Last week, as we began Lent, I seemed to have struck a chord with a number of people when I described the act of giving something up for Lent as fundamentally being about reorienting our lives to God. I recall my Judaism professor helping me to understand dietary laws, and indeed many of the religious laws of any tradition that define how one does ordinary tasks, as being about focusing our lives on living in relationship to God. When our daily lives are infused with constant reminders of our living in relation with God then it’s harder for us to lose our focus on living out our covenant. So, people not eating meat on Fridays may push them to remember that this is a church teaching, they may or may not understand the meaning behind it, but every time they choose not to eat meat on a Friday they think about their faith… or do they? I found myself pondering something as simple as people giving up chocolate for Lent, something I hear about often. And I wondered whether going without something that I enjoyed helped me to somehow reconnect with God better. It certainly had the possibility of connecting me to the story of Jesus in the wilderness for forty days being hungry, but did it deepen my faith? My sense over the years from watching the practice of giving something up for Lent is that it doesn’t seem to add much to people’s spiritual journey. And so the recommendation that I offered this year is one that I’ve read often from others – to focus on giving more love and grace instead of giving something up – giving outward instead of giving up. Maybe even something as simple as giving thanks and joy instead of the lack thereof.
I was recently introduced to some thoughts by Rev. Holly Whitcomb in her new book the Practice of Finding; she was speaking about learning to savor and find wonder. At one point she quoted an oft repeated Jewish saying that “on the Day of Judgement God will only ask one question: Did you enjoy my world?” From Judaism I learned the sense of original blessing, that all of creation, and surely life itself is overflowing with the blessing of God, and we are to appreciate it. But that appreciation isn’t just supposed to be the passing glance that says, “hey, nice flower…” it’s supposed to be the practice of letting the blessings around us transform our hearts. Holly uses the word savoring as a way of inviting us to slow down and appreciate. I think that this would be a more faithful Lenten journey in the wilderness. To be more intentional in our day to day life, to take that extra moment to appreciate the blessings.
There was a well-worn story that crossed my desk recently:
There once was a happy monkey wandering the jungle, eating delicious fruit when hungry, and resting when tired. One day he came upon a house, where he saw a bowl of the most beautiful apples. He took one in each hand and ran back into the forest. He sniffed the apples and smelled nothing. He tried to eat them, but hurt his teeth. They were made of wood, but they were beautiful, and when the other monkeys saw them, he held onto them even tighter.
He admired his new possessions proudly as he wandered the jungle. They glistened red in the sun, and seemed perfect to him. He became so attached to them, that he didn't even notice his hunger at first.
A fruit tree reminded him, but he felt the apples in his hands. He couldn't bear to set them down to reach for the fruit. In fact, he couldn't relax, either, if he was to defend his apples. A proud, but
less happy monkey continued to walk along the forest trails.
The apples became heavier, and the poor little monkey thought about leaving them behind. He was tired, hungry, and he couldn't climb trees or collect fruit with his hands full. What if he just let go?
Letting go of such valuable things seemed crazy, but what else could he do? He was so tired. Seeing the next fruit tree, and smelling its fruit was enough. He dropped the wooden apples and reached up for his meal. He was happy again.
Don’t we often hold onto all the wrong things in our lives, things that can’t offer us life? In Colossians it was spoken of as “set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” Perhaps we could also say that we should set our minds on those things that feed our souls, that give us deep joy, that align our lives with God's blessings.
As we continue our journey with God, perhaps we should spend more time giving thanks, giving kindness, giving grace, giving joy… and let those things fill us up with the wonder of God's blessings.