Anyone who knows me knows that I take Lent seriously. Lent is a defining part of my life, shaped by practice and discovery over time. In college, I started "giving up things" which marked the beginning of my reLENT list. Every year I would add an additional item to give up.
I think I started with ice cream, then went to potato chips and then to meat. Each year I considered my consumption patterns and figured out what I needed to change. For example after I graduated from college, I gave up eating things out of a can (I used to live on creamed corn and tomato soup). Those early years of denial were more sport than theology. Looking back, it was a way of getting people to pay attention to me, which I know is the opposite intent of Lent. And yes, I knew that Jesus didn't care if I gave up chocolate for Lent. Yet my process has evolved, and so have I.
It has been awhile since I began "observing" Lent, and I have pretty much run the table on adding things to give up. Starting Wednesday, I will forsake all sugar, salt, meat, junk food, fast food, coffee, soda, caffeine and all things alcoholic (I do drink non alcoholic beer which I affectionately call Lent beer).
For the first ten days or so I get really grumpy. My body screams for me to eat and drink more and more on the off chance that some of these essential food groups (fat, sugar and salt) might find their way into my system. Eating and drinking becomes a dull exercise of survival as meals become a chore. After awhile I lose interest.
Getting there from here
When you make a radical shift in your daily routine,
When you radically change your consumption,
When you make the intentional decision to be intentional,
When you decide that to enter into a spiritual practice that cannot be abbreviated or condensed...
...then you open yourself up to awareness, possibilities and a new and renewed sense of being. Lent is not about giving things up but instead is about focusing your attention on where you have been and where you desire to be. Self-denial creates intense moments of cravings which, when left unattended, force us to struggle with the moment, the here and now. When you make the decision not to go down the path that you are so used to going, it stops you and forces you to look in another direction. And when I head in a different direction I eventually find myself at a fork in the road: one turn leads to self-pity and the other to self-discovery. I have traveled both. It is incredible how quickly we can feel sorry for ourselves when we deny ourselves what we want and are accustomed to having.
Habits are broken, cravings are addressed and I find myself in deep solitude. I cannot take refuge in consuming salty food or caffeine-laced drinks; I must fill my soul some other way. It's not just about trying new things, and I am not just talking about tea or vegetables, but stillness and solitude. My stomach, my time and my attention have to be filled with things other than what I am used to, other than habits that superficially satisfy.
My mother, who passed away fifteen years ago, would chide me about my reLent list, encouraging me to add something to do rather than just focusing on giving things up. So rather than just giving things up, my reLent list includes items that I add on.
Instead of reading the sports page, I read scripture.
Instead of surfing the web, I write friends letters.
Instead of consuming inspiration with a beer, I crack open The Good Book by Peter Gomes.
Before falling asleep, I start to pray.
Before starting the day, I pray some more.
This year I sought out the spiritual practice of fellowship. If someone had told me that one of the biggest struggles of turning 55 was the absence of fellowship in my life, I would not have believed it. Certainly an extrovert who knows everyone in town and has friends throughout world would not ache for fellowship. But I do. So this year for Lent I have sought out several mates to collectively read a book, Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter. We will share ourselves, our Lenten journey of searching and the Easter promise of hope with one another.
And when Eater arrives, the cravings are gone. Who needs Ruffles sour cream potato chips when you can have baked kale chips? Caramel lattes give way to ginger green tea!
Many of my old habits eventually return, but each Lenten journey has impacted me in lasting ways. My Lenten observations led me to seminary and to the decision to pursue ordination. It gave me the space to imagine the program Volunteers Exploring Vocation and the courage to leave my stable job for a startup, an endeavor that enables me to share my discovery with others.
Could I have gone though this self-discovery while eating chocolate and holding a beer? Sure, I suppose, but I never did. There is something about entering a spiritual practice that has power, even when it is undertaken at a very elementary level.
Lent defines me. Lent is like spring training to a baseball player. Time to get started, time to prepare, time to get in shape and time to focus on the journey ahead. In an era where we want things sped up and condensed, Lent is always the same amount of time: 46 days, 1,104 hours, 66,240 minutes.