Written by Eryn Austin-Bergen, MA in Theological Studies, Regent College
It’s Lent already?
I dread Lent. After the beauty of Advent and the decadent celebration of Christmas, it seems like such a downer. Especially if you live in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s already dark and cold and barren. And then you want me to give up one of the few comforts I have for this dreadful season? Such a downer.
Raised Baptist, I didn’t start “trying Lent” until college. Someone gave me a copy of Richard Foster’s 1978 hit, Celebration of Discipline, in which he defines Lent as “the voluntary denial of otherwise normal functioning for the sake of intense spiritual activity.” So, that Mardis Gras, I took my last sip of coffee and stopped all normal functioning for 40 days. But I can’t say that I got much spiritual growth out of it. To be honest, I pretty much hated the process. So, for the last 20 years, I’ve dreaded Lent.
But this year, it feels different. I’m actually longing for this ancient practice. Lent, the six week season between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, prepares our hearts to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. Traditionally, Christians have done this through fasting and a focus on prayer. And I am ready to step into this rich tradition—to sit down, exhale, and revel in the freedom of fasting and the closeness of prayer. Because, too much is happening too fast these days and I just can’t keep up.
Why We All Need Lent This Year
It started last year when everything “opened up” after the rollback of two years of COVID-19 restrictions. Suddenly, all our kids were back in school full time. Our employers wanted to see our faces more frequently. Church activities picked up along with social events, sports, holiday parties, shopping, entertainment—so much to do!
By the close of 2022, the snowball of expectations and busyness had picked up so much speed, it became unstoppable. The pace of 2023 also feels unsustainable. It’s as if, after two years of forced stillness, the whole world has gone mad with frenetic energy. We think, if we just keep moving faster and faster, we can undo the damage, get back to “normal,” and, once again, control our lives.
But that’s insanity. And Lent has come around, again, to show us that.
How Lent Helps
Lent comes to reveal that our ambition, grasping, and consuming will never give us real control over our lives or satisfy our longing for meaning. Through prayer and fasting, Lent reveals that our race to nowhere is actually deepening the wound and keeping us apart from the only thing that can heal our frazzled minds and aching hearts.
His name is Jesus. And in the stillness of Lent we hear him say that if we want to live—I mean, really live—we need to get ready for Good Friday. We need to get ready to die with Jesus. And then be raised to new life in him! But wait—I get ahead of myself, that’s Easter.
Through the self-denial of fasting, Jesus invites us to crucify our vain ambition for control in order to receive new hearts, renewed minds, and healed communities from God. By setting aside our obsession with ourselves, we look outward and see Jesus, often in the face of “the other” we had overlooked in our hurry.
Is Lent for me? Well, yes, and no.
Richard Foster says, “More than any other Discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us.” But, culturally, it’s hard to resist the impulse to turn Lent into simply another form of control in a chaotic world. For example, it’s become fashionable to fast from sugar, in order to lose weight and control your image. Or, to fast from social media, in order to control your anxiety and better control your time management. But is that really fasting?
In Isaiah 58, the Bible describes the fasting God expects from his people.
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear (Isaiah 58:6-8b NIV).”
|Sometimes "the oppressed" and "the hungry" don't look the way we expect they will|
Remember Richard Foster’s description of fasting? A self-denial for the purpose of “intense spiritual activity.” Evidently, that spiritual activity isn’t only prayer; it’s also doing justice! The two are bound together in the person of Jesus. Spiritual renewal, acts of justice, and inner healing are all part of the Lenten fast.
To do…or not do? The nitty, gritty of Lent
For us Protestants who are new(ish) to Lent, it can be hard to know what to fast from, and how to bring in that justice Isaiah talks about. The best place to start is to raise the conversation with the people we share life with, whether family, housemates, small group members, or workmates. Then choose something we can practice together. This will help us stick with it and bring us closer as followers of Jesus.
No matter what you choose, pay attention to how you feel when you begin to crave what you’ve given up. Ask yourself some questions. What is the underlying need I’m trying to meet? What is the pain I’m trying to medicate? What in my life feels out of control? Turn to God, and allow him to speak into your life and know that he is in control.
Here are five (pretty classic) suggestions for fasting, each one offering something to abstain from or something to add/change in your life.
1. Coffee: Abstain from drinking coffee.
Add: Track the money you save by not drinking coffee and give that amount to someone you know who needs help, or to a charity who will share your Lent sacrifice where needed most.
Go the extra mile: Stop drinking generic coffee. Do 15 minutes of googling to find fairtrade or direct trade coffee options and make the choice to only buy and drink ethical coffee to bring justice to the coffee farmers. (Did you know Costco sells Level Ground Coffee?)
2. Chocolate/Sugar: Abstain from eating chocolate and/or sugar.
Add: Track the money you save by not eating chocolate and sweets and give that amount to someone you know who needs help, or to a charity who will share your lent sacrifice where needed most.
Go the extra mile: Stop eating chocolate and/or sugar that exploits farmers. Do 15 minutes of googling to find fairtrade or direct trade chocolate and sugar options and make the choice to only buy and eat those, and bring justice to farmers.
3. Meat: Abstain from eating meat.
Add: It’s no secret our western diet is unsustainable. If every person in the world ate meat every day, the earth would be overrun and stripped bare by livestock! Try eating more sustainable protein options for 40 days.
Go the extra mile: Stop eating meat that you don’t know the origin of. Do 15 minutes of googling to find some ethical meat options near you. God has called us to care for and respect his animals, so, maybe check out grass fed beef, free range chicken, or pasture raised pork (remember, it's not about the label; it's about how the animals are cared for). You’ll probably find the price tag shocking and will end up eating less meat, anyway.
4. Alcohol: Abstain from drinking alcohol.
Add: Alcohol is not cheap! Track the money you save by not buying and drinking alcohol and give that amount to someone you know who needs help, or to a centre that helps people overcome dependence on chemical substances.
Go the extra mile: Find ways to listen to, learn from, and stand with those living in addiction or walking in sobriety. Give them your time, compassion, respect, and prayers.
5. Screens: Abstain from looking at your phone all the time.
This is a hard one! Our phone addiction is a systemic social problem as well as a personal vice. And the reasons vary. Maybe you’re addicted to social media, reading the news, or texting. Maybe you’re addicted to noise, distraction, and entertainment (who isn't?). “7 Proven Ways to Break Your Cell Phone Addiction” and “Do Not Disturb” are two fantastic articles you can tap into for ideas on how to get free from your phone.
Add: Replace that phone time with renewed attentiveness to unmediated reality. In other words, look around you! Connect with nature and people. Allow prayer to become your go-to instead of scrolling.
Go the extra mile: When we avoid awkward moments by taking out our phones, we can miss opportunities to “be Jesus” to someone else. Instead of checking socials, ask the Holy Spirit to show you someone in your immediate surroundings you can love and serve, even if for a brief moment in a mundane place (like the grocery store or play park).
I am ready for Lent! Ready to stop this crazy train, open my hands, and say, “Take it all, Lord.” Then open my eyes, see my neighbour, and lift my hands to serve them.
Will you join me?