A new discipline for Lent
By William O. “Bud” Reeves
You’re never too old to do something dangerous.
The youth group at our church is going skiing over spring break. My daughter is in the youth group. They needed chaperones. So I am signed up to go snow skiing—for the first time in 40 years!
Therefore, I have added some additional exercises to my usual gym routine. I have been doing squats and lunges to try to get my back, hips and knees in shape for the slopes.
As we begin the season of Lent, we normally add some exercises to our faith routine to get our spirits in shape for Easter. We call them disciplines, and historically, they go back to the days when those preparing for baptism made a 40-day intensive effort at spiritual cleansing.
The traditional Lenten disciplines come from the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6, Jesus tells his followers to give, but not to make it public. He tells them to pray, but to pray in secret, not for show. He tells them to fast, but not to act all pitiful about it; just fast and go about your business.
Extra giving, praying and fasting are still good and relevant disciplines. Fasting in particular is a discipline that we are not as familiar with. Lately, some of the most interesting discussion around fasting has been about eliminating two distractions that are the most destructive of community: electronics and social media (see Carter Ferguson’s commentary).
Related to that, I would like to propose a new Lenten exercise: the discipline of listening. There is so much noise in our world; it hardly ever gets quiet enough to really hear. What would happen if we took 40 days to really listen? There may be a “still, small voice” that is speaking to us.
We need to listen to God. Listening is a vital part of prayer that is often ignored, as we present our long lists of intercessions and supplications. We need so much, and we want God to take care of it all. But prayer is a conversation, and conversations go two ways. This Lent, listen! Get still, quiet, undistracted before God. Somehow God will speak.
We need to listen to our family and friends. They have something to tell us. Sometimes their message is a cry for help. Our kids—even teenagers—want us to know what is going on in their world. Recently I saw a story (yeah, on Facebook!) about a day care center that put up a sign asking the parents to turn off and put away their phones before entering the building. The director said it was common to see a child crying for attention while the parent paid reverence to the electronic god.
We need to listen to our enemies. We are deeply divided in our churches, communities and nation over social, ethical and political issues. Social media makes it worse, because it is not really a conversation. We just spew our hostility onto the internet, and whoever reads it can just deal with it—or spew back! Until we can understand what our enemy thinks and why he or she thinks that way, there will be no steps toward reconciliation.
As St. Francis prayed centuries ago, “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek …to be understood, as to understand.” Real conversation, respectful dialog, is the currency of change, and that can’t be done in 140 characters—ESPECIALLY IN ALL CAPS!
The good thing about Lent is that it ends. After 40 days, the burden of discipline and the shame of the cross give way to the joy and glory of Easter. (After spring break, I plan to let up on the squats, too.) The exercises of Lent are hard, but they are also productive: “Now discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).
If you make the effort to really listen this Lent—to God, to your family and friends, even to your enemies—I believe you can expect to experience the peaceful fruit of the Spirit in your life.
The Rev. Dr. Reeves serves as senior pastor of First UMC Fort Smith. Email: email@example.com.