Saturday, February 27, 2010

Lent: What a Difference 40 Days and 40 Nights Can Make

Most people know I'm not terribly religious in the sense that I don't go to church on a regular basis, I don't preach about my beliefs, and I don't pray in the traditional sense of the word. Growing up, however, religion was an integral part of my family. I was baptized by my step-grandfather. I went to Sunday School every Sunday from the time I was little until I was in high school. I sang in the choir. I received my first Bible in church. I was confirmed in 8th grade. I take communion.

Today I think of myself as more spiritual than religious. I guess I believe in God and Jesus, although my belief is more that there is some power greater than my own. Whether it is the specific God and Jesus that I have always known, I don't know for sure. I believe that Creationism and Evolution aren't mutually exclusive. I celebrate religious holidays. When pressed, I say I'm Presbyterian because that's how I was brought up, but I'm not sure I'm entirely comfortable with that label because, although the Presbyterian Church isn't terribly restrictive, I tend to think identifying with any specific religious denomination restricts me.

I believe that Lent, Good Friday, and Easter are sacred and more important than Christmas. I try to give something up each year because I think there's value to it and it reminds me of greater sacrifices that were made by Christ. Each year, my Lent sacrifices are small. One year, it was Diet Coke. Another year, I gave up eating out. I don't recall what I gave up last year. This year, I decided that for Lent, I was done with my mourning. That ended in failure yesterday.

My awesome blog buddy, Fran, of There Will Be Bread, posted the article below on Facebook today. Fran is such an incredible woman of deep faith. She has come to her beliefs through great questioning and thoughtful reflection of what she really believes for herself. She has the most amazing spirit and shares her beliefs, not through fist pounding and shouting, but through thoughtful, non-judgmental conversation that helps lead people to the answers that are right for them. I love that about her. I have incredible respect for that and for her and want to be Fran when I grow up.

After I read the article below, I posted the following comment back to Fran:
Wow. That REALLY speaks to me. What an amazing world we would live in if, for the 40 days of Lent, people bothered to take care of others. Just imagine what would happen to health care reform, to hunger, to poverty, to unemployment, to loneliness & depression, to war, to hate, to racism, to the education gap, etc. 40 days of everyone bothering to love. It would change the world. Thank you for sharing this article Fran.
Personally, I've decided to change my own view of the 40 days of Lent and rather than make a sacrifice, I'm going to care more. Oh, and completely unrelated, I'm going to church tomorrow. Yes, really.

What do you think?

Bothering to Love: One Priest's Modest Proposal for Lent
Rev. James Martin, S.J. in The Huffington Post, February 26, 2010

What have you given up for Lent?

That's what many Christians--from almost every denomination, and especially Roman Catholics--are asking one another this time of year. The most common thing to forego, I would wager, is some kind of food: soda and chocolate seem to be the Most Favored Sacrifices, with cigarettes and liquor running a close third. Each year, in fact, a Jewish friend from my college days calls me on Ash Wednesday to tell me what to give up, since he thinks my deciding on my own is too easy. Last year it was chicken wings, which was harder than you might think. (I'll save the story of how he came to assign my abstinence for another time.)

Fasting originated as a way of saving money on food, so that Christians could give it to the poor. It had a practical end: no meat for you meant more money for those who couldn't afford meat. Giving things up also reminds you that you don't always have to give into your appetites. It reminds you of your ability to exert self-control. And it reminds you of the poor, who go without every day, Lent or not. The Dutch spiritual writer and Catholic priest Henri Nouwen summed it up nicely: "For now, it seems that some fasting is the best way to remind myself of the millions who are hungry and to purify my heart and mind for a decision that does not exclude them."

Some people see Lenten sacrifices as another example of religious masochism. But look at it this way: People diet for physical reasons, so why not for spiritual ones? If you spend hours in the gym for a great body why not do something healthy to free your spirit from what St. Ignatius Loyola, the 16th-century founder of the Jesuit Order, called "disordered affections." Often Christians abstain from unhealthy things they've been unsuccessfully trying to avoid all year--like junk food or too much TV.

But this Lent I'd like to suggest not giving something up, but doing something.

Specifically, bothering.

In the Gospels, when Jesus of Nazareth condemns people, or points out sin, it's usually not people who are trying hard to avoid sinning, it's people who aren't bothering to love. In the famous parable of the Good Samaritan, in the Gospel of Luke, two men pass by a guy lying by the side of the road, who could certainly use some help. They could help the fellow, but they don't. He rightly points out their sin. Jesus doesn't condemn those who are weak and trying hard; but those who are strong and aren't trying at all.

For Jesus, sin is often a failure to bother to love, what theologians used to call a "sin of omission."

But during the weeks before Easter, most Christians during the weeks seem stuck on what they've been trying to avoid for years. A familiar hymn is: "I try to stop smoking every time Ash Wednesday comes around!" But if Jesus were around today (I know that's a dicey few words) he might say, "Don't worry about where you're already trying and keep failing. Look at where you're not even bothering."

So this Lent, instead of fasting, why not bother? Instead of a negative Lent, how about a positive one? Instead of giving up chocolate for the umpteenth year in a row, or trying to kick your smoking habit, why not bother to call a friend who's lonely? Instead of turning off your TV, or going to the gym, bother to donate money to the poor in Haiti. Instead of passing up potato chips, bother to visit a sick relative.

In the Gospels Jesus says, "It is mercy I desire, not sacrifice." Here's a novel idea for Lent: why not take Jesus at his word?


  1. I am so deeply touched to read this post LMS! Although I am not sure that I recommend being anything like me when you grow up, perhaps I could see it being the other way around?!

    On a more serious note, I am glad that you posted this. Fr. Jim - who is someone I admire so much, has written something very short but deeply meaningful in his piece.

    One of the most serious downfalls of all organized religious practice is that it puts the focus on the so-called religious person and all that they have done for God. If to (as I understand my faith at all) love God is to serve others than I must not constantly be preening and trying to please God, but rather I must be serving others.

    And that is Fr. Jim's point... What if we bothered to love first and then go from there. That is a simple thought, often lost. I am grateful that we can share that value and connect through it in our lives.

    Thank you for always speaking of me so kindly; may I live up to that in some way!

  2. Thank you for posting this piece by Fr. Martin! I find that it is a good reminder of something very important - thinking of others as much as we think of ourselves.

    And it's a good reminder for myself during my Lenten journey. While in the past, I've given up one thing or another, I've found that I get more out of the Lenten process when I try to do something positive instead of giving something up (or *in addition to* giving something up).

    For instance, one year, a few years ago while I was still in the military, I decided to use my lunch hour in a special way - for prayer and meditation. My goal was to head to the chapel on base (every day, if possibly, but it typically ended up being 3-4 days a week) for the first half of my lunch hour. There was a group who said the rosary every week day at 11:15. Then at 11:30 (lasting about 20 minutes), there was the daily weekday Mass. Afterward, I'd stop by the snack bar to pick up a light lunch, and eat it at my desk, reflecting on the readings I'd heard at Mass.

    And this is something I've tried hard to continue, ever since that first year of my "adding in prayer in addition to denying myself something (like the typical chocolate, junk food, etc)." I found that I got a lot more out of Lent than I had in the past.

    So that's my long-winded "thank you" for your reminder that I find very meaningful.


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