Lent, Love, and the Rest of My Life

Photo Credit: MTSO Fan, flickr

Photo Credit: MTSO Fan, flickr

One of my pastors likes to say, “Lent is a time to do more joyfully what we should be doing all the time.” That challenges me, because I naturally want to think of Lent as some kind of crash diet, a time when you give something up that you really love and it’s a great test of your willpower. Then, when you’ve gotten to the end of the sprint, you can go back to living exactly like before. And that’s usually exactly what I do.

But Lent, a season of fasting, sheds light on the rest of my life. In my current circumstances, I lead a life of plenty. There’s no reason for me not to indulge, and in fact, I’m encouraged to treat myself all the time, like it’s a holiday every day. There’s a reason we call this a consumerist society.

And also, of course, I just love overindulging all the time. I’m still young and there are few consequences to my physical body. I love the feeling of being overfull, secure in my plenty. I love new delights on my tongue and familiar comforts slipping easily down my throat.

Fasting is a shock to my system in every way.

My body, my mind, my culture all tell me, You can’t go a whole day without eating anything. You have to eat.

But Lent asks, Do you really?

Can God alone be your bread today?

And it makes me wonder if I can ask myself that moment to moment. If I can live with less so others can have more.

I’ve given up all animal products for Lent, for more reasons than one, but mostly because I know my consumption of dairy contributes to global warming, which is devastating for God’s creation and the materially poor.

I know it makes sense to drastically reduce, if not completely eliminate, dairy as a part of my diet for the long term, not just forty days. But I also miss butter and cheese and ice cream so much already. Even as I think aloud about making sweeping changes, it’s often with a heavy heart and (I’ll admit it) a whiny tone of voice. I don’t wanna give up my favorite stuff.

I’m tempted to look forward to Easter as the time when my life will go back to normal.

But here’s the thing: maybe my normal and Jesus’s normal are two very different things.

The Bible says that Jesus “became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” I read that last night and I thought about how little I contemplate all that it meant for Jesus to become one of us.

Jesus was God, with all the power and glory that implies, but he became one of us. He humbled himself and became a being who existed in time, who was born and died. He endured every frustration in life that we do. He suffered sickness, exhaustion, and emotional pain. The closer he got to death, the more his suffering grew: betrayal, abandonment, misunderstanding, mockery, utter humiliation.

At times he wished there was another way to save us. But through it all, he wasn’t resentful. He was doing it for the love of poor people like us and through God’s love for him, and his loving heart shone through it all.

So that gives me a bit of perspective on my “sacrifices,” in and out of Lent. There’s nothing I can’t do with a loving heart, if I stay in the middle of Love and let it fill me.

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Humility and Freedom

Epitaph on Nikos Kazantzakis' grave. I don't h...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know Lent is over, but this post from last year has been on my mind lately. I need to write much more about this. Stay tuned.

And please, do share what you need freedom from in the comments so I can pray and ponder with you.

In 2005, on a trip to the island of Crete, I visited the grave of the writer Nikos Kazantzakis. I remember his grave being hard to find, for such a famous landmark. Finally my friends and I drew close to it, the shadows growing long by now. Etched on the headstone in gracefully looping Greek were the words Δεν ελπίζω τίποτα. Δε φοβούμαι τίποτα. Είμαι λεύτερος. I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.

Holy Week is fast approaching, and what I’ve learned this Lent is that I’m not yet as free as I want to be.

Maybe it’s actually the lesson of every Lent. Many of us give up something that seems minor and silly, chocolate perhaps, and we’re hit in the gut by how much we long for it. We go without food, a minor inconvenience for those of us who don’t have medical or psychological reasons to abstain, and we are shocked by how much our hunger pangs obsess us. More than that, we realize how numb we are to the things that matter more. We are brought to tears over our caffeine withdrawal, but not by footage of war on the news. We thirst for our tiny pleasures and think we can do without Love itself.

What I gave up this year was Facebook. Sounds like a tiny thing, right? Well, for me it’s a tiny symptom of a much bigger problem: online or off, I live to be liked. I have an approval addiction. If my actions don’t provoke praise, I immediately question their meaning. If I incur even the tiniest criticism, my stomach churns, my muscles involuntarily tense.

And here’s the upshot of all this: when I care so much about what people think, I ignore what God thinks. I thrill to hear a random fellow bus rider say I’m pretty; did I forget I am by definition “fearfully and wonderfully made“? I quickly grow impatient with trying to help someone if I’m not thanked or swiftly shown progress; is that my answer to “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up“?

I am filled with unreasonable hopes and unrealistic fears. There is a lot of “me” in the way of my freedom. And yet I have one hope I know I can count on: that there is a Higher Power than me, that I don’t have to fix my own brokenness. That Jesus will help me empty myself of my ego so I can be filled with love, like he did in his time here on Earth.

I’d like to close with a prayer for freedom for me and for all us approval addicts. Thank you, Cardinal Merry del Val.

O Jesus, meek and humble of heart, hear me.
Deliver me from the desire to be esteemed,
From the desire to be loved,
From the desire to be extolled,
From the desire to be honored,
From the desire to be praised,
From the desire to be preferred to others,
From the desire to be consulted,
From the desire to be approved.

Deliver me from the fear of being humiliated,
From the fear of being despised,
From the fear of being rebuked,
From the fear of being slandered,
From the fear of being forgotten,
From the fear of being ridiculed,
From the fear of being wronged,
From the fear of being suspected.

O Jesus, grant that I may desire that others may be more loved than I,
That others may be more esteemed than I,
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I decrease,
That others may be chosen and I be set aside,
That others may be praised and I unnoticed,
That others may be preferred to me in everything,
That others may become holier than I, provided that I, too, become as holy as I can.

Laying Down Our Lifestyles: Lenten Practice Beyond Lent

Lent

(Photo credit: Fr. Stephen, MSC)

Prayer. Fasting. Giving. Do these traditional actions of Lent make a difference? Are they more than a personal improvement project, or even a way to prepare our hearts for Easter? How can Lent inspire us to love God and our local and global neighbors better? I’d like to explore these questions and invite others to contribute their own answers as well.

Prayer gets a bad rap for being impractical. For years after my conversion, I didn’t spend much time praying, thinking that, as it says in the book of James, it’s hypocritical to pray for someone unless you are also working to provide for their needs. Years later, I have come to realize the place that prayer has in preparing me for good works. I believe, as it says in 1 Corinthians 13, that my noblest actions are worthless without love. And how do I get more love? By connecting with the very Source of love in prayer.

Also, for me, prayer has become an important way of opening my eyes to the world around me. I can pray not only for my family, for my neighbors, but for friends (and strangers) all around the globe. Prayer helps me remember that we are all family, challenges me to keep in mind the joys and sorrows of the whole world. It invites me to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. It invites me to care more deeply about my neighbors and let my caring move me to action.

Likewise, fasting may not seem to make much of a difference on a physical, practical level. However, we can be very practical about it and fast from habits or pleasures we have that can be expensive, like cable or fancy coffee. If we then share the money we save with those to whom it means not just pleasure but sustenance, it can be an excellent spiritual discipline (if it’s done with love, see section above on prayer). Certainly, there is a time and place for celebration, for extravagance; not every luxury can or should be cut from our lives. On the other hand, many of us could live with less. I know I could. Lent is an opportunity to rethink how we spend our time and money and, if necessary, to do some creative redistribution.

Fasting is also yet another way to train oneself toward compassion. I have far to go in this area: if I’m feeling any physical discomfort, I want to escape it or I feel like I deserve to vent. Yet the Greek word for “to feel compassion,” splagchnizomai, literally means to have one’s insides twist. When the Bible says, “Jesus looked at the crowd and was filled with compassion,” it means Jesus felt their pain in his own gut, that’s how much he cared about them. Through fasting, if I fully embrace it, I can teach myself what compassion feels like in my body, what hunger and thirst for righteousness really mean.

Giving is another discipline that allows us to re-examine our lives in the season of Lent and beyond. Most people I know don’t feel like they have enough money, no matter how much or how little they make. And yet, in a global sense, almost everyone I know is rich. Although my wages are well below the American average, I am objectively rich. Unlike many people on our planet, I have never worried about my next meal. I have never had the need for clean water rule my life. I have never been without shelter. I am literate, even college educated. With such advantages, how can I not seek out ways to share them with the many others who lack them?

As the Good Book has it, the greatest act of love is to lay down one’s life for a friend. But I think we need to ask ourselves, we Christians who live in affluence, as Lent draws to a close: One of my current pastors started his first sermon of Lent a few years back with the quote, “Lent is a time to do more joyfully what we should be doing all the time.” Can we lay down our lifestyles, a little bit more each season, for the sake of our brothers and sisters who fight for survival? What can we carry with us, joyfully, from this season into Easter?

Maybe we won’t practice these disciplines quite as strenuously during the rest of the year as we do during Lent, but we will take small steps that seem right to us. Maybe we will feel called to continue what we’ve been doing during Lent and raise the bar for next year. Whatever the case, doing it joyfully is the key. Reflection on what Lent means for our whole lives is a great way to begin, and to end, the Lenten season.

What are your thoughts on how we can joyfully live out the lessons of Lent all year round?

Lenten Reflections 2013

Epitaph on Nikos Kazantzakis' grave. I don't h...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 2005, on a trip to the island of Crete, I visited the grave of the writer Nikos Kazantzakis. I remember his grave being hard to find, for such a famous landmark. Finally my friends and I drew close to it, the shadows growing long by now. Etched on the headstone in gracefully looping Greek were the words Δεν ελπίζω τίποτα. Δε φοβούμαι τίποτα. Είμαι λεύτερος. I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.

Holy Week is fast approaching, and what I’ve learned this Lent is that I’m not yet as free as I want to be.

Maybe it’s actually the lesson of every Lent. Many of us give up something that seems minor and silly, chocolate perhaps, and we’re hit in the gut by how much we long for it. We go without food, a minor inconvenience for those of us who don’t have medical or psychological reasons to abstain, and we are shocked by how much our hunger pangs obsess us. More than that, we realize how numb we are to the things that matter more. We are brought to tears over our caffeine withdrawal, but not by footage of war on the news. We thirst for our tiny pleasures and think we can do without Love itself.

What I gave up this year was Facebook. Sounds like a tiny thing, right? Well, for me it’s a tiny symptom of a much bigger problem: online or off, I live to be liked. I have an approval addiction. If my actions don’t provoke praise, I immediately question their meaning. If I incur even the tiniest criticism, my stomach churns, my muscles involuntarily tense.

And here’s the upshot of all this: when I care so much about what people think, I ignore what God thinks. I thrill to hear a random fellow bus rider say I’m pretty; did I forget I am by definition “fearfully and wonderfully made“? I quickly grow impatient with trying to help someone if I’m not thanked or swiftly shown progress; is that my answer to “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up“?

I am filled with unreasonable hopes and unrealistic fears. There is a lot of “me” in the way of my freedom. And yet I have one hope I know I can count on: that there is a Higher Power than me, that I don’t have to fix my own brokenness. That Jesus will help me empty myself of my ego so I can be filled with love, like he did in his time here on Earth.

I’d like to close with a prayer for freedom for me and for all us approval addicts. Thank you, Cardinal Merry del Val.

O Jesus, meek and humble of heart, hear me.
Deliver me from the desire to be esteemed,
From the desire to be loved,
From the desire to be extolled,
From the desire to be honored,
From the desire to be praised,
From the desire to be preferred to others,
From the desire to be consulted,
From the desire to be approved.

Deliver me from the fear of being humiliated,
From the fear of being despised,
From the fear of being rebuked,
From the fear of being slandered,
From the fear of being forgotten,
From the fear of being ridiculed,
From the fear of being wronged,
From the fear of being suspected.

O Jesus, grant that I may desire that others may be more loved than I,
That others may be more esteemed than I,
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I decrease,
That others may be chosen and I be set aside,
That others may be praised and I unnoticed,
That others may be preferred to me in everything,
That others may become holier than I, provided that I, too, become as holy as I can.

Did you celebrate Lent this year? What did you learn from your journey?

Is That What You Call a Fast?

English: Place setting with red charger.

Just so you know, I am terrible at fasting, even the Catholic version, which from what I hear is so much wussier than the version in Judaism or Islam. Catholics are allowed one full meal on a fast day and two snacks that don’t add up to a second meal. Now, of course, children, pregnant women, and those with medical conditions are completely exempt from fasting. But I’m pretty sure feeling tired and cranky without ingesting something every two hours doesn’t count as a medical condition. Several hours into the fast I always realize just what a hostage I am to my body, how clueless it is about the fact that this is not an actual survival situation, just a drill.

“Hey,” whispers my totally intact lizard brain. “You know what you do if you don’t eat? You die. So get on that.”

“Look,” I try to tell it, “Remember how we live a ridiculously privileged life in a nation that is at this moment one of the wealthiest in the world? We can eat as much as we want again tomorrow.”

“There is no tomorrow,” it hisses. “There is only right now. Put something in your mouth this instant or we’ll see what happens to these fancy philosophical thought processes of yours.”

After several hours of this, I often get worn down. My entire being is concentrated on when I’ll get to eat that one meal of the day and whether I can reschedule it to the next five minutes. But I don’t want to be needlessly mean to my body. It’s a perfectly good body, and the excellent survival instincts encoded into it are no doubt a large part of why my ancestors survived and I’m here today. My mind can play tricks on me too when I’m fasting, and actually they’re a lot sneakier. They tend to hit if I’ve successfully ignored my body’s nagging for a few hours.

“Good for you,” says my mind silkily. “Look at you, fasting and not even complaining at all, even though it’s so hard for you! This is a lost art, you know! Don’t worry about how you snapped at that person earlier. It’s totally understandable – you’re hungry! Look what a sacrifice you’re making.”

Any other matters get labeled a nuisance, messing up my lovely holy experiment. Surely I would be getting so much more out of this whole fasting thing if I didn’t have to do the dishes or answer call after call at work.

This is why I love reading the Bible (well, one reason, anyway). People think the Bible is supposed to be full of great role models for us all, and then they’re all shocked at how absolutely packed the Bible is with everything bad from whining to murder (except, of course, for Jesus, whose most violent action is probably kicking a fig tree). Conversely, I love the Bible because it gives me great comfort to know I’m not the only one who’s completely messed up. Any mistake I’ve made has already been done, possibly thousands of years ago.

Case in point:

Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Isaiah 58:4-12 (NIV)

As with most things, if I can’t fast with the right attitude I might as well not do it at all. If I just want to feel like I’m so good at mind over matter, or if my main motivation is to kick my sugar cravings, or if I smugly imagine I’m securing myself a place in the Spiritual Olympics, forget it. If my stomach is on empty and I let my patience follow, if I use being hungry as an excuse to be lazy, if I feel like I’ve “done enough” for the day, forget it. Empty fasting, like empty feasting, just causes me to focus on myself, rather than deepening my commitment to share my food, shelter, clothing, love.

But hunger pangs can be an invitation to hasten the coming of God’s kingdom. Pouring myself out in true love, I can participate in the work of breaking chains and building houses, giving up my own desires in a true fast. And when I break through to this kingdom, even for a moment, the light can touch me too, heal me, break my chains, and fill me like never before.