Lenten Discipline 2006


Lent is here. This year the date of Ash Wednesday is later than in most years, but it’s here now. Lent comes and changes our weekly liturgies, the way the clergy vest for services and the worship schedule we keep. The Church keeps Lent corporately each year as an example to her children (you and me). It does this to inspire the faithful to follow. We are expected to take on or put down whatever is needful so that Lent becomes a time of special spiritual intentionality. So. “What are you planning on doing this year to follow the Church’s example?

Most years when I plan my lenten discipline I tend to focus on internal, private things that I want or think need to change. The “what” has changed over the years, but the “why” has always been the same. I’ve wanted to recommit myself to the path that Christ is calling me to follow. As a child it meant learning to do without something so that I could better recognize what was important (e.g. most years I would give up dessert or favorite treat during Lent.) As I got older I was more likely to focus on taking up some special additional discipline – like reading a book that I knew I should read but had been putting off, or committing myself to saying Compline at night before bed. These sorts of thing have made Lent act for me like “spring-training camp” does for an athlete. I’ve tried to use the time to dust of my soul and clear out the spiritual cobwebs that have accumulated over the year just as an athlete uses training camp to get ready for the coming competitive season.

But today I find myself wondering if that sort of discipline isn’t overly interior focused. It’s pretty easy for me to take on a self-discipline that’s mostly focused on my interior life. If I don’t succeed, I’m only accountable to myself. And because I’m the only one who can judge the efficacy of my efforts, I’m much more likely to decide that I have succeeded in my task. And that, is for me at least, dangerous. It’s dangerous because I can give myself a passing grade when I really don’t deserve one. And it’s dangerous because I more likely will give myself a failing grade when I really don’t deserve one. If I’m the object and the judge of my spiritual discipline, then I’m in danger either way… (I suppose this is why God invented the ministry of Spiritual Directors – so that folks like me can find an external referee to ask for a ruling on our efforts.)

So. This year, rather than doing what I’ve done in past years, I’m going to try something a little different. I’m going to choose to focus on the way I treat other people. My hope is that by so doing I’ll be able to see more easily whether or not I’m accomplishing what I want to accomplish. If a person reacts well to what I’ve done, I’m probably on the right track. If I’m not, then they won’t.

I like to imagine that people in the healing profession remind themselves of their healing oaths each day by remembering the sentence “First, do no harm.” before they begin their work. I like the fact that the statement is short, clear and meaningful. It seems both a prayer and a ward to protect the patients in their care. I tried to think of an analog for a christian. Father Tim, a character in the Mitford series of books set in a small town in western North Carolina, starts each morning’s work with the prayer “Make me a blessing to someone today.” I thought for a while about trying to use it as a personal lenten discipline.

But I finally found the discipline that I plan to take on when I was in a bible study group with other local clergy. We were talking about the gospel story of the friends of a paralytic who dug through a roof to lower their friend down to where Jesus was teaching so that their friend could be healed. We were marveling at the faith and intensity of commitment that the friends must have had. They seem to have been willing to do anything to get their friend into the presence of Jesus. As we talked, someone suddenly noticed that what they had done was to act in such a way as to make God’s love real to their friend.

Make God’s love real. I liked the idea the moment I heard it. I liked it so much that I’ve not been able to clear it from my head. If we didn’t already have a mission statement for Trinity, I’d suggest we use this. It’s simple, clear and active. It focuses on results. It makes me look outward to other people and the community as the reasons for my actions. Learning to die to self and to live for Christ (of whom we are each members) is a basic understanding of ministry.

So. This is what I have chosen for this year’s lenten discipline. I’m going to try my hardest each day to “Make God’s Love Real” to the people I meet. I’ll probably have mixed results just as in everything but that’s alright. The journey is, in so many ways, the reward.

In truth, I like the motto and the discipline so much that I might just keep it around after Lent too.

Have you decided on your lenten discipline yet? Take some time and think it through. What works best for me might not work for you. But what matters is that you take whatever you chose to do seriously. It is in the striving to become more like Christ that we open ourselves up to the working of the Holy Spirit inside us and become transformed. And our transformation is the reason for Christ’s willingness to walk his path of discipline and sacrifice leading to the first Easter.

May your lenten discipline bear much spiritual fruit this year.


The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Midge Mellen says

    Dear Father Nick,
    My name is Midge Mellen. I joined Trinity for a short time last year when I lived in Bethlehem. I moved back to Long Island, New York last July. I miss the theological discussions your church had before the Sunday service.
    I have never experienced anything to equal what I got from these discusions. To me, it was an opening of a spiritual door.
    I think of Trinity often. I have talked about Trinity’s early morning discussions, and what they have meant to me with my brother Bill and others, many times. In fact, my brother Bill, who is highly intelligent and a history buff (works at NYU Library in NY) – returned to church after we exhanged several emails discussing the subject of those early morning discussions at Trinity. He knew all about the subject and helped further my understanding of it.
    One of the discussions we had helped him get over his stubborn reason for not attending chruch for years. After that he began attending, and is now very fulfilled and active in his church in Brooklyn.
    What I liked most at Trinity Bethlehem was listening to the discussions of a gathering of highly intellectual people with varying interpretations. I could just listen and listen. I marveled at the capacity of these great minds. The discussions were so detailed – names, dates, history…right on the tips of their tongues, so natural, easy, and down to earth.
    I wanted to catch some of the conversation’s bits and pieces, and grow bit by bit.
    I miss those discussions so much. Someday I’ll be back. I’m so happy to find this site. Your message “Make God’s love real” IS result oriented. It does take us out of self. I still wear the white “one” bracelet that you handed out at an outreach meeting.
    I miss you all. I still have my house in Bethlehem. It’s empty, still. I’m dragging my feet when it comes to getting Bucky from Plaza Realty to rent it out for me.
    When I moved to Bethlehem to be near my grand daughter Lundon, I was optimistic that I would have no problem finding a job with benefits.
    I must have sent over a dozen resumes to Lehigh University alone. That was my first choice since I’ve worked with engineers for over 20 years. I thought working in an academic atmosphere would be satisfying. I was sure I’d get something at the University! Oh well.
    I’m still sending out resumes on a regular basis, all over Lehigh Valley: Olympus, Bethlehem Area School District, RMS, etc.
    When I lived in Bethlehem I took a job as a substitute teacher’s aide in Bethlehem area school district until I found something permanent – which ended up, I thought, as a consultant at Merck Pharmaceutical (Whitehouse New Jersey)! The commute was long, but, after 3 months I would be eligible for medical benefits. At 51 year’s old, that’s important!
    So, after 3 months at Merck as a financial analyst, I was eligible…but as a consultant it cost $735 a month!
    So, frustrated and going broke, I called my old job and asked if they wanted me back. Luckily they did, and I got a pay raise.
    I live on 33 acres now. My landlord lives on the other side of the property in a Beverly Hills type mansion. I rent a small 3 bedroom cottage. I live with my 3 dogs and daughter Marie who is away at Maritime University. There are 5 horses, a lake…it’s quite nice…
    But – I miss Bethlehem, and living in my own home. It’s paid in full, and I’m renting here… My sister Anne Lawrence lives on Church and Center Street. You know the house…
    My dad and mom are buried in the little cemetary across from her. And – my grand daughter lives on the other side of the river in South Bethlehem. So, I’ll be back.
    I may have to rent out the house on East North Street soon. It makes sense financialy… but, I’m still holding out hope. In the meantime, the home should at least be building equity. At least that’s the plan!
    Okay, I should sign off now. It’s hard to sign off. I feel closer to everything while I’m writing. I can see it all in my mind…
    My best,
    Midge Mellen
    302 Bread & Cheese Hollow Road
    Northport NY 11768

  2. Midge – thank you *so* much for writing. There are times that we all wonder if the work we do has any effect on others. Your note reminds me that what is happening at the parish effects many people, some of which (like you) we can see, and others (like your brother) that we don’t. I’m delighted to hear that he has found his way back to a faithful community and more delighted than you can know that we had some small part in helping you accomplish that.
    We miss you too. I hope that your path will lead you back to us soon. God’s blessing on you this Lent.

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