Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Idea of Lenten Disciplines

The idea of discipline has nasty associations in our culture: think of Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish, to cite one famous cultural study. To discipline a child often means a spanking or a time out. Discipline sounds so harsh, so much like breaking of our wills--which it is, but in a positive way, ideally. Christians traditionally have approached Lent as a time to impose some order and discipline on the spiral of chaos that many of our lives have become.

In the past, a Lenten discipline meant giving something up, often something that we shouldn’t have been doing anyway. Those disciplines are still valid. Yet when I have conversations with people who are giving up something for Lent, they often go something like this:

"I'm giving up chocolate for Lent!"

Me: "Great. Why?"

"Because I've always given up chocolate for Lent."

Me: "Really? Why?"

"It's what we're supposed to do, right?"

Me: "How do you expect this giving up of chocolate to enrich you spiritually?"

If the conversation has actually lasted until this point, it usually dissolves into mutual bafflement.

Don't get me wrong: it's great to give up something for Lent, if you want to. But it would be even better if you used that giving up as a pathway or a springboard to spiritual growth.

For example, you could give up chocolate, and every time you crave chocolate, you could think of all the people in the world who could be kept alive with those extra calories. You could pray for those people who need the extra calories that you usually mindlessly consume. You could research how chocolate is made, and that research will probably lead you to the decision to buy Fair Trade chocolate (Lutheran World Relief offers excellent choices here). You could give the money that you would have spent on chocolate to an organization that works to wipe out hunger.

In recent years, many people have argued that instead of giving something up, we should add something (like an extra devotional time, for example). For those of you who are baffled, be sure to tune in on Thursday, and each day leading up to Ash Wednesday, for my Launch Into Lent series.

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