The Christian season of Lent began this week. For those who observe this season, it is a common practice to take on a new spiritual discipline for the seven weeks between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Spiritual disciplines are of course not unique to Christianity, but are practiced by followers of all faiths.
My wife recently led a three week parenting series for parents of children in our local school system. The topic of discipline came up, as it almost always does when we offer a parenting program. The parents were not asking about discipline in the spiritual sense, the kind people connect with seasons such as Lent, but rather about the topic of discipline as it relates to raising children.
Whenever my wife and I, who speak regularly as family therapists about parenting, are asked about the topic of discipline it gives us the opportunity to remind people that the rooting meaning of the word discipline is to teach. A disciple is a student, a person learning from a teacher. To be knowledgeable in a certain discipline means that one can teach others about that subject. When we are talking with parents we explain that many parents commonly think of disciplining a child as synonymous with punishment. It is more accurate, and far more helpful though, to think instead of disciplining a child as teaching a child. Any time a child misbehaves, a parent has an opportunity to teach, it is a teachable moment. The parent can show and demonstrate the behavior that would instead be more appropriate, safer or more desirable. The emphasis of a teaching based discipline versus a fear or guilt-based approach is an important distinction when thinking about the idea of discipline.
The same understanding of discipline applies to the practice of spiritual disciplines. Some approaches to Lent, and to spiritual disciplines in general, have emphasized fear and guilt, even the need at times to suffer. I choose to believe in a love-based approach to discipline, one that emphasizes discipline as teaching. With this mindset, one takes on a spiritual discipline to learn about spiritual matters such as the importance of humility, gratitude, patience, delayed gratification, forgiveness, prayer, and service to others. Just as a person might have a discipline of practicing the piano in order to play more beautiful music, so too a person might take on a spiritual discipline to be able to live a more spiritual life, to deepen one’s tendency to be humble, patient, prayerful, and grateful.
In my attempt to deepen my own spiritual life I have already started practicing a few spiritual disciplines for this Lent. I will be writing in a journal for fifteen minutes each day, specifically about two things. The first will be what I am grateful for that day, and the second will be what I either learned that day or what I had the chance to practice in terms of “letting go.” “Letting Go with All Your Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind” is the theme of the Living Compass Lenten booklet this year and so it was natural for me to focus on that as part of my journaling discipline. The other discipline I will be practicing this Lent is that of giving something away. Each day I will be packing up one item to give to Goodwill. At the end of the 40 days of Lent, I will take the 40 items to my local Goodwill store to drop them off. I still have a great deal to learn about letting go, gratitude, and simplifying my life and so this is my lesson plan for this Lent.
How about you? Have you considered observing Lent this year by taking on a spiritual discipline? If so, what do you hope to learn by doing so?