Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Planning for Our Lenten Disciplines

In two weeks, we will be at the day before Ash Wednesday, the day before Lent begins.  Many of us will take up a Lenten discipline, and we may need some time to plan.  In honor of that, I'm reprinting below the essay that I wrote for the Living Lutheran website last year.  Longtime readers of this blog will remember that I have also done multi-blog post series about the same theme.

Launch Into Lent

Have you decided what you will give up for Lent yet? In the past, a Lenten discipline meant giving something up, often something that we shouldn’t have been doing anyway. Those Lenten disciplines are still valid, especially if you tie the giving up to something spiritual (for example, you’ll give up sugar and contribute the money you would have spend on sweets to Lutheran World Relief). But what if instead of giving something up, we added something to enrich our spiritual lives? For those of you who are baffled, below are some suggestions to help you launch into Lent.

Increase Your Reading:

You might wail, “But what should I read?” Why not start with the Bible? Read a Gospel from beginning to end. Dip into some of the other New Testament books. Read a Psalm a day.

Lent is also a good time to add some devotional reading to your day. You’ve got a lot of possibilities. Choose a theological author, and chances are good that someone has taken part of their work and transformed it into a devotional resource. Augsburg Fortress has a wonderful 40 Day Journey With ___ series (Julian of Norwich, Madeleine L’Engle, and Kathleen Norris, among many others) which combines the writing of the author, some Scripture reading, some questions to ponder, and some writing prompts.

You might decide you want to continue this discipline beyond Lent. Luckily the Augsburg Fortress series has many books. For a more traditional series with reading alone, look for the A Year with ___ Series (Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and C.S. Lewis, among many others).

Boost Your Prayer Life:

If you’re not praying on a regular basis, now’s a good time to start. Begin your day with prayer, or end it with prayer or both. If you’re not sure what to say, start with thank you. Or, pray the Lord’s Prayer. If you want a bit more discipline, try praying for people who annoy you. Pray for countries that seem opposed to ours. Pray for peace. Ask God for what you need. Ask God to be with leaders. Ask God to be with those who need help: pray for the sick, pray for the newly wedded, pray for that homeless person you always see wandering around, pray for your boss, pray for your family, pray for the local schools.

Experiment with a Creative Practice:

You may not think of yourself as creative, but you likely were creative once. Try one or more of the following to reconnect with your artistic self:

--Buy a big box of crayons (or paints or pastels or any medium that makes you excited). Create a picture that addresses your spiritual life.

--Go to the store and buy 3 bouquets of flowers. Rearrange them into two bouquets and put them where you'll see them and be reminded of God's flowering love for you. Take this process one step further: plant a flower pot or a garden.

--The image of God as a potter recurs in the Bible. Buy some clay and play with it. If you are the clay, how is God shaping you? Make that shape.

--Learn to bake bread. Bread dough is amazingly forgiving, and will endure countless experiments.

--Start a spiritual journal. Each day, write down 5 things you’re grateful for. Or write down people you need to remember to pray for. Or write a short meditation on a Bible verse or a song. Make a list of where you see God at work in the world. Write out your prayers.

Step Up Your Charitable Efforts:

Hopefully, you’re already making some attempt to be part of God’s vision for social justice, either by contributing time, money, or materials. You might consider a few of the following suggestions:

--Make an extra contribution to your favorite charity. Maybe you could make one extra contribution per week. It doesn’t have to be huge. But it could be.

--Clean out your closets. Give away anything you haven’t worn in the past year. Clean out your kitchen cupboards.

--When you go to the grocery store, buy some extra food for your favorite charity.

--See if you can’t increase your tithe by 5 or 10 percent above what you’re doing now.

--Give some extra time during Lent. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or a food pantry. Go to a nursing home and sing some old Gospel songs. Think about the people you know who have lives that are falling apart; go buy cards and put them in the mail.

Try a Spiritual Practice that You’ve Never Tried Before:

Don’t feel compelled to go too far outside of your comfort zone. But even within your comfort zone, you’ll probably notice many practices that you might have wanted to try or that you once tried and let fall away:

--Pray the Rosary (or any set of beads): If you’re not sure of how to do this, just offer up a different prayer as you touch each bead. Perhaps for each bead, you’d like to remember a specific person. Perhaps for each bead you’d like to offer up thanks for one thing for which you’re grateful. If you’re not good at creating prayers, simply pray the Lord’s prayer. If you want to really return to your Catholic roots, go here.

--Find a labyrinth and walk it. Many churches and retreat centers have installed labyrinths. To find one near you, go here. What do you do once you’re there? Simply walk. Follow the path in and follow it back out again—you can’t go wrong. Some people pray or recite a Bible verse as they walk.

--Go to a weekly concert. Many churches offer a weekly concert during Lent, often at lunchtime. Call some of the churches around your workplace to see if they’re offering anything. Leave the office, sit in a worship site, and enjoy some different music.

--Many churches offer an extra service during the week or Bible study. Resolve to add one opportunity to your weekly schedule.

I haven't decided on my Lenten discipline, and there are plenty of other possibilities out there.  Perhaps this will be the year that I decide not to take on any additional disciplines; the thought of taking on more exhausts me.  Perhaps I will find my Lenten discipline in paring down my commitments.  Many of the above suggestions are easy for me.  Saying "no" is much more difficult.

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