Do you have a Lenten practice?

Margaret Marcuson

March 14, 2019

I did not grow up observing Lent. In our evangelical circles, giving up something for Lent was what Catholics did. We didn’t even observe Holy Week, jumping happily from Palm Sunday to Easter.

When I joined an American Baptist church in my twenties, I moved into a world where liturgy was not a bad word. I loved the little liturgical touches—the Advent candles, the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services—and the invitation to observe Lent in preparation for Easter. For me “giving something up” for Lent was an addition, not a sacrifice. I happily gave up ice cream, chocolate. I even gave up coffee one memorable year, when two bouts of flu right before Lent broke my real caffeine addiction and offered the chance to take on a sacrifice that seemed impossible before.

Every year I reflect prayerfully on what my practice should be. As my Lenten practice has matured, I now always know when I’ve hit it because my first thought is, “I don’t want to do that!” I’ve learned to lean into that feeling and take it on. Whether I’m giving something up or adding it on, I know this will be a real sacrifice.

Here are some of the practices that have been the most meaningful to me:

  1. Giving up genre fiction. This was one of the biggest sacrifices of my journey with Lenten practices. Really. Genre fiction (romance, mystery and the occasional fantasy novel) is my biggest form of entertainment. I read it every single day. I’m in a book group which reads classic fiction, so I didn’t give up fiction entirely. But through that Lent I mostly read non-fiction, including some wonderful books, like Kathleen Norris’ Acedia and Me: Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life—perfect reading for Lent.
  2. Giving away money every day. This one I really didn’t want to do, but it fit perfectly with my own efforts toward greater spiritual freedom in relation to money. That year, on Ash Wednesday about 6:00 p.m. I said to my husband, “I haven’t given any money away today. I’m going to have to find something to do.” Moments later, the doorbell rang. On our door step was a woman who instantly said, “My daughter and I have just become homeless. Would you have any work I could do for pay?” My son had just given me a hundred-dollar bill to pay back some money he owed us. I knew what I should do, and I simply gave her that bill. But what she gave me was much more valuable—the opportunity to begin my practice with a real commitment. Through the days of Lent, I gave extra money to the Street Roots homeless publication vendors, to local nonprofits, to my kids. Sometimes it was easy and fun, and sometimes it was a challenge. At one point, I thought, “Is Lent ever going to be over?” However, the practice helped me toward greater awareness of those in need around me and greater generosity.
  3. Online news. I took on this practice last year. I’ve written about it before for The Christian Citizen. It felt hard to take on, but it turned out to be the easiest Lenten sacrifice I’ve ever made. I felt happier instantly. I haven’t gone back. I do read the news, but in a contained, bounded format like a newspaper or newsmagazine. Online news and 24-hour television news coverage have no boundaries, so we need to create boundaries for ourselves. That’s a spiritual practice.

Here’s what I’m doing this year: I’m going back to 20 minutes of meditation daily. My husband is looking for a job, and the more spiritually grounded I can remain, the better. Meditating is not as sexy as giving away money, but it’s a practice I need. I’ve done it before, and I’ve been meditating for about 5 minutes a day so I’m already in the habit. Most important: I feel the resistance—(“I don’t want to do that!”)—that is the sign I’m on the right track spiritually.

I’m grateful for the season of Lent, and these practices that have helped me be more aware, more thoughtful, and more free. Have you taken on a Lenten practice this year? Whether you take something on or give something up, it’s not too late to begin.

The Rev. Margaret Marcuson helps ministers do their work without wearing out or burning out, through ministry coaching, presentations and online resources.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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