How a Week With Monks Changed My Views on Lent

Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico. Photo by Timothy King

Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico. Photo by Timothy King

At the heart of the Lenten season is an interesting paradox.

Lent is not observed in the making of Lenten commitments, but you can’t actually observe Lent without making a commitment.

Elsewhere at Sojourners, Jarrod McKenna reminds us that Lent is not ultimately about “giving up stuff” but about “the preparation of our hearts for what God has done in Christ.” Adam Ericksen encourages us that, “The worst thing we can do during Lent is to be tempted to earn God’s favor through self-denial.”

To both these points and posts I say, amen.

But as a lifelong Protestant who recently returned from spending time with Benedictine monks and nuns in New Mexico, I’ve come back with some evolving perspectives on fasting and other ascetic practices from the Catholic tradition. This isn’t in contradiction to either of these authors’ perspectives but more of a summation of my recent convictions as someone who has tended to skip the Lenten fasts altogether.

Here is what has struck me. I do not believe most Western Christians today are so focused on giving up their creature comforts for Lent that they are in danger of making their faith dependent upon physical fasting. Maybe I’m generalizing too much. So I’ll make this statement more personal:

My greatest struggle has not been that I have been so committed to “giving up stuff” for Lent that I have forgotten that God’s grace is unconditional. Rather, I have tended to avoid the discomfort of giving up my daily habits and physical dependencies by using a vague sense of “inner attitudes” of preparation as an excuse. As a result, I believe I’ve been missing some real opportunities to be receptive to God’s grace.

There are few reasons I believe this to be so important.

Lent: Remembering Those in Transit

Traveling on a long road. Image courtesy Ollyy/shutterstock.com

Traveling on a long road. Image courtesy Ollyy/shutterstock.com

All too often, Lent is about ‘my’ personal journey to the cross: 

I’m giving up…

My Lenten discipline is…

During Lent, I’m trying to….

During Lent, I’m fasting from...

But Psalm 107 will have none of that “me, my, and I.”

Even when we make attempts to live beyond this presumption of self, we still land all too often in our own backyard. Instead of giving up chocolate, we add compassion ... on my terms. Instead of detoxing from coffee, we add a spoonful of caring ... when we have the time. Instead of abstinence from alcohol, we try — as Pope Francis encourages — to “fast from indifference.”

As much as these invite us to reconsider our hearts, at the end of the day these are still “our” hearts. 

Psalm 107 nudges us from our backyards to imagine the hearts and lives of those in transit: the refugee, the wayfarer, the pilgrim, the immigrant, the sojourner, the alien, the wanderer — all of those en route to the cross from the four compass points of the north, the south, the east and the west.

The United Nations Refugee Agency reports that every 4 seconds someone is forced to flee. Whether along the border of Mexico, in Syria, the South Sudan, or the Ukraine — this statistic is staggering. Psalm 107 asks us this Lent to remember those in transit — in all their fear, their grief, their suffering — and to pray to the Lord to save them from their distress, and to trust in the Lord who will lead them from places of stress and violence toward a story of redemption and liberation.

This Lent, Psalm 107 begs us to remember those in transit. Whether it’s the 4.3 million “removable aliens” from America who wait a Texas judge’s decision after rising to Obama’s referendum of hope, or the Jews in Europe packing their bags toward a mass exodus to Jerusalem in fear of persecution, or whether it’s the sojourners at the Holding Institute in Laredo, Texas comforting an exhausted child, or Syrian Christians finding refuge for their dying mother or dehydrated newborn — these pilgrims from north and south and east and west must journey along with us this Lent.

A Call to Prayer: Make Violence Against Women History

Violence against women and girls is not only a “women’s issue,” but a human rights issue that affects all of us. We are indeed “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” as Dr. King said, “Whatever affects one directly, affects us all indirectly.” The abundant life that Jesus offers is deeply connected to the well-being of others. (John 10:10)

For men and women to experience reconciliation and wholeness, we must prayerfully work together for gender justice. Download our free prayer calendar. It’s full of facts and prayer requests to help you put your faith into action to end violence against women.

Share it during Women’s History Month with your sisters and brothers, your sons and daughters. Pray through the calendar as part of your Lenten journey. Encourage your friends and faith community to raise their voices to make violence against women history.

Together, through prayer and action, we can imagine a new way forward for both women and men—for the flourishing of all God’s children.

Repenting Doesn’t Mean Feeling Like Crap About Yourself

Lent as the road toward love. Image courtesy Giordano Aita/shutterstock.com

Lent as the road toward love. Image courtesy Giordano Aita/shutterstock.com

We’ve all heard the sidewalk preachers and TV Evangelists quoting the Gospels, telling us, "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!"

It’s a claim that is generally intended to strike fear and trembling in the hearts of many. We’re supposed to straighten up, do right, and atone for all of our heinous, sinful ways.

If you went to my kind of church growing up, there wasn’t a sermon that went by that you didn’t hear the pastor say something like, "The end could be today, tomorrow or next week. So you’d better beg for forgiveness, get right with the Lord, or risk getting ‘left behind.’"

The season of Lent is a time of reflection and repentance, yes. But we’ve come to misunderstand both what it means to repent, and what Jesus is talking about when he foretells of God’s coming Kingdom.

As for the latter, Jesus preached to some degree about the afterlife, yes. But his Kingdom-talk primarily was focused on us, on receiving and co-creating God’s Kingdom vision for ALL of us, here and now, in our very midst. So rather than talking about some hellfire apocalyptic end-times, he’s urging us to open our eyes, to see what’s right in front of us.

We can have what he, what God, long for us. To live in a world inspired and living into the Kingdom possibilities just there, nearly within our reach if we’ll only claim it and risk everything to fulfill it.


Relaxing into Lent: Identity and Those Voices in Your Head

Beloved. Image courtesy Anton Watman/shutterstock.com

Beloved. Image courtesy Anton Watman/shutterstock.com

The Christian journey of Lent is upon us. Lent commemorates Jesus’ journey into the wilderness. After his baptism, where Jesus heard the voice of God say to him, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. After 40 days of fasting, he was tempted by the devil.

In good mimetic fashion, Jesus had received his true identity from God at his baptism. As radically relational creatures, mimetic theory claims that we receive our identity in relationship with others. If you were to ask me to identify myself, I would respond by referring to my relationships — I am a husband, a father, a son, a friend. Even when we identify ourselves by what we “do for a living,” relationships are implied. An accountant, for example, helps people allocate their financial resources. Our very identity as humans, and everything we do, is dependent upon our relationships with others.

I hope that mimetic theory’s emphasis on human relationality seems obvious, but it actually runs against the modern grain. René Descartes gave the impetus for the modern world with his statement “I think, therefore I am.” But that statement is false. You don’t exist because you think for yourself. You exist because you are related to others.

Jesus received his identity as the Son of God from his relationship with his heavenly Father, but in the wilderness he was tempted to doubt that relationship. The story tells us that “The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’”

If. It’s such a small word, but don’t be fooled by its size. If is loaded with significance. The devil tempted Jesus three times. Each time the devil used the word “if.” And each time the devil tried to seduce Jesus into doubting his identity as God’s Son.

Thoughts on Lent From a Non-Churchgoer

City in Spring, Andrekart Photography / Shutterstock.com

City in Spring, Andrekart Photography / Shutterstock.com

It snuck up this year, as though I’d almost forgotten about it until I saw friends in another time zone posting Mardi Gras pictures. Mardi Gras is this week? I thought. That means Lent begins this week?! Maybe it’s because I don’t go to church right now, or because I’m not in a spiritual community like I was before I moved cities. But for whatever reason, it came fast and unexpected, and something inside won’t let me pass it up. As much as I disagree with some of the traditional teachings about Easter and various interpretations of why Jesus was crucified, I have always had a penchant for Lent.

Lent is a time that draws out the heart’s ability to draw nigh to your Creator. Of drawing closer to God, to others, to the wide open world around us. A time for spiritual reflection and inner examination. A time to pause. A time for simplicity. A 40-day season containing strong, beautiful symbolism. Death from life. Life from death. The two are inseparable. Hope is reborn, recycled out of crushed pain and heartache. The timing of this season enhances the meaning all the more to me, as we begin Lent in the waning winter, in which it is still snowing as I write this. But we end Lent well into spring.

From Generation to Generation

Photo via asife / Shutterstock.com

Photo via asife / Shutterstock.com

What do you want to pass on to your grandchildren? What will you give to future generations?

There’s a special spot on my shelf for books my grandparents handed down to me over the years. I cherish the collection of love poetry my grandfather gave my grandmother for a wedding anniversary decades ago. I treasure my grandfather’s old prayer book and hymnal. Depending on your family history, most of us will have at least a few old treasures from generations before.

Some things pass from one generation to another with special care—a family wedding ring, a chess set from the home country, old pictures. Other items, however, pass with less care and planning. My wife, for instance, has her grandmother’s old cookie jar. It’s made of cheap, simple glass and is completely unremarkable except for the memories of cookies eaten at grandma’s house it evokes.

Families aren’t the only ones thinking of passing things along. Politicians, skilled at tugging heartstrings, speak often of “future generations.” 

Taking Lent to Repent

A cross of palm fronds. Image courtesy Ricardo Reitmeyer/shutterstock.com

A cross of palm fronds. Image courtesy Ricardo Reitmeyer/shutterstock.com

Ash Wednesday begins Lent, a 40-day season in the church’s life leading up to the death and resurrection of Christ on Easter. It is traditionally meant to be a time of reflection, reevaluation, and renewal in our lives, both for the community of faith and in our relationship to the world. But the “R” word that is most characteristic of Lent is “repentance.” And repentance, biblically speaking, is not about the fire and brimstone television preachers but rather about the gospel call to turn around and go in a whole new direction.

Already in these first few days of Lent, I am reminded of how difficult confession, humility, and repentance are in our culture. Humility is something Americans are not particularly good at. Neither are we strong in the areas of self-examination, deep reflection, and repenting for things we have done wrong and then no longer doing them.

We tend to believe if people are poor, there really must be something more wrong with them than with those of us who are not. If black young men are having trouble with police, many white people suspect it must be the things that they are doing more than any problems with the systems we perpetuate.

Our family was just away for a week in the Dominican Republic on baseball service and mission trip, where our boys’ baseball teams do “spring training” with Dominican players and coaches. Spending a week in Consuelo with the Dominican players and the adults in their lives, and meeting the Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception who helped host us, provided a glimpse into their lives and a kind of poverty that most American young people have never seen.

We played on their rural “fields of dreams” cut out of sugar cane instead of corn, to wonderfully energetic community stadiums in what is truly a baseball culture. In one game, our high school team got to play the Detroit Tigers Dominican Academy teenage players. It was great baseball — but also a “life-changing experience,” as was told to me by many of our players and their coaches. In addition to the baseball skills, reflection, listening, learning, and asking big questions about how our lives affect others were the lessons of the week.