Lent brings up all sorts of interesting ideas and reminiscences for me…but mostly I think about the things I have given up or tried to give up. I started giving things up for Lent as a discipline about 20 years ago, and it has been (as much as I hate to say it) a hit-or-miss enterprise.
One of my biggest strikeouts was about 10 years ago. I was only a few years into ministry and a new father. I was chasing my tail from a schedule perspective and struggling to keep on top of sleep, nutrition, and so many things. On top of that, I had a massive allergy attack right before Lent started. But even with all of that in my life, I thought to myself: “What could I give up for Lent that would be a real sacrifice?” Reaching back to my Nebraska roots, I thought of something I love very much. I would give up meat for Lent.
It lasted about two weeks until I was in the doctor’s office with a nasty sinus infection. The doctor asked me if I’d made any major changes to schedule or diet lately…and I told him about my Lenten discipline. He looked at me and said, “That’s all well and good, but have you done anything to backfill for protein?” After reading my silence, he ordered me to go home and either eat some meat or do a better job of planning out my path to righteousness.
That winter started me down the path of looking at Lenten disciplines (not to mention fasting) with different eyes. Too often I find myself giving up something like sugar only to increase my salt intake. I give up TV and watch more movies. I give something up without putting any “protein” in its place. To use the Augustine quote above, I go to the hard work of dumping out the sour wine and scrubbing…only to leave the vessel empty or pour a different sour wine back in.
I think this is the challenge of discipleship. So often we see following God as ascribing to a series of “thou shalt nots”; a list of things we have to give up. But unless we fill those voids in our lives with something redemptive, life-giving, and holy…we struggle with the emptiness. If the Christian Life is only about what we remove or avoid, there is no new growth or new life in Christ. Do we need to see our brokenness and need for grace? Absolutely? Should we see that life is about more than TV, social media, meat, or whatever else may be way too important to us? Yes. But we must also embrace that new “honey” of Christ’s love, community, and serving others to pour into life. Without it, discipleship is nothing but constantly scrubbing the vessel and dumping out; drudgery, guilt, and a constant reminder of our brokenness.
Augustine reminds us of the good news today. Emptiness is not what Lent (not to mention discipleship) is all about. It’s not about hell avoidance. It’s not Lent for Lent’s sake. It’s about living into the promises and preparing ourselves for the new life of Easter. We give things up…we scrub…because God wants to pour what is good—an eternal and life-changing grace and life—into us.