A More Meaningful Ritual by Steve Flower

Over the years, I have found myself getting annoyed whenever I have heard this question:

“So…. what are YOU giving up for Lent, Steve?….”

My reasons for annoyance have taken many forms over the years.

In my religious past, I have “given something up for Lent” for a lot of reasons. As a kid, I gave up candy for Lent, because it was expected. I was told “it’s just what we do,” which (even at eight years old) I thought was a stupid reason to do anything. (Then I gorged myself on malted-milk-ball eggs on Easter Sunday, effectively negating the sacrifice.)

Later, in my youth, I was told that “good people made sacrifices for Lent.” But I never felt good (or even less bad) as a result of giving something up. And, if I wasn’t 100% faithful to my pledge to give something up (which was most often the case), then I felt like a failure, feeling even worse about myself than before.

As I grew older, I perceived that a lot of people who “gave up coffee” or “gave up refined sugar” or “gave up TV” for Lent seemed to exude a sense of holier-than-thou and self-importance, which was a definite turn-off for ever giving up something for a season. I figured out that a publicly-announced short-term sacrifice – “No, I can’t go to Mudhouse with you – I’m giving up mocha-cinnamon muffins for Lent” – was a rather glaring form of works-righteousness. It became just one more pointless exercise in which I refused to participate.

Lately, thanks to Milton Brasher-Cunningham’s book “Keeping The Feast,” I learned the difference between a “habit” and a “ritual.” Habit, he writes, is repetition of a behavior that grows out of convenience, compliance, or “just because.” A ritual, on the other hand, is best described as “meaningful repetition” – repeating those things that remind me who I am and Whose I am. For years, I saw “giving up X for Lent” as habit, not meaningful action – and I still do.

So I don’t “give up things” for Lent. Haven’t for years.

Here’s what I do, instead.

First, I try to see Lent as a time of reflection, repentance, and renewal – not a time to exhibit some short-term sacrifice. I learned the difference between “rote behavior, because it’s expected” and “meaningful ritual that reminds me of lasting truth.” So in Lent, I don’t try to give up things – I try to change my behavior. Not because it’s some sort of self-conscious sacrifice – but because it’s a time to make positive changes that moves me closer to what I believe God expects of me.

One Lenten season, I made a commitment that every time I thought I need something from Amazon, I instead sent the money I planned to spend on the book or CD to a local charity. Or I’d match what I DID buy, dollar-for-dollar, with a donation to folks who needed it. If I couldn’t afford the donation, I couldn’t afford the purchase either. While I confess I don’t do it every time, I *do* make it most times. To me, that’s a worthwhile and meaningful practice.

(What would the world look like, I wonder, if everyone matched their Amazon purchases – let alone coffee-shop money – with contributions to the Rainbow Network, or Safe To Sleep?….)

This Lent, my goal is to take a walk in a cemetery, once a week. Not just to take a walk, but to remember that I am alive, *this* day – and also to remind myself that my current condition will not always last. And lastly, to remind myself of an old truth, shared by a friend: “If it doesn’t bleed, the heck with it.”

The other thing I try to do is ADD something, rather than “give up something.” Add something challenging to my devotional reading. Read a Psalm a day – even the ones that are annoying. Add a written gratitude list on Facebook every day. Call people who need a reminder that they matter. Publicly acknowledge the good that people do. Not because it makes me holy, or makes me look good, or because I think it looks good on my Heavenly scorecard – but because whatever action I take points my heart and mind toward God, and away from me. This is always a good thing for me because, sadly, I can still be my own favorite topic. (As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “I may not be much… but I’m all I ever think about…”)

This year, I am reading a book that I’ve intended to read for years – “The Sacrament of The Present Moment, by Jean-Pierre de Caussade. Not easy reading; not the “quick, fun read” to which I am accustomed. It’s yet another reminder to “be present in one’s own life,” and a reminder of the many miracles that occur in every day of my life.

Looking back over the years, the thing that has annoyed me most about this whole topic was the perceived focus on what *I* was doing, or what others were doing, rather than what God is doing in my life and the lives around me. If Lent is a time of reflection and preparation, then my prayer is that it focuses my thoughts and behaviors on God’s creation, and my part as co-creator (or destroyer) of that Creation.

I pray that what I do – or don’t do – is more of an arrow pointing to the Creator than a spotlight on me and my actions. And that should be true regardless whether it’s Lent or not.

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