by Shawn Bailey
I am still an infant of Lenten practice and understanding. I have glimpses of how impactful it can be. I have certain flashes of insight. I have fledgling yearnings for more. I am not where I want to be, but I am not remorseful about it; I am expectant. I no longer feel guilty for not achieving a certain level of experience; I let the longing for it, be enough. The beauty of Lent is that it always comes around again. It is a rhythm that becomes a song, and the more you sing it, the richer the tune. It is both an old song and a new song. The melody gets stuck. Ingrained. More and more familiar until it is more part of you than you realize. This is what matters most.
This is transformation. This is conversion.
For the first few years, I walked through the season with very little connection to anything that felt substantive. Piano lessons are like that. You just play the notes and runs over and over. There is no sense to it for some time, and it is not that much fun. Then, it all comes together and you cannot tear yourself away from the beauty of it. At least, that is how it was for me, a Christian who started learning about Lent later in life. Before that, Easter morning was my song, and it was enough; it was all I wanted. And then, it wasn’t.
With each passing year, I am more drawn in, more desirous of entering Lent as a “set-up” for the coming seasons in the church calendar. As I examine my soul, and seek to set aside all that hinders me, I deepen down. I go for the dross and ask for wisdom in the clean-up. It is not always an easy process, but it is easy to look forward to being cleansed, refreshed, and renewed. I want to walk into my Allelujahs authentically on Easter morning, the true beginning of the New Year for believers.
Preparation is key. It cannot be skipped and cannot be hurried. Most importantly, you cannot enter Lent until you establish the need for a beginning, no matter how shaky. Most agree that such a beginning involves the decision of what to give up so as to create enough interior space for change. In so doing, I would like to offer the following for your consideration:
What a person gives up is not the same for everyone, and there is no top epitome of sacrifice.
The Lenten practice of giving something up for a time is not a contest, or a quest for spiritual superiority. There is no ranking of importance. Early on, I thought I needed to seek out the most spiritual person I knew and try to guess—then match—their sacrificial choice. There is no significance in choosing what others have chosen. It may not be the thing you need, and therefore, is not as meaningful to your ongoing conversion as it could be.
What you give up may not be a physical thing…or a device.
The truth is, we could all benefit with time away from social media, and many may be specifically asked to lay it aside for Lent, or to lay it aside during certain hours. On the other hand, it is good to consider other or additional ways of giving up. It might not be something obvious. For instance, what would it look like to give up a bitterness felt towards a certain person? What would happen if you set aside self-absorption or self-pity? Or, would you willingly show a kindness to someone you actually do not like at all? Sure, some of these things may come up while on the Lenten journey, but why not commit to something like this at the outset through sheer will and determination and see where it leads, or how it deepens throughout the season?
If you still don’t know what to give up, don’t give up.
Really, there is no rush. We try and scramble to come up with just the right thing, and think we need to know what it is on Day 1. If you still don’t know, please relax. It is more important to be seeking than to be organized. Keep asking. God is faithful. He will show you. This is a collective journey with the universal church, sure, but it is profoundly individual, as well.
Before you give up the wrong or lesser thing (for you), spend some time listening.
The point of Lent is for spiritual growth. Choosing what to give up or what to take in is not arbitrary. It is to be Spirit led. Honestly, it seems impossible to know what God is saying to you unless there is some form of contemplation taking place--some time taken for complete quietude with the intent and desire to hear from God. When we are soulfully in a posture of prayer and have an affinity for paying attention, we will hear His still, small voice.
Above all, know that the focus of Lent is not totally about what you are giving up, but ultimately about what you will be gaining as you pursue Christ. Lent is about making space for the new thing. The truest thing.
Keep listening. Keeping stepping in to the rhythm of Lent and your heart will find the song most worth singing.