Since 2009, Stephen Smith of OpenBible.info has been tracking what Twitter users say they are giving up for Lent. It makes for interesting reading but also suggests that Lent “give-ups” are somewhat superficial.
Smith’s 2015 list had a few surprising results. Based on 125,303 tweets, Smith compiled a top 100 list of things people said they were giving up. The top 20 items, in order, were: school, chocolate, Twitter, alcohol, social networking, swearing, soda, sweets, fast food, coffee, college, you, Lent, meat, homework, sex, junk food, pizza, bread, and chips. The top 100 sacrifices — sorted into the most frequently recurring 20 categories, looked like this: food, school/work, technology, habits, smoking/drugs/alcohol, relationship, irony, sex, health/hygiene, religion, entertainment, weather, shopping, sports, money, politics, clothes, celebrity, and possessions.
One would be foolish to presume these are only Christians giving something up for Lent. If they were, we would be justified in presuming they would resume these give-ups after Easter. Now, I can see value in giving up various things in these categories. Food-related items like junk food are for the most part worthy of giving up altogether. Technology items include social networking, which is a huge time-suck with relatively little value.
In fact, researchers often point the finger at social networking preoccupation as a trait of a narcissistic, self-absorbed culture. Susan Greenfield, of the University of Oxford, said in a speech before the United Kingdom’s House of Lords, “Social networking sites might tap into the basic brain systems for delivering pleasurable experience. However, these experiences are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity.”
Michael Bugeja, a journalism professor at Iowa State University said: “To rebut examples of proactive use of social networks, I could counter with tragic ones, including a recent hoax by an adult ‘neighbour’ that triggered the suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier.”
Christianity Today, commenting on the Twitter list of give-ups made an interesting observation: “One thing people don’t give up: Bible verses. Bible Gateway told CT that Lent is its busiest season of the year, with traffic between Ash Wednesday and Easter clocking in at 15 percent higher than the rest of 2014. Searches relating to dust and fasting increased 1,000 percent and 500 percent respectively on the days surrounding Ash Wednesday. Searches for repentance increased by 50 percent on Ash Wednesday.”
Adopt Positive Practices During Lent
More and more Christians are using Lent as a period to adopt one or more positive practices. I was particularly taken with an article released earlier this month by the United Methodist Church describing positive practices to take up during Lent. Titled “40 Days of Lent: Find Your Own Spiritual Path” Joe Iovino detailed some useful practices one would not discontinue after Lent. Fasting, Bible reading, and prayer headed the list. Many medical authorities attest to the value of periodic fasting. Bible reading, as shared in previous articles, is lacking. The Bible is the source of the Christian faith and worthy of study. There are many versions available, and great resources and apps to facilitate better Bible reading. Prayer is a wonderful way to connect with the Almighty. It can be done anywhere, and anytime. Prayer is not posturing, but a reaching out of the soul to God.
Iovino next suggests service: “Another way to observe a holy Lent is to take on a new way of serving. Throughout the forty days of the season you can adopt a new habit of volunteering in the community, making special financial gifts to service organizations, singing in the choir, or participating in a small group.” These are just a few of the myriad ways one could serve. Locally, call Bean’s Café, Brother Francis Shelter, Downtown Soup Kitchen, or Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission and volunteer to help. You’ll be surprised how quickly they’ll accept your offer, and how rewarding it can be.
Rest, taking a daily Lent quiz, exposing your children to Lent, and learning more about Lent and Easter are meaningful activities concluding Iovino’s list. Following these or similar ideas during Lent could go far in transforming our faith community. In sharing these Lenten activities, I do not imply Christians are not observing Lent properly; many do and are changed by their conscientious observation of Lent.
Ashes to the People
In my column two weeks ago, I mentioned a dedicated group of Lutheran pastors were going to be taking ashes to the people in Town Square on Ash Wednesday. I went downtown to see them doing so. It was a stunning sight to see a group of five white-robed priests standing in front of the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts offering ashes to those wanting them. Lutheran Church of Hope’s pastor, the Rev. Julia Seymour applied my ashes in the sign of the cross on my forehead intoning the “dust” phrase, a clear reminder of my mortality. The group told me that many more people this year, than last, asked for ashes, and that many others had questions for them. Christ Our Savior Lutheran’s pastor the Rev. Dan Bollerud told me a group from his church went for dinner at a local restaurant after their Ash Wednesday choir practice. Some restaurant staff inquired about the smudges on their foreheads, and ended up requesting ashes as well.
Personally, I find Lent meaningful as do many other Christians. I enjoy Lenten services at a wide range of churches. I urge you to consider observing Lent, if not already doing so, to obtain new meaning in your spiritual life.
Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith for Alaska Dispatch News and on his blog, Church Visits.