Friday, March 1, 2013

Lent: Not About Giving Up or NOT Giving Up

Lent is about sacrifice. 

But the sacrifice of Lent is the one Jesus made on the cross, not one that you choose to give up in your life today.

Lent Is Something You Do...or Don't
I'm not sure what your background on Lent is, but mine goes something like this. When I became a Christian, it was on the cusp of teenager-hood and I became a youth group brat. But in a very genuine, real, amazing, wonderful youth group. Of course, it was made up of people, which meant that people hurt each other and that kind of thing, but in total, it was very genuine and full of kids (and leaders) who wanted to wrestle through what being a Christian meant.

My senior year of high school around Easter, someone asked me, "What are you giving up for Lent?"

"We're supposed to give something up?" was my response.

This person (I don't even remember who, but it was another student) told me that Christians give something up for 40 days at Easter because Jesus gave up his life. If this was what we were supposed to do, I thought I'd better do it. So I gave up Dr. Pepper.

At the time, this was a big sacrifice. I think I drank about the equivalent of a 2-liter a day. Yes, a DAY. (This probably saved my life, honestly.) It wasn't so hard, and I felt proud of myself, and that one time I forgot and ordered a super giant one from Burger King, took a sip, and THEN remembered, I even threw it out. Yay, me! The practice wasn't really spiritual for me--it was just something to do that people seemed to be doing for Jesus. And it left me feeling proud of myself for being able to do it. It was more about me and other people than Jesus.

The next year at college, when I asked about Lent, it was more of a mixed bag. I was told that it was only for Catholics, or that it was really just legalistic. So, I was NOT supposed to give something up. This sounded good to me, as I remembered throwing out a perfectly good 24-oz Dr. Pepper and the feeling of pride because of it.

Depending on the Christian circle you are in (or NOT in), you may hear different things about Lent. It's a great practice teaching us about Jesus. It's legalistic. It belongs to one or two sectors or denominations of Christianity. It is for ALL people. It's a good way to go on a diet or cleanse something out of your life that you need to get rid of.  It shouldn't have to do with food, but with some kind of bad habit. It should be food, because Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert at the beginning of his ministry.

Are you as confused as I am??

It was a lot easier just not to think about Lent than wade through all the different opinions on it, so for years, that's what I did. I largely ignored Lent, while still celebrating Easter itself.

Remembering Easter
This year, I had a conversation with my friend MaryBeth about Easter and Christmas and how for Catholics, Easter is the big holiday because of the resurrection, while Protestants celebrate like Christmas is the most important holiday. I argued that as a Protestant, both are important and related to one another, so of course I don't think one is bigger than the other. Then I thought about the way our church decorates for Christmas, the way advent things and Christmas music seep into daily life in December, and how I usually do at least a month of readings to prepare for Christmas.

Easter? Nada.

This is what got me writing Consider the Cross: Devotions for Lent, because I figured if I was preparing my heart through reading for Christmas, I should be doing the same for Easter. They go hand in hand. I loved thinking about Easter more, in meditating on the last week of Jesus' life as I wrote. I finally connected with Easter in a way that I had maybe missed in the past.

To Give Up or Not To Give Up
That is the question, isn't it? I still came across that question and heard echoes from what people had told me in the past about whether I should or shouldn't give something up. I looked in my Twitter feed and found people listing what they were giving up. Or not.

They all shouted at me their different thoughts for a while, until I quietly closed the door and decided to think about what I thought about giving something up for Lent, apart from what other people now or then were saying.

What did I feel about Easter? About 40 days of giving something up?

I decided this year to give something up, and that thing was sweets. This is really cliched, as a lot of people choose something fun like sweets or alcohol, but for me, there were other, deeper reasons.

I have a decidedly easy life. I don't have to deny myself much, even though we are definitely living on a budget. I can't have whatever I want, but I can have more than I need. I own enough clothes to give me a headache on laundry days, even if they aren't all current or in style or expensive. Even when we limit our grocery budget, we still have more than we need. I can't go out to dinner a bunch of times every month, but I can still go out sometimes. Compared to much of the world, and much of our country, I bet, we have it so good.

Saying no to sweets meant denying myself, something I don't often have to do because of my comfort. I also often feel defeated by my inability to say no to things like sweets when I really should. Sometimes I feel ruled by my desires--whether sweets or something else. I do a lot of what I want to do and have trouble saying no to myself.

Lent seemed like a great time to sort of push reset--to be reminded of the fact that I am not living purely for pleasure, or for myself. It would be a reminder that Jesus denied himself of so much for me, and also that there are needy people who are denied things all over this world--not because they feel like being denied for 40 days. I knew that when I felt sad about sweets (especially during Valentines Day the first week), I would remember to pray. And even though that's a small reason to pray, it would still be a great reminder in the middle of my day (and several times a day) to think of Jesus.

It's been challenging so far--did I mention I'm pregnant and want to eat chocolate for every meal?--but I have really enjoyed it. I feel like I have grown in my ability to rule my desires and thoughts. I feel like I am remembering to pray more times during the day. I also, as a side effect, feel a little healthier. I eat fruit now when I want sweets. FRUIT! It's kind of a big deal. Coupling this with readings about Easter week, this has been a lovely Lenten season so far!

It's not too late if you feel like you want to give something up, or change something, or read a book like Consider the Cross (or the fabulous Holey, Wholly, Holy by Kris Camealy) to get you thinking and considering what Easter means. It's not, after all, about following some 40-day rule, or giving something up perfectly. (I already chose to have sweets one day and probably will again--maybe another post later on why.) If you do choose to change something for Lent, it should NOT be because you want to obey perfectly or look good. If we could all look good on our own or obey perfectly, there would be no need for Jesus to have come at all.

I hope this is helpful if you have been confused about Lent. There is a fabulous post by Emily T. Wierenga from Imperfect Prose on why she ISN'T giving something up for Lent that I love. I think the sentiment from this and that is somewhat the same:

Lent and Easter are not about what we give up, but about what Jesus gave up so that you could be in relationship with God. 


  1. As an Episcopalian I can tell you that we take Easter just as seriously as Christmas, even though we're Protestants (or Anglicans, really). During the time of Lent we cover all the crosses in the church with deep, rich purple cloths, and we completely cover the wooden carving of Jesus being resurrected. There usually aren't any flowers on the alter at this time, maybe just some pretty bare branches. On Maundy Thursday the alter and church is completely stripped until Easter, when everything goes back up, lilies are put everywhere possible and a brilliant white cloth is draped around the large cloth over the alter. In some ways it's more emotional decorating than Christmas.
    In our particular church we kind of have the attitude that you can give something up, but it's more meaningful to add something: A bible study or devotional (hi, Consider the Cross!), or volunteering, etc.
    This year I gave up alcohol because I really wanted to do it for myself, and because I felt deeply that it was time to take a break from it and recenter myself and my need at the end of the day for it. But I don't just feel that I made the decision just for myself, I felt that God was compelling me to - and to stick to it. So far I've managed

  2. I agree with Jenna. It's not only about giving up; it's about giving more. More prayer time. More alms. More love to our fellow man through acts of kindness. Often those are harder than giving something up. Throwing an extra five or ten or twenty in the collection basket can cause us to rethink our daily decisions on how we spend our money throughout the week, reminding us of the little sacrifices as well as the great.

    And, Jenna, I just wanted to add that that's why we call Episcopalians and Anglicans "Catholic Lite." :) The Anglican interpretation of Christianity is the closest to Catholic since it resulted from the split during Henry VIII. So many of our practices and tenets are the same and vary greatly from the rest of Protestant faith.

  3. Thank you BOTH for sharing thoughts from churches that celebrate Lent differently. I loved getting your perspectives on it. I don't know if my experience is true of non-Episcopal churches or just the ones I've been in. It seems that sometimes it goes in groups as well as denominations. But really great to hear about the idea of adding rather than taking away!


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