So, it’s the Friday after Ash Wednesday and I’ve already heard from a few people who have broken with their Lenten disciplines, whether than means indulging in a brief carbo-load or neglecting to read a chapter in the book they’re studying. All casualties of the go-hard right out of the gate model of Lenten discipline. I know this terrain fairly well, last year on Ash Wednesday I preached about being a Lent extremist. Often times, when I desire to make a change in my life, I like to go whole hog. I like the rush of trying to do something incredibly hard, I like the way it makes my world feel different for a few days, the electric charge of control. Sometimes this has worked for lasting change in my life. It helped me quit smoking a pack of cigarettes a day over eight years ago. For pretty much everything else -such as the overconsumption of anything with a high dose of sugar and fat in it- I last for about seven days max and then bust back to the other side with a little binging. So, we know this pattern, right?
I’ve been struck lately by the incremental changes required in a few mundane practices in my life. For one, I’m using Invisalign aligners to straighten my teeth out, something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid, when I was super self-conscious about the flare in my overbite from too many years of sucking a pacifier as a tyke. The aligners are molded to your teeth, or at least they’re molded to the shape your teeth are supposed to take two weeks from now. You change them out for a tighter pair of aligners every two weeks. It takes your mouth that long to get used to the new shape before trying to push them a little further in. The increments are, well, incremental. Fractions of millimeters. But that’s what your teeth can take, and even that much is painful when you pop a fresh pair in. The second example: my current weight training plan is set out in two week sets. Every two weeks, once your body has acclimated to the current routine, it gets just a bit harder.
Both of these are based on the principle that it takes your body two weeks to adjust to a new pattern. I’ve heard other programs say three weeks to get used to a new routine. Either way, it takes time, and incremental adjustments in intervals. What if we treated our spiritual discipline the same way? What if you had an image in your mind of how you want to be different six weeks from now? What if, rather than trying to be that all at once on the first day of your journey, you worked backwards from your goal, six weeks from now, four weeks from now, two weeks from now? What if it wasn’t about the rush of pushing ourselves all the way right out of the gate, but about the potentially-less-satisfying-up-front minor changes that can build our spiritual bodies up for lasting change over time?
And what is that change, exactly? What is the shape we’re seeking to take? For the Christian, it is not necessarily a slimmer, more toned shape with straight teeth. For the Christian, the shape is Christ, the surest thing we believe we’ve seen on this earth of the image of the invisible God. That is the image we are being formed into. That is the shape we are being jostled and molded and toned into being. How much of that image do you think you can take changing into in six weeks? How much in two? What is the container you need to fit around yourself to help this happen?
I’ll tell you that I don’t exactly have a Lenten discipline yet, myself. When I read the invitation to a holy Lent (BCP p. 264) a few days ago, I felt OK about not having a particular discipline. The invitation to take one up doesn’t happen till Ash Wednesday, after all. It was only on that day, hearing those words, that I was able to begin thinking about what God needs out of my life right now. I’m still not totally sure, but I do know it involves easing my grip a little on my own self-obsession to make more room for turning my attention to those who are other than myself. This morning I tried to take more time with the Daily Office, incorporating a little lectio (what’s lectio you ask? click here for my simple guide). I’m going to try and take the same amount of time tomorrow. Maybe six weeks from now I’ll be someone who can more easily take a few moments of silence in my reading to be receptively known by God, to better listen for the direction God is calling me to turn my gaze towards and serve.
As an addendum, these words from my friend-colleague-mentor (my friendtor? My mentleague?) K. Jeanne Person have been a guiding light for me this week: