March 29, 2011

Giving up Lent for Lent

In my Resurgent Church colleague clergy group, two members shared the different ways their communities have been approaching the Lenten Season. Cynthia Espeseth, vicar of St. Hilda/St. Patrick’s, Mulkiteo, talked about the “wishful thinking half-truths” where people have intentions but not true disciplines when it comes to their spiritual practices. This can lead to Lenten programs involving a great deal of planning that launch after Ash Wednesday but then cannot be sustained throughout the weeks of Lent.

To address this problem she has developed a Lenten program that people can engage in their own homes, at their own rate, in their own way. She has built a Constant Contact set of Lenten exercises that people can use throughout the season. For the exercises, she focused on five areas of spiritual discipline: worship, study, prayer, fasting/healing, and generosity of spirit; one discipline each week, with daily exercises within that discipline. Each Sunday she sends out an introduction to the discipline, with six days of various types of exercises that can be done in 5-30 minutes, depending on how deep the person wanted to engage.

She said, “The format for the exercises is in response to the people crying out and hungering for a deeper spiritual life, but not sure how to connect and engage such a life amidst busy lives. I am co-opting one of those tools that has made their lives busier – the computer - and am using it in a way so they might slow down and be able to hear God.”

Another member of our group, John Leech, rector of St. Alban’s, Edmonds, stripped Lent down to its essentials. John said, “We are giving up Too Much Information for Lent.” They still gather on Wednesday evening, but instead of a content driven class, the community simply takes part in a Taize-style worship experience with a simple format: opening songs, a Scripture reading, silence, prayers, and some closing songs. There are candles burning before icons in the middle of the steps before the altar. This format allows for an open-ended, relaxed, quiet, and meditative worship time.

In John’s opinion, the congregation certainly was ripe for this change. In the past they have tried more content-oriented programming (Celtic spirituality) or a more ambitious format joining with the local Lutheran congregation for a formal five week Lenten program. As at Cynthia’s church, interest and attendance flag and the program ends up feeling like a failure.

Here are two examples of less being more – of giving up Lent for Lent. Instead of force feeding a program to their communities they both have responded by offering something that meets true needs rather than responding to “wishful thinking half-truths” It might be a sign of the decline of spirituality in our time. Or it might be just what people need.