I’ve been asked a few times what I’m giving up for Lent. When asked that during Ash Wednesday service, I answered with a full and complete answer, but only because I got to write it down, ball it up, then burn it away. Sometimes we want to hide what we’re foregoing, because foregoing it admits that we did the thing we want to stop to begin with.
For the other times I was asked today, I responded with an honest “I don’t know,” because there are the things you give up on a piece of paper soon to be burned, and things you give up that you can say aloud to others. It was the outloud one I’d yet to land on.
There is a tendency, I think, to forgo things like TV, meat, cell phones … the types of things that bind us to worldly ways and impinge upon the parts of life deemed sacred. Family. Friends. Church. Community. The earth.
These things can sound trite on the surface—Christ died on the cross and you’re giving up (insert first-world luxury here)?!?— yet hold deep spiritual meaning for our lives. Do they directly address our mortality? Our sinfulness? Bring us to repentance? For some, they may.
For others, Lent is a time of self-improvement. An opportunity to quit sugar, or caffeine, or cooking-based reality shows so that we may become the healthier, more perfect earthling we think we’re meant to be.
As tempted as I am to focus on improving myself over the next 40 days, I know instead my inward reflection, my Forty-Day Habit of a Highly Effective Person, must go from the inside out. Besides, I really don’t want to give up cooking shows.
Earlier today I posted an article on my church’s private Facebook page regarding the health benefits of friendship. And last Sunday at my church’s annual meeting, we were made aware of a church-wide desire for stronger community and increased fellowship. Not the drink-bad-coffee-together fellowship, but the no-need-to-knock-just-come-on-in type. And today, after a long talk with old friends, I’ve spent a good portion of the afternoon reflecting on friendship or, more specifically, the society-wide, self-imposed lack thereof.
What used to be a rare ascetic practice of withdrawing from society has now become a sought-after daily act, removed from religion and all things spiritual, as we go from car to garage to house, shop without leaving our homes, text instead of talk, work all hours instead of finding time for play. And as much as I like staying in my sweats and ponytail all day, I know that our chosen isolation is harming our neighborhoods, our churches, and even our marriages and kids.
To right this wrong, I may just have to suck it up and put on a pair of jeans.
So in addition to the hidden things I burned to ash today, I have decided to give up complacent community. Complacent friendships. Complacent isolation. What does that mean, you ask? Well, I would argue it means exactly what it sounds like.
I’ve lost friends and family to death and misunderstandings, to long distances and opposing views, and yes, to laissez-faire attitudes towards community and friends. And yet I still too often take for granted the people in my life who bring me joy and better health. To be blunt, I’ve put laundry before laughter for far too long. The time has come for me to own up to that and fix it before it’s too late.
But this isn’t just an issue of living life fully and appreciating what I’ve got before it’s gone. It’s a deeply spiritual matter as well. It is only in community that we can realize our calling and how to live it out. It is our community that affirms—or not—what we think that calling is.
Ministry cannot be realized or fulfilled in isolation.
Our friendships themselves are microcosms of ministry, one to the other, a quid pro quo of the best sort. As we belong to Christ, we belong also to one another. Worship was never intended to be done individually and life was not meant to be lived alone. Our increased physical well-being when living in community bears that out. And in that way, perhaps foregoing complacent community is in fact a habit of highly effective people. Perhaps it is a self-improvement method equivalent to cutting out sugar or screens. But unlike those types of items, the sacrifice of which improves primarily our own health, sacrificing our complacent aloneness might just help us and those around us live a longer, fuller, and happier life.