Tag Archives: Lent

Guest Post: When Personal Failure Turns to Sweet Grace

Today’s guest post is by Caitlin Muir, blogger, book reviewer, and adventurist extraordinaire, who shares her candid experience with fasting from sugar for Lent this year, in a way that I think strikes a universal human chord. Read, savor, and be blessed this Holy Week.

This was the year that I was going to be extra holy.

I was going to celebrate Lent.

The very idea made me feel holier. Like I was going to be earning brownie points in Heaven for taking part in an ancient ritual that would draw me closer to the Lord and His suffering.

If anything, it’s made me feel the opposite. I know that on my own, I am wretched. Miserable. Unlovable.

I started out with a bang, giving up fast food and sugar for the season. I should probably take this time to let you know that I’m not a cook and I have a sweet tooth the size of Alaska. This would be a huge sacrifice.

Day one - No sugar. No fast food. I’m practically dripping with holiness. Easy peasy. 

Day two - No sugar. No fast food. AWESOME! I CAN DO THIS FOREVER!!!! Maybe I should ask my Catholic friends if I can be canonized. St. Caitlin sounds nice. 

Day three - Does the sugar in wine count? Because Jesus drank wine and I really wouldn’t want to be legalistic. Or try to out-holy Jesus. It’s official. Sugar in wine doesn’t count. On the bright side, I passed up the bowl of M&M’s calling out my name. It’s like I didn’t even notice them. I wonder if my roommates would kill me if I threw them all away. Hmmm…

Day four - No fast food. I’m halfway there today. But while I was running between activities, I had the worst headache from not eating. I needed instant energy. Lucky for me, that 5 lb. tub of Nestle cookie dough was still in the fridge. Make that 4.75 lb tub…

Day five - There’s no reason for me to be feeling guilt. Lent is an option. A freewill offering. God doesn’t want me to feel guilt over eating sugar. I’m busy. It’s not like I’m going to get the same instant energy from eating a prune. 

After a few more days of this, I decide to relax the rules. Sugar when absolutely necessary, fast food under duress only. I’m not one to add extra rules to my life.

Around this time, my roommates invited me to participate in the Stations of the Cross with them. As a Protestant, I had never participated in the Stations. They were hazier than Lent, thrown to the side of Christianity that was locked up in a room I had never explored before.

As a child, the time leading up to Easter wasn’t sacred. Oh, I participated in waving palm branches like the traitorous people of Jerusalem, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how one could be so fervent one moment and then barbaric the next. Good Friday services were decidedly out of fashion. The Cross was just a moment that we tried to fast forward to. Many Protestants do. The days up to Easter were filled with hand bell choir practice and cleaning the house for relatives. The day itself was long – dressing up, performing in front of the church, and then having a dinner with the family. But it wasn’t special necessarily.

So as I sat in the wooden pew, sandwiched between roommates, boyfriends, and other members of the young Catholic community, everything was made new again through an ancient rite.

I watched as a priest and three young boys made their way through the cathedral. I kneeled, prayed, and worshipped as each station was visited, skipping the “Mary’s” and other parts I didn’t understand or agree with. I wondered if anyone cared that I wasn’t Catholic. If I would be kicked out should I be found out.

But then my thoughts were refocused back on the cross. The dear symbol of suffering and shame.

With every step that he took, Jesus had a choice. Jesus, the holy one, bore the worst punishment known to man. Willingly. When his flesh was ripped open through beatings, he still stood up to carry his cross. His blood was splattered on the ground, dripping down his sides, and still he walked on. Determined to die. Damning himself to save us. You. Me.

In The Passion of The Christ, Simon the Cyrene says something interesting. Indignant that he would be forced to help a criminal, he shouts, “Let it be known today, that I am an innocent man condemned to help a criminal.”

If only he knew the truth of the matter. Yet, I find myself playing the victim card when the truth is that I’m the aggressor.

Nothing I do on my own will change the fact that I’m a sinner. The Lent season has only served to remind me that I can’t do it on my own. If I can’t give up sugar for forty days, there’s no way I can save my soul from hell and eternal brokenness.

It’s all grace.

With Jesus, it’s all beautiful, brutally costly, scandalous grace.

And that is sweeter than a thousand grams of sugar.

Thanks Caitlin for guest posting today! Are you doing anything to commemorate Holy Week or Easter weekend this year? How do you reconnect with the significance of the cross?

A Writer’s Most Dreaded Deadline: Sleep

Many people use Lent as a sort of detox for the soul, bringing them back to simple and essential grace, and I’ve been curious to hear the experiences of others during this season. Today’s post is by blogger and author Ed Cyzewski, whose Lenten discipline is one we all need to cultivate: rest. 

I feel like Lent is that time of year when you try to change something that would otherwise remain untouched. It’s like only the thought of a sad, disappointed Jesus can keep me in line sometimes.

This year I targeted one of my greatest struggles: sleep.

It doesn’t take a lot to keep me up at night. A little anxiety, a captivating book, or a west coast game for the Philadelphia Flyers have all stolen my sleep, leaving me groggy the next day and 2-3 hours behind schedule.

Once my sleep schedule is wrecked, I have a hard time recovering. Prayer time is squeezed off the schedule. Valuable morning work hours vanish. I work after dinner trying to catch up, only to fall behind on my house work. So I stay up late to do the dishes or laundry.

I wake up the next day with the same issues: I’m whining for coffee, frustrated, and behind schedule.

I used to wake up at 5 am and write for a few hours. It was amazing and fun. Really. I got so much done, and then I’d have a lot of confidence for the rest of the day.

My mission this year was simple enough: go up to bed at 9 pm. I’d like to wake up at 5 am, but I also realized that I needed to take things one step at a time. So I have one goal: just get upstairs and start brushing my teeth at 9 pm.

We’ve just passed the mid-way point of Lent, and sleep has been a struggle. What I didn’t expect is that once I got into bed at 9 pm, I rarely fell asleep right away. Sometimes it took hours to fall asleep.

Some nights I’d struggle with anxiety attacks. Other nights I’d try to read in order to calm myself, but then I’d just get sucked into a book. Still other nights I just laid there for hours, unable to shut down my mind.

I’ve had to really rethink my day if I want to go to bed at 9 pm.

In some respects, I’m a lot more focused during the day because of my Lenten practice.

I only have so many hours. I can’t extend the day infinitely. It ends at 9 pm no matter what. That helps me tackle the dishes in the afternoon before they pile up, keep the laundry going, and bump the most important projects to the top of my list.

I’ve also learned that I need to exercise a lot more—like, a lot more. So now I’m setting aside chunks of my day for vigorous walks or gardening projects that involve lots of energy. Consequently, these walks and outdoor activities have been good for my mind and spirit.

While I still struggle to fall asleep at my 9 pm bed time during Lent, I think I’ve trimmed off some of those black holes in my day where I genuinely waste time.

When I need leisure time, I make it count.

When I need to work, I focus.

When it’s time to clean up the kitchen, I attack.

When I sit down to pray, I remove any possible distractions.

Life is one big work in progress that we’re always editing and rewriting. Sometimes deadlines help us get the most important things done. In the case of my 9 pm bedtime, I have an immensely helpful deadline that has challenged me to rethink how I spend my entire day.

I also dread every west coast trip that the Flyers take.

Are you observing Lent this year in any particular way? In the midst of endless things to do, how do you discipline yourself to take the time and rest? 

Ed Cyzewski is the author of Coffeehouse Theology and Divided We Unite. He blogs at www.inamirrordimly.com and hopes the Flyers can win the Cup this year—preferably against an opponent who is not on the west coast.

How Fasting Teaches Us to Refine Our Tastes

You can learn a lot about a person by what happens when he or she chooses to “go without.” This is what I’m learning these first few weeks of my Lenten fast from all things snacky and salty.

Where most people confess to having a sweet tooth, I crave salt. If I am hungry, it is the first thing I want. Sometimes, it is the only thing I’m convinced will satisfy me in the illusion painted by hunger pangs.

And it has always been a sensitive spot for me in the eyes of others. It seems so much more refined to crave chocolate, decadent whipped cream, confectioner’s sugar, all those things one might eat in the final course of a good and proper meal. People with a sweet tooth seem sweet themselves, like Audrey Hepburn, it’s in their nature.

But what does it say about a girl who can’t resist fries and ketchup? Uncontrollable cravings for sodium-powered chips and crunchy fried food seems incredibly base in comparison. To me, it feels embarrassing, especially when I love good, fresh, and whole food so much. I don’t wish to rely on or tie myself to such things.

Fasting Frustration 

But last night I wanted it all.

Zach was lounging in the other room, crunching. And I could smell the sweet chili spices of the chips he was eating, left over from a pizza and friends night over the weekend, and I could hear every soulful crunch.

So I ate a granola bar.  Lit a scented candle, put on some music, and washed the dishes, soothing my hands in the hot running water. I tried to engage my other senses. And the granola bar really did nothing but irritate me, and I had to turn up the volume to keep from hearing my husband’s snacking a yard away, but in time it was okay. Not a profound experience, or a moment of illumination, but I slept through the night and started over the next day, happy with my bowl of oatmeal.

Refining Our Taste 

I’ve been learning about this crazy thing called supernormal stimuli. First observed in the animal kingdom, this phenomenon is what causes male butterflies to choose wingless cardboard dummies as mating partners instead of the real, live females right in front of them. The scientists discovered that if the desirable characteristics are amplified on the fake mate, the male would choose the cardboard lover over a real one every time.

It’s absurd, but only as absurd as we are ourselves when we stuff ourselves with snacks or sweets, look at porn, live vicariously through movies and TV shows, the list goes on. Cardboard cut-out stand-ins for cravings which go far, far deeper.

We need to refine our taste for that which is truly good and full. There’s a feast to be had, every day, in His presence. And that’s what I’m trying to teach my stubborn body and soul during this Lenten season.

Have you ever come to a realization that you’re cravings or addictions are second-rate to what God provides? 

When Grace Stirs Up the Dust

On Ash Wednesday, they got my order wrong at Starbucks.

I had taken my cup back to my seat before I realized it, and hesitated, pausing there in my black dress which I thought I would wear, being appropriate to the day. I didn’t yet have the kiss of ash on my forehead, but had found a service to attend that evening. And I have been considering what to give up for the forty forthcoming days.

But sitting in the corner of the coffee shop, it suddenly seemed absurd to me that dust should deserve a vanilla rooibos tea latte.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return…

These bones are on borrowed time. I may decorate them to show my youth, but this frame is mortal. I remember when my muscles tie themselves into knots around my spine, when news of a celebrity death starts trending on Twitter, when I flinch in fear at sudden swerves in traffic.

We tend to remember the Fall in the garden as an event, a swift plummet, but ever since we fall in slow motion. Especially when we are young and in good health, we rarely realize gravity’s slow and silent pull toward the end.

Which makes me wonder, why give gifts to dying children? 

It almost seems unfathomable. I woke up cozy that morning in my house that I own with my husband whom I love. I drove to Starbucks in my Jetta, propped my new boots up on a comfy armchair to sit back and enjoy a customized beverage, wholly superfluous to my nutritional diet and needs.

Impossible, that I should be entitled to any of this. My life is overrun with privileges.

Ashes remind me that I don’t deserve it; that it is a gift. But on the other side of these ashes, the God I love stands to resurrect, to bring to life, to make things new.

I held my steaming cup in hand, and knew that I am blessed.

How does Lent shape your perspective? Are you doing anything this year to observe it such as fasting, new disciplines, reflection, etc.? I’d love to know!

The Inconvenience of Lent

[This post was originally published on Relief Journal’s blog, and I’m happy to say our church now incorporates communion into the service]

In our American culture of drive-through coffee, instant Twitter feeds, and video on demand, we prize immediacy. We like to check our email on our touchscreen phone as soon as it hits our inbox, grab lunch to-go, and download live-streaming news. We are a nation of busy professionals, parents, and students living under the banner of “carpe diem,” driven by the idea that there’s no time like the present.

This “now” syndrome certainly has advantages, motivating us to work hard and invest fully in whatever we’re doing, but what happens when we apply our instant-culture values to spirituality?

I once had a bizarre experience with communion that made me consider this question. After months of exhausting church-searching, my husband and I finally found a church where we wanted to stay. It’s a contemporary kind of church, the kind that has a graphic designer on staff and a coffee bar out in the hall, and we came because we like the teaching and the small groups. But you have to understand, the church we went to before we moved was a liturgical church, the kind with Kierkegaard quotes in every other sermon and weekly communion. So we knew we’d have to make some adjustments at our new church.

But this is what I did not expect: communion that is served before the service, an addendum tacked onto and separate from the worship service. So we set our alarms a little earlier, entered the sanctuary, and found only a fraction of the congregation had shown up. The pastor said a prayer for this handful of early-risers, and at his invitation we filed up front and received the elements, and then it was over. The whole ordeal took literally five minutes. There was no time of confession before receiving the sacrament. There was no benediction afterwards, charging us to go forth bearing Christ into the world. There was no community, only a yawning faithful few. There was no ritual, no careful unfolding of holiness.

It was like grabbing Christ’s blood of the covenant, His outpouring for the world, in a Styrofoam to-go cup. It was a sacrament dictated by convenience, quickly squeezed in between other items on the agenda, and left out of the greater context of cosmic redemption.

The problem with an instant culture, and an instant church, is that a preoccupation with the present diminishes our ability to see seasons, to see story, to observe the unfolding of time. This is the pivotal idea of the sacrament of communion: Christ asks us to remember Him by taking the bread and wine (Luke 22:19), and to anticipate the future when we will eat and drink with Him face to face (Matt. 26:29).

As we now enter the season of Lent, we enter a time of waiting. There is no immediacy or convenience here. But there is a story of cosmic proportions unfolding, as we take the forty days of Lent to remember, to walk through the events of the life of Christ: the temptation in the desert, the agony of Good Friday, the silence and sorrow of Holy Saturday, and the joyful victory of Sunday morning.

It is often difficult for us to lay down our gadgets and agendas to just sit for a while, quiet our souls, and dwell with God. And yet, He laid down everything for us, making Himself “nothing” and emptying Himself to the point of death (Phil. 2:7-98).

In his beautiful poem“Seven Stanzas at Easter,” John Updike writes of the agony of the cross, “Let us not seek to make it less monstrous, for our own convenience…” As we cross the threshold of Ash Wednesday, let us reflect sincerely and sorrowfully on Christ’s suffering for us, so that on Easter morning, our hearts will grasp the incredible joy in His resurrection.

How do you find preparing yourself for Easter through Lent an inconvenience? How do you find it a blessing?

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