Thursday, February 22, 2007

"Lent Loopholes" or "It's Cool to Give Stuff Up for Forty Days"

First off, I want to thank my Thursday Morning Bible Study group for inspiring me to write about Lent today…especially Lauren. We’ve been meeting at the Byron Center McDonald’s at 6:30am every Thursday, and today we found out that they were giving free samples of iced mochas and vanilla lattes. This realization led to Lauren stating that for Lent she gave up chocolate, but she is allowing herself to drink hot chocolate, so if she could get a free sample of a hot mocha, that qualified as hot chocolate. This, in turn, led to a discussion on Lent Loopholes.

It seems to me that Lent is sort of en vogue. It’s the cool thing to do. Let’s not only give up something that we love for 40 days, but let’s make sure everyone knows how sacrificial we are being. Let’s call attention to ourselves and our spirituality. Or, at the very least, let’s make sure to follow our tradition of giving something up for Lent. Interestingly enough, Lent has evolved over time. In it’s beginning, the Church was very strict about the practice of Lent. It started as a fast from food. One meal was allowed per day, usually taken in the evening. By the fifteenth century, they started to allow the meal to be taken at noon with an allowance of another small meal during the evening.

It’s no surprise that today, we see Lent as a time to give up soda, chocolate, candy, or any other random thing that often times has no spiritual significance other than the discipline of giving up something you love. Lent was originally designed to prepare us to celebrate the resurrection of Christ (Easter), and instead we’ve made it a time of self-deprivation with no ties to God and Christ and Holy Spirit. We come off of our 40 days and say, “Look at my self-discipline and self-deprivation! I’ve done it! I’ve given up something I love, but Lent is over so I can now drink all the soda I want and eat all of the candy I want and I don’t know how I lived without chocolate, but I’m eating it right now and it tastes so good.” My question is how does this prepare us to celebrate Easter? How does this help us to draw closer to God? Isn’t that the point of fasting anyway? We remove something…traditionally food…from our routine, and we’re forced to rely on the Holy Spirit to fill that hunger.

A good friend of mine from across the country gave up masturbating for Lent this year (yes, I said it…he struggles with it…he’s working on it). I dare say that even giving up this grotesque act of self-fulfillment can become nothing more than a practice of more self-fulfillment. One of the things he said to me is, “they say 21 days of something makes it a habit…I’m hoping at the end of forty, I’ll never have the urge to masturbate again…it will be a habit not to do it.” This is fine thinking, and I’m sure there’s some truth to it. However, if he’s merely stopping masturbating in order to form a habit of not masturbating, is it really worth it? I think there’s deeper issues at hand. Issues of self-gratification, self-worship, self-fulfillment, disobedience to God, unfaithfulness to his wife…the list goes on. And the sad thing is that forming this non-habit based solely on self-discipline and self-deprivation only leads to more focus on self and is no more significant than giving up soda or candy or chocolate. Additionally, I dare say that it’s only a matter of time before he’s masturbating again, which is no different than someone who gives up soda or candy…as soon as Easter hits, we’re letting the Dr. Pepper and Cadbury Cream Eggs flow freely.

And so, Lent has become something where we practice self-discipline and self-deprivation, and in order to make it easier on ourselves while still appearing somewhat holy, we give up chocolate, but not hot chocolate…soda, but not energy drinks (that are laced with sugar and caffeine)…or, as I did a few years ago, give up listening to the radio on the way to work so that I can spend that time with God, but then justify listening to talk radio because it’s not the typical trashy music that I normally hear. Yes, we like to soften the blow of giving something up. Jesus talked some about fasting in Matthew 6, right in between talk on giving to the poor, prayer, and worshipping God, he says this…

“When you practice some appetite-denying discipline to better concentrate on God, don't make a production out of it. It might turn you into a small-time celebrity but it won't make you a saint. If you 'go into training' inwardly, act normal outwardly. Shampoo and comb your hair, brush your teeth, wash your face. God doesn't require attention-getting devices. He won't overlook what you are doing; he'll reward you well.”

So, to you Thursday Morning Bible Studiers, don’t take any of this personally…I admire you for giving up some things that are very important to you. But for Christ’s sake (and yours’ for that matter) make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. Get rid of as much self as you can, so that as much of God as possible can fill those places that you’ve emptied. I know you all well enough to know that you have a genuine hunger to live the way Christ would like you to live. Hold each other accountable to not just the act of fasting, but to the reason behind the fast. What if, by the end of this Lent season, we were all more in tune with what God wants for us? What if, by the end of this Lent season, we were all a little bit more like Christ? What if, by the end of this Lent season, we could truly celebrate the resurrection of our Lord because we know that a little bit of ourselves has died, and Christ lives in it’s place?