The Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
I remember when I was a kid hearing a comedian joke about some Christian practices that did not make sense to him. He talked about Lent and said, "Let's see. My Lord and Savior Jesus Christ gave up his life for me on the cross . . . I think I'll give up Cheetos for a month!" I thought that was pretty funny, and still do. Probably because I'm just as guilty as anyone else of choosing rather superficial ways of observing Lent from time to time. Honestly, there have been some years when I could not make up my mind about what I wanted to give up. Remembering that comedian's joke, rather than giving up something superficial, I've chosen some years instead to give up nothing.
To me, choosing to give up something superficial, something easy to set aside, really is a kind of "nothing" choice anyway. Lent is a season about penitence, spiritual growth, and preparation for the joy of Easter, and for me that deserves some thoughtful attention. One could certainly argue that, in those years when one can't decide, at least giving up Cheetos is better than nothing. That may be true. For me, in some of those years I've been unable to decide on anything, or unable to motivate myself, simply admitting to it felt more authentic to me than making a superficial choice.
Maybe that's where you are right now. That's okay! You have my permission to give up nothing this year if you're just not able to come up with anything that feels right.
If that's the case, however, allow me to make another suggestion. Since you're giving up nothing, maybe this is the year to add something in.
Maybe this is the year to add something rather than giving up something.
In the Ash Wednesday service our worship contains an invitation to the observance of a "holy Lent." What holy really means is "set apart." That's what I meant earlier by Lent being a season of intentionality. Whether we give up something, or we add something in, we're doing it as a way of observing a time that is "set apart" from other times of the year. That invitation says,
"I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the
observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and
meditating on God’s holy Word" (Book of Common Prayer, p. 265).
That invitation to self-denial--giving something up--is certainly there, but with all these other options it's strange that we've chosen to put all the attention on denial. There is a lot to consider here as options for adding something in.
Self-examination and repentance
Did you know that confession is part of the Episcopal tradition? Yep! I try to go to confession twice a year during Advent and Lent. I also hear confessions, though not very often because many people either 1) don't know that we do that in The Episcopal Church, or 2) are put off by the idea for any number of reasons. Confession, known in the Book of Common Prayer as the "Reconciliation of a Penitent," is not obligatory in our tradition as it is in the Roman Catholic Church. When it comes to confession we say, "All may, none must, some should." Could this be something to add in this year? Have you ever considered preparing for confession by serious self-examination and repentance during the season? Mtr. Liz and I can help you with that!
Do you have a regular prayer practice? Simply saying prayers before bed, or at meals is a great place to begin. Maybe, though, you could do something more intentional. It does not have to be lengthy, and there's no right or wrong time or place for your practice. Start simple with something like the Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families in the Prayer Book. If you'd like to explore the possibilities a little more deeply, and if you feel like reading a book this Lent, try Learning to Pray by James Martin. If you're looking for a way to deepen your spiritual life, you can't go wrong with a regular practice of prayer. And, if you need help figuring out what that looks like, Mtr. Liz and I can help you with that!
Technically, this is self-denial, but what if you thought of it more as a practice to add in? It could be fasting from food, but maybe this time you don't choose to fast from something specific like Cheetos. Wednesdays and Fridays are traditionally days of special devotion and fasting year-round. What if you chose to fast until dinner on one or both of those days? Or even just to skip lunch? This kind of fast does not include water. Hydrate so you don't die-drate! I've even known some people who might have a little juice during the day. It's best to check with your doctor to make sure fasting is a good practice for you. No spiritual practice is good if it's harmful! You might even choose to fast from something that's not food, like social media or the Internet (blog posts by your clergy are still okay in Lent, FYI). In any case, maybe changing your mindset from "giving something up" instead to adding in an intentional practice of fasting might work well. Want some more guidance? Guess what. Mtr. Liz and I can help you with that!
Reading and meditating on God's holy Word
Add in reading the Bible! Now, I don't mean reading the whole Bible like a novel in the next 40 days. That's unrealistic. What if you picked one book? Something accessible like one of the gospels, or Genesis, or Paul's letter to the Romans--just not Revelation or Leviticus. Choose a goal that's ARMed: Achievable, Realistic, and Measurable. Read one book. Or all four gospels. Or all of the Psalms. Or Proverbs. You could also use this 2018 Lent and Easter study of Luke and Acts from "The Good Book Club." The dates will be off, but you can follow the weeks in the right-hand column. If you aren't quite sure where to start, check out this old blog post from 2021 on where to begin with the Bible. If you wanted to get really crazy, maybe you could do this and pair it with one of the Daily Devotions mentioned above under Prayer. "Calm down, Fr. Rob!" Still feel like you need some guidance? You guessed it--Mtr. Liz and I can help with that! Please reach out!
Guess what . . .
If you chose to give up NOTHING, and instead add in one of these practices, you're technically still giving up something. Namely, time. It doesn't have to be a lot of time, but time given to your relationship with God is time well spent. And, hey--it's better than nothing!
Bonus Lenten Hack!
Lent is 40 days. It begins on Ash Wednesday, and if you count the days including Sundays until Easter you'll find it's 46 days. Know what that means? Sundays are not part of Lent! Every Sunday, even in Lent, is a "Little Easter." Know what else this means? Whatever you give up (if you give up something) you can have it on Sundays. Cheetos all day on Sundays! Now, you can choose to maintain your discipline on Sundays, and many people do for the sake of consistency. That's fine! But you can break your Lenten fast on Sundays if you choose. Notice that the Prayer Book even calls them Sundays IN Lent rather than Sundays OF Lent. People think I'm crazy when I tell them this, but it's absolutely true. It's the Lenten hack the Church doesn't usually tell people about! Go count the days!
Another great choice is to download our Lenten devotional! There's a practice for you to engage in each of the 40 days. Simply sign up below and we'll send you a link to download the devotional. You'll even get an few emails during Lent to encourage you along.