Lent more about spiritual growth, less about giving something up, clergy says
The question, inevitably, is this: What did you give up?
In the days leading up to Lent, as the cross of ashes is made on the forehead, in the 40 days that follow, the question trails the faithful.
Sometimes it’s easy to guess. Those who gave up coffee or Diet Coke are scarily grouchy those first days of Lent. Those who gave up sweets look with longing at the shared office doughnuts.
The connotations of Lent are, in popular imagination, ones of deprivation and denial. But in the business and bustle of a 2013 life, as spiritual practice evolves to meet the changes, religious leaders are increasingly emphasizing “give” rather than “give up” during Lent.
“Lent is a journey of transformation,” said Sister Karen Bland, executive director of Grand Valley Catholic Outreach. “It’s not a matter of piling on, but just choosing something that you know you need to work on for your own spiritual growth, then using the grace you get to put it into effect.
“So, perhaps what I need to focus on is controlling my thoughts if they’re critical of others, or perhaps I use a harsh word when speaking to others, so perhaps I need to change how I speak. Rather than just giving up something, maybe it’s making a conscious effort to be more healthy in my food choices. Maybe it can be helping to preserve the environment.”
The Rev. Richmond Stoakes of Grand Valley United Methodist Church in Parachute said that while his Lenten practice may look like “give up” — he encourages congregation members to try fasting during Lent — it’s with a spirit learning more about Jesus Christ.
He said it’s sometimes not enough for modern churchgoers to hear that they should do something simply because Jesus did it, because that implies the action exists in isolation. He said that, according to biblical accounts, Jesus fasted in the wilderness as a time to pray and overcome temptation.
“For me, I do use the time when I’m fasting for more Bible study, more devotional study, more meditation, more prayer,” Stoakes said. “You take that time instead of eating and use it to focus on the Bible and what’s going on in your life, and I find that aspect cleansing as well as the fasting. There’s a deepening of our relationship with Christ, and as Christians we’re supposed to be doing that all the time.”
For many modern believers, then, Lent becomes a time to focus less on the sacrifice of deprivation and more on improvement. Hunter Darrouzet, a Colorado Mesa University Catholic campus minister, said his Lenten practice, rather than focusing on giving something up, is about doing something extra.
This year, Darrouzet said, he’s trying on each of the 40 days of Lent to have at least one meaningful conversation per day “instead of just passing somebody by, only having small talk,” he said.
“Lent is important,” Darrouzet said. “It’s 40 days in which we can really take the time to do those things we haven’t taken the time for, reacquainting ourself with God, looking at our lives and seeing where we may have fallen short. During Lent, we look to God and Christ again to help us recommit ourselves to living a quality Christian life.”
Rather than being a relic of religious tradition, he said, Lent can be a dynamic part of modern practice because it encourages people to slow down from the bustle and focus on spirituality in a way that can be easily overlooked in day-to-day living.
The Rev. Edmundo Valera of St. Joseph Catholic Church said that in discussing Lent with the teenage members of the church’s confirmation class, he encouraged them to think outside the box “because it’s not just something you give up, it’s also what can you do in the way of sacrifice. So, you’re giving up chocolate, you’re giving up less time with your cell- phone or computer, but think also about what can you do? We have the charitable arm for the churches in the valley, Grand Valley Catholic Outreach. Can you donate your time there to help feed the hungry? We have a day center where all the homeless can have a place to take a shower and do laundry. Maybe donate some time there.”
In fact, emphasized the Rev. Ron Powers of Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church, the 40 days of Lent can be a time to create lifetime habits.
“What I encourage is, rather than give something up for Lent like Brussels sprouts, like sweets or coffee, I’ve always encouraged people to adopt a new habit,” Powers said, “like volunteer more or give more to charities or change your life somehow for the better. And that hopefully will continue once Lent’s over. Rather than make this a 40-day focus, make it a lifetime focus.”
Because Lent is so entrenched in a lot of traditional Christian practice, Lenten sacrifices can become a little rote, Valera said: You might give up broccoli, but if you hate it anyway, where’s the sacrifice? Or, you might endure 40 days without Diet Coke, but then fall on it like a wolf after Easter.
The sacrifice, Valera said, is merely the outward manifestation of what, hopefully, becomes deeper spiritual growth.
“The idea of that is come Easter, it doesn’t end there,” he said. “The idea is that it would become part of who you are for the rest of the year, that you’re not just praying, fasting and being charitable for 40 days, but that it will become part of your routine for the rest of the year.”