It’s amazing how we can experience something so life-changing, and then fall back into our regular routines so quickly again. Sometimes in my sermons I comment on the large number of people who stood in amazement of Jesus at one his public preaching moments… but then went home and went back to their lives and didn’t do anything different.
My recent trip to Russia was, without a doubt, life changing. But now that I’ve been home for a few weeks I find the memories are fading into the backdrop as I rush about my normal life. A meeting in Charleston… statistical reports… a meeting in Beckley… community meal… Sunday worship… Bible studies… District meeting… etc… They just sort of add up and before I knew it I was right back into that same all-consuming, draining routine I had been in before.
Then, out of the blue, I looked at the calendar and realized Ash Wednesday was only three weeks away. I gasped and promptly grabbed my planning notebook, computer and Bible and camped out at the library. My New Year’s resolution was to work on being better prepared this year. (Mind you, I said “work on”… I’m not a fool, I know my limitations…). So, it just seemed I should knuckle down for some hardcore research and planning on the Lenten season so that I’m ready now… and not trying to do it the week of Ash Wednesday.
As I read through Lenten studies and worship resources, my mind kept drifting to the inevitable question, “What will I give up this year?” Two years ago I gave up cable television… and never took it back. Sometimes when we give up something we realize how much of our life it took, and how little we actually we need it. There was the long stretch when I tried to give up chocolate. But the prevalence of Cadbury Eggs always caused me to fail. Last year I added daily blogging to my disciplines (spiritual blogging), and that went well, except I kept falling behind.
So… what will I give up (or add) this year?
As I thought about it I couldn’t help but think of all that I had to give up in order to go to Russia. As in introvert, I cherish my alone time in the evenings. But to be a part of a team, that is the first thing I have to give up. I didn’t know the itinerary before I went; but, I wasn’t really giving up anything. I’m not really a control freak, so I could rest easily in knowing I was following a seasoned and competent leader into the mission field.
In Russia I quickly discovered all sorts of other amenities I was giving up, though. For the bulk of the trip I would have to sleep in one of the orphan’s beds. Giving up my private room, and my big, cozy queen-sized bed wasn’t all that eye-opening. However, sleeping in the bed of an orphan and knowing that they don’t have a big queen-sized bed in a private room to retreat to after a week or two was eye-opening. Every day, walking into that room, the first thing I noticed was the picture of the child’s favorite soccer player taped to the headboard, and I was constantly reminded that this was someone’s home.
The bathroom in the orphanage left a lot to be desired. It was old and grungy and not very welcoming. It certainly wasn’t the sort of place to which a person would retreat for a long, hot bubble bath. The shower sprayer didn’t work, so we had to sit in the tub, filling a plastic cup with the weird-smelling water, and pouring it over our heads in an effort to wash our hair. And the toilet… well… it didn’t even have a seat. And for whatever reason (be it plumbing or low water flow or something else), we couldn’t flush the toilet paper. So, it had to be placed into a little trash can next to the commode, which was a huge blow to my American sensitivities about hygiene.
And still, it never failed. As I left the bathroom with a wrinkled nose and a longing for my working shower and a commode that could not only flush toilet paper that would also have a seat attached, I would see that soccer player taped to the end of that bed… and I knew that a child lived there. Not just a child. Children lived there. Children lived there and slept there and laughed and talked and dreamed and cried and wished there. This was a home for someone.
And so, day after day, as I fretted about the things I was giving up, I would see that soccer player and remember that for all I thought I was sacrificing, I was living where a child lived… maybe I didn’t have a toilet seat, but I had a bed. And, in all honesty, it was comfortable. We sometimes complained about how hot the interior of every building in Siberia was. But we had heat. Maybe the bathroom didn’t meet my standards, but I felt clean after each bath and I had a place to relieve myself when nature came calling. And the food–the food was amazing. I discovered I love Russian food.
Sometimes we see the act of “giving up” one of our pleasures as an act of self-sacrifice during Lent. But I have to wonder if we’re really giving up anything at all. Back when I gave up television, I thought I was giving up something that helped my unwind after a busy day… But I discovered I had far more time to unwind in more productive ways. More than that, I wasn’t rushing around, trying to finish things I had left undone the day before because I had been distracted by the television.
And for all I thought I was giving up in Russia: my bed, my personal space, toilet seats, heating systems that can be controlled, familiar food, and the ability to communicate without assistance… I was actually gaining much more. There are new friends. There are stories to share for years. There are new foods. Who would know that beets make an awesome soup??? The Russians, that’s who! And the realization that even when all my things are taken away, I have my basic needs more than met, and I am blessed.
Giving up doesn’t mean we are punishing ourselves. Giving up means we are making room in our lives for something more important.
There was once a time in my life when I wouldn’t have taken that trip to Russia because I wouldn’t be comfortable with everything I’d have to give up in order to go. I know now that I was a fool back then. I had no clue what life was about or how to receive, with any sort of gratitude, the blessings and lessons God is giving us each day.
So… as I prepare for Lent in the wake of my return from Christmas in Russia, I do so knowing that what ever I give up isn’t out of any sort of foolish expectation that I’m setting myself right with God. I’m making room in my life, so that God can enter in and set me straight. I’m giving up the things that keep me from seeing and hearing God so that I can be with God. When I think of that way, I realize I’m not really giving up much of anything, but gaining everything!