becoming poor: a practice for Lent

What would you willing to give up for Lent?

Understand this from the beginning: I don’t mean to equate what I’m about to do for Lent with real poorness, nor do I think that being poor is something touristy to do.

At a recent youth event I sat in a workshop on ministry with the poor as the youth were engaged in a discussion of what poverty is. As they talked, it became apparent to the group that when middle-class Methodists (among others) think about poverty, most of the time we’re thinking of it in terms of not having things that we want, not in terms of living without things that we need. It’s simply off of our radar, whether by design or default. We think of poorness as not having more than one TV or not getting a car when you turn 16. We don’t think of poorness as not having medicine when you’re sick or not having enough food to eat more than a meal a day, if that.

So within that workshop I realized how often we execute that same neat separation when selecting our Lenten practice of fasting. We give up things that we want; never do we give up things that we need. Seriously, why would you inconvenience yourself like that? It’s just Lent.

I’ve approached Lent a hundred ways with our youth. Sometimes we talk in the weeks approaching Ash Wednesday about what we’re giving up; sometimes we intentionally don’t, to keep the sacrifice private. We would engage that privacy with discussion throughout Lent, but only in general terms: How is your fast going? What are you finding to be easy about it? What are you finding difficult? Year to year there’s almost always some discussion about the purpose of fasting. It’s not meant to be outward, but inward; fasting should be between you and God.

My challenge this year is that my fast for Lent has outward ramifications. The kind that pastors and staff committees need to know about in advance. I’m fasting from the culturally perceived need of fashion and cleanliness to experience what it would be like to be suddenly homeless with only the clothes on your back. Throughout Lent I’m restricting myself to a single set of clothing and barring myself from the use of a traditional shower or laundry facilities. If I or my clothes are clean, it will happen in a sink.

Here’s what I hate about it already. It’s going to be public. I had to ask permission to do it from leadership. I’m speaking at the Ash Wednesday service this week so the congregation at large doesn’t think the youth leader has gone off his nut. And it’s going to be outwardly visible–I have long hair that will be a wreck in 3 days at best and I won’t be able to shave because I “don’t have one anymore,” as the exercise will dictate. Well meaning people will try to talk me out of it entirely or talk me in to violations of it: What about Feast Days? You could shower every Sunday. What if I offered to wash your clothes for you? During this youth event, you’ll be staying two nights in someone’s home; couldn’t you shower then? No. Because I’m not trying to live my life in poverty; I know how rich my middle-class life is and social surroundings are. If I were suddenly homeless, I’d have somewhere to stay in an instant. I’m fasting from those things to experience the poverty of someone else.

Here’s what I love about it already. Everything else I’ve ever done during Lent has provided instances of reflection and contemplation; at times, I would miss whatever I had given up and remember that missing was meant to draw me closer to God. I am more than certain that this year my practice will be ever before me.

There are rules; I’ll be detailing those this week on my own blog at www.kevinalton.com and updating the experience nearly daily there. I’m hoping that my transparency will be beneficial to others; I don’t in any way mean to hold myself up as an example of Lenten greatness or as a gauntlet dropped in opposition to your chosen practice of Lent. I don’t think that wearing the same clothes every day and being generally musty for a few weeks will change the world. I’m hoping it will change me.

I’m curious to know how you approach Lent with your youth. Do you wrap your programs around Lent between Ash Wednesday and Easter, or is it something that carries on in the background? How do you approach Lent personally?

Peace,
K

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