Thursday, March 13, 2014

Abstinence and Moderation

Emmental Valley, Switzerland, where some of my
Anabaptist forbearers lived. Still the home of
many Anabaptist-related groups today.
We are in the period of Lent in the church calendar. Lent is a time when many sincere Christians give up something to remind themselves that they are often too consumed by habits and practices that take over their lives. Those habits can relate to food and drink, to time playing favorite games, to time watching sports or other things on TV, or to time spent with social media. Some of these practices are more harmful than others when done to excess, but all of them can take over our lives, blocking out room for God. 

So we fast during Lent from one of the habits that dominate our lives. During that time we think and pray more deliberately about our relationship to God, our calling, and our need for discernment. It is part of discipleship; becoming more like Christ.

Anabaptists, the radical reformers of the 16th century, scoffed at the need for special emphases during the church year. Theirs was a daily practice of discipleship. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Lk. 9:23). Self denial didn’t take place only during Lent, but every day of the year. 

Growing up Mennonite, the inheritors of the Anabaptist legacy, I have some of this iconoclastic debunking of Lent in my DNA. My life needs to be moderated every day, not just for forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. 

Prison tower where Anabaptists were
held in Switzerland.
But there’s the rub. Moderation requires more discipline than the average human being has, at least in my personal experience. Take my diet, for example. At a recent wedding reception, I had a choice between some healthy vegetables and the Swedish meat balls. I took a little of each, but when I went back for seconds, only the meat balls made their way to my plate. When I was on a strict low-fat diet, I would have avoided the meat balls completely. My intentions were to go moderately on the meat balls. Instead I overindulged. I won’t tell you about the dessert options.

Abstinence is easier than moderation. This is why Lent is necessary for most of us. When we give up something, we abstain from it. We just say no. When we say we will control our appetite with moderation, we slip and fall over and over again, each time reinforcing our guilt and rebounding with even a bigger helping of the forbidden fruit the next time. It’s human nature and it can be applied to nearly every area of our lives. Not just meatballs.

I didn’t say I would give up Social media for Lent, but I thought about it. I decided instead to try to moderate my use of it. Many of you will understand the pull that Facebook, Twitter and other forms have on us. Like the meatballs at the wedding reception, I kept breaking my moderate fast to see what was “trending.” I kept wondering what I was missing. 

I have several friends who do not have Facebook accounts. They just say no. They are not tempted to see what is going on in the world of their friends. They do not have the urge to see what is trending and to control their use of the medium. Abstinence is easier than moderation. (I have heard that some of them sneak a peak at their spouse’s accounts once in a while).

I try hard to be a faithful disciple like my Anabaptist forbearers  and “deny myself and take up my cross daily and follow Jesus.” But I find it difficult to do so. I need Lent to force me abstain from some of the things that dominate my life and crowd out God. I’m a failure at moderation. 

Now let me have a few more meatballs. I’m abstaining from the vegetable tray.

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