“How are you doing?” I ask people that question all the time. Lots of us use it as a polite form of “hello,” more or less. I’ll ask the cashier in the grocery store check-out that I’ve never seen before, “how are you doing?” I’ll ask whoever I happen to pass when I’m walking with my family in a park. It’s just part of the way I talk.
Don’t get me wrong, I try to ask the question very deliberately to people I know or am acquainted with. But in the context of my usual polite greetings for strangers, I can only think of one time in my life when someone has responded with something other than the usual “good” or “fine, thanks. And you?” It was several years ago when I greeted a young man working as a cashier Target. “I’m not doing too good actually,” he said. At first, his response made me a bit uncomfortable. He had broken the rules of my culture’s verbal handshake! As his response registered more fully, though, I was struck by his honesty. I found myself engaging in a much more serious, reality-based conservation with him.
The sad reality, of course, is that the average person that greets us doesn’t really care how we’re doing. It’s not that they’re rude. They’re just going about their day, and trying to be polite in their interactions with others. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. That’s actually a good thing! But answering the question takes time, and in most cases, neither the questioner nor the one asked wants to give the time necessary to talk in full detail about their well-being.
But here’s my concern: what happens if you ask yourself “how are I doing?” Do you actually have an answer to that question, or do you answer, “I’m fine, thanks,” politely dismissing the question? What about the deeper question? How are you really doing– as in how are you doing, spiritually?
Life is so busy that we rarely even take the time needed to form a response to the question for ourselves. Here’s my point: Lent is a time to be deliberate in taking the time to answer the question, “how am I doing?”
The heritage of Methodism gives us a framework to help us answer that question. The framework is called the “General Rules,” which are guidelines that were used to help early Methodists be accountable to one another in living faithfully. This Lent, I encourage you to use them for 40 days of personal reflection. Here is my rewording of the General Rules for reflection purposes (you can find the original, more intense version at umc.org:
- Am I doing harm?
- Am I doing good things?
- Am I seeking to encounter God in the places that God has consistently been know to be present?
Question 1 is asking ourselves if there are any behaviors in our lives that we need to turn from, and anyone that we need to ask forgiveness from. Scripture is the most faithful guide to answering this question. Frequently as we reflect on the Scriptures and pray, the Holy Spirit will convict our consciences and reveal to us the areas in our lives where we have done ourselves or others wrong. If we have people in our lives that we really trust, these people can be especially helpful in processing our harmful behaviors. Answering this first question honestly is an important step for me to answer the larger question of “how am I doing?”
Question 2 asks if we’re doing good things for the sake of others. Are we supporting the work of Christ (as our baptismal covenant says) with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness? It’s hard to think of a time when doing good doesn’t involve some sacrifice. Opportunities to pray, be present, give, serve, and witness abound for those who are constantly asking themselves if they are “doing good.” Questions 1 and 2 make sure that we’re “walking the walk and talking the talk.” Question 3, on the other hand, is focused more directly on our relationship with God.
Question 3 recognizes that there are activities that God frequently seems to use to give us the grace that we need to be able to “do well” on Questions 1 and 2. If Jesus seems to meet people who seek God in these ways, then doesn’t it make sense that we would want to do them more? Here is the traditional language that describes what these activities are, with my explanation in brackets:
- The public worship of God. [Attending and engaging with a worship service]
- The ministry of the Word, either read or expounded. [Hearing and reading preachers]
- The Supper of the Lord. [Holy Communion]
- Family and private prayer. [For example, using the devotional materials we provide for Lent]
- Searching the Scriptures. [Private devotional Bible reading as well as studying the Bible together with other Christians. Here are two suggested Bible reading plans for Lent.]
- Fasting or abstinence.
The last one probably deserves a bit more explanation. Fasting is simply not eating food for a period of time. Frequently one will have dinner at the usual time, and then not eat anything until two nights of sleep later. For example, one might decide to have pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, nothing on Ash Wednesday except what is needed for health reasons, and then deeply enjoy a nice breakfast (or a normal breakfast for the most disciplined!) on Thursday morning. Why in the world would someone do this? I can’t spell this out fully here, but here are a couple thoughts that I’ll try to expand on at another time. 1) Fasting is like a spiritual training ground for adversity that isn’t self-imposed. 2) Fasting frequently joins with prayer in the Bible preceding breakthroughs in faith and circumstances. 3) Fasting cultivates dependence on God. 4) Fasting allows us to feel solidarity with those who don’t choose hunger by choice, and it grows our compassion for them. 5) Jesus seems to expect that his followers will fast, and so he teaches them to guard themselves against doing it for the wrong reasons (See Matthew 6:16-18).
Abstinence, on the other hand, has a broader meaning than usual in this context. It is abstaining from something that you normally enjoy. Chocolate is always popular. Coffee is particularly painful for some of us. Some people have been choosing to practice abstinence from Facebook as a spiritual discipline during Lent. (We salute you!)
Here’s the point: we don’t really know “how we’re doing” until we take the time to look at the facts of what we’re doing to seek God more and to serve our neighbors more. Lent is a great time to focus more on God and living faithfully. Don’t get overwhelmed by taking on more than you’re ready for. Just start from a point of honesty with yourself, and you’ll be much more prepared than you would have been otherwise to hear the good news that Christ was crucified and raised for you and for me.