Each year, as Lent approaches, I begin, as perhaps many of you do, to think about what I should give up. I’ve tried many things. There was the year I gave up chocolate, one year I abstained from Facebook, a year without doing graduate school work on Sundays, and the list could go on. Although this tradition of giving something up developed historically as a form of penitence, and has often been meant as a spiritual discipline for people to take on as we emulate Jesus’ 40 days in the desert and wait for Easter, I don’t think my own impetus to give something up has been quite this pure.
Truth be told, each of these acts of penitence probably had more to do with some other outside goal that I had for myself than they did about Jesus. I gave up chocolate because I felt like my copious daily chocolate snacking habits were adding some extra padding around my waistline and bum; the abstinence from social media, while good, probably stemmed from my need to have some sort of external motivator to help me finish my midterms; and taking a Sabbath on Sunday, which would be a great practice if I stuck to it all the time, was probably more about having a religiously sanctioned excuse to procrastinate.
And I don’t think I’m alone in this. In fact, for many of us, it seems like the whole practice of giving something up for Lent has become more about proving our self-control than meditating on what it means to be in the wilderness and waiting for a revelation of hope. We gorge ourselves on Fat Tuesday prior to Lent, and then spend the next 40 days counting down until we can break our fast on Easter. The year I gave up chocolate, I think I was more excited to get to a Cadbury crème egg than I was to show up at worship.
Several years ago, when working for Mennonite Mission Network, I had a conversation about this with a co-worker, and what grew out of it was a Lenten giving calendar and blog: it was meant to be a tool or resource that invited people to participate in prayerful activities each day, while also thinking about giving things up and giving things away each day, even when letting some of these things go was challenging. We wanted to promote the idea that giving something up for Lent wasn’t just about “me,” but it could be about both a spiritual practice for me and a connection to the broader community. It should not just be about fitness or productivity, although those are good things, but about pushing us to move ourselves towards a greater sense of well-being and a greater knowledge of the story of Jesus and how it speaks into our lives today.
So this year, I’m both giving something up and trying to fill the space it leaves behind with something more edifying.