I like open options. Who doesn’t?
Even in my spiritual life.
Sure, the Bible gives us a moral roadmap for life’s big temptations, but once we accept its framework as truth, a zillion miniscule options are still a matter of choice.
A menu of spiritual options presents itself each year the week or so before Ash Wednesday, and I love it.
I look forward to the annual challenge to undertake a 40 day fast for Lent, the season of reflection and renunciation preparing Christians for Easter’s great feast.
I ask myself where I’ve become stale and flabby in my walk with Christ.
What sort of fasting, giving and prayer might diminish my attachment to things other than God and help me draw closer to him?
I listen to the recommendations of experts and they are myriad.
Fasting can be be giving up sweets or alcohol or even Facebook; whatever seems to have us in an unhealthy grip. Giving alms might mean listening attentively to the lonely souls we meet, carrying extra bills to give to anyone who asks, volunteering more of our time or increasing our donations to charities. And prayer can mean extending our time in Scripture and spiritual reading, adding silent contemplation or just being more faithful to Sunday worship and other opportunities offered by the church.
It depends on where we sense we’ve grown lax. Lent is a spiritual tune-up. It’s never easy, but I do love it.
At least I love the idea.
I especially love Ash Wednesday, with its penitent purple, its reminder that temporal life is fleeting; its gift of an ashen cross on my forehead. I keep its fast, and Lent begins.
Yet Thursday after Ash Wednesday has me second guessing every practice I’ve taken on.
Maybe I could tweak that prayer regimen just a bit, redefine the food I’ve chosen to renounce, find a simpler way of giving than the one that shone so brightly in my mind the week before Lent began.
I wouldn’t want to overdo it, after all.
I loved my Lenten options, but now that they’ve closed, doubt, confusion and regret have rushed in. My inner grrr gripes. Do I have to take it all so seriously?
This year was no different.
But feeling that Lenten pressure early on, I discovered a fresh lens, worth sharing with everyone who hits the temptation wall repeatedly, and especially during Lent.
When tempted to ditch the practice you’ve chosen, choose life.
Thursday morning after Ash Wednesday I read a reflection on the day’s first scripture reading, Deuteronomy’s touching passage where Moses offers his final appeal to God’s people as they’re about to cross the Jordan without him.
“I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse,” Moses proclaims. “Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the Lord, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him.”
Moses narrows every choice down to two, the Word Among Us writer notes:
It can be as simple as deciding whether to pay attention to a stray thought that could spark envy or resentment in our hearts. Or it could be as complex as deciding whether to forgive someone who has hurt us. Every situation, in fact, offers us the opportunity to ‘choose life’ by ‘holding fast to the Lord.’
The simplicity of this thought brought joy to my jumbled heart.
Making my choices for the Lenten fast and committing them to prayer feels like a sweet and holy thing. But then my sluggishness returns, tempting me to lazily lose focus during morning prayer. Impatience nips at me when a particularly long-winded soul wants to talk (even though I have so often taxed the patience of others with my many words).
Bitterness snipes in my heart when criticism from someone I love hurts me yet again.
I catch myself calculating a little too carefully how much money I’ll donate to charity or leave on the restaurant table after lunch.
And my appetite rages for the tastes I’ve relinquished, the calories I seem to require in just that form and no other.
I need to remember that I’ve chosen these things to draw closer to God, to choose life.
And to choose life is to choose blessing.
I was reminded of a story Heather King tells in her book Holy Desperation: Praying as if Your Life Depended on It about a young man at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, who, making his way out of the darkness of addiction shared with exuberance, “I get to be sober. You get to be sober.”
He had seen the beauty of his choice.
“You get to be sober.” To choose sobriety is to choose life, to choose blessing.
Every situation is an opportunity to choose life, love, blessing, happiness. When I struggle this Lent, I’m praying that this simple truth will return to strengthen me. To sweeten the struggle just a bit.
After all, Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before him.
The blessing was on the other side.
Pondering all this, I wrote a little Lenten litany for myself. I offer it here for everyone weary and worried, already doubting whether it will be worth it to fast before the Easter feast.
When I’m tempted to pray with drowsy devotion, I will choose presence.
When I’m tempted to resent the friend who’s hurt me, I will choose mercy.
When tempted to gobble a food I’ve relinquished, I will choose freedom.
When tempted to complain about circumstances, I’ll choose gratitude.
When tempted to rush by a lonely friend, I’ll choose listening.
When tempted to speak unkind words, I’ll choose charity.
When tempted to brood over my failures, I’ll choose trust.
God chose me for his own purposes.
I will choose Christ.
I will choose life.
In the heat of our battles, in our moments of testing, let us remember the joy set before us.
Let us choose life.
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I’ve revisited two books that have recharged my spiritual life in the past, and I’m so glad I did. They are Fr. Jacques Phillip’s little book In the School of the Holy Spirit and Conversion by Fr. Donald Haggerty.
I’m also loving the call to gratitude, even the darkness, in Anne Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts. Voskamp is a writer of exceptional grace and beauty. She tells the hard truth like it is, yet she can make you look at soap bubbles glistening in dishwater like no other writer I know.
What are you reading this Lent? I’d love to hear from you!