Lent: Maybe It's About Adding, Not Subtracting
I sometimes envy people who follow tradition without asking questions. They gain benefits from their tradition that the rest of us will never know. (There are costs, of course, to their lack of questioning, as there are to everything, but that's another story.)
We questioners can't help but smell some problems with Lent. We note how back in the Middle Ages, for example, Thomas Aquinas recommended abstaining from meat because it produced more semen (in fifty percent of the population), which (of course) produces more lust. We recall how for many centuries of Christian history, the popular assumption seemed to be if something made you happy, God was against it, so the best way to make God happy was by keeping yourself less so. A few people may still feel this way, but thanks to modern marketing and the religious-industrial complex, most of us have bowed to the orthodoxy that God is as obsessed with us and our constant personal happiness as we are.
With varying degrees of cynicism, we questioners find ourselves kicking the tires of Lent still today. Why is God so anti-chocolate, for example? Is food only for nourishment and corporate profit, and not for enjoyment? (Similarly, is sex only for procreation and creating campaign issues?) Why aren't more denominations recommending a carbon fast for Lent? Is God OK with us consuming a meat-based diet for 325 days a year, even though it's wreaking havoc on the environment, as long as we give up pizza or desserts for 40? Is it more important to God that we engage in token disciplines for religious reasons than to, say, be scrupulous about fair trade and fair food for reasons of social justice? Which is worse, during Lent or otherwise: to indulge in a slice of devil's food cake slathered in icing, or to buy a tomato that was harvested by workers that some grocery chains still won't assure a fair wage?
Of course, we questioners can even manage to get cynical about our own cynicism, because often, we who raise questions like these go ahead and have both the slice of cake and the tomato, and then we write about it on computers manufactured with conflict minerals!
Yesterday at church, our pastor offered some advice at the end of the service that, I thought, hit the nail on the head. "Don't focus on giving up something for the sake of giving something up," he said. "Instead, try to add something good to your life, and only give up what's necessary to add that something good." Then he suggested reading through all four gospels during Lent—which would involve giving up, say, a few sitcoms, or some internet surfing time, or some morning news programs (which are, have you noticed, unbelievably repetitive anyway?).
That advice silenced my inner cynic. And it helped me seize on two things I want to add to my life during Lent. Yes, I want to reread the four gospels, from beginning to end, as our pastor suggested. Not for a lecture or a book, but simply for my own inner nourishment and challenge.
And I want to resume journaling.
Journaling was one of the most important spiritual practices in my life until the last decade. When I became a published author, writing felt less like a retreat and more like work, and so gradually, journaling stopped helping me the way it had before. That's OK: my "soul friends" and I often remind each other that we need a wide repertoire of spiritual practices so we can employ the ones we need most at various seasons in our lives.
Yesterday I realized that at this season in my life, I feel the need to sit down in front of an old-fashioned pen and some old-fashioned paper (which seem like a quill and parchment in comparison to the keyboards to which we're mostly tethered these days). I need to slow down my thoughts to the speed of my hand and bring some issues new and old into the contemplative light of God's presence.
Come to think of it, perhaps my angst about other people giving up chocolate without asking why is simply an expression of some of my own stuff that needs some attention during Lent. Imagine that.
I'm sure I'll have to subtract some things during Lent in order to make time and space for these things I want to add. But it's the adding, not the subtracting, that's the point.
Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. A former college English teacher and pastor, he is an ecumenical global networker among innovative Christian leaders. Among McLaren's more prominent writings are A New Kind of Christian (2001), A Generous Orthodoxy (2006), Everything Must Change (2009), and A New Kind of Christianity (2010). His lastest book, Naked Spirituality, offers "simple, doable, and durable" practices to help people deepen their life with God.