I heard of a minister in England who gave out a bar of chocolate to every person in his congregation on the First Sunday of Lent. Unconventional, yes? Isn’t Lent when ministers tell you to give up stuff like chocolate?
As you may have guessed by now, there was a twist: the chocolate was “Fair Trade,” and his sermon focused on the ethics of trade and giving up injustice toward the world’s poorest producers. “This Lent,” he said, “find out where your chocolate, your coffee, and your jeans come from. Find out what kind of shopping habits depend on poverty wages, sweat shops, and ecological nightmares. And then support traders who are trading ethically.”
It was a bold message, but it also involved eating chocolate. Not quite what you’d expect at Lent.
Many churches have, in recent years, turned to taking something ON rather than giving something UP for Lent. And there are plenty of critics to that kind of thinking. Those critics sometimes complain that the church has gone “soft.” But if you look back at history you’ll find that Lent was traditionally a time for taking up charitable giving and service—the discipline of “almsgiving”—as well as giving up things that might not be good for us.
So during Lent does that make it OK to eat chocolate so long as it is “fair trade” chocolate? That is a matter of personal judgment. Just remember that the same Jesus who endured temptations in the wilderness also led his disciples in a fair amount of “Sabbath-breaking.” He reminded us that Sabbath was made for us—not the other way around. I think the same can be said for Lent. Lent should be a positive spiritual experience—whether that involves a giving up or a taking on. It shouldn’t be seen as a pointless endurance test.
The book my Sunday School class is reading suggests that the purpose of prayer is to make us alert to what God is doing around us. I say Lent offers us the same opportunity. By prayer, fasting, and the giving of alms, let these 40 days be a time of being “hyper-vigilant” to God’s presence among us.
Kristin Clark-Banks is the pastor of Forest Hills UMC.