Lent has begun. For some, it is the beginning of a season of "giving up" a desired food, activity, or electronic device, as a time of preparation for Easter. While I think Lent certainly encompasses this theme, I have a slightly different take on the season. Let me say first that I have tried (and usually failed) at "giving something up." Perhaps I am just not disciplined enough, or that I'm too weak-willed. Or, maybe it's even that I don't fully understand the intention behind the act. Whatever the reason, my perspective on Lent has undergone some radical changes over the years.
One of the first times I ever tried to participate in the Lenten season, also happens to be my most memorable time of "failure." When I was in high school, one of my best friends was very serious about giving up something meaningful each Lent, so I decided to join her. My beloved item to leave behind was chocolate chip cookies. We had cooks at our high school who made WONDERFUL homemade cookies! I should know because I enjoyed one each day for lunch. Also, we had a vending machine featuring a number of tasty snacks, one of which was also chocolate chip cookies. When I had an after school practice, meeting, or activity, it was not unusual for me to help myself to yet another cookie from the vending machine. So, this giving up of the chocolate chip cookies was a very big deal indeed to me, and I thought, an excellent choice for my experiment in self-denial. It was easy to remember NOT to get a cookie at lunch, I must confess, after the first day or two. It did take some effort to avoid the vending machine after school, but for a time, I did an admirable job at staying away. About halfway through Lent, however, my experiment came to an abrupt end. One day, for no apparent reason and completely without thinking, I helped myself to a cookie from the vending machine. As I was absentmindedly, but happily, munching away, the thought of what I was eating finally entered my brain. I was horrified that I had so easily consumed what I had been so actively trying to avoid. My next thought was, "Oh, well. I tried, but I just couldn't do it. What's the point anyway?"
For many years, I felt discouraged from attempting the discipline again, and I think it was partly due to a lack of understanding of the purpose. I wonder how true this feeling is among others. How many persons go about a Lenten period of denial simply because "that's what you're supposed to do," without fully grasping the deeper meaning?
In recent years, I have come to a much different place in my thinking about Lent. For me, Lent is less about "giving up," and much more about intentionally making space for God in my life. That may mean cutting back or withdrawing from time-wasting activities, which is essentially "giving something up." However, I see it more as a process of ADDING God-honoring books, music, devotional time, etc . . . in places where I previous had other things scheduled.
One of the commitments I began just prior to Lent is to engage (again!) in some form of regular exercise. I have started and quit exercising many times out of frustration. This time, I have joined a local gym and I am having a much better experience. What I believe I am doing right is starting out SLOWLY. I go every other day, and only for a short period of time. My plan is to gradually increase the amount of time I am on the treadmill, stationary bike, and elliptical, and also gradually increase the intensity of the workout. I am hopeful that approaching it at a slow, but steady pace will make for a very different experience and a regular habit of exercise.
One of the other aspects I am including into this Lenten exercise commitment (which I am planning to continue long after Easter is past!) is to use the stretch of time while I am exercising as a space to meet God. I am learning that workouts can be pretty boring mentally, even while my body is physically active. What better use of my "mental down time," than to create a space for prayer, reflection, and communion with God? Updates on this ongoing spiritual and physical discipline in future posts. . . .
I recently read a short prayer by Dr. Ray Pritchard that seems a very fitting final thought.
"Lord, as we begin this Lenten journey, purify our hearts so that we will not be satisfied with anything less than you. Amen."