Spiritual practices come and go in the Church. They rise in popularity and then some fade away into relative obscurity. Many, such as fasting (giving up something) come from the Bible itself. Others grew up in the church because they filled a need. Few people sitting on pillars these days (see: Simeon Stylites).
Not so long ago, many Protestants considered Ash Wednesday and the imposition of ashes to be "too Catholic" or "ritualistic," but now, many Protestants have embraced the practice. The same is true with the practice of "giving up" something for Lent. I personally think these have been good developments for Protestants. We need to get out of our "heads" and into our hearts a little more. After 500 years, it's okay to embrace a little more symbolism and ritual, especially because that's how we're wired (by God I would argue). Ashes and other rituals of remembrance (such as Communion and giving up meat) are what Saint Augustine coined, "outward signs of an inward grace."
In the past 50 years of children's ministry history, we've gone from "doing almost nothing" special for Lent to encouraging children to "give up" something for Lent, and then to the newer call to "give up giving up" for Lent in favor of "doing something to help others." What was once viewed as a personal Lenten journey to the Cross has been turned by some leaders into a time for the practice of social justice rather than personal spiritual development.
Some have "given up giving up" because they think it's too self-centered. They prefer an outward-facing spirituality, not an inward one.
What I've found to be true is that many "outward-only" folks weren't raised with inward expectations or practices, and vice versa with those on the other end of the spectrum. But it's a false dichotomy. Both emphases are biblical and fruitful for the individual and for the Church.
In fact, you could argue that Lent is a time to get out of your comfort zone and consider the very thing your spiritual development is lacking. Taking a walk into your own personal wilderness, so to speak, or adopting a practice that will take you OUT of your "spiritual silo."
With children, it's best to start with rituals practices -- aka simple ways to practice and express their faith both personally and in solidarity with others that can grow with them. And LENT is the perfect season to do that because it has so many traditional options and biblical images and stories we can wrap our (and their) minds and bodies around. (Lent is much better than Advent in that respect because it isn't just about one story and doesn't have the Santa traditions to distract kids).
"Giving up" and "giving time to do" don't have to be mutually exclusive. "Confession and Acts of Penance" go together like "talking the talk and walking the walk." So rather than elevate one over the other, one option is to combine them in meaningful ways to show how personal acts of "going without" can change what goes on "within" us and begin to change what we do on the "outside."
- You can give up meat for dinner, and use the savings to feed the hungry.
- You can give up candy, and work on making life sweeter for someone else.
- You can give up video games to make time playing with your family.
- You can DVR your favorite TV show and watch a Bible movie instead, (How many does your church own that are sitting around un-watched this Lent?)
- You can fast your Wednesday lunch and then "break fast" with a simple meal that evening at church where you study Isaiah's call for "fasts of justice."
- And why not find a "pillar" to go sit on this Lent like old Simeon Stylites? Where's an "out of the way place" you could retreat to for some scripture and meditation? What issue could you help "raise up" a little higher for others to take notice of?
The key to "going without" is that we go without something that's TANGIBLE. While I like the idea of giving up things like "giving up saying bad words today" -- that puts us back in our heads again, whereas FASTING is about doing without the temptingly tangible. In the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, Evil didn't tempt him with ideas, it tempted Jesus with the tangible. Evil offered him bread, took him to the Temple precipice, and showed him all the kingdoms. So especially with kids, let's keep Lent "hands-on" (tangible) just like we believe our teaching should be.
Keep in mind that many Christians do not have good prayer and contemplative practices, and children will have practically NONE. So they will need some guidance, hands-on helps, and reminders. And while such things can be encouraged on Sunday, fortunately for us we live in an age when every parent and youth seems to own a cellphone that can receive images and text message reminders.
What will you give up today?
What will you give away today?
Who will you give to today?
What will you give time for today?
What spiritual practice will take you out of your comfort zone?
The possibilities are so rich that Lent's annual 40 Days are perhaps the year's greatest gift to teachers.
Looking forward to your response and ideas.