In Fairhope, Alabama, I grew up in a family of six where giving up something for Lent was an expectation, not a choice. A few days before Ash Wednesday, the dinner conversation revolved around one question: "What you are giving up for Lent?"
As children, we sacrificed the usual suspects of chocolate, chips, ice cream and TV. When my brother Laurence gave up TV one year, he walked backwards through the living room with his hands over his ears to avoid confronting the television screen with its Saturday night lineup of Love Boat and Fantasy Island.
My parents gave up indulgences like alcohol and meat, and then several years later, they became teetotalers and vegetarians. "I just feel better without a headache after a party," explained my mother, when I challenged her abstinence from alcohol, a practice that eluded my understanding as a college student. For my parents, Lent became a way to experiment with simpler living and then integrate those practices into their lives.
One year, we gave up trash for Lent, long before the advent of recycling programs or warehouse stores like Sam's Club. My mother bought items in bulk like flour, rice and sugar from a mail-order catalog and found eggs from a local farmer. I remember burning cardboard packaging in the wood stove and composting food wastes in the backyard. But I was too self-absorbed as a teenager to feel any negative impact of giving up trash or to consider the intersection of our Lenten practice with the world around me.
* * * * * * * * * *
Now as the parent of ninth and second grade daughters, I am the only family member committed to self-denial for the 46 days of Lent, which includes 40 days plus six Sundays. Last year, when I gave up alcohol for Lent, I replaced my nightly ritual of having one or two beers with the practice of drinking herbal tea, one cup after another, from dinner until bedtime. This year, I am giving up both alcohol and Facebook, two consumptive activities that offer escape and entertainment.
Just last week, I ate supper with my eight-year-old Annie Sky at a local pub called Wicked Weed that specializes in high-gravity hoppy beers. After a challenging week with my teenager, I considered breaking my fast -- just this once -- and ordering an IPA with my black bean burger with pimento cheese. I felt like I deserved this treat, especially after watching other customers with their pint glasses on the patio in the warm afternoon sun. (Clearly, my initial mistake was letting my daughter pick the restaurant.)
As I glanced at the beer menu, Annie Sky looked appalled. "You are NOT going to break Lent!" she said. "It's like saying you are doing something but not doing it! What would be the point?" A bit embarrassed, I put down the menu and ordered a glass of water with lemon.
After a month of drinking herbal teas this Lent, I have memorized the inspirational sayings stapled to each Yogi tea bag: "The purpose of life is to enjoy every moment." "Mental happiness is total relaxation." "Act, don't react." These pithy sayings actually fuel my own reflection about why I am so committed to Lent:
As a Christian, I give up something for Lent because Jesus went into the wilderness to fast for 40 days. I yearn to be a part of something larger than myself, to sacrifice something small, recognizing that our world needs less consumption and more contemplation.
As a mother, I give up something for Lent because I want my daughters to know that I can survive six weeks without drinking a beer after work. And I want to remind myself that I can.
As a teacher, I give up something for Lent because I am weary of the dopamine hits from checking e-mail and Facebook and the headlines, as if I am checking the pulse of patient. For six weeks, I need to practice a pause.
As a child of God, I give up something for Lent because I have experienced losses: a mother, a father, an unborn child, a marriage.
As a person of hope, I give up something for Lent because I want to prepare for a celebration.
* * * * * * * * * *
Certainly doubters will question the rationale of sacrificing small indulgences for one season in the liturgical calendar. In fact, the blog "Think Christian" outlines several humorous reasons not to give up something for Lent, which include:
"It's not the self-denial Olympics."
"Chocolate ain't a cross."
"We're not trying to beat Christ at his own game."
Despite these legitimate protests, Lenten practices continue, morphing with our social mores such as taking "selfies" after Ash Wednesday services and announcing the self-denial of Twitter with a tweet. In fact, Stephen Smith, who runs LentTracker for BibleGateway.com publishes an index meter with the most mentioned Lenten topics on Twitter. The top 10 sacrifices this year included chocolate, Twitter, swearing, alcohol, soda and social networking, among others.
But my enduring loyalty to Lent reflects my parents, who allowed spiritual discipline to spill into their daily lives, as they consumed fewer resources with every additional year that they lived. Giving up trash one year and even driving the next, my father actually could have won the self-denial Olympics, if the U.S. were recruiting outside the demographic of monks and nuns.
But for him, Lent was about living better, not worse.
Unlike my parents, I probably won't give up alcohol and Facebook forever, at least not yet. But I honor this practice each year, because it is a way to honor them. In truth, I am addicted to their love, and almost a decade after their sudden and untimely deaths, I still don't know how I am living without them. I am confounded that I can raise children without their advice. I want a hit of their love, every morning when I wake underneath my mother's quilt and every night when I nestle my cheek into my youngest daughter's neck, whose heat melts my own urgency to get her into bed and asleep.
Ageless metaphors like life as a journey and the unknown as a wilderness may seem like cheap wisdom attached to organic tea bags. But life is like a forced Lent, where we don't get to choose the things we have to give up. Choosing to give something up is a means of acknowledging and redeeming what is lost. In this practice, we draw closer to a life that is not giving up -- on love.