in our faith, as belief often follows practice.

But whether we are adding or subtracting, we face the pitfalls of Phariseeism and self-indulgence. Phariseeism is the tendency we all have to follow the rules without observing the spirit of the rule. Self-indulgence is our inclination to make it all about us.

The Pharisee wants to pick some observable action to avoid, like eating chocolate, so he can say he did it and feel satisfied he is a "good Christian." The thought of God or his relationship with God barely enters into the process.

The self-indulgent may do the same thing but with a different motive. She avoids the chocolate because it is bad for her, and she wants to look and feel better. By the end of Lent, she has lost weight and her skin has cleared up, and she looks marvelous. Christ would be so proud, if he was anywhere in the picture. Of course, come Easter morning, she is back to eating chocolate, and no better off by any measure.

It is to the Pharisee and the self-indulgent that Dr. Cantrell says he is giving up Lent for Lent.

As a possible remedy for this, let me offer another way to look at Lent.

Instead of thinking of it as adding or subtracting, think of it as opting to put God first. I once ran into a friend who was on his way to his daughter’s mid-afternoon soccer game. This was no small matter for him. As head of a company, he was a borderline workaholic. His family depended on him for the necessities of life, and many people depended on him for their livelihood. By leaving work to watch a soccer game, was he saying that soccer was more important than work? No, he was saying that for this brief moment, nothing was more important to him than his daughter.

Lent, properly observed, is like that.

For a brief moment, we are saying to God that nothing in the world is more important to us. And God is as pleased to see us as my friend’s daughter was to see him on the sidelines cheering her on. Putting God first is a good practice for any time of the year, however we choose to do it. When Easter comes, we may find we have a new habit that sticks. Maybe we should all give up Lent for Lent and opt for God.

 

Brian Dale is pastor of Allen Memorial Methodist Church in Oxford.

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