Growing up in a very small, very Catholic town in central Wisconsin, I learned about Lent at a very young age. I couldn’t have explained to you the purpose or religious practices of the season. Why the black ash smudge on Wednesday? Not sure. Fasting from meat on Fridays? I don’t know why. They were overshadowed, or maybe I should say “oversmelled,” by the much anticipated weekly fish fry. Copious amounts of cod and/or perch were caught or trucked in to town to feed the ravenous Catholics and the few outsiders who were lured in by the 40-day, fry-batter fog that lay upon the city. My family fell into the latter category.
We were pretend Catholics. I went to Catholic school. I sometimes went to mass with my class. And my parents, well, they paid my tuition. And they paid for fish – lots of fish. That’s Catholic-y enough, right? Every year my dad would get his Catholic on and come home with bulging styrofoam containers overflowing with hush puppies, coleslaw, fries, baked goods and of course, fish – lots of fish. And every year my hatred of fried fish would intensify alongside my thankfulness that we were not real Catholics, meaning that my refusal to eat this fish had nothing to do with my eternal destiny.
To summarize, Friday + fried fish = Lent. Lauren + (couldn’t find a symbol to indicate force feeding) fish = Hate Lent.
Fast forward 20 years, dozens of fish fries, six cross-country moves, two cats and one husband later and well, I still hated fish. But the idea of Lent was suddenly appealing to me. I’m kind of a self-inprovement junkie. So when I heard rumblings about it at work – “What are you giving up? No chocolate for 40 days? Yeah right!” – I started thinking about what I could sacrifice for 40 days just for the sake of saying I did it. I mean, because why else would you do it? (I’ve always been a little late to the game, folks!)
So, my husband Michael and I decided to go vegetarian for Lent. No big deal, right? (If you agree with that statement, you didn’t grow up on a latchkey-kid diet where Chef Boyardee meatballs and McDonald’s chicken nuggets are staples.) By day four, I’m lying lethargic on the couch, totally malnourished – I forgot to tell you I hate most vegetables too – and staring at my cats with an alarming predatory gaze. Why am I doing this? What’s the point? Is it really just to prove to myself I can muster up enough self control for 40 days? I hate Lent. Who does this?
I complain to Michael. I complain to my co-workers. I complain to my friends. Aren’t I such a joy? Days turn into weeks and nothing changes. I’m hungry. I want nuggets. I want steak. I want hamburger. I want … FISH! Can you believe it? My hunger pangs have dulled my memory. I agree to break our fast and go to St. James on a Friday night along with all of the West Side of Grand Rapids and gag down a small piece of fried fish. Yep, still hate it. I spend Lent trying to distract myself. I try cooking vegetarian – a fruitless task of trying to make things that aren’t as good as meat try to taste like meat. I dream about meat. I think about meat. Forty slow days eventually pass by and I barely make it. But I pat myself on the back, give a shout out to my willpower and dive into an Easter buffet. Take that, Lent.
Two more years of Lent pass just like this. Pick something to give up, try really hard not to give in, pat yourself on the back. Repeat. Then that got boring (and was way too much work for such little payoff), so I gave up on Lent … again.
Fast forward to now. I’m staring Lent 2014 in the face and I’m reexamining. There must be more. I’ve missed something. Millions of Jesus followers – Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox – around the world wouldn’t partake in this historical observance if there weren’t something to it, right?
I started fasting (from food) one day a week this Fall – not to get in good with God or to earn spiritual brownie points – but because I realized how full my life is. I was starting to have those moments where this time last year felt like just a few weeks ago. Time was speeding up and I wasn’t even aware of it until something would shake me awake – a milestone, a birthday, a loss. It was always on to the next thing and the next thing and the next thing… Do you ever feel that way? You just want to slow down and get a grip, a handle on your life. You want to examine your relationships. You want to live intentionally. You want to see God at work and partner with Him. But you can’t. Life keeps on moving and you have to keep moving, right? But I just couldn’t move anymore.
I prayed about it and I felt like I should try fasting. Not to prove to myself I could do it, but to create a space, to get quiet (except for the rumbling of my belly), to get hungry, to remember what God has done in my life, to get needy, to let go. It’s been an extraordinary season to say the least.
And this I’ve discovered is what Lent is all about, friends. What a gift! Forty days (46 to be exact – Sundays are celebratory, non-fasting days) set aside to prepare your hearts for the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Forty days to reexamine. Forty days to be intentional. Forty days to remember. Forty days to surrender. And I promise, you don’t have to eat fish or plants, unless you want to, of course.
“Thus the question for me is not whether there’s a point to giving things up during Lent, but whether I should ever stop fasting from all that numbs, dulls and deadens me to life, all of life, as it is today — the good and the bad. Fasting makes me willing to try.”
This is your invitation! Join us for the next six weeks of Soul Spring Training. Clever name, right?! Some of you may choose to fast from something. Others of you may want to add something new to your routine. The options are limitless and can be tailored to whatever would most benefit you wherever you are on your spiritual journey. But don’t let these 40 days pass you by. They are God’s gift to you. Do something (except invite me to a fish fry – I’ll say no).
We’ve compiled a list of soul-training exercises for you to peruse here. Pick one or two or rotate through all of them. I’ll also be blogging each week about what exercise my family is doing (or struggling to do, if we’re being honest!) and how God is working in our lives throughout this season. Follow along here. I’m looking forward to walking this out together.
Additional Resources for Lent