I was raised a Southern Baptist, attending the church my grandmother helped get off the ground, and we went every Sunday morning, after studying our Sunday school lessons the night before.
I was a fierce Sword Drill competitor, as I knew all the books of the Bible, more or less in order. I either won or came in a close second, and if I failed to place in either of these positions, I refreshed and renewed my skills at night, under the covers, with my Bible and my Girl Scout flashlight.
On Sunday mornings my dime for the offering plate scooted around inside my white glove, and it usually stayed there. Sometimes, though, because the cold metal felt so strange and lovely wiggling back and forth, that I ended up waving, then flapping, my hand to such a degree that the dime escaped and flew out, never to be seen again.
I sang in the beginner choir, graduated to junior, and eventually anchored the alto row in the time of “Pass it On!” and Easter cantatas. But we did not observe Lent.
Lent is rooted in the Christian tradition, and all major world religions have a similar tradition of fasting and self-sacrifice, spiritual contemplation and introspection. There are specifics to each tradition’s fasting, differing from each other, of course, but all with the intent of bringing about a state of cleansing and purifying, of mind, body, spirit.
Growing up I had friends who would give things up for Lent. In adolescence these sacrifices often looked suspiciously like efforts to clear up bad skin or to look better in a swimsuit come spring break, which often occurred sometime in April at just about Easter time. Abstaining from chocolate, cokes, and bread seemed to serve purpose quite nicely.
I played at giving something up for Lent because I didn’t want to be left out, but my offering was as shallow as everyone else’s seemed to be. I also had an escape hatch when I abandoned my half-hearted attempt as soon as it got difficult. All I had to say to myself was “we don’t really do that,” and I was off the hook.
The fast and the sacrifice, as I understand it, is supposed to get our attention in a significant way, to deprive the physical in order to point us in the direction of the spiritual. It is not, strictly speaking, a plan to jumpstart the cessation of bad habits—smoking, cussing, and the like.
Even so, some make the case that “fasting” from gossip, backbiting, social media and Netflix may be also be appropriate, if these activities are poisoning our spirits or our relationships.
The goal, I guess, is to stop—just stop—and pay attention, and denying ourselves something that feels essential is one way to do it. Every time we feel the pang of that denial, we remind ourselves of something bigger than ourselves.
We practice intention.
We practice reflection.
Growing up, we would have called this practice prayer.
Mathew tells us not to moan and groan and carry on, making a big deal of our fasting, or our praying, either. Not to make a show of ourselves doing it. We never got that message, sitting around the lunch table at Southern Junior High, dramatically moaning about the last time we had M&M’s or Coca-Cola, or tater tots.
I don’t know, maybe it is my age, or just the age in which I find myself. So much in the world seems overwhelming and out of control. And by that I mean out of my control, which is all sorts of hubris, I know. Even so, it is unsettling.
I attend a church now that practices Lent and I would like to more fully take part in the service.There is something ancient and mysterious about Lent, and Ramadan, and Yom Kippur, and any of the other religious and spiritual traditions like these.
I will think about all this in the next forty days as I go quietly about Lent. Always the educator, I suppose I will research it some more, will contrast and compare this tradition with the fasting and self-sacrifice traditions of other religions. Or maybe that isn’t the point. Maybe the point–which is harder than it sounds–is to just be quiet.
As the season slowly changes and brings with it new life and color and renewal, out there for us to see, I will be looking inward, too, searching for signs of renewal and color and the awareness that comes from sitting still and paying attention.