Don’t Give up for Lent. Give.

This week, we have a guest post from Laura Pearson at Edutude.net, talking about how to make Lent more meaningful for your family.

In the period just before Easter, many Christians observe Lent. The Lenten season is typically associated with “giving up” a luxury like meat, chocolate, or wine. The practice is a way to recognize Jesus’ 40 day fast, recorded in the book of Matthew. It’s also a great way to gain some perspective and peace of mind in your life. If the Lenten fast has lost its deep meaning for you, it may be time to try “giving” rather than “giving up”. Giving to others can be a powerful way to observe Lent. It can add meaning to the season for your family and deepen your spiritual practice. Think about a deeper observation of Lent with these practices.

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Be Purposeful – Hold a family meeting before Lent begins (typically in February or very early March), or as soon as you can. As a group, decide on some volunteer projects you might like to try. If you are stuck for ideas, ask your church if it is affiliated with any charitable organizations. They may have established relationships in the community or have initiatives you can join. This is a wonderful way to bond with your faith community. Whatever you do, choose work that has a purpose or meaning to you. A study published in Health Psychology noted that self-serving volunteerism had the same effect as not volunteering at all, but that altruistic or mission-driven volunteerism could actually extend and improve quality of life for the volunteers (and we presume, those they served).

Be honest – When you volunteer with an organization, you, and especially your children, may work with a population with whom you are unfamiliar. Even the best intentioned volunteer can break a taboo, unintentionally put someone at risk, or alienate the person they are serving. Ask the volunteer coordinator for information or resources ahead of time to avoid painful or embarrassing gaffes. Prepare your children to be sensitive, compassionate and kind. For example, if your family decides to serve a special needs children’s classroom, know how to serve that community. Find resources like this post from Karen Wang, a parent of a special needs child. She offers helpful tips on better serving children like hers. Remember that no one needs you to “save” them. You are there to serve, observe, learn, and build rewarding relationships.

Be reflective – It is all too easy to walk away and say “Whew! That felt great!” Take your Lenten practice further by sitting together and discussing the project after its completion. Ask your children questions. What did you each learn? What did you enjoy the most? Was there anything that surprised you or made you uncomfortable? For example, if you volunteered at a soup kitchen, do some research to guide a discussion on a specific issue affecting the homeless population. You could discuss how this group is almost two times more likely than the general population to struggle with substance abuse. Without judgment, talk about how that might impact the options a homeless person has. Talk about other factors that might compound this problem. Ask for their ideas to help with a specific issue. Most of all, do your best to put yourself in their shoes to engender empathy.

Be a Light – When 40 days of giving are over, take time to look back. What was it like to be “a light in the world”? If you worked with a few organizations, was there one that resonated more with your family? Consider a longer commitment to that organization for the remainder of the year. After all, serving has benefits other than spiritual currency. Psychology and Aging found that volunteers who served more than 200 hours in a 12 – month period had lower blood pressure, reported greater psychological well-being, and reported increased activity compared with the non-volunteer cohort. So get out there and volunteer the rest of the year. Your community and your health will be better for it!

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