Lent is one of the least appreciated seasons in the Christian calendar. Being a penitential season, it’s a time of fasting — of saying an emphatic NO! to one particular area of our lives — while saying yes to our souls and to God. It’s an uncomfortable time, but that’s because it’s a pregnant time.
A pregnancy lasts 40 weeks, which is why things that happen in increments of 40 in the Scriptures are considered pregnant times. All of the 40s are uncomfortable and even quite painful, but they all lead to something new and alive and joyful. The same is true of Lent.
Lent is supposed to be painful. The fasting leads to an uncovering of soul. Its emptiness creates space for God and prayer and reflection that is normally filled up with other good (or not so good) things. But just as in pregnancy an empty womb becomes increasingly full, so much so that it stretches and feels like its bursting, so in Lent the empty soul becomes enlarged and enriched.
Because of this, unlike New Year’s resolutions, Lenten fasts have become a staple in my life for several decades. And every time I engage in them, they kill me and enliven me at the same time. The mini Lenten deaths lead to mini Easter resurrections. And that’s the point.
However, Lent is nothing but another American self-improvement plan if it doesn’t lead us to Easter and the new life Jesus offers. And so we enter the time with both anxiety and hope, just as we approach the end of our mortal lives and the promise of resurrection.
So, what follows is a list of a few of some things I’ve fasted from during Lent over the years. It’s not intended to be a list of the best Lenten fasts. Rather, it’s intended to be a kickstarter, getting you to think about what would be best for you as you approach the penitential season. (Here’s more on Ash Wednesday and why we fast.)
Consuming violence — A few years ago, a friend who was finishing up his service in the military felt it would be good for him to give up consuming violence for Lent. During his years of service, he’d picked up a taste for first person shooter video games and had these particularly in mind. But he didn’t want to do the fast alone, so he invited me to join him in it. So, I did.
Well, not being a gamer, I figured it wouldn’t be such a big deal for me. I wasn’t shooting virtual people like Jeff was. But as with all Lenten fasts, I was surprised by the ways that I was consuming violence.
The first confrontation with consuming violence I came against was the release of one of the Hunger Games movies, with its heaping helping of violence. So, I stayed at home while my family went to the movie and read a book. But it was the next thing that surprised me: I read the news.
A car bomb killed several people in Iraq the next day and I realized that I had been consuming violence through news media without acknowledging it as consumption. But there I was, reading stories about death and violence and having no real outcome as a result. Nothing in my life changed as a direct result of reading those articles. And I realized that either I’d need to stop reading/consuming them or I’d need to read them as something other than a consumer.
So, I chose to pray.
Every time I came across an article that had anything violent in it at all — gun violence, domestic violence, sports violence, words so over the top they were violent, etc. — I would take that as a trigger to pray for those involved. It turned out to be an amazing experience that has forever changed the way I read the news. (But it sure slowed my reading down!)
Silence in the car — I’m an avid audiobook listener and have a passion for discovering new music, so my car time is precious to me. My car is my private listening booth, where I can soak in music or a book. So, when a friend offered silence in the car as a Lenten discipline, I knew I was in for it.
As Twenty One Pilots singer Tyler Joseph says in the brilliant song Car Radio, “sometime quiet is violent.” When we have to face the silence of the car after years of thoughtlessly turning on the radio to fill the empty air, we have to deal with ourselves. And with God. And that can be agonizing.
This makes quieting our car rides one of the most perfect Lenten observances. For it opens up space in our almost completely programmed modern days and leaves us with ourselves, our thoughts, our feelings, our fears, our hopes, our failures, our souls. And there’s so much of the time that I don’t want to deal with myself. I want to drown the inner voice with whatever noise is at hand.
So, I highly recommend this “quiet is violent” time, because it is one of the easiest ways to carve our time for self-reflection and for prayer in our busy, busy lives.
Alcohol — I live in a city that loves its beer and tops lists as the best beer city in the country year after year. And I love our local offerings, enjoying them on a fairly regular basis.
As with so much of life, alcohol can have two functions: aesthetic or anesthetic.
An anesthetic numbs us. It dulls the pain. But it also dulls the pleasure. It’s an off switch. And alcohol can definitely be used as a way to turn off life, numbing us to ourselves, to others, to this world, to God. And when this is the case, we need to notice what’s going on and stop it.
An aesthetic makes us more alive. Instead of numbing us, aesthetics open us up. Beauty widens and enhances life. A hoppy IPA, a peaty whisky, and a richly floral wine will enliven the senses and lubricate conversations. Savored instead of swilled, they remind us that we live in a world crammed with God and grace and goodness.
So, it’s good from time to time to stop drinking any alcohol in an effort to retain its aesthetics. Clearing the palate can refresh it. Starving the tastebuds can create desire — not the alcoholic’s need for any old beer, but the connoisseur’s appreciation for beauty.
Coffee & chocolate — These are old standbys. And for good reason. Just as I wrote about above with alcohol, both coffee and chocolate have the ability to be enjoyed aesthetically or consumed thoughtlessly in ways that numb our lives. And just as adult beverages contain the potentially addictive substance of alcohol, coffee and chocolate contain the addictive substance of caffeine and in most cases the most addictive substance of all: sugar.
Lent is a season of freedom. The biblical 40 years in the wilderness were a time for the Hebrews to leave the slavery of Egypt behind and to enter into a brand new freedom mindset as they prepared to enter the promised land. Slavery is harder to leave behind than it would seem, and they needed those 40 years to instill a new freedom identity.
Likewise, the 40 days of fasting Jesus spent in the desert (40 successful days for him in contrast to 40 unsuccessful years for the Hebrews), were a declaration of freedom. Tempted by the evil one, Jesus triumphed and had his identity as God’s Son validated.
It can seem like a stretch to give up coffee or chocolate for Lent, but if doing so can teach us freedom skills, then it’s no stretch at all.
Social media — Easily one of our biggest time wasters is social media. Skimming posts on Facebook, browsing all kinds of things on Pinterest, viewing images on Instagram, perusing the profound and the inane on Twitter, we’ve become both more connected with those at a distance and more disconnected with those right in front of us than ever. Social media have been an incredible blessing, drawing together people from across the planet, and a terrible curse, as parents and kids alike spend time on their phones instead of with one another.
I have applauded as friends have let their social media feeds go dark for Lent and have done so myself. And what did we discover?
We didn’t need all of those funny videos after all. We felt happier without all of those political rants. We missed out on a some important things in people’s lives, but we caught up pretty quickly. We missed out on a landfill of unimportant nonsense that our “friends” still felt compelled to post. We had so much more time for the people in front of us, our jobs, and the projects that needed doing around our homes. We had more time for God.
Video games & other apps — I’m not much of a gamer, but I’ll get sucked into something like Words With Friends for a few months at a time, and I’ve watched my kids get sucked into app-based games that include a social element to them.
These can be huge time wasters in our lives. But not only do they fill up productive time that we don’t ever get back, but they fill up unproductive time. And this is almost worse.
Filling up time in the dentist’s waiting room, in line at the grocery store, and so on is greatest curse of the smartphone era. Like our car time, these breaks that are scattered throughout our days used to be times of glorious boredom. And boredom is the father of creativity. It’d during our down times, our empty times, that we come up with solutions to problems, memories of old friends, book ideas, and prayers.
We need to regain these swathes of emptiness instead of grabbing for our phones and filling them with something else, even if that something is productive.
Years ago, I spent a morning with the CEO of a company, and he told me the most important thing he does for the company is daydream. While everyone else has their tasks laid out for them, he’s got the freedom (and boredom, though he didn’t say that word) to let his mind wander and make connections he wouldn’t otherwise have made. Those connections were his best contribution to the company. We all need that.
We need walks and bike rides and standing in line to help us pay attention to God and to the details in life that get missed otherwise.
I encourage you to let these Lenten practices I’ve engaged in become a launching point for yourself as you consider what to set aside in order to awaken and enliven your soul before God.