Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Signs of Penitence, Space for God: Spiritual Disciplines for Lent

Most people know at least vaguely what "Lent" means -- growing up in central Texas, it usually meant Catholic friends giving up Coke for a while, some serious, some with eyes rolling. I don't mean that negatively, only that when you're in middle school, that's how it's communicated.

For fellow members of "low church" traditions (next post: Why I Hate The Term "Low Church" As Applied To Ecclesiocentric Fellowships), and especially semi-sectarians like churches of Christ, "Lent" wasn't just foreign or Catholic -- it was arbitrary, imposed, legalistic, and/or (horror of horrors!) unbiblical. Maybe it wasn't harmful ... but why participate?

Fortunately, I was given a proper introduction to Lent, and in general to the Lenten season, in my time at ACU. As a campus ministry intern, we taught an entire semester's curriculum on spiritual disciplines, and through that experience and through the work of Richard Foster (among others), I came to fall in love with the practices of spiritual formation. Instead of deathly legalism, rote going-through-the-motions, or life-sapping meaninglessness, I discovered deep and rich and abounding "streams of living water." Rather than "doing" things that either "prove" to God our piety or "make" us better Christians, spiritual disciplines create the space in which we invite God to come, to be, and to work.

Our lives are filled with crap. Auditory crap, visual crap, sensory crap, relational crap, religious crap, entertainment crap, family crap, career crap, mundane crap. Crap, crap, crap. And nearly every second is bursting with endless new crap: a new commercial to laugh at, a new website to check out, a new book to add to the stack, a new album to buy, a new family to host, a new show to watch, a new ministry to lead, a new project to work, a new restaurant to try. Money and time and sound and sight and touch and mind and heart and spirit are all demanded, drained, drowned, and discarded -- until the next new thing, ready for a spin. In such crap-filled lives, there is no room for God. God is on the sidelines; God will wait.

In response, spiritual disciplines literally carve out the crap so that God might step in. Spiritual disciplines recognize that what we need most is not new anything, but the presence of God -- and God's presence demands all of us. So instead of speeding headlong, unstopping, through the highway of gluttony, the spiritual discipline of fasting pulls us over and tells us to wait. In fasting we learn that food is not what sustains us: God is our food. God sustains us. Not for a moment do we live without the gracious provision of God. And so, instead of eating, we pray. Not only do we pray, we remember those around the world and down the street who are hungry, too. We remember that Jesus was hungry, and that his hunger is the world's hunger. We remember to hunger and thirst first and foremost for righteousness, for justice, for peace -- not for steak, or sugar, or salad. We remember that the bridegroom has left and we fast in eager anticipation of his return. We remember that the money in our pockets unspent on food can pay for another's meal. We remember, in other words, whose we are, and whom his mind is on, and how it is we live and move and have our being.

Fasting is only one discipline, but in combination with prayer, it is the seminal discipline, because it is radically forsaking exactly what the world says we need to live, and re-centering on the only true life-giving source and practice of nourishment. There are other kinds of disciplines, to be sure -- as Dallas Willard reminds us, they consist of both "negative" abstinence and "positive" engagement -- but fasting is a kind of exemplar upon which so much else in spiritual formation is built.

So a few years ago I tried "giving up" the internet for Lent. I say "giving up" because, though rightly seeking to address the absurd amount of time I spent online, I allowed for so many exceptions and loopholes that to say I "gave it up" is a stretch. However, despite my lawyerly dodging of real sacrifice, it actually worked! I found myself both with more time and missing knowing every-little-thing that was going on in the world ("the world" meaning "movie news"). To miss knowing Steven Spielberg's rumored next movie is, without question, a triumph of Lent because the simple fact is, I don't need to know that, and if I have fallen into the habit of thinking I need to know that, I need to be reminded of the truth. And so I was.

I'd like to share what I plan to do for this year's Lent, beginning today on Ash Wednesday, because what I found most valuable in my journey of getting to know spiritual disciplines was hearing examples and stories. I hope, therefore, that you are blessed by my plan, blessed by this season of penitence (necessarily marked, as we saw in yesterday's quotation from Rowan Williams, not by interiority but by signs), and blessed by the spiritual disciplines which open you up to the world-creating and life-altering power and presence and love of God.

Basically, I plan to give up one form of filler/addiction/crap every weekday leading up to Easter. Disciplines lose any coherence when applied dogmatically, so when I lay out my regiment, it is merely a loose outline -- there will of course be adjustments here and there. But, in general, this is the plan:

Monday. To fast from all food but water; to spend more time in prayer, especially when hungry; to pray specifically for those who are hungry; and to find creative ways to give away the money I would have spent on food.

Tuesday. To fast from all visual media, namely television and movies; to pray whenever I think or talk about them; to pray for freedom from any feeling that I "need" visual media in my life; and to fill any time usually spent watching something with healthy activities with people or with God.

Wednesday. To fast from all auditory media, namely podcasts and music; to pray when working at the library and shelving books alone and in silence; to pray whenever driving in the car and in silence; to pray for freedom from the need to fill silence with noise.

Thursday. To fast from all activity on the internet (excluding email or homework); to pray whenever the desire arises to get online; to pray for freedom from the need to always be connected and informed (whether of things important or unimportant); to creatively fill time usually spent online reading healthy, handheld books or being with people.

Friday. To fast from all book reading, assigned or voluntary; to pray whenever the desire arises to read from endless stacks of books; to pray for freedom from the need to always be checking off chapters and books in an endless quest for knowledge; to read the Bible with a view to cultivating the character of Christ and a love for Scripture (more than any other derivative work).

God's peace be upon us in this time of penitence, discipline, and prayer. As Mike Cope says, today we remember that one day we will die. Praise God for deliverance from the fear of death.

No comments:

Post a Comment