Giving Up is Easy (aka: Why I don’t Lent)

Christians around the world have observed Lent, aka “The Great Fast” pretty much since Jesus ascended into the clouds. The idea is fairly simple: for the 46 days leading up to Easter Sunday, Christians choose to fast. The way that looks may differ, depending on one’s flavor of Christianity. For example, many Catholics choose not to eat meat on Fridays during the Lenten period. Orthodox Catholics take this to a whole new level, abstaining from all meat, oils, even eggs and dairy for every day leading up to Easter (They also celebrate a different Easter, but that’s another story). Evangelical Christians as a whole do not traditionally observe Lent in any organized way. However, many choose to “fast” from something else they consider important, such as alcohol, social media, or sex.

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Regardless of how the fast is observed, the underlying principles are the same. Lent is a time to make oneself uncomfortable, just as Jesus was uncomfortable roaming about in the desert for 40 days with nothing to eat. And in our discomfort, we can learn to refocus our energy on God, to face our demons of complacence and gluttony, and to forgive the offenses of those who have sinned against us. It is not only just an exercise to see if we’re strong enough to give up something we hold dear; it is also a chance to hit “Reset,” to renew our spirits and get back on the right track.

I know that some of you readers may have already dived into your 40-Day fast with enthusiasm, and are already tweeting or blogging about your great journey through the desert after giving up coffee, chocolate, or texting. As for me? Well, I don’t plan to give up anything.

Yes, you read that correctly. I have zero plans to fast. (I know, I know. Sinner! )

abstaining

Here’s the deal. I have learned that I am a highly adaptable human being. Give up things that I once held dear? Break old habits? Abstain? No problem! I once spent more than a year abstaining from most food. It was oddly easy, and for the first (and last) time in my adult life, I got to unlock the achievement level of Skinny. These days, I eat food, but I’m abstaining from simplex carbs and real sugar, so that I don’t accidentally fall into the pit of Diabetes. I am also happy to eat mostly plant-based meals, so giving up meat is not a struggle, either.

Sex? Ha! I will win an abstinence from all forms of sex contest Every. Single. Time. Grandmaster level of sexual abstinence. Give up social media? Been there, done that. I even gave up the social without the media. Alcohol? Who needs it? Caffeine? I’ve been a decaf coffee and tea drinker for months now and don’t miss a thing.

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I guess if I were going to really give up something I am attached to, then it would be giving up computers or reading. But these both have too many loopholes, like cell phones (technically not computers) and audiobooks. Also, giving up either would jeopardize my career goals, and I’m pretty sure that’s not what the church has in mind.

Anyway, fasting doesn’t work so well for the highly adaptable. Giving up is far too easy to do when you refuse to become attached to necessities or vices. Don’t hold on too tight, and it’s easy to let go when the time comes. Even during Lent. The harder thing, for me anyway, is learning NOT to quit. Learning not to shrug my shoulders and walk away from everything and everyone. Learning that maybe, some things in life are worth holding onto.

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Faith (and Other “F” Words)

faith-vs-reasonWhile riding the train home from downtown this afternoon, staring out the window as I often do, I noticed something that struck me as odd. A young man on a bicycle pulled to a stop in front of a large, ornate cathedral. He dismounted, then hurried up the steps and disappeared inside the church to confess his sins or pray or whatever it is good Catholics do on a Monday afternoon.

I wanted to bang on the window and call out, “Hey, you forgot to lock your bike!” After all, it could have been an oversight. Perhaps he didn’t mean to leave a perfectly lovely bicycle resting, unchained, against the base of the cathedral stairs, where any number of dishonest people may come along and steal it. Maybe he was simply in a hurry to attend mass, or so distracted by the burden of his transgressions that he forgot to lock the bike.

Or maybe it was a matter of faith. What if that man just happens to place so much faith in the magical supernatural powers of that cathedral, that he doesn’t think anyone would dare steal his bicycle? Not in front of God’s house! It must take a great deal of faith to believe such a thing — that despite crime statistics in the neighborhood of the cathedral, and despite the fact that he made not one effort to secure his property, that somehow, God would watch over his bike.

brainI personally find such a faith both admirable and foolish.

It is difficult not to feel a sense of admiration when a person, against all odds, against the pressures of society, and even against scientific evidence, continue to have faith that something they choose to believe is true. What security such a faith must bring! What a sense of peace such a faith must offer – no need to wonder, to doubt; none of the skeptic’s dilemma of constant questioning. Only certainty.

And, perhaps, foolishness, at times.

After all, faith in the unknown must have its limits. No matter how much one prays for God’s protection or provision, or believes that God will supernaturally intervene, one must accept that if they were to jump from a rooftop, no miracle will take place to keep them from falling. And as for that young man at the cathedral, well, I can only hope that the downtown thieves were too busy this afternoon to notice his unlocked bicycle. Faith, no matter how admirable, makes a lousy security system.

Back when I used to pray, I truly believed, thanks to the widespread teachings within the conservative evangelical Christian church, and perhaps my own naïvete, that my prayers, and the prayers of other believers, could influence God’s choices. Pray incessantly. Pray with insistence — keep knocking on God’s door until he grants you what you seek: wisdom, peace, healing from disease, money. (Wait…what? Well, some people believe that, too.) Later, I came to prefer the explanations of believers who took the bible less literally. Their faith was not in their ability to change the mind of God, but in God’s ability to change them. Ahh…now that is a faith that I can truly admire.

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                                                                                        I doubt this.

“How does God help you to make life choices?” I asked this question once during a gathering on young Christian college students, because I earnestly wanted to know. So many people in my peer group held a strong faith that if they were to seek God’s guidance, then He would offer it to them. “But how do you know that the conclusion you reach comes from God, and not from yourself, or other influences?” I asked.

“You just know,” was the general consensous. You just know. Like a gut feeling or a lucky hunch. Or intuition, or psychic revelation. I was never satisfied with such a fallible theory. What if the warm, fuzzy feeling about taking Plan A instead of Plan B was just my intelligent brain making a logical decision, and had nothing to do with the guidance of a deity? How can anyone possibly know?

Maybe one cannot know. Instead, one must have faith.

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The Great Fast (aka: Why I Would Make a Lousy Catholic)

Today marks the first day of Lent, and I have decided to observe it by giving up soccer. Haha, no, I’m just kidding. That’s crazy talk. But still, today marks the first day of Lent for many Christians around the world. While I myself do not observe the 40-Day Lenten period, I am fascinated by the idea of it, and the reasons for which some people choose to observe. Lent cross

The first time I ever heard of Lent was in high school, when a Catholic acquaintance of mine was showing off the ashes smudged on her head on Ash Wednesday. I, an evangelical Christian at the time, stared in wonder, having never heard of such a practice. Even more amazing, the girl explained that, during Lent, or the 40 days leading up to Easter Sunday, her family abstained from eating meat. It was then that I decided I never wanted to be Catholic.

Ashes for Ash Wednesday

Then, a few years ago, I made an acquaintance who was an Eastern Orthodox Christian. She happily explained her faith traditions to me, which make the Catholic Church’s rules pale by comparison. During the period of Lent (in this case, the 40 days leading up to Orthodox Easter Sunday), Orthodox Christians observe a very strict fast. They choose to abstain from eating any animal products, meat or dairy. They also abstain from eating oils or fats, and drinking wine. Basically, their meals during this period are very simple dishes, such as lentils, vegetable soup, and bread.

“But why would you want to forbid yourself from eating such things for so long?” I asked my acquaintance. To me, it seemed unreasonably strict, like a self-inflicted form of punishment.

“When you live your life constantly treating and indulging yourself,” my acquaintance explained, “then it becomes less pleasurable. But imagine choosing to abstain for a while from the things which bring you great pleasure. When you finally end the fast and indulge, then the reward is far greater.”

It made so much sense then. Of course, as she also explained, there are other reasons for fasting during Lent, such as being more spiritually awake and in tune with God, dedicating the body and spirit to prayer and thanksgiving, and helping the poor. Some people see it as a type of spiritual self-discipline, which helps them to be less focused on fulfilling the desires of the self and turning their focus outward, toward God and others.

Reasons to observe lent

And the thing is, I really like that idea. Religious or not, it seems such a positive thing to observe a period of being spiritually awake, and of denying the self and focusing on God, or the poor, or on being a better human being. On living as simply and humbly as possible, in order to realize, in the end, how blessed one truly is.

Now, I don’t think that I could spend an entire 40 days eating as strict a diet as an Orthodox Christian. And the Catholic version of fasting does not seem like a fast to me at all, since I already don’t eat much meat. However, many evangelical Christians, though it is not required by doctrine, choose to observe another form of the Great Fast. Some people give up money by giving to charities. Others give up their time by volunteering to help the poor. Still others give up some luxury that is important to them, such as chocolate, television, or caffeinated drinks. If I choose to participate in Lent, then perhaps I would consider this route. As long as I don’t have to give up soccer. Or tea. Or my iPad… Okay fine, I would probably suck at observing Lent.