7 Lessons from Lent

It’s 7 Quick Takes Friday at my favorite religious blog, and while my takes might not be quick, I’d like to share 7 things I recently learned:

1. I really, really hate flossing my teeth, and I do not get used to it.  The reason I decided that my Lenten discipline would be flossing my teeth every single day was that I found myself unable to make it a new year’s resolution because I just hate it so much.  I keep reading about how flossing is so important, not just for tooth health but for preventing strokes and other things, yet I’ve always found it painful, annoying, and repulsive, and previous resolutions to do it anyway have lasted only a few weeks.  Maybe with God’s help, maybe if I meditated on the sufferings of Jesus while doing it . . .

Well, I did floss every [expletives deleted] day from February 17 through April 2–the times I forgot to do it at night, I did it the next morning–but I hated every minute of it and couldn’t see that it was doing me or Jesus any good whatsoever.  After 4 days I stopped having a constant throbbing sensation in my entire face, and after 11 days my gums weren’t bleeding every time, but flossing still hurt.  It seemed to take a lot of time.  I didn’t feel like my teeth were any healthier.  There was no reduction in bad tastes in my mouth or complaints about my breath.  Despite my best efforts, my meditations while flossing tended toward, “I’ll bet Jesus never wasted time flossing his teeth!”

I am blessed with excellent dental health–haven’t had a cavity since third grade.  Years ago, I discovered that if I rinse my mouth with peroxide every other day and then floss a few times in the week before a dental checkup, the dentist can’t tell that I hadn’t been flossing (except once in a while when I get something stuck between my teeth) for the previous five months.  So I think I’ll just continue feeling grateful for my good teeth but stop feeling guilty about not flossing!

2. Buying only North American products is not a particularly difficult fast . . . or is it?  After writing about fasting from acts that harm the environment for my parish newsletter just before Lent began, I felt that I really should do some such fast myself, in addition to flossing.  The idea that called to me was fasting from things that are imported a long distance (using up a lot of fossil fuel and creating air and ocean pollution), but I chose to do this rather generously, allowing myself things from any part of the United States, Canada, or Mexico.  Here’s what I learned.

3. The right reading material is very important for guiding our moods and thoughts.  That’s hardly a new revelation, but I read some really great stuff this Lent:

  • The Last Week by Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan is the story of the final week of Jesus’ life, based on the Gospel of Mark and its historical context.  I already knew that story very well, but this book enhanced my appreciation of the way Mark tells it (most intriguingly, his use of “frames”) and of one main idea: This is a story of failed discipleship; a lot of what the twelve apostles did is presented as examples of what not to do!  I’ve read several of Borg’s books, and this isn’t my favorite (I highly recommend The God We Never Knew) but it was excellent for enriching my musings on the meaning of Jesus in this season.
  • Forward Day by Day is a little Episcopal devotional pamphlet I used to read consistently when I was in high school, but I’d drifted away from it.  I bought the current issue when my five-year-old son, Nicholas, was clamoring to bring home a pamphlet from the rack at church.  I explained what this one is for . . . and to my surprise, he got really into the idea of this brief daily reading on a spiritual topic.  Even though it’s written for adults and a lot of the concepts must go over his head, he listens earnestly while Daniel or I read it aloud at bedtime each night; he doesn’t interrupt with a million questions, just listens.  It’s become part of his nightly routine: “stories, then Forward Day by Day, then Bible!”  I’m getting a lot out of it, too.
  • Of course I’ve been reading the Bible, both to myself and to Nicholas, but also this Lent we read My Own Book of Bible Stories told by Pat Alexander (a person so humble his/her name isn’t on the cover), which is by far the best children’s Bible I’ve ever encountered!  There’s nothing condescending or cutesy about it, and it doesn’t delete the difficult parts of the stories or editorialize with preachy morals.  It just tells classic stories from the Old Testament and Gospels in a clear, simple, loving way.  Nicholas chose this book himself from our church’s library.  His only complaint was that it left out the tale of Job, so we had to read his favorite parts of that one from “the real Bible” twice during Lent!
  • A coffee-table book called Sacred Places by Rebecca Hind, which I’d given Daniel for Christmas because he loves interesting scenery, came to my attention during Lent.  It’s a photographic tour of places around the world that are sacred to one faith or another, from gorgeous natural landscapes to fabulous buildings.  I agree with the author that a place that’s been prayed in many times develops an aura of sacredness, even if the prayers come from a tradition very different from my own.  We propped up this book in our bedroom to make favorite images temporarily part of our own space, and that was very inspiring.  The most amazing new-to-me place is Lalibela in the Semien Wollo Zone of Ethiopia.  This photo shows you why the similar one in the book was my choice for Easter, and this site has more images and explanation.  (I also love saying, “Semien Wollo Zone.”  Sounds like a great place to wollo in our semien ancestry.)

4. Contemplative prayer is a way of calming the constant yammer in my mind.  My parish had a special series of prayer workshops on the first five Sundays of Lent, and I was able to attend two of them, about centering prayer and prayer beads.

Centering prayer is a technique for clearing your mind and just being with God.  I have a lot to learn about this and haven’t spent much time practicing it yet, but I was very impressed by how effectively I was able to do it just by following the workshop leader’s simple instructions.  She said something about relaxing in God’s lap, and that’s exactly what it was like.  I have the sort of brain that is always working on several things at once, as if it’s afraid that shutting up for two seconds will cause the universe to grind to a halt, and while I appreciate my multitasking ability, I’m annoyed that I never seem able to just be in the moment.  On that day I had a bad migraine, and I soon noticed how similar this technique is to something I had learned before (but have never done as often as I should, and never thought was God-related): If I hold my body completely, completely still, after a while it will disappear (from my consciousness), and therefore I will feel no pain.  It’s very interesting and deserves further practice!

Prayer beads are used to guide you through a series of prayers by putting your fingers (instead of your mind) in charge of keeping track of what comes next.  I never would have believed how useful this is–making the act of praying less self-conscious so that I can be more aware of God–until I tried it!  Making our strings of beads was a lot of fun: The workshop leader brought a fantastic array of beads and wire for durable stringing, people of all ages were there, and each person’s beads were different.  Although most of us used the Anglican Rosary configuration, a few people decided something else would be more meaningful to them, and that was okay; my Unitarian Universalist brother was visiting and made some beads that pleased him.

One use of the beads that’s working really well for me when I feel agitated and preoccupied is to use the smallest beads for fourteen worries and fourteen joys.  I recite prayers on the larger beads, but as I click through the small ones, I “set down” things that are bothering me–don’t ask God to do anything in particular with them, just put them out and leave them there–for two sets of seven, and then for the other two sets of seven I list things I’m thankful for.  It’s amazing how I can start into this feeling grouchy and gloomy but find it’s difficult to come up with fourteen different things to worry about!  And then as I list my joys, they overflow and there are way more than fourteen and I just feel so grateful and calm.

5. Saying yes to church is worth it!  Episcopalians commemorate Holy Week with a whole series of special rituals, and my own little parish held services every day for eight days straight.  I didn’t go to all of them, but I was there for about ten hours during Holy Week, as well as making time for some other events earlier in Lent, and I am thoroughly grateful that I did.  It was time taken away from housework and doing my taxes and sleeping . .. but the house didn’t collapse; I still have time to finish my taxes; it’ll all work out, and I’ll be remembering these experiences for years to come.  These were the most remarkable ones:

  • For the first time, I was able to attend the Tuesday night series of dinners and church services hosted by five Episcopal parishes in the East End of Pittsburgh.  (I used to lead Girl Scouts on Tuesday nights.)  It was wonderful meeting people, eating together with a great spirit of fellowship, visiting other churches and welcoming visitors to ours.  We didn’t get to stay all the way through all of the services (due to fussy five-year-old who’d been brought straight there from a full day at school), but shared meals are so much at the heart of Christianity that I felt very fulfilled.
  • On Palm Sunday, I was a reader in the Passion Play.  Four people stand at the four points of a cross and read aloud excerpts from the Gospels telling the story of the last week of Jesus’ life.  I’d always wanted to do this, so when my pastor asked me the day before to fill in for someone who was sick, I jumped at the chance.  It forced me to shout, “Crucify him!” as if I were one of the mob, which isn’t something I want to do, but it’s something I need to do, to remind me that the Lord was brutally murdered not by some evil people different from me but by human nature, peer pressure, and fear.
  • On Monday of Holy Week, we had an intimate little Eucharist at which I was the speaker.  It was only Monday.  But the experience of putting my faith into words, speaking them in front of a group, and having them heard with acceptance and love was just huge.
  • After attending the Maundy Thursday supper/Eucharist with my family, coming home, doing laundry, and putting the kid to bed, I went back to church.  Our chapel is open on Maundy Thursday night for people to sit in quiet contemplation, remembering how Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane asked his disciples to stay awake, watch, and pray.  I went last year and was amazed at what a profound experience it was and how my thoughts and prayers went in a completely unexpected direction.  Well, this year I almost didn’t make it: Daniel was having back pain and went to sleep early, so I had full responsibility for getting Nicholas to bed, and for some reason he wouldn’t stay asleep; he kept waking again and crying for me, like when he was a baby.  I was more touched than annoyed and wondered if God was trying to tell me to stay home.  But I did get to go around 11:00.  Now, we’re a small parish, and it had been a long week, but still I was startled to find the chapel empty!  My thoughts of failed disciples lasted only a few seconds before I thought, “Hey, Jesus, don’t worry, I’ll hang out with you.”  I was very tired, but I did wait with him one hour, and it was sweet.  And I realized just how far I have come: I sat in the front pew of the dimly lit side chapel, open at one side to the nave which was very dark, without even a hint of my old nervousness about something sneaking up behind me!  Despite the empty blackness there, I felt at home in a cozy place and not at all alone.

We also went to Daniel’s family’s Passover seder, which is another part of my religious observance each spring–I’m not Jewish, but Jesus was, and Passover plays an important role in his story both as a tradition and as a concept.  The seder also is a time to be with relatives and old friends, following the customs of our ancestors, and I love bringing my son to experience this with his great-grandfather, who is thriving at 94 and can still read the small print in the Haggadah!

6. I missed the “Sesame Street” songs, too.  Nicholas decided on his own to put away for Lent the 45rpm records from Daniel’s childhood with songs from the first season of “Sesame Street”.  He normally plays these a lot, so I was sick of them and pleased by his choice of fast.  (I hadn’t expected him to fast at all–he’s only five–so I’m also thrilled that he decided to do it and that he made only a couple, half-hearted attempts to quit early!)  But after about three weeks, I found myself wistful for these cheerful songs that remind me of my own childhood.  Absence makes the heart grow fonder–just like the Church’s fast from alleluias and some of our most joyous music and decorations during Lent gives those things renewed wonderfulness at Easter.  This week, Nicholas and I have been totally rocking out to our favorite Muppet tunes!

7. New things spring forth every year.  The annual rebirth of nature is old news, yet it strikes me anew every year!  Here in Pittsburgh, we began Lent having just dug out of massive, repeated, exhausting snowstorms.  I was struggling to get over a hard-to-shake illness and a frustrating argument with a long-distance friend.  I walked home from church on Ash Wednesday feeling determined to open myself to new growth and learning, but honestly, I felt afraid that nothing would change.  Well, nothing’s been resolved to perfection, but new things did spring forth in me, and my world has opened into tulips and birdsong and the greenest green.  It happens every year, yet it’s always a miracle.

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