Lent is typically seen as a time for sacrifice, restraint—even deprivation, if you’re giving up something you normally rely on to get you through the day (hello coffee drinkers!).
Sacrificing earthly comforts in order to grow closer to God is an idea as old as religion. But as I was struggling with how to stick to my Lenten discipline this year—I had determined to spend time sitting in silence with God each morning before my family woke up and set off the avalanche of demands on my time—I wondered if there might be another way.
Women and girls are shaped by male expectations and views from a very early age. This podcast talks about how achievement and self-objectification are two ways women respond to these expectations; sacrifice is another.
The cultural norm that women should make themselves, their passions, and their emotions smaller to accommodate others is particularly insidious because it enshrines women’s worth in how much they bleed themselves dry. (Women who mother get an added dose of this, as do people of color, queer people, trans* folks, and anyone else whose needs or whose very existence threaten to upset the power structure.)
Lots of religious communities reinforce this idea.
On the conservative end of the spectrum: women shouldn’t be ordained; women should only teach children; women shouldn’t sing or read scripture in front of men.
On the more progressive side it’s there too—not as explicit prohibition but as implicit reality. Women lead significantly fewer big churches and fewer churches, period; expressions of emotion in mainline settings (which would benefit all genders) are often apologized for or frowned upon; women pastors receive “feedback” about their appearance or leadership style in ways that suggest they need to tone themselves down.
Women who want to be their full selves in our faith communities often get the message: if you want to grow closer to (our version of) God, give something up.
So as I was struggling to sacrifice my sleep in order to connect with God, I wondered if another idea from the aforementioned podcast might help me out.
What if I swapped the paradigm of Lenten sacrifice (“I have to”) for one of Lenten pleasure (“I get to!”)? What if I started looking forward to my time with God, saw it as a moment to care for myself and my spiritual well-being, treated it as something to savor and enjoy?
Look, even as I write that, I hear your pushback (because it’s in my head, too): The whole point of Lent is to remember Jesus’ sacrifice in the desert, his deprivation and suffering as a precursor to his death on the cross! We’re supposed to sacrifice!
To you (and to the voice in my head), I respond with some questions to help us imagine differently:
- What’s the ultimate point of Lent—what’s the aim of the fast? If it’s to grow closer to God by changing the way we live for 40 days, maybe there’s more than one way to do that.
- What if Jesus had been a woman? Would she have been free to leave behind family obligations and take up asceticism for several weeks? If not, how else might she have found the clarity of call and strength of purpose Jesus gained in the wilderness?
- Are we uncomfortable with thinking about “God” and “pleasure” at the same time? (I know I am, a little bit!) Can that change if we image God as feminine instead of masculine?
- If fasting separates us from the distraction of appetite-placating routines, helping us to become fully alive to the sustenance of the Creator, how might sharing a moment of profound pleasure with God do the same? In other words, can pleasure truly savored be just as powerful as pleasure renounced?
I don’t know what your Lenten commitment looks like or how you might find ways to take pleasure in the Divine this Lent. Maybe you’ll commit to savoring the scintillating flavors and textures of every single meal you eat, or glorying in a daily, mindful walk in creation, or (heavens!) engaging in fully present, sensuous love-making, or saying “no” to the next item on the to-do list in order to say “yes” to some delicious, soul-nurturing time with your Creator.
But I can tell you that as a sleep-deprived woman who already gives to her child, spouse, work, and congregation, reframing Lent as my time to take pleasure in God has helped me embrace my commitment, not slack off.
Lent as pleasure: it may not be terribly orthodox, but maybe that’s why it’s powerful.
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron is a thrift-vangelist, writer, preacher, preacher’s wife, mama, and Midwesterner transplanted to the South. She has a not-so-secret passion for pop music and loves being the lone millenial in her baby boomer-filled yoga class. Born & raised UCC, she’s bi-vocational, preaching at Decatur UCC in Atlanta every other Sunday while doing admin work at a big Presbyterian church during the week. She blogs at http://thriftshopchic.com.