Protestants are not required to give up things for Lent. There are no rules and regulations about what you can and cannot eat or on what days you can eat them, but in the last few years more protestants are beginning to follow the example of catholics, even placing ashes on their foreheads and trying to better themselves during Lent by giving up a bad habit or trying to do something good for 40 days like giving away 40 items from one’s closet, bookshelf, or storage unit.
The whole idea of Lent is to resist temptation the same way Jesus did while wandering for 40 days in the desert with no food in preparation for what would very soon become a massive betrayal from the people he came to save and an agonizing death on the cross. One might think that if someone only had a little while to live, they would… for lack of a better term.. live it up, rather than sacrifice more, but following Christ has never been an easy journey and always involves sacrifice at some point, so all faiths can benefit from Lenten observances that require them to search deeply for why they follow Christ in the first place.
In Biblical times the period of 40 represents a both a journey and a spiritual time of growth and change. The Israelites wandered forty years in the desert after leaving their captors in Egypt, Noah was adrift on the flood waters for 40 days, Goliath taunted Israel 40 days before David slew him with a rock and Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai receiving the ten commandments among other things.
In almost every case, forty days represents a trial and a period of growth leading to new understanding. Many historians reckon that Jesus rose from the grave after forty hours and walked the earth after his death for forty days, but one should not get too caught up in numbers as then you end up trying to crack some mystical code rather than following the way of Christ, which is what Lent is really all about.
In past years I had given up chocolate, sugar and complaining. Before that I saw no need to give up anything for Lent, not because I felt I was perfect, but that it was not something that Presbyterians did. Instead we were to work on our problem areas all year long, not just for 40 days, but when a pastor challenged us to give up complaining and passed out pieces of yarn to tie around our wrists to remind us of our commitment, I was all in.
It was surprising easy to give up vocal complaining, but much harder to give up complaining inside one’s head! Thoughts have a way of popping up on their own and while it is easy to keep your mouth shut, it is hard to shut down your brain. Still, most of us learned to see things in a more positive light when we stopped complaining about everything that was wrong and focused on the good things and doing more of them ourselves.
Giving up chocolate and sweets was not so hard to do. The hardest part was remembering not to eat them as it had become such a habit. You would often find yourself reaching for a piece of candy someone offered and even pop it in your mouth before remembering you weren’t supposed to be eating it! It was also nearly impossible to cut out all sugar as it so infiltrated every aspect of processed foods from bread and breakfast cereal to spaghetti sauce and salad dressings, so compromises were made to limit sugar intake and overt desserts and candies with the result being that when sugar was re-added to the diet, it did not taste right and indeed was rather unappealing and overpowering, which lead to the enlightening idea that we often do things out of habit saying we enjoy them or they make us less anxious or more happy, when in fact when we cut them out of our lives, we are a lot happier and enjoy better things that are healthier for us.
This Lenten season I did not want to give up anything. It had been a rough year and eating and spending time on the computer watching Netflix, playing “brain games”, conversing on Facebook and eating too much had become my way of escaping the stress of every day life. I knew I needed to cut back on all those things, but it seemed too much like punishment.
Four days before Lent I was still deciding on what to give up or what to do. I thought about giving one item a day to Goodwill, but the last time I dropped off a box of clothes and shoes to the guy handling the intake, he refused to take them saying they were “too old” and that nobody would want to wear them. Considering I had been wearing them up until a week before I donated them, I was a bit offended, but I had to agree that getting rid of junk was not really enough of a sacrifice and was really something I needed to be doing on a regular basis, not just one time a year.
No, I needed something that cut to the heart of why I was so unhappy lately that I felt I had to escape by doing all those things that were not good for me in such great quantities. To that end I formed a vague conclusion that I would give up blaming myself and others for things that made me unhappy. I had a bad habit of blaming God and the devil for things that went wrong, like when I dropped things or ran into things or got my foot wrapped around the computer cord and went crashing into the wall as my laptop headed toward the floor. Why would anyone think it was a better idea to rescue the laptop than rescue themselves anyway? My priorities were all wrong.
I think I was angry at God and at myself for being a failure and not being where I wanted to be at this time in my life. I should have more to show for my work, do more, be more and I felt small and insignificant and no matter what I did in life, it did not seem to be enough. I could not focus on what I really wanted to do because I was trying so hard just to keep up with what I needed to do to function and get by. I knew it was not God’s fault and that I was not a horrible person with no prospects in life, who never really succeeded in anything, but it sure felt that way and I know a lot of it was because of pride and feeling used rather than appreciated. I think everyone feels that way sometimes, but it makes you angry at others as well when it is not their fault you are so miserable!
So, week one of the no blaming, no ranting when things went wrong was a struggle. I got upset with people at work. I had bad thoughts about politicians. I thought people who had bad things happen to them deserved them by not following what was the right thing to do, like if they had not cheated on their spouse or spent all their money on a new flat screen TV, then they would not be in such a fix, so why should I care? I rolled my eyes at Facebook posts, rather than felt sympathy. It was if I hated everyone as much as I hated myself and this was just week one!
Week two I learned a few tricks to overcome the blame game. When I hit my toe or got my foot stuck in my yoga pants and nearly toppled over backward or ripped the cord off my computer and nearly tore it out the socket I would sing songs like, “Oh Lord, just snagged the cord with my foot, now my computer is kaput, but it’s all alright, though its quite a sight, I can simply plug it in and start back all over again….”
Eventually these silly rhyming lyrics helped me to see the humor in the situation rather than get upset. I kept finding myself singing the Ant song, also known as High Hopes, sung by Doris Day. “Oops, there goes another rubber tree plant!” It made me laugh and really have high hopes instead of low expectations. So, what does that have to do with getting closer to heaven and moving further away from hell?
Well, as long as you have your sights set on high hopes and overcoming problems rather than letting them overwhelm you then you are doing what Christ called you to do. you are being productive and focusing on the possibilities not the impossibilities, so you have greater power to do good for others and yourself. When you listen to negative talk, watch degrading things on television or listen to music that talks about cheating and focuses on sex and infidelity all the time it can really bring you down and make you think that kind of thing is standard practice for all humans, when it isn’t.
The devil, or your own self conscious, makes you think that when bad things happen, you deserve them or make them happen because you fail to follow God and so God is punishing you and he won’t love you and will see you as public enemy number one unless you follow his dictate to the letter of the law and live in abject poverty, having no fun and no joy, just pulling that heavy load until you die. I prefer to refer to the devil as the joy-sucker as he seems to enjoy sucking all the joy out of life knowing that people who live in misery rarely do anything other than survive for themselves. It is easy to help others when you have the time and money and resources, but when you have nothing, you have to focus on survival, which was what I had been doing.
Mind you, I am not blaming the devil on my problems as I realize that I create my own problems often, though I am also not blaming me!!! It doesn’t help to blame anyone for anything bad as that does not make the bad go away. In order to make the bad go away, you have to have a different attitude about it. I even took a scientific approach to it. Rather than take it personally that God was out to get me when I knocked over a bowl of food I had just spent a half hour preparing and cooking in an effort to live more healthily, or blame myself when I forgot where I had placed my keys when I just had them in my hand, I made a concerted effort to pay attention to what I was doing when I was doing it and be more diligent about putting bowls on flat surfaces not the edge of the sink while I grabbed a napkin.
When that computer cord wrapped around my foot for the fiftieth time, I found some duct tape to strap it to the side of the bed frame or unplugged it and shifted it out the way rather than let it drape down the carpet where it would surely snag my foot again. It took greater effort to do these things, but it ended in better results and I had not blown up in anger in almost five days. A new record for me, but one that is still a daily struggle at times, especially when people and hurt feelings are involved. Still, I found things getting better and in conquering one small area of irritation in my life, I seemed to be making strides in other areas as well.
Lent should not be a punishing experience, it should be a spiritual enlightening experience that helps you realize that you are not stuck in a rut from which there is no escape. When you find that you can accomplish a little each day, then you realize you can accomplish a lot over time. You don’t have to follow the world and live in constant unrest, feeling as if everyone and everything controls you. If you can get control over something that enslaves and makes your life more miserable rather than better, then you need to be hell bent on moving closer to Christ and be like that ant that moved the impossible and proved it was possible after all.
What needs to be improved in your life and will you make an effort to overcome it or will you keep letting it control you and keep you from reaching your full potential to share the love of Christ with others?