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Shrovetide.

This Sunday to Tuesday, before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, is called Shrovetide. The verb shrive means to hear someone’s confession. The purpose of Shrovetide is for Christians to talk over what it is we’re gonna do for Lent.

If your church, or just you, observes Lent, this is prep time. We take this time to think about what particular ways we as Christians need to follow Jesus better. What habits do we need to improve upon? What distractions do we need to give up? Lent isn’t just about giving up meat on Fridays, or dropping one bad habit for 40 days. As if that’s automatically gonna make you a better Christian. Self-deprivation, a form of self-control, can be good, but it needs to be purposeful. What ought we give up for Jesus? And likewise, what ought we take up for him? Should we pray more? Read more bible? Give more to charity? Pitch in around the church?

See, that’s the problem with the way a lot of Christians observe Lent. We turn it into dead religion: It’s not about giving up something for Jesus, but about giving up something for Lent. It’s not about growing closer to him; it’s about doing what everybody else is doing because you don’t want to be the only one ignoring Lent. (Or, if you’re like a lot of Protestants who ignore Lent altogether, it’s about feeling self-righteous because you’re not practicing dead religion… and in so doing, you totally miss out an opportunity to grow closer to Jesus.)

Choosing wisely what we put down.

Don’t just give up the stuff you know you ought to. Smoking, overeating, over-drinking, swearing, pornography, anything which makes you put off sleep or your responsibilities: You already know you need to give these things up, and should do so anyway. Likewise sins: Always give up sin, whether it’s for Lent or not: Don’t give up shoplifting for Lent; give it up. Don’t give up verbal abuse for Lent; give it up. Stop it now, not just on Ash Wednesday.

But what I’m talking about is the impact of the stuff we give up. The first time I gave up something for Lent, I picked coffee. I love coffee, and it makes sense to pick something which might have enough of a hold on me to tempt me. Problem is, when I have my coffee first thing in the morning, the first words out of my mouth are, “Thank you Jesus for coffee.” I’m in a thanksgiving mood. From there, I can go on to prayer, devotions, and other ways of honoring him. But when I don’t have that coffee, it’s gonna take a little while longer to get into that mood. No, I’m not saying I need my coffee to worship Jesus; that’d be ridiculous. But giving up coffee didn’t help my relationship with Jesus any, and in some ways even hindered it. And that’s the important thing. (And lest you’re worried about the coffee, I usually drink decaf—and not just for Lent.)

So before you choose something to give up, think: Does going without really improve your relationship with Jesus? Or are you doing it to feel better about yourself? Or is Lent like a belated New Year’s resolution? Lent isn’t about giving up sins. It’s about giving up distractions.

Choosing wisely what we pick up.

At the same time, Lent is about doing something. Okay, you’re dropping your distractions. Now that you have some time freed up (like, let’s say you’re giving up your Netflix marathons) what’re you gonna do instead of what you’ve given up? Maybe read the bible in 40 days? (You can do it in 30, you know.) Maybe join a small group at your church? Maybe start pitching in at a local charity, or help out around your church, or take the money you’d have spent on what you gave up, and give it to the needy?

Yeah, giving up something for Lent helps with the self-discipline. Now augment it: Put one thing down, and take another thing up. ’Cause some of these things we give up are awfully easy. I had no trouble giving up dessert for Lent. (Giving up bagels, on the other hand, was unexpectedly difficult.) But what did I do with the time I wasn’t spending on dessert? At that time, nothing. So how’d it bring me closer to Jesus? Well, it didn’t really. Only later did I realize the importance of picking one thing up at the same time I put one thing down.

How might you do likewise? Up to you. Talk it over with God and fellow Christians. Maybe your church is doing some special campaign or ministry. Get involved in it.

The final binge.

Okay. The other significant purpose of Shrovetide is one last big blowout: These are the last few days to enjoy your freedoms in Christ before you begin to limit yourself for Lent. If you’re giving up meat, have a nice barbecue dinner right before. If sugar, have a nice big sugary treat the day before. Shrove Tuesday tends to have a lot of parties and pancake breakfasts because of this.

Obviously, some folks have entirely missed the point, which is how Carnival and Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday,” as French-speakers call Shrove Tuesday) were invented. Instead of enjoying their freedoms in Christ, and eating of the fat of the land, people choose to sin themselves sore so grace may abound. Of course, not everyone who celebrates Mardi Gras is Christian. A lot of those folks are only there to party; they don’t give a rip about Jesus.

We don’t care to practice that. Our celebration, just like our observance of Lent, keeps Jesus in mind. So keep him in mind as you decide what to do—and not do—for the 40 days before Easter.