catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 5 :: 2009.02.27 — 2009.03.13


Surrendering to receive

“I am giving up chocolate milk for 40 days,” my sister Dawn announced, “for Lent.” I was 16 at the time and Dawn was a big college kid. “Lent is a practice in the Catholic Church,” she continued, “and you give up something for 40 days. I am giving up chocolate milk.”

It would be three more years before I began to practice Lent. It took me some time to sort out the meaning and beginnings of that season of the church year. I could not find a reference to it in the Bible and was leery of it for a while. In the end, however, my curiosity beat out my confusion and my spiritual disciplines have not been the same since.

When I first began practicing Lent at age 19 (I am now 35), it was a lonely experience in my world full of non-Lent-practicing Protestants. That has changed over the last few years as my church has incorporated the practice. My Lenten experiences have grown and matured over the years along with my faith. In many ways I am not a good Christian, at least not in the ways that we typically measure Christianity. I rarely read my Bible. My prayers do not begin with “Dear Jesus” and end with “Amen.” Fasting, however, is a practice that works for me. I feel so close to God when I am in the middle of a fast and I cannot explain the spiritual connection, except to tell you that through my fasts I have learned how to be a better Christian and how to pursue the best possible way to live.

I wish I could remember what I gave up that first year or even every other year. I cannot remember. What I can remember, however, is how I have come to love this season in the Christian calendar. I can share with you how it changes my life and how some of those changes last for many, many years.

The first Lent I recollect is 1996. I was 22 and it was my first year as a missionary in Philadelphia. I had recently discovered the joy and addiction of coffee and that same year I gave up coffee. Oh, the headaches! My suffering was real and I often thought of Christ. Every single time I craved a cup of coffee, I decided to pray. I had never prayed so much in my young life as I did during those 40 days. Let me say that again: I gave up coffee and found a way to understand the suffering of my Savior. I am not being trite – this was a very real experience for me. And Easter morning was welcomed with a large pot of deliciously brewed relief. It was a true celebration unlike I had ever known and not because I was drinking coffee once again and all was right with the world, but because I had spent 40 days getting ready.

Unfortunately there was an unexpected side effect to giving up coffee. I started to drink Mountain Dew. Normally I do not drink soda but caffeine had written its name on my life. Although I felt great about not drinking hot coffee from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, a part of me felt like a failure because I was unable to free myself from the grip of caffeine.

The following year I gave up liquid caffeine, wrongly assuming this would keep me from my addiction. It was then that I discovered chocolate. The next year I gave up caffeine in all forms possible, and my struggle was complete. Over the last 16 years I have given up TV, coffee, meat, coffee, snacks and coffee. There were years when I tried to add something new to my life but it seems easier to fast. I have learned that I will always be addicted to coffee and no longer attempt to cease its consumption during Lent.

The year that I gave up meat proved to be terribly insightful. About three weeks into Lent I realized my skin was clear. I had not suffered an eczema outbreak since Fat Tuesday. I started to research food allergies and eczema and realized that I may, in fact, be allergic to meat. Shortly after Easter I used the scientific method to determine that I really am allergic to meat and within the year I went to a food allergist and confirmed my findings. It is because of Lent that I am now a vegetarian and am almost completely eczema free.

In the past, I have often found that Christmas and Easter have come, passed and left me feeling empty. Christmas still feels this way to me. Easter does not. Lent for me is a deeply spiritual practice and not just about giving up My Precious. It is the only time of the year that I am diligent about reading my Bible and praying. It helps to ground me in the season leading up to the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. My experiences help me appreciate just a smidge more of how much my Savior loves me and what he was willing to do for me. The practice of giving up something I love daily reminds me to turn to Christ in a way that I seem unable to do during the rest of the year. Lent gives me purpose and focus. By the time Holy Week arrives I am passionately in love with Jesus again. I have spent more than seven weeks waiting in anticipation to see the events of this week unfold. I am on the edge of my seat. This is the story we have been waiting for.

Good Friday comes. I have worked myself into a state of sadness. I am overwhelmed by my emotions as I process the events of this day. I watch The Passion of the Christ on Good Friday and I sob. I want it all to stop. I cannot bear to see him suffer at my expense. My silly expense. Why does my sin have to cover him? Why does he love even me? And then I go to church that night and we sit in the dark and read passages from the Gospels. My heart is heavy with the weight and knowledge of his death. I apologize on Good Friday. I apologize for being selfish, lazy and impatient. I apologize for my lack of understanding and pray for forgiveness.

Sunday comes. Easter Sunday dawns cold here in Michigan, but the air feels alive. I feel the pulse of the earth. The last forty days have helped me to tap into the quietness of nature. I believe the whole of nature waits anxiously for Easter Sunday. How do the birds and the trees know that their Creator conquered death on this day? I often ponder Luke 19:40 on my drive to church, “If [they] are silent, the rocks will cry out….” I believe nature does not wait for us to worship its Creator. I can feel the earth tremble with excitement. I nearly speed to church on Easter morning. Church fills with people and soon the room fills with singing. I weep. Lent has ended, Christ has risen and the Gospel story is complete. I have found no better way to prepare for this event than to practice fasting during Lent.

What started out as skepticism for this human-made tradition has become a spiritual practice that I look forward to even before the Christmas season is underway. Two years ago, however, I was in the middle of a Joy Void which lasted about 14 months. I gave up shopping for a year, I gave up TV for Lent, and I was undergoing a very tough year at work. A friend pulled me aside and said, “Maybe next year for Lent you need to give up Lent.” All my fasting left me feeling separated from God. So last year I gave up nothing and much to my chagrin the Easter season passed by virtually un-noticed. I had not fully realized how affected I was by the act of “giving up” and was thankful for this new understanding.

I think my sister still gives up chocolate milk for Lent. One year my mom gave up cheese, which is hard for a Dutch woman. I am back on track now and no longer in the midst of a Joy Void. I have already decided what I should give up this year: high fructose corn syrup. My reasons are many and varied and I anticipate a good daily struggle. Whether or not you participate in Lent, may you find a way to honor the death, mystery and life of Christ.

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