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What is Lent? Lent is a liturgical season in the global church calendar, and it is happening right now. Lent kicks off annually with Ash Wednesday, which fell on March 2nd for us in 2022. Lent lasts for 40 days, not counting Sundays, and Lent ends (and the season of Easter begins) as we collectively celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday! 

So, now you know what Lent is. But why should you care? What a great question! Lent matters for you, both for your spiritual health and your practical well-being. Whether you are a person of faith, or not, you are a human being who has spent the last couple of years being hammered by a literal plague in the form of a global pandemic that has changed your life, the lives of those you love, the local community and the global community! 

The pandemic has been stressful for all of us, to some extent. It has led to divisions that all too often set friends and family members, businesses and industries, and even congregations against each other. The pandemic has caused serious economic issues and mental health hardships, isolation and loneliness, and the more obvious medical challenges of overwhelmed hospitals and burnt-out health care professionals. Infection, illness, death, and disability has followed Covid19 like the four horsemen of the apocalypse; wherever it has spread, its unholy presence has been felt.

If the nerve-wracking news that a virus you can’t even see is circulating in your community, constantly trying to infect and sicken you—if that isn’t enough to challenge your sense of well-being, there’s also the inconvenient truth that the planet is literally on fire. Global warming has accelerated in recent years, thanks to our consumeristic, inflated post-modern expectations and the sickening excesses of our Western “standard of living” norms. Needing a storage unit to hold your seasonal dishes and household décor is not normal! Many whole global families, extended families, would be thrilled to live together in just one room of a typical Canadian home. One room! Let that sink in for a minute. Yet we are constantly complaining that we don’t have enough space, or the latest technological gadget, or the newest car, or the coolest clothes. 

I am telling you the truth: that longing for more, better, faster, newer “stuff” that you feel in your heart? It will never be satisfieduntil your restless soul finds true rest in God, like St. Augustine, the bishop of North Africa, taught us so many centuries ago.  

And if that news wasn’t enough to alarm you, how about the fact that over the last month, Russia flat-out invaded nearby Ukraine, and then threatened retaliation in the form of a nuclear holocaust if any nation dared to defend Ukrainians directly. The post-WWII global peace and security that so many of us took for granted has suddenly crumbled, right under our feet, before our very eyes. 

If all of that global news seems too far away to affect you personally, then just turn your attention to the prices at your local grocery store, or at the gas pump lately; read your latest utility bill (if you dare!) The bottom line here, is that life is feeling harder, more dangerous, and more expensive for most of us, these days. 

The world is overflowing with examples of suffering and sinfulness, examples of evil decisions being made by power-hungry people, and, like it or not, we participate in those hyper-consumptive systems that are hurting the planet, those structures that divide people, giving privilege to some and denying opportunities for others, based on gatekeeping factors such as income, race, gender, physical abilities, faith, sexual orientation, or employment history, to name just a few. 

We are all participants in these broken systems. We are all part of the problem. 

What do you mean, Lisa? How is this my problem, exactly? I’m not a racist, sexist person! Well, you and I probably aren’t power-hungry dictators with our fingers on the big red nuclear button, either, but as people of privilege living in Canada, we benefit from the sinful structures that cause suffering for our global neighbours. We don’t do this intentionally, of course, but our daily actions have the power to bring life, or to bring death to vulnerable people who are struggling to survive, day to day. 

Lent can be the liturgical vehicle that gets us thinking about our daily decisions, “driving us” in the direction of social justice. Our Lenten commitment to Christ’s gospel of love is only as valid as our commitment to the personally significant financial, emotional, physical, spiritual, and practical decisions that we make every day. I’m suggesting that our daily decisions matter. The ancient Lenten traditions of repentance and reflection prepare us to make wiser decisions as we seek to love God, love our neighbours, and love ourselves! Here’s the thing: our individual daily actions have a surprising amount of power, especially when we add them up over a lifetime. 

For example, your purchasing power as a consumer is significant. What you choose to support and to invest your money in (and also, what you choose to boycott or avoid) can have a big influence on the companies and products that are developed or abandoned. Lenten practices aren’t only helpful for shaping our purchasing decisions at the mall, the car dealership, or the bank, though; these Lenten habits can powerfully shape every aspect of our daily decisions and our priorities at home, at school, at work, and in the community. This is not just something we do at church! Far from it! 

Lenten practices can help us remember the power of our words, and how to choose them wisely. Countless research studies have shown that the way that we speak to our children, our spouses, our friends and our coworkers can have a profound effect on how they see themselves and their capabilities. Do you “speak life” and offer blessings by the encouraging, supportive language that you use with those around you, or do you “speak death” and destruction by cursing and criticizing the people you love? The Bible says God is patient, slow to anger and abounding in love, and God calls us to model that same approach (Psalm 145:8).  

Lent helps us to develop holy habits as we live the ancient traditions of praying, fasting, and giving generously to those in need during this liturgical season. Lenten spiritual practices take our focus off of ourselves, and towards the needs of our global and local neighbours. We pray for the needs of others. As people of faith, we are instructed to pray because it is good for us! Prayer is life-giving to our souls, and it helps us as we engage with repentance and renewal in God’s presence. Prayer is the vehicle through which we connect with God. It’s the language we use to communicate with God, and the spiritual fuel that deepens our faith and forms us as disciples of Jesus as we are shaped, with time and effort, by the habit of prayer.  

Prayer isn’t just for us, though; through the power of the Holy Spirit, prayer revives and remakes the church. Prayer enlivens us, and as God works in us and through us, prayer can also be the fuel that kindles healing for our neighbourhoods and the nations. As Paul told the Thessalonians, “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18). 

I encourage you to begin cultivating a daily habit of prayer during Lent. Start rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks to God today. Begin right where you are, and if you mess up and miss a day or a week, don’t despair; As Psalm 103:14 says, “God knows our frame, God remembers that we are made of dust.” God knows our human limitations, our creaturely flaws and frailties. So, when you become aware of your prayerlessness, just start talking to God again, and voila! You are back on track with your Lenten prayer habit. 

During the season of Lent, we also intentionally fast, depriving our bodies of calories for a short time (ranging from a single meal to a day or more of eating no solid food), but this practise isn’t just about depriving our bodies. Not at all! We fast from food so that we can feast on something else – so, for example, we might replace the hour that we normally would have spent making and eating dinner with an hour of fervent intercessory prayer for the people of Ukraine, instead. 

We might also choose to fast from rich food, so that we can feast on providing humanitarian support for our needy neighbours. So, for example, this past Sunday, I set aside the forty or fifty dollars that I would have spent on purchasing and preparing a nice roast beef dinner with all the trimmings, and a bottle of Apothic Red wine, for our traditional Sunday family dinner for the five of us. We still ate Sunday dinner together, but instead of roast beef, I served everyone a bowl of soup and some bread, and I donated the money we saved to the Ukrainian Red Cross. 

The only limit to the list of things that you could choose to fast from, and feast on, is your imagination. I invite you to pray about this, and ask the Holy Spirit to guide you as you begin to include fasting and feasting in your Lenten spiritual practices

Remember, Lent is all about reflection and repentance, and as long as you are still breathing, you still have the opportunity to turn around, to turn back to God, to change directions. So, you might choose to fast from judging others this Lent, and instead, feast on the grace of God. You might fast from hostility, and feast on peacefulness, at least, as far as peace depends on you (see Romans 12:18). Or, as William Arthur Ward suggests, you could fast from suspicion and feast on truth. Fast from gossip, and feast on prayerful silence. Fast from discouragement and feast on hope. Fast from social media, and feast on “real life” encounters with your neighbours. Fast from unrelenting pressures, and feast on unceasing prayer. 

Another word on fasting; we may consciously choose to forsake a weekly or daily meal, or to give up a favourite treat throughout Lent as a spiritual discipline that reminds us what it means to deny ourselves, to pick up our cross, and to follow Christ (See Matthew 16:24–26). But please, don’t brag about giving up gossip or gummy worms, bingo or beer for Lent, okay? If you do, your fasting becomes an act of religious pride instead of an act of worship and discipleship. Fast privately, without giving yourself a “gold star,” so that God alone will sees your sacrifice. God will reward you with a deep contentment and a sense of spiritual wellbeing that no food or drink could ever provide.   

Last, we give generously during Lent, and we do this consciously, sacrificially, consistently, for the good of our neighbours next door and our neighbours around the world. Almsgiving was an early medieval tradition where Christians gave directly to people who were poor and needy, sick and suffering, literally handing out money in the community, after church each Sunday in Lent. Again, the list of worthy causes for you to support will be longer than your arm; many needy people are waiting for someone just like you to feed and clothe them, to shelter and encourage them, to provide medicine to them and to tell of God’s mercy for them.  

Thanks be to God for the pure, self-giving love of Jesus, offered freely to us in the power of the Holy Spirit, for the glory of God and the healing of this beautiful, broken planet that God so loves. This Lent, you can experience the incredible spiritual power of prayer, fasting, and generous giving. Allow God to shape you into a person of holy habits, day by day, and decade by decade. You just need to say “yes” to God, and show up with a teachable attitude. God supplies and puts together all of the other pieces of the puzzle for us.