Posted on February 16, 2010
Today is Mardi Gras, which means “Fat Tuesday” in French, and (in addition to a crazy New Orleans festival) is also what some of us call the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent for many Christians. As a Lutheran Christian, my understanding of Lent is as follows:
The 40 days preceding Easter (not counting Sundays) are intended be a period of spiritual preparation before commemorating Jesus Christ’s suffering and death during Holy Week (culminating on Good Friday) and the celebration of His resurrection on Easter Sunday. It is a season of self-examination, penitence, sacrifice/fasting, and prayer.
I observe Lent every year by attending midweek church services and using devotional booklets/materials. I also try to sacrifice a little extra money for collections my church takes to help people in need. This year I want to focus more on the self-examination aspect of the season, and my method for doing that will be a journal. I decided to “share” that journal with visitors to this site because I feel Christians are called to share their faith with others.
If you are a Christian, I hope you find your own personal and meaningful way to observe Lent, and if my journal inspires or motivates you in some way to do so, then it will have served a good purpose.
If you are not a Christian, I hope you find this journal to be one small but positive and thought-provoking example of the Christian point of view.
Ash Wednesday, February 17 through Friday, February 19
If I had planned to write something in this journal every day, then I would be disappointed in my progress just a couple days into the Lenten season. But I know myself well enough by now to realize and accept that I will not manage to produce a journal entry each day. I have never been able to discipline myself to keep a daily journal, nor have I become disciplined about my prayer life and Bible study. I admire Christians who faithfully set aside time each day for their devotions. I have tried to establish that, but have only managed to keep up with it for a few weeks at a time until I let something else get in the way — often what gets in the way is my own laziness. Or it’s the many distractions I allow to consume my attention. I think it’s probably those distractions, more than my laziness, that are the problem.
On Wednesday I planned to attend my church’s annual Ash Wednesday program, which includes a potluck dinner followed by a worship service. I spent a lot of time baking cookies and assembling a vegetable tray and ranch dip, which were my contributions to the dinner. Since I also planned to take my son to church with me, I had to bathe and dress him and get his stuff together (“diaper” bag and backpack of Bible coloring books and other books appropriate for church). Of course, I also had to get myself ready, and my energy level being low on Wednesday, it seemed to take forever to accomplish everything. I managed to get us both and all the stuff to the church in time, and while I was juggling my son’s peanut butter sandwich and somewhat uncooperative attitude, I was asked to serve as lay reader for the evening because the scheduled reader could not attend. For those unfamiliar with a traditional Lutheran worship service: there are usually three or four passages read from the Bible during the service. While the pastor reads the Gospel reading from the New Testament, a volunteer (sometimes called “lay reader”) goes forward to read for the congregation the Old Testament passage, the psalm, and the Epistle reading (e.g., from St. Paul’s letters to the early church). This is one ministry in which I participate, and it’s one that I always enjoy doing. I don’t have a fear of public speaking/reading.
[unfinished, but posted anyway]
Saturday, February 20, through Saturday, February 27 [Week 1 of Lent -- more or less]
Okay, so this journal idea I had for my Lenten observation this year … well, it hasn’t developed as I expected. The thing is that even though I haven’t been writing/posting much about the first week of Lent, a LOT has been happening in my life these past several days that reveals to me God’s presence and action, and has involved the Lenten practices of prayer/devotions, fasting (kind of), and, yes, self-examination.
The main event of last week was that I came down with a very serious strep infection. It began Tuesday evening, worsened on Wednesday, and by Thursday was as bad an illness as I’ve experienced in several years. On Friday afternoon I was finally able to get to the doctor. She prescribed two medications and told me, in no uncertain terms, that if I wasn’t feeling significantly better by Saturday morning I was to call her and she would arrange to have me admitted to the hospital. “There is really no other option,” she said.
I was rather shaken. Tuesday afternoon my son Kyle and I went shopping and then came home and prepared for several friends to arrive for our “regular” gaming night. I felt fine — or, I should say, I felt well enough to take on the schlepping of a four-year-old boy through a major discount retailer for an hour or so, followed by some last-minute minor (but essential) housekeeping before the guests arrived for a challenging and entertaining few hours of gaming. As the gamers were finding their coats and heading to their vehicles to depart for home, I felt the scratchiness in my throat and was beginning to lose my voice. When I woke up the next morning, I whispered to my husband that I would need him to call my friend and cancel our too-long-postponed morning coffee break. At some point on Wednesday, my voice was essentially gone, the pain in my throat increased, exponentially it seemed, and my throat was so swollen that I couldn’t swallow anything but liquids (ginger ale being my main choice). The swollen throat also meant that my sinuses could not drain properly, so everything backed up in my head and I thought (incorrectly or at least imprecisely) that I had a sinus infection. It hurt to wear my glasses — that’s the pain and pressure level I reached. Needless to say, I wasn’t breathing very well so I also wasn’t sleeping much. On Thursday I realized I needed to get to the doctor, but unfortunately she doesn’t see patients on Thursdays, so I waited until Friday morning to have my husband call the office. If I had realized sooner how seriously sick I really was getting, I would have done the sensible thing and gone to the ER. All I can say is it happened so quickly and, as usual, I was too distracted by my everyday life to recognize the threat.
In the midst of this, my husband had work to do. He is the breadwinner. Thankfully he is able to work from home at times, and that is what he had to do Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, despite the inconveniences I’m sure it presented, because we have a four-year-old son and the stay-at-home mom was more or less out of commission. (Also, our preferred babysitters work full time as well.) This is the juggling act of the modern middle-class family — when the unscheduled serious illness arrives, it wreaks havoc far beyond the physical toll.
Thanks be to God the medicines kicked in quickly and on Saturday morning I did feel better. I was able to swallow food and talk a little, the pain was significantly reduced, and I managed a few hours of sleep in my bed. For the most part, I haven’t been able to lay down to sleep because I start coughing. So I have had to sit on the couch most of the night and patiently wait for my body to just give in and shut down for a couple hours’ rest. I have real problems being patient.
Yeah, it hasn’t been the week of midweek Lenten church activities, devotions/prayers, and journaling that I was planning. However, as I said at the top, it has been a week during which I have focused on turning back to God. Because I needed Him.
The point of detailing the progression of my sickness is to emphasize (to myself as well as anyone who might read this) that in the middle of an ordinary week when I had different plans, I was blindsided, literally attacked, by this powerful infection and it disrupted my well-being to an extent I was unprepared to handle. In 48 hours’ time I lost the abilities to speak, to eat properly, and to lay down and go to sleep. And this loss of comfort and control challenged me because I am so fond of talking, eating, and sleeping and indeed I take them for granted (as does everyone).
The easiest “forced fast” was not being able to talk. I say it was the easiest for me, but that doesn’t mean it was easy. I had to rely on both the patience and perseverance of my loved ones to understand what I was trying to communicate. And I had to choose what I would communicate and keep it simple because it HURT to talk: “I need you to call the doctor” or “please cancel these plans” or “more gingerale please.” That was about the extent of it, and mainly it was expressed to only my husband. I couldn’t chat with or admonish my son (which he needs on a semi-regular basis). I couldn’t even talk to the people who called on the phone to check on me and wish me a speedy recovery. Forget dialing up my best friend for a casual gab session, something that I enjoy doing at least once a week. And take for granted.
However, the inability to speak properly was absolutely no detriment to my prayer life. And I communicated with God a lot. At one point I thought about the monks who take vows of silence. I don’t think I really understand their purposes in doing so, but I have had a tiny sense of how excruciatingly difficult such a vow would be for me to keep. I also wonder if maybe one of the points of such a vow might be to force oneself to shut up and listen more for a change. Because communication with God is a two-way street. The idea of God communicating with a person is difficult for many people to accept. I had some serious objections to the notion myself when my faith was less secure than it now is (which is still a lot less secure than it will become as I continue following Jesus). At this point, I am blessed with the certainty that God responds to my questions, requests, and cries. The method of response is not simple and straightforward as hearing a friend’s voice through the phone receiver, but He has a “voice” and when I shut up and listen I can sometimes “hear” it. That does not mean that I always understand what I am hearing, however.
The second forced fast was literally fasting, the denial of food. Granted, it is not the same type of spiritual discipline or sacrifice to look at a Whopper and French fries and declare, “I can’t eat that,” because I have made the choice to forgo the pleasure of doing so for a few weeks until Easter (it’s called renunciation) and to make the same declaration because I simply cannot physically swallow the food. Nope, not the same thing at all. Again, however, I think I inadvertently experienced a small sense of what the purpose of fasting is. I mainly consumed ginger ale, popsicles, instant oatmeal, Jello, vanilla pudding, and liquid nutritional supplements (think Ensure) from Wednesday morning through Saturday afternoon. Wednesday and Thursday it was pretty much just the gingerale and popsicles. My caloric intake was slashed, and I knew hunger. I felt and heard my stomach rumble. It was uncomfortable. Unpleasant. Unfamiliar — and that’s the point.
I am an overeater. Food and eating habits are an area of my life in which I struggle spiritually. I don’t have much self-control when temptations are presented. It is a weakness, and, for me, a sin. What I have just written is a very dangerous statement for a person to make. Especially if that person is a Christian who is trying to share a bit of her faith with someone who perhaps is not very familiar with Christianity. It is too easy to take that statement — overeating is a sin — and cause a lot of confusion, misunderstanding, and even unintended hurt feelings — which is BAD evangelism, in my opinion. So, that is not why I have said it. It is also very difficult to briefly explain why I believe the statement to be true. So all I will say for now is this (and acknowledge that this is woefully inadequate): for me, my abuse of food is a sin because it is harming my body which God gave me as a gift and because there are too many people starving to death in this world while I thoughtlessly consume many times more than the share of food resources I actually need to survive. As a final point, I use food to comfort myself when I feel anxious — what I should do is turn to God for my comfort and strength. The food gets between me and God. And that’s wrong.
So because I have an unhealthy attitude and bad habits about food, I have always been ambivalent about fasting as a spiritual discipline. This is something I seem guaranteed to fail at and so I usually skirt the topic whenever it is presented. As a result, I don’t know much about the Lutheran perspective on Lenten fasting. I’ve avoided it. But, again, in a very small way, I think I have just had a small taste (pun!) of why fasting is a way to draw oneself closer to God. It had to do with feeling my hunger, the physical sensation of my stomach growling. A sensation felt and heard. That growl is my body’s signal that it needs nourishment, and I almost never experience it. As a result, I have lost the spiritual connection between eating to nourish my body and God being the source of the food I am blessed to receive. Instead, most of the time I eat when I truly am not hungry. When Jesus was tempted by Satan in the desert, that temptation began after Jesus had fasted for 40 days (Lent is also 40 days, remember). And the first thing the devil said to Jesus was, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Jesus’ response: “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
Finally, and for me the most spiritually significant of the “forced fasts,” and one I am still enduring tonight, the inability to lay down and sleep (because of coughing). I need my sleep. I am not a person who functions well when I am deprived of rest. For one thing, physically I need rest more than some people because of my medical condition (moderate rheumatoid arthritis). But I also need sleep because I need an adequate break from all the thinking and feeling I experience when I’m awake. I have a busy mind — often so busy and distracted that I have a very difficult time connecting with God — and all that busyness wears me down. The past several nights I have tried to relax and go to sleep only to be prevented from doing so by a kind of disgusting phenomenon: postnasal drip. This is at once silly and torturous. I’m afraid I’ll have to describe: I feel tired, so I lay down either in my bed or on the couch. I try to relax and drift to sleep, but something starts sliding down the top of my throat. It itches. The itching causes me to cough. To get rid of the itching, I swallow. I relax to go to sleep. Something starts sliding down the top of my throat. The itching. The coughing, The swallowing. I relax …. until something starts sliding down the top of my throat. This little routine goes on and on for hours. The longer it continues, the more fatigue I feel and the more sleep I crave. So I start to try other techniques: drinking something, gargling, coughing harder to see if I can more thoroughly clear my throat. Sometimes I coughed too hard and made myself gag and, yeah, vomit. The force of the heaving caused my nose to start bleeding. Great, more nasal drip to deal with. I know this all reads very absurd. Please take my word for it: it was incredibly frustrating and upsetting, and I have been going through this for the past two nights. At one of my lowest points, when I so desperately wanted to sleep and simply could not until my body just gave in, sometime after sunrise, I began to pray a simple litany: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. Jesus Christ, Son of God, give me rest.” Over and over and over and over. And eventually I slept. This kind of repetitive, almost meditative, prayer is not the form of prayer I usually engage in, but it is an ancient form of prayer that I have found helpful in certain situations. For me, this prayer “works” when I am distressed. It is a crying out to my Savior. The words are simple — I have them memorized and it is easy to adapt to the situation, e.g., “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. Jesus Christ, Son of God, [protect me] [give me strength] [ease my pain].” This prayer, in a way I don’t fully understand, helps me focus on my desperate needs and present them to God and at the same time it calms me and allows me to be comforted at the times I most need it. It can be a very powerful prayer, despite its simplicity.
And now it is 2:27am and I think I should stop writing and try to get some sleep.
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