Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Lent and Stuff

It's that season again. What does the word “Lent” bring into your mind? Giving up something? More church rules?  Something else to ignore in favor of real life? Or is it about looking at the spiritual dimension of life?

I haven’t heard much about Lent lately from my institutional church, the Episcopal Church. Our church is well known for not making doctrinal pronouncements. However, I think it continues to be interested in God and spiritual growth. It has sacraments, liturgical seasons, and the Book of Common Prayer. So it really isn’t a spiritual desert.

Is Lent just a time to decide what to give up? Do people still actually do this, or is it a relic of the 1950s? Is Lent about anything any more?

Is it just about rules? A list of rules is helpful for some people, especially Roman Catholics, who have plenty of rules. Other people might establish their own rules. Still others may treat Lent like new year’s resolutions, promises of better habits to observe for about a week and then forget. We are deep or shallow, consistent or not.

But why?  We live in a society where stuff is all around us. Our homes are full of stuff. The media advertises stuff.  President George W. Bush famously said after the 9-11 attacks that it’s ok to go out and shop again, as if that is what makes America strong. Stuff is baggage.

Enter Lent, a season of promise.  Lent, to me, is about unloading the baggage in order to bring the vision of God back into focus. In a world of stuff, people need to remember that life in Christ is not about stuff. It is about Christ, in whom we live and move and have our being. We pray, “for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory (traditional version)”, and then we look into our garages, which are so full that we can’t get our cars into them. Lent gives the opportunity to rearrange our stuff so that God reappears in our homes and hearts.

Giving up something is a start, something important to that person.  It represents the acknowledgement that Americans have too much stuff. And yet, people with hardly any stuff still can do it. It’s the idea that passing up something strengthens the inner part of the person, lessens the gluttony of the soul, and leads the person to a greater share in the life of God. Yes, it really can happen. Yes, it isn’t always easy.

Lent has a purpose. It is about living the Christian life. It’s not about the church telling us what to do, as much as it is about looking at self denial as a way to get back on track with God. Jesus told the rich man to get rid of all he had and follow Him, and the man went away in sadness because he had a lot of stuff.

Every year I give up the same thing. Like Benjamin Franklin, who had a cycle of thirteen virtues to work on, at the end of the cycle it was time to start over. Franklin needed to start over with humility every time because he lost sight of it while working on the others. Judging from reading about his life, I’m not sure he ever mastered it. I give up complaining annually because it creeps back when I’m doing something else. Complaining is some of the stuff that clutters the garage of my soul.

That’s life. Lent formalizes it.

I also gave up potato chips.

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