6 Ways to Live and Make a Difference in a COVID-19 World

6 Ways to Live and Make a Difference in a COVID-19 World

Video Courtesy of Cindy Trimm

COVID-19, no matter where you live, is taking over all aspects of our lives even if we don’t have the respiratory virus – it affects where and how we work, what we watch on TV, and even how we walk down the street. While some people are rapidly losing their health, others are losing their jobs in record numbers. How can people of faith keep positive among such sadness and be forward-thinking about what we can learn from this pandemic?  We know from 1 Peter 5:10: “After your season of suffering, God in all His grace will restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you.” Keeping that in mind, Dr. Cindy Trimm, author of more than thirty books with her three bestselling books, Commanding Your MorningThe Rules of Engagement for Spiritual Warfare, and her latest release, Goodbye Yesterday, having sold over one million copies, offers six practical and engaging ways to empower the faith community so we can pro-actively manage the challenging days before us.

  • Equip parishioners and congregants to think of themselves as industry-specific problem solvers, not just members of a church. A lot of our parishioners are professional. Encourage people to think of themselves as industry-specific leaders and problem solvers, themselves. And then create inter-organizational, intra-organizational response teams. By helping people to be response ready, work with healthcare and frontline professionals and deploy, pray for, and support government social agencies and those that are on the front line. As a faith-based community, we do have a powerful voice socially, politically as well as spiritually. And we can speak with wisdom into the institutions and systems. We can empower our people to understand that they’re not just looking for solutions. We are the solution. And if there’s ever a time where we can respond with wisdom, compassion, and counsel, we the people of God can do it. In my dreams, I see a world filled with visionaries, innovators, and dreamers who push humanity forward.
  • Lobby government to create biosecurity and bio-safety measures, especially if you’re dealing with things like aquaponics, bio-engineering, and other kinds of technological activities. That means if we’re lobbying with the government, we should be able to create pressure groups to create regulatory statutes and laws so that the government can draft new public policies. We need to rethink health care and increase funding for public health. Currently, there is no vaccine or medication for the coronavirus, but if increased funding had been available beforehand to the public health sector, which addresses a range of matters including chronic disease prevention and bio-terror rhythm and emergency preparedness, headway could have already been made towards coronavirus vaccine development. Instead, scientists are scrambling to create a vaccine amid the pandemic. This scenario illustrates how chronic underfunding of public health has consequently caused health practitioners to function in a reactionary manner versus taking a proactive approach to disease prevention and medicine.
  • Reinvent yourself. We are moving into an era of AI, algorithms, robotics, and all kinds of technological advancement. A lot of people are running scared, but we can upgrade our skills because there are going to be new skills that are going to be needed. And here’s the caveat, we are going to lose a lot of jobs to technology, but for every one job that we lose, 2.5 jobs are going to be created. We have to think about going back to school. We have to be able to gain a new skill set. We should be brushing up on new technology and really anticipating the changes that will happen within our profession and continue to build capacity by using the internet for education and not just for entertainment.
  • Don’t Listen to Conspiracy Theories. There are so many conspiracy theories. And I also often say that critical thinking is one of the skills of the 21st century. Toffler, and I quote him, said, “The skill of the 21st century is the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn.” You’ve got to be careful with this force of your information that you’re not knee-jerking. For instance, people are blaming the coronavirus on 5G. But if people are exposed to radiation, they’re not going to get a cold. They’re not going to get a virus. With the symptoms of radiation, people waste away and they lose their hair. They’re not going to get a viral infection from any radiation disease. Make sure that those you are listening to and those who are sending you these conspiracy theories are individuals who know what they’re talking about.
  • Take Care of Yourself. Find ways to distress in your home. You can exercise. If you don’t have exercise equipment, put on your happy music and dance. It’s also a great time to read – I’ve been telling everyone to read, read, read! Also, clean and declutter. We have nothing but time. Decontaminate the surfaces, disinfect—declutter your home, and your living spaces.
  • Pray. Faith and prayers are spiritual technology with long term social, spiritual, economic, political, and cultural implications. Prayer is not only a spiritual practice, but it’s also a practical principle, and so we need to pray for the frontline. Pray for healthy immune systems. Pray for caregivers and health professionals. I was looking at an article about a truck driver. We don’t usually think of truck drivers that are delivering food, but anyone that’s on the front line, pray for them. Pray for the government and government agencies. Pray for wisdom, pray for medical and scientific breakthroughs. Pray for healing miracles.



A Vision of Success

A Vision of Success

A college trip to Baylor University.

Johnnie Jones III was saddened back in the early ‘90s by how young baseball players with athletic ability in his neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago were lost once they aged out of the local league.

“They were excellent athletes, but they couldn’t read. As soon as they got to the age where they were too old to play in the league, most of them wouldn’t even graduate from high school and the ones that did just kind of found jobs. College wasn’t even an option because of their grades,” said Jones.

When he saw that these students couldn’t see what was possible for their lives beyond high school it inspired him in 1992 to start the Make A Difference Youth Foundation. Jones, who has a Bachelor of Science in Computer Information Systems from Roosevelt University, believed that if kids could see other young people who looked like them on college campuses, they could see a future for themselves.

“I was not enjoying seeing kids that were being cheered for their athletic abilities and then all of a sudden sitting on park benches and maybe going to a gang or selling drugs or something because there was nothing else for them to do,” said Jones.

In “Chi-Town: Enabling Greatness,” which Jones self-published in December 2016 he tells the story of the Foundation which aimed to work with kids from elementary school through high school so that they would be prepared for college and have a good idea of what they wanted to study. As part of his foundation, he created an after-school group called Teens for a New Tomorrow (TFANT) to give teenage kids a place to go. In the early days, Jones met with 20 high school students on in the locker room at Gately Stadium, a small football stadium where many Chicago public schools played their games as most high schools didn’t have a stadium. That number grew to 50 and during football season they were forced to meet in the parking lot.

Jones meeting in the locker room at Gately Stadium.

Initially, they focused on developing the student’s leadership skills. The kids held official roles as they learned how to organize, plan, and facilitate the meetings. Eventually, Jones found an office. It had a big hole in the middle of the floor where you could actually see the basement below, but it was a place to meet. He has faced obstacles every step but says God always found a way to get him through the tough times.

The first big project he worked on with the kids was hosting a citywide mock election. Local tech company ANET Internet Services donated the website development for the project. It was a huge hit. More than 20,000 high school kids all across the city registered and voted for alderman and the mayor. After the election, the kids were granted an opportunity to visit City Hall and meet Mayor Richard M. Daley who was so impressed by the project that he awarded Jones’ foundation a $25,000 community block grant to continue his work — a gift that was renewed for ten years.  With the money, Jones was able to fix up the hole in the office, put in a bathroom, do some necessary remodeling, hire college students as tutors, and pay for the general upkeep of the space.

After he made the fixes the owner sold the building sold. When the new owner came in, he raised the rent  three times what Jones had been paying and told him that “kids don’t make money.” The foundation had to go. Around the same time, Jones received a letter from America’s Promise, Colin Powell’s foundation.

Jones was being considered for a large grant but they would need to see his location in two weeks to make sure it met certain physical and electrical standards. It was an unfortunate situation, but God had a plan. Not long after he knew he would be forced to move his foundation, Jones happened to be in a pizza place in a mall next door to his office when he saw a “For Rent” sign posted. He went in and talked to the owner about his foundation. She was a retired teacher who owned a daycare and welcomed renting to an educational group.

Jones was upfront about his financial situation.

“I said, this is the money I have that comes in from the city, and this is all I can afford. She said, ‘That’s fine.’ So just out of the blue from me getting some pizza, the place next door just happened to be up for rent. That’s how blessings come,” said Jones.

And the blessings continued. The office had been a former hair salon and had twenty sinks on the wall he had to remove. Jones had no idea how he would do it in time for the visit from Colin Powell’s foundation, but more blessings came.

One of the parents came by to check out the new facility, saw the sinks, and removed them that same night for free. He was a professional plumber, single dad, and grateful for how the organization helped his daughter.

Jones (right) and the former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones III (left).

“As a single dad, having a place to know my daughter was safe every day, that meant the world to me. So, getting an opportunity to do something back for you guys, not a problem at all,” Jones recalls that parent saying.

Then, a neighbor helped him do the needed drywall and painting, all with an agreement that he could pay in the future. Next, an electrician who Jones had helped get a computer when he was first starting out, offered to do all the wiring for free.

In two weeks, everything was done and in 2000 the Make A Difference Foundation was one of the ten organizations from around the nation, and the only organization from the Midwest selected to receive a new computer lab by means of Colin Powell’s “PowerUP” initiative. Hewlett Packard, AOL, Gateway and Cisco Systems were sponsors of PowerUP and provided each PowerUP site with computers, free AOL accounts for the kids in the program and Cisco networking equipment. The next year, they got a special award and an extra $35,000 for being the National PowerUp Site of the Year.

“He had a vision. He always thinks outside the box, and he would come up with things that no other organization would come up with that he felt the kids could do. And he was always challenging them,  exposing them to experiences that they would not otherwise have had,” said Elaine Jones (no family relation), an active and dedicated volunteer whose daughter participated in the program.

By 2007, Jones’ group had expanded its mission to include community service projects and college campus visits. The students were required to do forty hours of community service, but they often logged more than 200. He had established relationships with college admissions recruiters, and some would even send a complimentary bus to pick up the kids in his program to visit their schools. The foundation had received many more grants and was able to support a summer camp for elementary schoolers and field trips. With two locations in Chicago and a staff, the bills mounted up to $25,000 a month with rent and electricity.

More than 5,000 students have gone through the Make a Difference Foundation programs since its inception back in 1992. Many of the students went on to attend colleges such as Princeton, Drake, and Duke, and credit his program for who they are today. Courtney Barnes is one of those students.

Courtney Barnes on a field trip when she was in high school.

“I think Teens for a New Tomorrow (TFANT) really influenced why I wanted to pursue a career in policy, specifically around racial equity and dismantling systemic racism and doing so by reaching out to our community, specifically our young people and working with them in ways that we can rewrite that narrative of this is what it looks like,” says Barnes, who graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in political science and government and a master’s in public administration. Barnes is currently Manager of Foundation Relations for Mercy Home for Boys and Girls, a residential care facility for boys and girls who have housing instability.

“I want them to know that there is life beyond the hood. And there’s life beyond that narrative of whatever they’re writing for our young black boys and girls. TFANT was that for me. I want to be that person for those young people.”

But when the markets crashed in 2008 funding for the foundation was hit hard. With the economic downturn, all of the grants dried up. Jones tried to keep the offices open with his own funds, but it wasn’t enough because the organization had grown so big. Plus, Morgan Stanley, the company where Jones worked, had layoffs, and he was out of work. He had to close up both of his offices and donate the supplies and equipment to another nonprofit. It was heartbreaking.

“I got two letters from kids when we shut down, begging us not to shut down the organization down, I never got over those letters. One said, ‘This is the only safe place I have to go to.’ When you’re reading those things, you kind of look and go, ‘I wish there was something I could have done,’ but I wasn’t in that position,” said Jones. “I’ve never been so crushed in my life than I was the day I had to lock all those offices and turn in the keys and then just say, ‘that’s it.’ So my success in technology, a lot of it was driven on, ‘I’ve got to make enough money so I can do this again and not let it fail.'”

The organization was able to hang on for a few more years. Jones did some consulting work in North Carolina and South Carolina

Karime Bolivar on the right is now in med school. This was Karime and her little brother at a community service project in Arkansas while she was in high school.

before eventually taking an IT position in Arkansas at Walmart. But he still tried to remain involved with the kids. Elaine was now at the helm, able to keep the service projects end of the organization going for a while. They worked together, had a core group of students still involved, and schools would send over other students to take on college trips or do community service projects.

“We even rented SMU campus buildings for a weekend and flew Native American students from a reservation in Michigan to hold a student-led conference with students from Chicago and Dallas. That was the biggest time that God stepped in! Elaine was our lead chaperone and got left by the plane at O’Hare airport, trying to help a late student make the flight. The plane was headed to the runway for takeoff and a chaperone called me from the plane to let me know the plane left Elaine. A flight attendant overheard the call and told the pilot. The pilot turned the plane around! A United Airlines flight was turned around, and they picked up Elaine. God has been good!” said Jones.

In 2013, Elaine could no longer manage the organization and it stopped operating in Chicago. But that wasn’t the end for the Foundation. In 2014, Jones brought it back to life in Arkansas. This time, with a new strategy. Instead of depending on outside funding, he has chosen to finance it himself. Even as it limits how many people he can help, but he can keep the organization running without fear of being shuttered.

“It’s knowing that this is something that is not me — it’s God. We couldn’t fail because God had a way for it. We should never have been in People Magazine. We should never have met Colin Powell. We should never have gotten a grant from the mayor. Everything that was happening was steps that were placed for us to succeed. And when we had to shut down in Chicago, it still wasn’t the end of God’s plan because it started right back up in Arkansas. And the first two graduates we have from Arkansas, one’s in medical school, and the other one’s going to medical school next year,” said Jones.


Why technology didn’t (and won’t) destroy the church

Why technology didn’t (and won’t) destroy the church

Video Courtesy of USA Today

It’s been nearly nine years since former Newsweek religion editor Lisa Miller warned that advances in technology could demolish the 2000-year-old Christian Church. The advent of Bible apps for tablets and smartphones, Miller argued, amounted to a “new crisis for organized religion” whereby “believers can bypass constraining religious structures – otherwise known as “church” – in favor of a more individual connection with God.”

Prophetic predictions of the demise of the Christian Church have almost become a tradition among religious writers. As with the others, Miller’s has amounted to naught.

Instead of having a completely negative effect on the Christian religion, technology has become an empowerment tool for both pastors and parishioners. Online versions of the Bible are one factor people point to when citing reasons for increased engagement with the Good Book. But on the other side of the pulpit, technology is now empowering pastors to minister more effectively.

According to a Barna Group survey, 97 percent of pastors now use the Internet to find information compared with 78 percent in 2000. Thirty-nine percent of pastors said they had a spiritual or religious experience via the Internet while only 15 percent said the same in 2000. The only surveyed function of technology that did not grow among pastors over the same period was using the Internet to play video games.  As it turns out, your pastor isn’t playing Minecraft when he or she should be preparing a sermon.

The survey also showed that pastors are warming to the idea that it is “theologically acceptable for a church to provide faith assistance or religious experiences through the internet.” Eighty-seven percent of pastors polled said they agree with that statement. Only 8 percent of pastors considered websites and Internet activities to be a distraction and more than half said the Internet “is a powerful tool for effective ministry.”

“Most church leaders realize the potential for continued connection with members and visitors alike through the Internet—from podcasts, to social media, to blogs, to sermon discussion questions and even community prayer requests,” said Roxanne Stone, a Vice-President at Barna Group. “No matter the church’s size, location or demographic, the Internet has become and will continue to be a vital tool for connection, outreach and even spiritual formation.”

Websites, in particular, have proven to be a powerful tool for churches and ministries. It increases their ability to collect charitable donations for critical community ministry projects and has provided a low-pressure way to connect with potential converts. Of the 1.6 million conversions recorded by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) in 2014, only 15,000 did so in person. In less than four years, BGEA has recorded more than five million conversions online. And according to BGEA’s Internet evangelism director–yes, that’s a thing–more than 20,000 individuals view a “gospel presentation” per day via their sites.

BGEA isn’t the only one pursuing evangelism online. Global Outreach Media, originally launched as part of Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru), recorded more than 30 million conversions online in 2014. One can assume that some of these conversions do not lead to long-term commitments to the Christian faith. But if only a tiny percentage of BGEA and Global Outreach’s are legitimate, these numbers are still significant.

But technology’s effect on spirituality and ministry is not all positive. Technology can shift ministers’ attention from substance to style as they become concerned about logos and websites and the fonts and backgrounds projected on worship screens. Technology makes it easier for ministry leaders and parishioners to access spiritually damaging materials, such as pornography and half-baked theological ideas. And, as I’ve argued elsewhere, I think the advent of fully online church “campuses” is a net negative.

Stone acknowledges technology’s potential to replace many of the local church’s functions in believer’s lives and, in so doing, will require ministry leaders to assess and emphasize the aspects of church that can’t be replaced by the Internet.

“You can hear a great sermon or your favorite worship music or even share a sense of community with like-minded believers online,” she said. “So what does the physical church offer that the Internet can’t? You can’t take communion online. You can’t physically serve others together online. You can post your #ashtag picture, but you can’t have those ashes administered online. In a virtual age, it will be important for churches to place a renewed emphasis on those tangible, corporal activities as a significant reason to come to church.”

Lisa Miller was partially correct. Technology does have a shadow side and could very well weaken organized religion if not properly stewarded. But it has not proven thus far to be the usher of doomsday Miller predicted. So long as the Internet remains less powerful than “the gates of hell,” we should expect the Church to persevere.

Like most advances in human knowledge, technology comes to us as a mixed bag with the message: “handle with care.”

Author’s note: The Barna data cited above included telephone surveys of pastors in two nationwide studies conducted by Barna Group among a nationally representative sample of senior pastors of Protestant churches. 

Coronavirus Close Your Church? Here Are 10 Churches to Watch Online!

Coronavirus Close Your Church? Here Are 10 Churches to Watch Online!

My United Methodist church, along with many other churches of all denominations, announced it would be closing its doors for at least a month, maybe two. I felt such a loss. Yes, I know people are going to church everywhere nowadays — in movie theaters, houses, cafes, etc. But for me, going to church is where I visit my second family unplugged. It’s a refuge from all the crazy that comes my way from 9-5 p.m., Monday through Friday. This past weekend, my church tried online streaming of the service for the first time. Keep in mind that our congregation is a tad on the older end — READ: Lots of grey hair. Yeah, it was…okay. I suggested to my mom, who is among the decision-makers of what to do, that they consider entirely rethinking how they reach out to people online. You can’t just throw a camera up and do what you’ve always done. The experience needs to be more personal — or at least tailored to the digital audience. That got me thinking. Which churches do that well? Where can any of us go on Sunday, or any day of the week, to get our worship on during this Coronavirus pandemic? The Urban Faith team asked friends, family, and Facebook members. Below are 10 great options that were recommended by our online community. Some are Black churches, others are mixed. Get your praise on and take a moment to offer up prayers for those who are sick and suffering.

  1. Elevation Church
  2. Victory Cathedral Worship Center
  3. Transformation Church
  4. Trinity United Church of Christ
  5. New Church of Faith
  6. Faith Inspirational Church (sermon on social media)
  7. Blueprint Chuch (messages on social media)
  8. Bethel AME
  9. Liquid Church
  10. Real Life Church

Your church not listed? We have an ongoing list on Facebook. Add yours!

Can you recommend the best churches to follow on social media?

Posted by Urban Faith on Thursday, February 20, 2020

Tech-Based Health Program Brings Our Kids, Parents Together

Tech-Based Health Program Brings Our Kids, Parents Together

High-tech tools can help African American children avoid drugs and alcohol, honor their racial heritage, and remain optimistic.
Getty Images / Klaus Vedfelt

The mere act of growing up brings special challenges to young African Americans, particularly those living in rural areas. Resources there are often limited, compared to what’s offered in the city. There’s more chronic poverty and economic stress, and less of almost everything else: employment opportunities, public transportation, recreational facilities, families with discretionary income, and health care, both physical and mental.

There are bright spots, however, as I’ve learned from over 20 years of research. One was the caregiving practices of many African American families. That nurturing has helped their children avoid major problems, including behaviors that place them at risk for HIV/AIDS and unplanned pregnancies.

With that in mind, I developed the Strong African American Families Program (SAAF) in 2000. Its purpose was to bolster positive parenting and promote competence and good decision-making among youth. Most of all, we wanted the program to dissuade young people from early sexual engagement, drug use and drinking. We tested its effectiveness with 677 families recruited from nine counties in rural Georgia. All of the families had at least one thing in common: each had an 11-year-old child.

I can report that SAAF effectively steered those young people from risky behaviors from middle childhood through young adulthood. And the primary reason for the positive outcomes was our support of those very strengths already present in those African American communities.

How it works

The program fostered “involved-vigilant parenting practices.” Sessions brought families together to discuss norms and values, while developing solutions regarding behavior and risk. Children need to think about the consequences of their behavior; parents need to know their child’s whereabouts and friends, and the places in the community to avoid. Mutual problem-solving and increased monitoring was emphasized, and young people were encouraged to honor their racial heritage and embrace optimism.

The success of SAAF led me to consider ways to increase accessibility of the program. Sometimes, there are logistical issues, such as transportation and work conflicts, when delivering programs that take families from home into a community setting. Using technology, we thought, might be one possible solution; it offers a “whenever-wherever” approach for families to access the program information at their convenience.

So I developed another program – Pathways for African American Success (PAAS) – to test what was best: Should youth and their caregivers receive the information through technology that was self-directed, without human interaction to guide them through the program? Through print materials (booklets, brochures and informational sheets) mailed to them? Or as part of a small group led by facilitators? More than 400 African American families participated.

Studies conducted by the author show ways to help youth stay in school.
Getty Images/Hill Street Studios

Less drinking, drug use and sexual activity

Parents who received the PAAS program through small group settings and technology reported positive changes. Youth who used PAAS through technology alone were more likely to delay sexual onset, and avoid friends who were drinking or sexually active. Indeed, risk-avoidant behaviors lasted longest for those receiving PAAS through the tech-based platform. Discussions about puberty, peer pressure, bullying and racial slurs were easier to talk about, for both young people and their parents or caregivers. Notably, those positive changes did not occur for those who received materials mailed to their homes.

What’s more, the data showed the SAAF and PAAS programs produced changes beyond slowing or stopping alcohol, drug and sexual activity among youth. Among the spillover effects: increased skills in child rearing among caregivers and reduced symptoms of depression. Which makes sense – witnessing positive changes in your child creates good feelings that improve mental health.

PAAS and SAAF also prevented young people from disruptive and delinquent behaviors, increased academic aspiration, encouraged friendships with academically oriented peers, and improved school bonding. Collectively, those new behaviors enhanced the likelihood that the children would graduate high school.

These are only the first steps. Other intervention programs, also drawing on the strengths of African American families, hold great promise for creating change. There is enormous potential to address the disparities disproportionately impacting African Americans: HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy, mental health, juvenile justice and the widening academic gap. With these two studies, I’m hopeful that technology is one answer to providing effective, evidence-based prevention programs to American citizens who need it the most.

Velma McBride Murry, University Professor, Departments of Health Policy and Human & Organizational Development, Vanderbilt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

When Lenten fasting is indistinguishable from a New Age cleanse

When Lenten fasting is indistinguishable from a New Age cleanse

Glasses with fresh organic vegetable and fruit juices as part of a detox diet. Many people opt to make healthier diet decisions during Lent, rather than simply abstaining from certain things. Photo by Derrick Brutel/Creative Commons

What are you giving up for Lent?

If you’re a practicing Christian — and likely if you’re not — you’re familiar with the exhortation to give up something for the traditional season of penitence, which starts Wednesday (March 6) for Catholics and many Protestants and March 11 for Eastern Christians. The season commemorates the period leading up to Christ’s passion and resurrection, and for the approximately 1 in 4 Americans who observe it, Lent has been a time of sacrifice, prayer, fasting and reflection.

But, increasingly, the popular concept of Lent has been transformed into a kind of vaguely theistic detox. It’s a chance not to give up earthly pleasures but to exorcise toxins.

An article published last year in U.K. tabloid The Express, by way of example, provides readers with a handy listicle of the health benefits of giving up some of the most popular fasting targets, such as smoking or chocolate, before reminding them of the upsides of giving up sex. “Abstaining over Lent might help you reconnect with your partner in other ways,” the article reads, before adding: “However, you might be tempted to break this when you hear how many calories sex burns.”

Modern Lent has come to have more in common with Dry January – the viral sensation encouraging New Year’s resolvers to give up alcohol for a month – than with its ecclesiastic antecedents.

No wonder that it’s not just the faithful who are getting in on the Lenten action. A 2014 Barna study found that American millennials, famously less likely to be religious than their elders, were nonetheless more likely than the average American to fast for Lent. And though hard numbers are difficult to find, abundant anecdotal evidence supports the idea that a solid minority of those who observe Lent belong to the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated.

A few years ago, Monica Potts wrote in “The Case for Secular Lent,” on Talking Points Memo, “I know tons of people who aren’t observant Christians but who nevertheless participate in some kind of targeted fast for the religious holiday meant to evoke Jesus’s 40 days and nights wandering through the wilderness.”

Potts, an avowedly “nonreligious” person, argues that her own regular Lenten observance is a vital part of her meditative practice. “We all need a time and space for quiet reflection,” she writes, “to consider what connects us, and to wish each other well. From ‘peace be with you’ to ‘namaste,’ there’s a universal desire to pull ourselves out of the everyday and set our intentions for a better life.” Lent, she wrote, is “a way to consider what gave me real pleasure.”

Diners fill their plates with a variety of fried fish at the Knights of Columbus Lenten fish fry in Bay City, Mich., in February 2008. Photo by Adrianne Bonafede/The Bay City Times

But is reflection all Lent is about? What does it mean to divorce the personal benefits of Lenten observance – even the spiritually attuned goals of increased mindfulness, a better life – from their divine referent? If we are not fasting to love God, but rather to optimize our own existence, are we not risking transforming a season of penitence into one of glorified diet culture?

In his 1978 book “Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth,” Quaker theologian Richard J. Foster quotes a long-term practitioner of a particular Lenten fast who sees the discipline as necessary for a kind of surrender to God’s will, rather than a triumph of self-control.

“For the first time I was using the (fast) day to find God’s will for my life,” the person tells Foster. “Began to think about what it meant to surrender one’s life.” Foster’s anonymous Christian isn’t trying to exert willpower, but to explore what “will” really means in a world subject to God. This practitioner is precisely trying to focus less on the self, not more.

In giving up chocolate, say, or alcohol or sex (or even my planned abstention: social media), we’re not necessarily focusing on self-denial so much as self-improvement. We’re stealth-dieting, giving ourselves another opportunity to be better (and, if we’re thinner, fresher-faced and more productive to boot, then so be it).

While Lent is by no means as secularized as, say, Christmas or Easter, it’s worth thinking about the way in which the Lenten season has increasingly become, as Giles Fraser, the journalist and priest in the Church of England, put it in a 2014 article for The Guardian, “a second go at the new year resolutions that ran into the sand somewhere in mid-January.”

Are we using a season designed for contemplation of the holy to alleviate our own insecurities about our bodies, our work ethic, our personal health? And if so, is it time, as we’ve done with Christmas, to take stock of what the “true meaning” of Lent really is?