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Giving It Up For Lent

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Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten season in the Christian church. I wasn’t raised in a religious tradition, and my only childhood experience of Lent was a vague feeling of exclusion when certain kids would come to school with ashes smudged on their foreheads. I eventually became a Christian in my forties after discovering that unlike the judgmental, unloving, money-obsessed preachers on television, the historical Jesus was a rabble rouser who confronted systems of economic injustice and religious oppression and liked to hang out and drink good wine with messed up people like me.

As a new Christian, I was drawn to the idea of sacrifice as a way to focus on God during the forty days leading up to Easter Sunday. The Lenten season mirrors several stories from the Bible: the forty years that the Jewish people followed God through the wilderness and the forty days that the devil tempted Jesus with earthly enticements in the desert. The word Lent comes from lang, meaning long, because the days grow longer in the spring. And when you are engaging in the common practice of giving up something for Lent, the days can seem very long indeed.

I started out just giving up something for the sake of giving up something. When I missed whatever that was — alcohol, saturated fat, cheese — I would turn my mind to God. That was nice, as far as it went, but I wanted something more meaningful.

I’ve since learned that the real point of a Lenten sacrifice is to seriously reflect on an area of your life that you would like to change and then consider what practice you might engage in that would help you move towards that change. The point is not the practice, it is the transformation.

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Releasing Fear For Forty Days

This year I’m trying something different: I’m giving up fear for Lent. For forty days, I will work on becoming aware of the many ways that fear rules my life, and I will engage in practices that will help release me from those fears.

I start today. I’m pretty jazzed about this — I think it could be deeply transformational. I’m sure I’ll be blogging about it as I learn thrilling and absolutely fascinating truths about myself, which may to you resemble  tiresome navel gazing. I hope not. We shall see.

Tonight I’ll receive the mark of the ashes on my forehead, reminding me that I came from dust and to dust I will return when my journey here is through. I have only a short time here on earth to become the person I was born to be, and I would rather be led by love than driven by fear.

A Poem I Did Not Write

For Ash Wednesday, I offer this excerpt from a lovely Lenten poem by Joyce Rupp called Prayer of One Who Feels Lost:

†††

I want to be more but I fight the growing.

I want to be new but I hang on to the old.

I want to live but I won’t face the dying.

I want to be whole but cannot bear

To gather up the pieces into one.

 †††

Is it that I refuse to be out of control,

To let the tears take their humbling journey,

To allow my spirit to feel its depression,

To stay with the insecurity of “no home”?

 †††

Now is the time. You call to me,

Begging me to let you have my life,

Inviting me to taste the darkness

So I can be filled with the light,

Allowing me to lose my direction

So that I will find my way home to you.

 †††

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Changing Your Mind?

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This week is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. And I think it’s downright sinful that non-Christians should be excluded from one of my favorite seasons. It’s like Christmas – I celebrate the birth of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean others can’t enjoy a season of giving and celebration.

OK, so forty days of self-denial, sacrifice, and penitence might not be as much fun as a season of presents and parties and spiked eggnog. But bear with me.

The Burden of Shame

Judging from the stats and comments on my blog, people are very interested in the issues of shame, guilt, and making amends. I got more comments from friends about my post Imagine Apologizing than anything else I’ve written, and you would be surprised how often people Google the phrase “What Color is Shame?” and end up at my post by that name. I get several every week.

Weird, right? What’s that about?

I’m glad you asked.

I think that even the non-God-inclined sense that the burdens of shame and guilt call for something beyond our brains. They seek relief in something deeper — maybe in something sensory, like color?

By their very nature, shame and guilt are things that people don’t talk about easily. That’s why they weigh so much. We try to carry them all by ourselves. We trip about on the internet, looking for answers in stranger’s blogs.

Sacks of Shame

Turning Around

It makes sense that with this kind of human longing for relief or redemption – whatever you want to call it – most major religions include a season of self-examination and repentance.

(By the way, the concept of repentance isn’t as burdensome as it sounds, all sackcloth and ashy. It basically means to turn around or to change your mind.)

We need to deal with our mistakes and regrets before we can be at peace and move on, but that’s not too easy if we intend to commit the same offense again. That’s where a change of mind comes in – repentance.

My point here is that whether you are religious or not, you could probably benefit from an intentional season of repentance. Set aside some time, perhaps getting away by yourself for a day or two, to reflect on the ways you fall short of who you would like to be. Take along a journal so you don’t conveniently forget any commitments you make to yourself.

You might consider doing without something for a period of time – fasting from food, television, social media, caffeine, gossip, or alcohol. Stripping away some of the things you think are oh-so-important can remind you of what actually *is* important.

What’s Lent, Anyway?

I won’t go into the details of Lent as a Christian practice. There is plenty written on that – here is one interesting history. The forty-day season of self-sacrifice and fasting leading up to Easter Sunday has been around longer than any denomination, since near the beginning of the faith. The concept of a season of repentance, teshuva, is deeply rooted in the Hebrew faith, from which Christianity sprang.

Personally, I never observed Lent until about ten years ago. I wasn’t raised in a religious tradition, and my only childhood experience of Lent was feeling left out when certain kids would come to school with smudges on their foreheads.

I became a Christian in my late thirties when I discovered that, unlike the nasty, judgmental TV preachers, the historical Jesus was a rabble rouser who confronted systems of economic injustice and religious oppression and liked to hang out and drink good wine with imperfect people like me.

I liked the idea of spiritual practices to help me focus on God during the forty days leading up to Easter. Over the years, I’ve given up eating after sundown, drinking alcohol (during which time I found my friends to be a lot less entertaining), saturated fat (I nearly starved — did you know a BANANA contains saturated fat?), and driving above the speed limit.

The speed limit endeavor was the worst. The word Lent comes from lang, meaning long, because the days grow longer in the spring. And believe me, when you’re toodling along at 55 mph on the frenzied Washington Beltway, the days seem very long indeed.

So – I’m not sure what I’m doing for Lent yet this year. No doubt some fasting and more dedicated meditation, but probably something else as well. There’s a good chance I’ll write about it, because I find there is a phase during which I obsess about my “sacrifice” before I settle in and focus on deeper pursuits. But perhaps you won’t be reading those posts, as you may have given up messing about online for Lent.

Lenten blessings to you, no matter your faith or beliefs.

English: Ashes imposed on the forehead of a Ch...

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Ash Wednesday. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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