A matter of discipline?

Lent 1 – 2012

Mark 1:9-15

Marian Free

In the name of God who never says: “You owe me[1].” Amen.

Some of you will know that I am a member of the Diocesan Council, the Standing Committee that administers the Diocese between Synod meetings. For a long time, there has been a tradition of serving a meal at the close of the meeting – possibly because in the past the meeting could drag on till nearly mid-night and the members needed to be fed. We met last Thursday night. During the meal I noticed something very striking. Wine was available as it is every month, but on Thursday night, in contrast to other similar occasions, the majority of people were drinking fruit juice or mineral water.

It was a quite unself-conscious action. Lent had not been mentioned during the meeting and no one announced that they weren’t drinking because it was Lent.  Here we were, a group of Christians unconsciously engaging in the same spiritual discipline – giving something up for the period of Lent. I found the experience all the more powerful because it wasn’t spoken and I felt a sense of solidarity – people of a common faith observing a common practice, a practice that has in many places fallen into disuse and that is barely noticed by the secular world.

I found myself wondering what it would be like if every member of every church gave up something – a treat, a luxury – for the forty days of Lent. Would the world wonder what crazy thing we were up to? Would our friends and neighbours admire our discipline and ask us questions about our faith? Would the newspapers and magazines once again print recipes for Lent? Would our practice be as much a reason for curiosity as the Muslim practice of Ramadan?

Has the world changed or have we changed? Did the practice of Lent lose its meaning or have the Christians of the world stopped practicing?

So what is Lent and why would we bother giving up something for forty days?

It’s easier to begin with what Lent is not. The first thing to notice is that “giving up” is not some sort of punishment or form of self-abasement. It is not the intention that Lent should be forty days of misery. (Giving up smoking is not a good idea if it will make your life and the lives of those around you miserable for the whole of Lent. In the end you will go back to smoking and all that you will have achieved will be to have made yourself and everyone else unhappy.) Nor should Lent be about striving for some sort of perfection – setting ourselves a task that we are bound to fail. (There is no point in deciding to pray for ten minutes every day if we are not used to praying daily – we will only get disheartened and give up.) One Lent is not going to make us perfect prayers, but it may just get us started. Remember that discipline comes from the same root as disciples – learners.

Lent is not about will power. Of course if we have decided, for example, to give up chocolate, it may take some strength of will to carry through our intention, but if we make the giving up a battle of wills, the practice becomes less about God and more about ourselves.  Lent is not about doing things – joining groups, creating a programme of reading, going to church. All of these things are good so long as we are not so busy filling our time up that we lock God out instead of letting God in.

So what is Lent all about? The season of Lent is about paying attention, it is about self awareness, about discovering what is really necessary for a life that is content and it is about learning to rely not on ourselves, but on God.

After his baptism, Jesus felt impelled to go into the wilderness. There in the silence and the barrenness he was able to focus entirely on his relationship with God. Without distraction he could pay attention to the presence of God and to what God might be saying to and asking of him. In a place without supermarkets, fields or kitchens, he could determine what he really needed to survive and what he could do without. In the emptiness he was able to recognise the temptation to prove himself. Finally, having no occupation, no friends, no other means of support, Jesus learned to rely entirely on God.

Few of us will feel driven to take ourselves off to the desert for forty days of self imposed isolation and starvation but that doesn’t mean that we can’t take this opportunity to find ways that will help us to pay attention, be more self-aware, learn what we really need to have to be happy and to develop a reliance on God.

A traditional Lenten discipline is that of fasting or of giving up some luxury in our lives. “Abstinence helps us to learn whether what we consume is consuming us, or whether what we possess possesses us.”[2] Choosing to go without something is a way of learning what we can do without or of learning that a simpler, less extravagant life-style is not only possible but that it helps us to focus our attention on what is really important. (We don’t need to have wine or chocolate to be content, but most of us do need family and friend.)

In the silence of the desert, Jesus was able to pay attention to God. We might do this through prayer or meditation, by joining a study group or by reading a book on spirituality. In today’s busy world, just stopping for a moment, turning off the phone, the computer, the TV will create a space which will provide some time to become more aware of the presence of God.

Times of silence and/or abstinence can have the effect of bringing us face-to-face with ourselves. In the quiet and discomfort of our figurative desert, we may be confronted with some ugly truths.  The silence and emptiness may reveal restlessness and dissatisfaction, or expose anger, resentment, disappointment or bitterness. If we trust God’s love and have the courage to face our shadows, we can begin to let them go and emerge stronger and better for the experience.

Without the props that we use to give our lives meaning, we are forced to rely on God and not on ourselves. Then we discover that in the power of God we can ignore distractions identify what is truly important and resist the temptation to go it alone.

Finally, when Lent is over, we discover that paradoxically it is not over. What we have learned changes us and the disciplines that we have practiced may be practices that we continue to use, so that by Lent next year we are looking for another challenge, another way to deepen our relationship with, and dependence on, God. By next year we will be ready to face other aspects of our lives that could be changed and transformed.

If the practice of Lent is new to you, or if you have found the practice dry and unfulfilling, try something this year that is achievable, something that fits with your life and your lifestyle. A simple practice is to make the sign of the cross before you get out of bed each day – it’s easy, it takes very little time and it is a reminder of the faith that you profess. Alternately you could begin or end the day with a short prayer, or choose to go without something that is a luxury. You may not be ready to try meditation, but perhaps you could try to turn off phones, television and computers for a period of time each day. Instead of feeling bad on those days when you don’t achieve your goal, be grateful for the times when you do. Instead of giving up when you fail, remind yourself that you are engaged in a learning process and try again the next day.

The fruit of spiritual discipline is a life that is deeply fulfilling, immensely satisfying and overflowing with joy and peace no matter what the external circumstances. Lent is not a burden but a gift, not a chore but a choice. During this Lent, may you find a way to pay attention to God, to discover what is really important in your life, to try to be open to the flaws that you uncover so that you may confront and overcome them and may you learn to let go and let God.


[1] This idea comes from a wonderful poem by a fourteenth century Persian poet, Hafiz called: “The sun never says”

The sun never says,

the sun never says to the earth:

“You owe me.”

See what a love like this does –

it lights the whole world.

[2] W.R. Inge quoted by Gary Rothenberger and Ryan Marsh, belovedschurch.org/2011/03/04/lenten-practices-spiritualdisciplines/

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