Are you in the habit of making New Year’s Resolutions? Promises to yourself that in the coming year you’ll do something differently? Many people use New Year’s Resolutions to try and get themselves to live healthier lives: exercise regularly, eat more fruits and vegetables, spend less money on frivolous things, spend less time worrying. Often the idea is that you pick something that you can do a little bit at a time—for example, exercise for fifteen minutes three times a week—that will add up. Exercising once won’t do much good, but if you get in the habit and do it regularly, your body will be healthier in the long run.
For Christians, Lent is a time to make (and carry out!) resolutions. But instead of benefiting your waistline or your pocketbook, Lenten resolutions are designed to benefit your soul. We call them Spiritual Disciplines, because they take discipline and attention to do them, and because they make us better disciples. (Did you know that “discipline” and “Disciple” come from the same root word?) Like New Year’s resolutions, if you can do just a little bit each day, it can make a huge difference in the long run.
One of the most important spiritual disciplines is prayer. This is one of the foundations of our lives as Christians. Prayer is about taking time out of our daily lives to lift our concerns and our joys to God, and to listen for God’s Word for us. Awesome things can and do happen when we pray regularly and sincerely. Prayer is a way of connecting to God, and allowing God to lead and change us. (An interesting note: This isn’t just on a spiritual level. Scientists who study human brains have scanned the brains of people who pray at least fifteen minutes a day at least three days a week, and found that you can actually see things working differently when they pray!)
Reading the Bible regularly (especially with other people) is another important discipline. The Bible is the story of how God has worked in the world from beginning to end, from Creation to Revelation, and everything in between. The Bible tells our story, the story that has shaped us as a community, the story of our ancestors in the faith. The Bible tells the story of how God made us, loved us, saved us, and will always be there in good times and bad. When we read the Bible together, and talk about it, we can share insights that we couldn’t have thought of on our own.
If you’re not used to reading the Bible, here are a few tips to make it easier. Use a modern translation of the Bible in a good study version with helpful notes to explain things that might be difficult to understand. Start with the Psalms or with one of the books that is mostly stories (for example, the Gospels, Genesis, Exodus, Ruth, Jonah, Judges, Kings, Chronicles) because they’re easier to read. Say a short prayer before beginning to read, then dive in. As you read, ask yourself questions: Does this remind you of anything in your own life? How would you feel if you were one of the people in the story? Does this connect with any other Bible stories you remember? Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and be open to new insights.
Worship is a spiritual discipline that many people practice during Lent. Worship brings people together to praise God. It’s one of the foundations of our life together in the community which is the congregation. Worship can draw us out of our regular, ordinary lives into participating in the presence of God in our midst. When we regularly attend worship, we are shaped by our participation and are refreshed and strengthened to live as God’s people. During Lent there are more worship services offered than usual. I encourage you to attend them regularly.
Fasting is a discipline that is often misunderstood. Fasting is not about making yourself miserable for the sake of being miserable, nor is it a way of showing your piety publicly by loudly proclaiming what you’ve given up for Lent. Instead, fasting is about simplicity. We live very crowded, complicated, busy lives these days. What in your life separates you from God and from the people around you? By paring down to the essentials, by getting rid of the things that distract us (even if only temporarily) we provide a space for reconnecting with God and with our fellow human beings. We give ourselves time and space to be, to get back to the essentials. If nothing else, we force ourselves to realize just how much of our time and attention is consumed by distractions. One last thing: if what you are giving up normally costs you money (eating at restaurants, TV or internet, gas, junk food, etc), try giving away that money that you save by not doing it.
Charity can also be a spiritual discipline. Christ calls us to love one another as he has loved us, and when God blesses us, God asks us to share that blessing with others. And yet, we so often walk right by people in need without even noticing them. Sometimes the needs are monetary, but often what is most needed is a gift of time and attention. Charity can look like a lot of things. For example, it can be a morning spent volunteering at the Food Pantry or delivering homemade soup to someone who has been ill. Charity can be participating in fundraising for local events, or national and international organizations such as Lutheran World Relief, ELCA World Hunger, ELCA Disaster Relief, and many others. Monetary gifts are most effective when they are combined with our time and attention and our prayers.
Praying, Bible reading, worship, fasting, and charity are the most important spiritual disciplines. When we practice them regularly, we can live out our discipleship more fully.