It was an enjoyable evening with friends. A half dozen of us gathered in a restaurant for dinner. I hadn’t realized it until we all sat at the table: three of us were members of the clergy while the other three hold no connection to organized religion. Given the make-up of the group, would it be surprising to anyone that it didn’t take long for the conversation to drift to the topic of religion?
A comment was made by someone about the Christian observance of Lent, the forty day period before Easter that is set aside as an opportunity for personal renewal. One of the non-church dinner guests jokingly asked the clergy, “What will you be giving up for Lent?”
Not missing a beat, the minister of the church where I am a member, the Rev. Glenna Sheppard of Decatur United Church of Christ, explained, “In my congregation, we have a different focus. We’re not ‘giving up’ things for Lent. Instead, we’re focused on ‘giving’ for Lent!”
The person who asked the question had a quizzical expression and asked, “What does that mean?” Glenna explained that rather than focusing on “giving up” something like candy or time on the Internet, the focus of the congregation is to give something to others during the Lenten season. While this may sound like some kind of gimmick or merely a play on words, it seems to me that in our culture today, giving something of ourselves to others is quite significant.
Traditionally, Lent is understood as a time during which self-denial is used as a spiritual practice. This self-denial is meant to remind us of our dependence on the grace of God which sustains all life, of the human tendency to put desires for things ahead of other pursuits, and of our preoccupation with things that prevent us from being the people we were born to be. Fasting or abstaining from various foods or activities can be helpful reminders that often we take our self-indulgent desires far too seriously. Let’s be honest: a fundamental value in consumer culture is if we want something, we should have it right now!
Giving something of ourselves or our resources to others makes a similar but different kind of statement. When I decide to give something to others, I am acknowledging that I am not the most important person in the world, even though I may often act that way. Giving to others acknowledges that the needs of others are often much more important than the things I merely want in life. Giving draws me out of self-preoccupation to live in a way that is engaged with others. Giving to others is an opportunity for our own growth. In today’s culture, giving to others is also a witness for social justice.
Regularly in news headlines, astonishingly wealthy individuals claim some aspect of their self-perceived superiority while condemning the poor for failing to work and demonstrate determination. Each time I find such things in the news, I think of those working 70 or 80 hours each week who simply don’t earn enough money to support themselves and their children. In the US, during recent congressional debates on food stamps and subsidies to the poor, conflicting accusations were made: on the one hand, it was claimed that food stamp recipients don’t use the assistance for healthy food but buy snack foods with government money. No sooner was that charge made when another claim surfaced: that food stamp recipients waste money on organic foods and over-priced seafood. These arguments demonstrate that the fundamental concern is not the purchases made by food stamp recipients. Instead, the real complaint was that something was given to those in need. (Of course, these same elected officials have no concern about giving government subsidies to those who aren’t needy, including corporations that support their elections.)
In this social milieu, to give to another our time, our concern, or our resources is to make a statement that a society built on selfishness is fundamentally flawed. Greed only leads to greater corruption. Simultaneously, generosity up-lifts both the individual and the community and enables the possibility of a better future for all members of the community.
It often comes as a surprise to many people that giving for Lent is a traditional practice. The traditional practices that are consistent over the centuries are prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. Somehow, the fasting, the “giving up,” has been most associated in our contemporary images of Lent. But giving what one has freely to others has long been understood in the Christian tradition as following the example of the Christ – who gave of himself in every way possible.
What are you giving up for Lent? Perhaps it’s time to give up self-centered preoccupation, selfishness, and greed. We learn to give them up when we open ourselves to give. Yes, it’s a transforming spiritual practice to give of oneself for Lent. Giving up a false sense of self while also giving freely to others is surely the heart of the Easter mystery.
© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.