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Invitation to a contemplative Lent

Photo by Emiliano Vittoriosi on Unsplash

I used to give up chips for Lent.

For three years, my wife and I co-pastored a rural church in North Carolina six miles outside of the county seat, which had a population of 3,000. Our nearest neighbors were tobacco fields and the peaceful residents of the church’s graveyard.

The husband of a church member drove an Utz chip truck. One of his jobs was to gather recently expired – but still perfectly edible – chips from grocery stores and gas stations. Rather than dispose of the bags, he would stash them in the cabinets of the church kitchen. He provided an endless a supply of sour cream, plain, BBQ, and – my favorite – salt and pepper potato chips. This situation was perfect for youth group snack time.

And for a young, stressed pastor, struggling to acclimate to the isolation of life in the country.

Like the Sirens who tempted ancient sailors, the chips would call to me, promising that their combination of satisfying crunch and simple carbs could take my burdens away, or at least help me ignore them for a while. I would wander the 50 yards to the church, rip into a bag, and forget for a moment what was troubling me.

So each year I would foreswear chips during Lent.

Lent is a season of self-examination in which we’re invited to grow in both self-knowledge and knowledge of God, and I knew that my frequent forays to the chip cabinet blunted my ability to attend to my own depths and the God who speaks from within them. If I was going to grow in these ways, the chips had to go.

While many of us might already be wondering what we will give up for Lent, it’s not uncommon these days to be encouraged to take something up for Lent instead, a popular theme in Ash Wednesday homilies. Do something positive, we’re told — learn a new spiritual practice, commit to acts of justice, serve the poor. This advice is often served alongside the subtle suggestion that giving something up is out-of-date, that ascetical practices of self-denial are hopelessly medieval.

So a choice confronts us. After the pancakes have been eaten and the beads thrown and the crumbs of king cake wiped up, we’ll be faced with a question: Should we give up something or take up something this Lent?

The answer? It depends.

JESUS MAFA. Transfiguration, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Transfiguration Sunday stands as the doorway from the season following Epiphany, when we focus on the identity and mission of God’s Son, to Lent, the season of the church’s wandering through the wilderness. I’ve always been drawn to the fact that the divine voice reiterates what was announced at Jesus’ baptism during his transfiguration – “This is my Son, the beloved” – but then adds something new, a charge: “Listen to him.”

With those words, God names a fundamental posture of the Christian life: listening to Jesus in order to let what we hear shape how we live and love. It’s a charge to be contemplative: to remain open and available to the Spirit of Jesus speaking to us through all things.

The opportunity of Lent, then, is to discern what gets in the way of that attentive listening, that radical availability to the Spirit of Christ. To discover what prevents us from being open, available, and responsive to the transforming work of God’s Spirit in our lives. And then to cooperate with God in overcoming it.

And that “it” can be a distracting habit or an attachment that so insistently calls for our attention it’s hard to listen for anything else, not least the still small voice of God. The constant ping of notifications on our phones. The adulation of others. An addiction to work (or anything else). The alluring song of salt and pepper chips. When this is the case, giving something up of Lent, whatever the particular “it” in question happens to be, might be the right path. Just such letting go can liberate us to listen to the divine voice that sings a refrain of truth, love, and mercy.

But the “it” could just as easily be something we avoid: prayer, silence, the poor. Busy lives can cause us to neglect times of attentive listening to God, and cynical spirits can impel us to avoid the very ones through whom Jesus has promised to meet us. Under these circumstances, we might want to take up a practice of prayer – five minutes of daily meditation or Scripture reading, a weekly contemplative walk, a prayerful examination of conscience before bed – or a discipline of service that brings us close to the people Jesus spent most of his time with: the suffering, marginalized and poor.

No one can dictate which way to go. There is no universal should when it comes to observing a holy Lent.

But one question can guide our discernment: Which path – giving up or taking up – will help foster a contemplative Lent, allowing us to prioritize listening to the Spirit of Jesus as we walk with him on the journey toward the cross? How we answer will be determined by the unique call of God and the particularities of our lives right now.

I no longer live in such proximity to potato chips that they pose a spiritual challenge to me, and the corn chips in the cabinet have much less appeal. I will likely give up sweets, as I usually do — but who knows? As Ash Wednesday approaches, I will prayerfully look at my life and ask God to show me what gets in the way of my listening, what blocks me to from being available to God’s summons in my life, whether it’s something I crave or something I avoid. In other words, I’m going to discern.

And then I will choose how best to keep a contemplative Lent … this year.