Lent starts this week. I’ll be giving up stress.
Yes, I know, Mennonites haven’t historically given things up for lent. Actually, there is an amusing story about some of the folks who influenced the early Anabaptist movement gathering together and defiantly eating sausage during lent at a time when fasting was mandated by the state.
Breaking the fast was radical in 1522. In 2016, it’s a radical choice to give up something we typically cling to. Even if it’s just for 40 days.
And as we clear this spiritual clutter from our lives, the idea is that there will be more space to examine what’s really going on in our lives, the good, the bad, in preparation for the biggest celebration in the church year. Easter: the season where we remember that God’s overflowing love transcends every barrier, even the barrier of death.
So, alright, let’s give up stuff for lent. But what? I’ve never been fully comfortable with the idea of using lent as a time to give up junk food. This might be valuable as a spiritual practice for some people, but for me, it’s always just seemed like a socially sanctioned way of engaging in yo-yo dieting.
That being said, if something you are consuming (be it chocolate or Netflix) has you feeling trapped and disconnected (from self, others, God), absolutely, experiment with giving it up for 40 days! You may find that in doing so, you open up more “spiritual space” inside yourself.
For me the trap I am always trying to break free of is stress. That’s why I’ve chosen to give it up for lent.
No, I’m not giving myself permission to be apathetic for the next month and a half. I’m not giving up compassion, or zest for life, I’m giving up the kind of stress that feels like a trap.
Maybe you are still thinking: “that’s ridiculous! You can’t choose to give up stress!”. And you are right. At least in part. Sometimes crappy things happen that we have absolutely no control over and stress overwhelms us. Let me be clear: if something awful happens this month, I don’t intend to ignore it or force myself to be numb.
Feelings exist for a reason and there is no way through them but to feel them and express them. In that sense I can’t choose not to feel stressed. I can choose to allow myself to linger unproductively in the stressors of life. So during lent, when I start to feel stress creeping in, I will acknowledge it, maybe write about it in my journal or call my mom to talk about it, but then I will try to move on.
Still skeptical? I tried this once before when I was in my 3rd year of university. My roommates might tell you otherwise, but I think it actually worked pretty well. For those 40 days, when challenging things happened, I knew that sinking into stress wasn’t one of my choices. If there was something I could do about the challenge (start working on the paper that was due next week), I would do that. If there was nothing I could do about the challenge (waiting to hear back about a summer job I applied for), I didn’t let myself ruminate about it too much, after all, I had given up stress.
For me choosing not to let stressful thoughts circle and circle in my head feels like an important practice to come back to at this time of year as I am opening up space to examine my life and God’s place in it. As I set down some of the burden of stress, I trust that God holds that burden. I am not in this alone.
I know it won’t be easy. Sometimes I will fail. That’s why I like the idea of “spiritual practice” not “spiritual performance.” These words of Jesus are nurturing me as I enter into this season of non-worry:
Come to me, all you who labour and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Here you will find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Matthew 11:28-30 The Inclusive Bible
The time I gave up guilt for Lent was one of the best periods of my life. I’d been feeling a lot of self-inflicted guilt over various things, and it was really weighing me down — and making me feel less worthy of God’s love. To me, the important thing about giving something up for Lent isn’t depriving one’s self, but rather making room to connect more with God — and giving up something that is making that connection more difficult.
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