Creating empty spaces
For Lent, when I was younger, I would give things up: chocolate, soda, ice cream (you have to understand that in my childhood home, where no fewer than six pints of Ben and Jerry's or Haagen Daaz would be in our freezer at any given time, that was a real struggle). As I grew older, and Lent-motivated renunciations of food groups seemed to have more to do with dieting or body image than spirituality, at least among my peers, I shied away from fasting and abstaining. I took on practices like reading the Bible or a devotional book, praying more frequently, and meditating.
But lately, I have been coming back around to the idea of removing, of stripping away that which is not essential. One of my favorite professors at Vanderbilt spoke about Lent as a time of "spring cleaning," clearing clutter. The parts of the faith that add dead weight--whether the crap that inevitably builds up in the church storage--ahem, I mean "teen"--room, the frenetic, anxious energy of our nightly prayers, the self-hatred accompanying indulgence in sweets--can be shoved away to make room for new life.
The pace at which life now seems to move makes this way of understanding Lent particularly compelling. Like nearly everyone else I know, I feel pulled in millions of different directions, perpetually distracted, scattered, which does little for my ability to be present in the moment, ready to discern and respond to how God is calling. So this Lent, I'm trying not to do much of anything. When I cook dinner, instead of immediately queuing up a podcast, I chop vegetables silently. At night, as I turn out my bedside lamp, I put down the book I'm reading and remain still before launching into prayer. In the car, as much as it pains me, I'll spend part of my commute simply staring at the road, not listening to the radio or making a phone call or somehow otherwise multitasking as I always am wont to do.
How is it going so far? It's hard, it's really hard.
I worry about what the constant opportunities for stimulation do to our creativity--a distraction is only the touch of an electronic device away--and I see how much the wiring of my brain has changed in the years since the smartphone. Yet even more important than my growing awareness of my diminishing brainpower is the realization that life becomes one-dimensional when I am always splitting my attention. I miss the sharp smell of the onion as I'm slicing thin ribbons for a pasta dish, the delicate coating of the last remnants of snow on tree branches, the small tremble of my dog Gigi's body as she gingerly ventures into the ice coated pond by our house. I blast my own noise over the intimate but subtle ways God reaches out by planting seeds in my imagination, pulling on my heartstrings, attuning me to the world's hungers and pains and joys and beauty. I fill up every empty space so that God can hardly seep in because I have left no room.
God is in the margins. That's what I'm learning this Lent.
Do you observe Lent? What have you discovered? Or, have you found the pull of devices and distractions to be strong in your own life?