What is your Lenten Discipline?

Those of you who are regulars can see one thing I’ve given up for Lent. Or maybe not, I was surprised how few people noticed last night that I had shaved off my beard. You’re all such good midwesterners, not commenting on appearances. Well it was my first beard, and now it’s gone. For Lent, I thought I could use a change.

Our readings today have trumpets in common. Isaiah tells the people to blow the trumpet, announce a fast. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us not to blow the trumpet when we give to the people. I didn’t include an optional reading from the prophet Joel, who like Isaiah is in favor of brass, but Joel says this, “Blow the trumpet, sanctify a fast.” Sanctify a fast. What does it mean to sanctify the fast?

Sanctify a fast

Joel’s word after the trumpets blow, sanctify, sanctify, it’s an important word in Hebrew. To sanctify is to make holy. We talk about sanctified things, bread and wine which becomes more than bread and wine in Eucharist. Water, which does more than wash the foreheads of those who come for baptism. When something is sanctified, it is imbued with meaning, it has a certain mystery and certain magic, right? Well, sort of. The word in Hebrew means at root “set apart.”

Set apart, separated, marked off. What makes the water holy for baptism? It is that we, as a congregation, set this water aside. We put it in a special bowl. We say prayers, we have a priest touch it with a candle. We together set this water apart. Likewise with the bread. We choose to set this bread apart, this wine apart. We mark it as separate from other kinds of bread. That is what makes it holy, sacred, special.

Sanctify a fast, the prophet Joel tells us. Don’t just decide to give something up. Don’t just decide arbitrarily to give up some kind of food that you love, like chocolate, or hamburgers. The “why” of a fast matters. Why are you giving up what you are giving up for Lent?

I want to pause here for a pastoral disclaimer. If you will let a priest give you a word of admonition for Lent, let it be this: If you struggle with body image, if you struggle with food throughout the year, please do not choose a Lenten discipline that involves restricting calories. Choose another discipline, one that helps you to love your body, one that helps you name what is going on, one that helps you feed your body and your soul. If you need help, I have some great colleagues who specialize in body image and eating therapy. I’d be happy to share their contact information.

Two Disciplines

How do you sanctify a fast? Lent is in a way sanctified time, time set apart. You have 40 days. Decide how to spend them. I’d offer two small suggestions for disciplines.

The first is simple, and there’s a giveaway today. I am encouraging the whole congregation to try a simple practice called the Examen. There are free bookmarks in the entryway. Take one with you. The examen is simple. You set aside a few minutes at the end of the day, and take inventory of your day twice. The first time, as you recall your day, you have to be disciplined. The first time through you are only supposed to give thanks. Brené Brown says that practicing gratitude is a countercultural practice, and a necessary one. Remember your day. Find the moments of joy. Find the moments that make you smile. Give thanks. Then, and only then, does the examen allow you to go back through and find the less delightful moments, the places that give you pause. Offer them to God. Find a person, a memory, something in your day and let it be the start of a prayer. That’s it, simple. We often make prayer too elaborate. The examen will take you five minutes. Just an offer.

The second discipline I’d offer this Lent seems counterintuitive. I didn’t come up with this one, I owe credit to my friend Erin Weber Johnson, she’s a lay theologian and leadership consultant who has worked with us a couple of times at Holy Communion. Erin says that she thinks this year, we all need the discipline of joy.

We need a discipline of joy. In some ways we never really left Lent of 2020. As the restrictions ease, as we all find our way into this strange new world, we need to practice joy. We need to find ways to celebrate, to laugh out loud, and it may take us some time and some practice to remember joy. I offer it to you. Laughter helps you take the tension out of your shoulders, a good laugh helps you breathe deeper. As I look back on my life, four decades of it now, much of the time that to me is most sacred is the time I have allowed myself to be most joyful, the time I have shared joy with others. What would happen if we let joy be our Lenten discipline?

I offer those disciplines because while Jesus and the prophets can’t agree on what to do with trumpets, they are both sure that your fasting should improve the lot of the poor. Your discipline should make the lives of the suffering a little easier. Lenten discipline aren’t meant to be self-improvement project, that’s thinking too small. God invites us to grow for the sake of others. God invites us to be more whole, that we might become repairers of the breach, menders of broken walls, restorers of livable streets.

There are a lot streets to repair.

This Lent, if you’re saving some money from not buying chocolate, or alcohol, good. Set that money apart. Give it to an LGBTQ+ organization in the Ukraine. You want to find people who dollar for dollar will fight back against Putin, give it to the queer activists of Kyiv. Or fund folks like our partners at Cristosal, fighting alongside LGBTQ activists and women for democratic governance in Central America, right here in our sphere of influence.

If you’ve given up social media, set some of that time apart. Spend time you would’ve spent scrolling volunteering. Come out to Laundry Love in a couple weeks, it’s coming back with more volunteers, more community. If that’s not for you, spend that time writing your state senators and legislators. Take a trip with our Rabbi in Residence Rori down to Jefferson City. Fight back against the guns in churches legislation, the bans on teaching history diversity and equity, the trans athlete ban, the bathroom bills. The bishop of the Rio Grande wrote recently after policy like those proposed in our state was forwarded in Texas. He said this: “I want to make it clear that recent attempts to criminalize the process of people becoming their true selves cannot be justified on the ground of our Christian faith, or on the ground of human rights…I want the LGBTQ+ community to know that you are loved by God and that the Episcopal Church will always stand up to those who seek to threaten, bully, or endanger any child of God.” This Lent, will your discipline help you stand up to bullies?

There are so many heinous proposals this year which will hurt the vulnerable in our state. Spend some time this Lent pushing back on hate and violence. Fast in a way that lets you reinvest the remainder, of your money, of your effort, of our time. Mark the time of Lent with a practice that helps you rebuild community.

I don’t make a lot of guarantees from the pulpit. Let me give you one for Ash Wednesday. I guarantee, if your discipline allows you to invest attention, time, or treasure in a way that lifts up the poor, if this Lent allows you to develop relationships with those who are persecuted, who are suffering, this Lent for you will become sacred time. You might find yourself practicing gratitude. You might even find yourself practicing joy. This Lent could matter much more than simply 40 days without chocolate, or martinis, or a beard. This Lent could help make our streets more livable. Amen.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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