Over the past few years, my Lenten fast has become a laundry list of little vices I wanted to give up in the hopes that temporary abstinence would make me a better person. To name a few—
- iPhone in bed
- Drive-thru-window French fries
When I go to book club during Lent and they see me abstaining from both wine and dessert, it usually provokes the reaction, “That’s too many things!” But these things, I tell my girlfriends (and myself), are keeping me from becoming the best I can be.
I give too much power to The Things.
When I was in college, the leader of a Christian organization on my campus showed me one of their go-to visual aids. Each picture showed a centered throne, symbolizing what we honor most, and a collection of large dots, symbolizing other aspects of life. In the first panel, I saw “ME” on the throne, surrounded by a chaotic mess of un-jugglable balls in the air. In the second, “JESUS” was on the throne, and all the dots were organized into a beautiful, perfect circle. Meaning that when Jesus is primary, everything else falls into place.
The leader asked if the second panel was appealing to me—a model I’d like for my life. I said yes, of course, but that there was one big problem. My starting place wasn’t represented on his pamphlet. Pulling out a pen, I drew this:
Despite that brief moment of self-awareness a quarter century ago, I’m not sure how much my picture has really evolved. I am now able to recognize that I grew up a doer, a pleaser, and someone who prides herself on being accomplished and having integrity. That’s not a great formula for knocking The Things off the throne. Or for reflection. Or for letting go in any way, shape, or form.
Nonetheless, Lent is meant to be a time of reflection. This year it falls on Valentine’s day, so not only does it begin with a reminder of our own mortality, but it also begins with an (admittedly commercialized) admonition not to take those we care about for granted.
I typically hope that saying goodbye to the most obvious of The Things for the Lenten season will help me be less distracted and more contemplative—of myself, of my relationships, of God in the world, of my truest-deepest-REALest commitments. But here’s the rub:
- Goodbye, Facebook? Hello, Instagram... or another vortex in which I can easily lose myself and, more than likely, a few hours of the day or night.
- Goodbye, dessert? Hello, late-night PB&J... or another comfort food I consume when seeking a sugar rush to help me get just a few more things done after the kids go to bed.
- Goodbye, alcohol? Hello, computer solitaire... or another way to quiet my brain and put off thinking about all the un-dones that never seem to end.
- Goodbye, iPhone in bed? Hello, Entertainment Weekly in bed... or another method of avoiding all forms of intimacy when I’m bone tired.
- Goodbye, drive-thru-window French fries? Hello, binge watching Netflix during the day... or another secret rebellion I can relish in my all-alone moments.
For every Thing I give up, someThing else is there, ready to fill the void—and to occupy the seat of honor in my life.
I’m sure, over the years, God has sent me subtle messages that I need to change my dependence on The Things. (I don’t do subtle so well.) But, as my very wise dad says, if you don’t hear God's gentle hints, then you need to be on the look out for a 2x4 upside the head.
This week, I think I felt the wind of a few practice swings.
Swing number one: The Glennon Doyle Melton video “First the Pain, Then the Rising” from May 2017 started circulating again on social media. Who knows how these things lose and gain momentum, but they do. Like God, algorithms work in mysterious ways.
Swing number two: Last week, a coach / nutritionist / trainer / friend, asked me the deceptively simple question, “What is making you so uncomfortable?”
Swing number three: On Sunday morning, I read this prayer from the Shalem Institute.
And finally, swing number four: All of these points were reinforced in the Ash Wednesday service I attended this morning. Thanks, Father Al.
I’m starting to get the picture. As a matter of fact, today it is literally written on my forehead.
In Eugene Peterson’s contemporary language version of The Bible, The Message, he paraphrases the beginning of Matthew chapter 4, the origins of what we now call Lent, like this:
Next Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test. The Devil was ready to give it. Jesus prepared for the Test by fasting forty days and forty nights…
The 40-day fast itself isn’t the test. The fast is the preparation for the test.
Nor is the Lenten journey meant to be a 40-day re-do of failed New Year’s Resolutions. It is a time to reflect on why my resolutions failed in the first place. A time to face the discomfort, the fear, the self-doubt, and the resulting inertia that lead me to put The Things above all else. It’s the inability—or maybe the unwillingness—to be alone with my own thoughts, to confront temptations in the wilderness of my own unoccupied mind, that prevents me from discovering, through grace, the strength to overcome. And perhaps even the wisdom that The Things aren't really on the throne after all.
And that, strength + wisdom, is how we pass the test. And where divine magic happens:
Jesus’ refusal was curt: “Beat it, Satan!” He backed his rebuke with a third quotation from Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God, and only God. Serve God with absolute single-heartedness.” The Test was over. The Devil left. And in his place, angels! Angels came and took care of Jesus’ needs.
If that can be my Lenten fast, if I can deliberately and prayerfully recognize and overcome my painful motivations and feelings, then when I leave the wilderness, I will discover—not a better person—but a transformed, more authentic, singlehearted and grace-full version of myself.
See you on the other side of the wild.