Today is Fat Tuesday. One last day of excess before emptying ourselves out, purifying our bodies and minds and preparing for a rebirth on Easter. Of course over the years it has been less about a night of reckless abandon as it has been about indulging in a Shamrock shake before giving up sweets for Lent. But as I have grown older– and hopefully wiser– I have given a lot more thought to the proper way to observe the Lenten season and what I should be teaching my children about sacrifice and service.
Let me start by saying, I think my kids are too young to really sacrifice anything and definitely too young to fast. Sure it is a good idea for them to give up chocolate since they will essentially engage in a chocolate orgy come Easter, but to really grasp the idea of sacrifice, I think they need a few more years of maturity. Because right now, for them, giving up TV or giving up candy seems like a punishment. And a sacrifice shouldn’t be a punishment, but an offering.
It took me many, many years to understand that giving up a vice or unhealthy habit for Lent wasn’t just about sacrifice for sacrifice’s sake. It is supposed to be about growing closer to God. And if it took me many years into my adult life to realize this, how much can I expect my sons to grasp?
Personally I think the service or “almsgiving” part of Lent is much more age appropriate for my sons although it’s something many people overlook during this time. Giving to others and perhaps sacrificing some of their free time to go and help out at a nursing home is a concept I think their 8-year old minds can understand. They can relate how doing something like that is living in the way that God wants. Certainly it is a lot more straightforward than trying to explain how giving up candy will help them grow closer to God.
A few years ago, my church gave a great homily on how to decide what kind of sacrifice to make or what kind of service to undertake during Lent. The criterion was simple– examine your life and choose a habit that takes you away God and then give that up. Maybe it meant turning the TV off in the evening and spending that time talking to your family. Maybe it meant giving up a nightly bowl of ice cream and going to the gym and taking care of the body that God has given you. Maybe it’s acknowledging a bad temper and giving up anger and spending time praying and meditating.
In the church bulletin there was an insert with the following poem prayer which then hung on my refrigerator for years:
A Special Lenten Fast
Give up harsh words – Use generous ones;
Give up unhappiness – Take up gratitude;
Give up anger – Take up gentleness & patience;
Give up pessimism – Take up hope and optimism;
Give up worrying – Take up trust in God;
Give up complaining – Value what you have;
Give up stress – Take up prayer;
Give up judging others – Discover Jesus within them;
Give up sorrow and bitterness – Fill your heart with joy;
Give up selfishness – Take up compassion for others;
Give up being unforgiving – Learn reconciliation;
Give up words – Fill yourself with silence & listen to others.
Although I try to live my life in this way every day, I know that I’m not always successful. This year during Lent I’m going to take the time to meditate on each of these sacrifices and be sure that I am not holding on to anything that I should be giving up. Worrying, stress, and anger are places that I need the most work and I will make a conscious effort to give these up each day. I will notice when I lapse in any of the other areas as well and be sure to be a blessing to my family, my friends and to everyone I encounter. Including myself.
As for my sons, they are going to try to be nice to each other. And to me. And we’ll pray together. And I think God will be pleased. What will you give up?