Giving Up Giving Things Up for Lent

lent-imageI’m giving up giving things up for Lent. After having spent close to 30 years seriously contemplating my Lenten practice of fasting, I think it’s time for a change. I first discovered this ancient practice of giving something up for Lent while I was in college. One of my friends, another religion major, was a devout Episcopalian. I recall seeing her in a Wednesday morning class during my freshman year, wondering how she could have dirt on her forehead. I kindly let her know, because what kind of friend who let someone go around with dirt on her forehead all day? She grinned, and then patiently explained Ash Wednesday and Lent to me.

I felt like an idiot. How could the minister at my own United Methodist Church not have told us about something that Christians all over the world had done for centuries? I vowed I would join Christians around the globe in observing Lent, so that I could best be prepared to celebrate Easter. During those first few years, I always gave up something to eat. I have attempted chocolate six different times – but between my birthday falling during Lent and the arrival of Girl Scout cookies – I never succeeded. I have given up Diet Coke a couple times, and have focused on red meat until I finally gave up red meat completely. (Turns out eating red meat has a very bad impact environmentally, and I could certainly get protein in other ways.) After a while, I turned to things like not gossiping (a Lenten promise to which I was driven by a particular coworker), and not thinking negatively. I also experimented with taking on something – like a special volunteer project or fundraising for hunger.

These have all been well and good, and I am glad I observed Lent in those ways, but those days are in the past. I have spent close to 25 years in the ministry, much of it working with women and especially young adult women. So many women have already given up so much in their lives. Sacrifices made for children, parents, husbands. Time spent trying to prop up a broken public school system. The thankless job of managing the details of dying churches, while many lay men still held the power and were oftentimes not acknowledged by male clergy. Volunteering to help those in need, while they themselves found it difficult to make ends meet.

In the midst of this patriarchal society – where women do not earn what men earn, are graded on their looks, are abused and killed at alarming rates by male partners, and are the backbone of a broken economy – I encourage the women of the world to give up giving things up for Lent. Instead of giving up yet one more thing, find some way to treat yourself during this season. Get that long overdue haircut. Buy a special chocolate bar. Take time to read a book for fun. Tell your husband he is on duty one evening or day while you go and just goof off. Join a women’s group. Take a retreat, even if for just a few hours.

I am well aware that I am fortunate woman. I have not had to make the sacrifices that many of my sisters make each day. But that is the point, isn’t it? We are all sisters. And Jesus is our brother. He required sacrifices of those who had much, and knew that Mary deserved to sit at his feet and learn with the men. He didn’t require her to spend one more minute in the kitchen, sacrificing her time and energy so that others could be with him.

So I invite my sisters to observe a Holy Lent, knowing that the women of our world are not required to be the sacrificial martyr.

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A Spirituality of March Madness

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As a native North Carolinian, March doesn’t just indicate the beginning of Springtime and new life. Individuals in my state spurn the emerging outdoors to spend hours and hours on a coach in front of a tv. One will ignore everything else to flip between games, mark up her printed bracket when a favored team loses on the first day, and then toss out texts or quick voicemails to friends who made different picks. There isn’t much greater joy for a North Carolinian than having more Men’s Basketball tourney picks right than everyone else. (I will confess – I still have my 2001 bracket, when my beloved Blue Devils won the championship and I only missed 8 calls out of the 64 games.)

March Madness normally coincides with Lent, the Christian season for giving up things we don’t need in our lives and instead focusing on walking the spiritual journey with Jesus. With all the countless people I know who observe the season of Lent, I am very hard pressed to think of people who have abstained from tv. March Madness seems to draw one away from the sacred path. We are more likely to use foul or abusive language, perhaps at the referees or struggling players or coaches. We tend to eat junk food and consume a fair amount of beer. We might be petty if our team wins and our friend’s rival team loses. This whole thing is all about competition, right?

Yet, I do believe March Madness can offer some opportunities for us to grow along the spiritual path. Basketball is a sport accessible to practically anyone in our country. One just needs a ball and a hoop. Public playgrounds and recreation centers have these in abundance. No special shoes, fancy equipment, specialized training. As Jesus invited everyone – regardless of status, background, culture, or gender – to join his movement, so anyone can pick up a ball and start playing.

One of the things I love about this sport is the team aspect. There is normally a more gifted player, who might score most the points, or have most the steals or rebounds. Yet, all 5 members of the team are essential to the success of the 40 minute journey of a game. As 1 Corinthians tells us, the eye is just as important as the ear as is the head as is the foot or heart. They must all work together as one body.

Basketball takes a great deal of hard work and effort. There is no coasting on past achievements. One of the great stories during this season has been the reemergence of Rasheed Sulaimon, a young Duke player. One of the stars of the team last year, he endured some personal struggles and found himself on the bench for a while as his commitment to the game waned. Yet, he persevered, never gave up, and eventually was able to work through the difficulties in his life and once again become one of the most reliable Duke players. The spiritual journey is not an easy one, and some days or weeks or months are much harder than others. Yet, perseverance, struggling through the droughts, is always worth the effort.

Life is obviously more complex and intricate than sports, even a great game like basketball. Yet, I pray during this season of Lent, that I will remember the important things. I’m not saying I won’t gloat on Facebook about a particularly good pick, especially if my friends don’t agree – because I know I will 🙂 I am simply sending up a prayer that I will remember the gifts of something like basketball, and help incorporate those inspirations in my own spiritual journey.

More in the Season of Lent

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            Yesterday I heard a colleague spouting these words as she left a meeting, “No alcohol! No sweets!” Being on the tail-end of the conversation, I responded, “That sounds awful!” My immediate thought was her doctor had insisted on the restrictions. She quickly replied, “Oh, it’s Lent, you know.” I felt a tad bit chagrined. Being the only clergyperson around, I should have immediately known the reference.

             Lent is one of those odd times of the Christian year. Many people will “give up” or “sacrifice” something during those 40 days (minus Sundays) prior to Easter. These items often focus on food or luxuries. Alcohol, sweets, red meat, television, fast food – all these things are commonly associated with the season. Yet, why do we give up something? Is it a habit, just a thing to do? Is it a spiritual discipline? How do we hope to grow in our faith by sacrificing something we probably don’t really need anyway?

             When my kids were little, and I began to introduce the concept to them, I focused a great deal on what it means to have too much. In our society, we are almost obsessed with wanting more – more money, more free time, more possessions, more youth, more beauty, more success. And yet, so many of us have so much more than we truly need. (Now today’s thoughts are not directed towards the millions who are struggling to get by, who are dealing with food endangerment, and are on the edge of homelessness. It’s for the rest of us – the majority in this country.) I told my children that when we are so focused on wanting more, we have a really hard time focusing on Jesus and who he wants us to be. I explained that he lived his life in poverty, and wants us to help those who are struggling. When our lives are filled with excess, it’s really hard to do that. The whole camel through the eye of a needle thing.

             We give up things during Lent so that we have the heart, time, and space to focus on empowering those who don’t have more. We give up things during Lent so that we can identify, in some small manner, what it is like to do without. We give up things during Lent so we can walk in the path of Jesus.

             What am I giving up during Lent? Fast food. I have a real thing for fizzy Diet Cokes, and realized during the dark winter days how dependent I had become upon them. And I know many people in the world don’t have the extra few dollars to buy a soft drink from a fast food chain. Will I succeed in this endeavor? I surely hope so. I never maintained my promise during the years I gave up chocolate. (If the Girl Scouts wouldn’t deliver cookies during Lent, I would have had a better chance at success.) Regardless of success or not (after all, wanting “more success” will not enhance my spiritual journey), I pray that these days will create more space in my heart, soul, and mind so that I might see the needs around me, and might be filled with the Christ spirit to find ways to help meet those needs.

             I wish you all a fruitful Lent.