Does Lent still count if the sacrifice is small?

cybergedeon_BONG_grayMost years I know what I plan to sacrifice for Lent for weeks, sometimes months, in advance. Even the year I decided to give up giving stuff up I was clear on that well ahead of time. It’s not that I schedule making these decisions. Usually, what I need to set aside for a time is simply self-evident. There is an element of faith that is part of the process. But this year Lent snuck up on me. With Ash Wednesday only a few days away I suddenly realized that I had not actually given this Lenten season any of my time or attention. While it’s true that Easter is early this year, I don’t think that was the issue. And it’s not that my faith-life has been neglected – quite the opposite. Since this time last year, Brian and I have joined and become involved in the life of a new church. And we’re launching an organizational change at work. Oh, and let’s not forget that I am mentoring for Team in Training this spring…

Brian tells me I am the queen of over-functioning. It’s good to be queen, right?  Except this honorific doesn’t come with a crown or any of the other trappings of royalty. This distinction comes with long hours, high stress, and little sleep. Plus one other by-product that has evolved over the past year. Although I am a died-in-the-wool morning person, it has become increasingly difficult for me to get out of bed and get going each morning. I have started lingering in bed longer and longer, with the excuse that I am using my iPad to follow blogs and share with my network. I work in the social media space, so that’s like work, right? Of course, what used to be 15-20 minutes each morning turned into a half-hour. And that doesn’t account for the rest of the time I spend watching TV, petting the cat, and calculating just how many more minutes I can stay in bed without being embarrassingly late for work. Get breakfast at the deli instead of at home?  Five more minutes. Get lunch at the deli instead of packing my own?  Five more… I set up the TV in the bedroom to turn on at 6:00 am and automatically shut off at 6:40. The theory was that I could get ready while watching the morning news and the TV clicked off right about the time I was heading to the kitchen to make breakfast. Now, I am generally still in bed and have to turn the TV back on because I haven’t even gotten up yet. I have an objective measure that I am now staying in bed at least 40 minutes longer than I was a year ago.

So, this year for Lent I am giving up sleeping in.

I set my alarm clock for 5am, every day, and the “rule” is that I must get up when the alarm goes off and cannot get back into bed.

My night-owl friends (of which, ironically, I have many) are probably laughing and/or rolling their eyes at the idea that I think I have an issue with sleeping late. One friend already commented that even with all my lolling about, I’m generally up and about by 7:30 most days, including the weekends. And my friends who already get up at 5am every day are not impressed either. Even if it’s ‘kind of’ hard at first, conventional wisdom is that my body will adjust to waking earlier. So, where is the so-called sacrifice?

Observing Lent is not a contest to see who has the most extreme sacrifice. The one who suffers most doesn’t win a prize. It is meant to be a time of personal preparation and to honor the time Jesus spent in the wilderness. Who is to say what is required for someone to do this preparation?  Is the classic ‘giving up sugar’ somehow more (or less) honoring than any other choice someone might make, like not sleeping in? A seemingly smaller choice may open the door just enough to let the Spirit in. I try not to judge my own Lenten choices and instead simply do my best to honor that choice and see where it takes me. I cannot think of a single Lenten season where I have not reaped unexpected insights from that season’s journey and I expect this time to be no different.

How is it going so far?  It’s early days yet, but here are a few initial observations…

  • To get up earlier, it helps to go to bed earlier, but going to bed earlier does not necessarily mean you will fall asleep earlier.
  • If you are going to get out of bed immediately, you have to put the iPad in the other room.
  • In spite of getting up easily 2 hours earlier than usual for the past 3 days, somehow I have not managed to use my iPad at all. While this was not an intended outcome, it does raise an interesting question about the chicken-and-egg nature of the cause of my problems with getting up in the morning.
  • Getting up and out of bed at 5am on Saturday is no fun (but it does contribute to getting blog posts written).
  • I already miss the delightfully wonderful luxury of lazing about in bed with my husband and my cat.
  • This may not be as easy as I thought.


There’s never enough time to do all the nothing you want.  ~Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes

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You can turn off the radio, but you can’t shut out the music

I have a terrible affliction. Anyone who has been married to, or worked for me, has experienced it first-hand.  I get songs stuck in my head. Doesn’t matter what kind of music: Lady Gaga, Disney, church hymns, TV commercial jingles (think I’m kidding – ask my former team about the time I got the Xfinity theme stuck in my head…). Anything and everything can get stuck in there and it does not particularly seem to matter if I even like that song, or know all the words to it. I find the only solace I get is to share the ‘song of the day’ with those around me and see if I can find a kindred spirit. On those days when some tune is bouncing around in my head, I come into work and announce it out loud to see who is going to go on the musical journey with me. Generally speaking, I can find an innocent bystander who now has it stuck in their heads as well (and my personal favorite is when I announce that day’s song and the person has never heard of it, so they feel compelled to Google it and then they get it stuck in their heads).

After giving up the radio and MP3 player for Lent, I thought I might be freed from this scourge for 40 days. Ha!  I am going to church on Sundays, so the ratio of church hymns in my repertoire has gone up exponentially. But that’s not all, I find I can just read some reference to a song and, blammo, it’s now on the list. Or, let’s say it’s a particular day of the week, like, oh, Friday. And, yep, Rebecca Black’s, “Friday” starts playing on my mental mp3 player. (And, just for the record, I cannot stand that song!)

Plus the sickness has expanded and I have caught myself several times singing the song of the day out loud to the cat (with the words adjusted, of course, to either work her name into the lyrics, or to tailor the meaning of the song to be more relevant for cats). I am wandering around my stone cold silent house humming and singing to the cat, the husband, or even just to myself.

What is going on here??

I think if you are a musical person, if music touches your heart and soul, turning off the radio for 40 days is not going to change that. I’m not sure I actually realized I was a “musical person,” par se, but the truth is that I have always sung funny versions of songs to the cat, and getting songs stuck in my head is hardly anything new. Although you could not pay me good money to sing in front of people (seriously, there is not enough money or booze in the world to make me sing in public, so don’t even waste your time thinking you can figure out a way to make me), I do love to sing in the car along with the radio. One day years ago I was driving to work and belting my guts out to some song I don’t even remember now (but I do remember singing it very impressively…). I got into the kitchen at the office and a fellow employee commented that I must have enjoyed my commute that morning. He had driven up next to me on his motorcycle and said that I was giving the performance of a lifetime without even seeing him there next to me on the highway.

So, you can turn off the radio, pack up the MP3 player, but if you got the music in you, it’s there to stay.


Learning to Bend

In my early years of observing Lent, I was extremely strict with myself in regards to whatever sacrifice I happened to be making. There were no excuses, no loop holes, no skipping out on Sundays, no forgiveness, NO MERCY!  It was go big or go home, all or nothing, perfection or despair. Although I was always very clear that I never expected anyone else to follow suit or live by my Lenten restrictions, what I have learned over time is being around that version of me is incredibly annoying for everyone else. Others were constantly having to adjust their lives to meet my needs. I found that by marching around and trumpeting my “look at me and my Lenten goodness” others felt compelled to accommodate me. Even if I didn’t ask or want them to, some simply did it because they wanted to be supportive in the way that friends and family often give their support to whatever whack-o thing you’re up to at any given moment. (And, forget Lent for a minute, I have quite a track record in taking up whack-o things…)

I like to think I have improved on this front, but I also know it’s an area where I still need work. Last year (where I gave up going out to eat), I thought I was being super clever for a work-related offsite event by offering to bring lunch and happy hour fixins. I learned later that the sandwiches that I brought were not on a colleague’s low carb diet, not to mention he had to make special arrangements with the location for me to bring my food, but he was gracious enough not to stand in my way. And I believe an element of this discipline is not to make a big fuss about what you are doing, so writing blog posts about the whole business probably doesn’t help my cause either.

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.  ~Matthew 6, verse 1

This year I decided to be more conscientious about not taking those around me through my personal journey of Lenten sacrifice. Okay, obviously writing this post invites people to go along the journey with me in some respects; so to clarify, I mean I am working hard not to inflict my offline, “real life,” Lenten choices on others. As far as my online presence goes, people can choose whether or not to read this post, or whether they even agree with my sentiments. Perhaps I really shouldn’t be writing about my experience with Lent – at least not on a blog, but that will have to be a struggle for another season.

What this really means is that I have to make a conscious choice to set aside perfect devotion to my sacrifice. Sometimes I have to live with my own inability to fulfill the commitment I have made. This past Friday we got together with friends we hadn’t seen in some months. Our usual tradition involves getting together for a meal and then watching a movie or catching up on the reality shows they know I like that are on cable, which we don’t have. I was very conflicted about how to handle this situation since I gave up TV for Lent. I initially suggested we get together on Sunday because there is a bit of a loophole with Lent on Sundays, but I actually keep to my discipline on Sundays, so I still would have felt like I was cheating in my heart. {As an aside, I do this because when I think of Jesus out in the wilderness for 40 days being tempted by Satan, I’m guessing he wasn’t taking Sundays off…} I considered telling them I had given up TV and movies for Lent, but it just felt like I would have been making them suffer for my choices which was exactly what I did not want to do. I also considered that perhaps I could have waited to see them until after Easter. In the end we did get together and we did watch TV – and, yes, I ‘inhaled’ – and, yes, I had mixed feelings about that. But one of the things I also learned was the reason why we hadn’t heard from them in so long. They had been experiencing some personal challenges on a couple of different fronts and we were able to listen to them, give them our empathy and show that we cared about what was going on in their life by our presence. Does that excuse my breaking my commitment not to watch TV?  Honestly, no, and I have to live with my own disappointment about that. Am I glad we made the choice to go see them and not burden them with my TV-free life, absolutely.

The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm. ~Confucius


The sound of silence

When I shared that I was giving up TV, Movies, Books, and Radio for Lent in Into the Lenten Wilderness, my friend Barb had this to say on Facebook:

I read the sentence twice thinking, surely she cannot mean books. The other things are evil, but not books! You go too far here.

At the time, I was far too distracted by how much withdrawal I was going through from my TV addiction to think about what giving up the other stuff was going to mean to me. But her comment stuck with me. Sacrifice is not about giving up stuff that’s bad for you (“evil things”), but rather things that are meaningful to you. I am a voracious reader and I love nothing more than losing myself in a book. The reason I decided to sacrifice books for Lent this year was because I spend all my time on the bus each day buried in the Kindle reader on my smart phone. So much so that I barely pay attention to anything else that is going on around me. On my morning commute this morning I noticed that the bus was stone cold silent. I looked around and everyone within eye shot was on some sort of digital device – phone, table, mp3 player. A couple of weeks ago I would have been one of them. And not only reading on my phone but listening to music on my mp3 player, which is why I decided to give up music too. For a short time I want to be more present to my surroundings.

As usual, I underestimated the impact of my choices. I thought giving up music was kind of a throw in and not that big of a deal. It wasn’t until I was sitting in church on Sunday and the music began to play that I felt the weight of that particular sacrifice. As we began to sing the hymn I could barely get through the words and was on the verge of tears. And what song brought me so emotionally to the edge?  Ode to Joy.  (Oh the irony…) I forgot that the songs I have selected on my mp3 player are not mere background noise. I picked music that either inspires me, touches me, or just plain makes me happy. They are my modern day odes to joy.

On the front end of this journey I wondered if I had made too strict a list, but now that I have adjusted to life without TV and to quiet bus rides, I began to question if I made it too easy on myself. Hearing a taste of music and feeling in my heart the pang of what I was missing let me know that I had indeed selected sacrifices that are full of meaning and it’s these little discoveries along the way that draw me back to the Lenten discipline year after year. Sometimes you have to turn off the volume to truly hear.


Into the Lenten Wilderness

The season of Lent is once again upon us. As I shared last year at this time, I’m a fan of the discipline of sacrifice. This year’s distraction, and therefore the ‘sacrifice of choice,’ is the noise in my life from TV, radio, movies, and books. I have given up TV before, but that year I allowed movies. I have also given up Facebook/Social Media before, but seeing as I now work in that field, it seemed a bit ridiculous to try and find a way to give it up that wasn’t complicated and filled with loop-holes. Besides the spirit of this sacrifice is not about shutting out the outside world completely, but rather about turning down the volume low enough that I am not drowning myself out.

I go into each season with grand illusions of all the amazing things I will do in lieu of what I gave up. When it’s food-related, I imagine the amazing weight I’ll lose and the healthy glow that will come from my disciplined ways. This year I thought I would spend all this new-found free time getting my house clean and organized, and writing prolifically. So far in the writing category we’ve got this post and, well, that’s it so far. It also turns out the reason I don’t spend all my ‘free’ time cleaning the bathroom is not because my brains have been sucked out by the TV, but because cleaning the toilet is not that fun or spiritually fulfilling.  (It has occurred to me that perhaps some year I need to give up grand illusions, but clearly that is not this year.)

Mostly what I’m noticing just 3 days in is that I’m incredibly restless. I have restless brain syndrome. I have a hard time settling down to sleep at night and I wake up in the early hours of the morning. Even maintaining my focus to write this post was a challenge. I had no idea just how much of a sedative effect the TV (et al) has on me. I imagine this must be some flavor of what it’s like to have ADHD. Fortunately, my running brings relief as the physical exertion seems to counter the mental agitation, and the pleasure I get from socializing with my fellow teammates helps as well. I also trust I’ll settle into the new, less distracted brain in the coming days.

Because I think it helps to have a little help on any journey, I have also committed to going to church every Sunday through Easter. Brian and I were part of a very close church community before we moved to Seattle proper and we have not found a new church home in the four years that we’ve lived here. Truthfully, we haven’t exactly looked either. We’ve gone a couple of times to a nearby church that is progressive enough to meet our needs, but not often enough to know any names. For the next 7 Sundays, this same church will be our spiritual guide on the Lenten journey.

So, into the wilderness I go. What will I find there? Only God knows and only time will reveal.


The discipline of sacrifice (or why I like to give stuff up for Lent)

About 10 years ago I started observing Lent. I am not Catholic and was certainly wasn’t raised with the tradition. Perhaps it is no accident that I took up running somewhere along the same time, but I can’t really say why I took up Lent other than that it seemed like a good idea at the time. Like running, once I started, it became a part of me and something I look forward to. In fact, the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter is my favorite time in the liturgical year. Some folks choose to take on a discipline during Lent and it seems a lot of protestants are uncomfortable with the notion giving things up (or maybe it is our American consumer-based sensibilities that are conflicted?). I, for one, always choose to give up something. Usually sometime in January, sometimes earlier, it just comes to me what I need to give up that particular year. One time it was cheese and chocolate, one year it was pasta, another time alcohol, and this year it was going out to restaurants. My dear friend Cynthia railed a bit on those folks who choose to use Lent as some kind of excuse to go on a diet or get in shape – kind of a second chance window for New Year’s resolutions gone awry. It has never been about that for me. I give up things that have become distractions, but that are ultimately still pleasures I don’t want to remove altogether (the thought of a life with no cheese and no chocolate barely seems worth living…). For me an important element of the sacrifice, of wandering through my own wilderness, is knowing that there is an end. The sun will come out again, the Son of Man will rise again, balance will be restored.

Lent follows the same cycle for me each year. In the beginning I am energized and actually excited to get started. This year I pulled out cook books and made meal plans and thought about how healthy it was to be eating home cooked meals. There were some twinges as I had to reschedule a lunch date with a friend, but I figured I would just invite people over and visions of all the dinner parties I would host danced in my head. The middle bit is where it starts to be a burden. It’s not horrible, but the novelty has worn off and I am honestly mostly just going through the motions. This is the part where I realize there will be no dinner parties and I remember the reason I wasn’t pouring over cook books and making meal plans before – I’m not really that interested in cooking. But I keep plugging away for reasons unknown or maybe simply because I am just too stubborn to give up and quit. Towards the end of Lent, or rather when the end is in sight, I begin to cherish whatever it was I gave up. I close my eyes and the vision now is filled with good friends around the table of a fine restaurant enjoying each other and the meal before us. It is both harder and more satisfying. This is also usually when the temptations become the strongest. A colleague Russell wanted to convert our weekly meeting to a working lunch. He offered to pay and suggested since we would be talking business that it wouldn’t count as going out for ‘fun.’ My friend Francis tried to give me a coupon for a free pizza and argued that since we could get the pizza and eat it at home that wasn’t technically “going out to eat.” The temptation here was not the offer of lunch or pizza, but rather the guilt I felt for inconveniencing someone else who wanted to go out and turning down a generous offer. Why should others have to be bothered by the choices I made, but in both cases I declined and simply sat with the guilt and disappointment.

We have all faced times of darkness and wilderness in our lives. Giving up Pizza Hut for 40 days hardly compares to the pain and loss anyone who has been on this planet for any length of time inevitably experiences, my own pain included. But observing Lent reminds me that we can persevere in the darkness, and that the light does come back. I can’t speak for the spiritual journey of those who choose to take on a new discipline, or for those who don’t observe at all, as I believe we all have our own paths to follow. But for me the beauty of the season is directly linked to the sacrifice of wandering in the wilderness – as if being lost is part of the journey of finding my way again.