Tuesday, March 03, 2009

I can't, I'm Lenting...

Just over a week ago, a federal study on dieting was released. In an age of ballooning obesity, the study set out to discover the best diet solutions: low carb? high protein? low fat? a mix of the three?

What the study confirms, really, should not be shocking: the only way to achieve sustained weight loss is to cut calories. Balancing one's diet and moderating one's caloric intake, is far more successful when it comes to losing and maintaining one's weight. Other types of dieting (Atkins, South Beach, etc.) work for only a short period of time and are good for only as long as one adheres rigidly to them; the moment one begins to drift from the diet, the pounds begin to return.

As a former Weight Watcher (a program I swear by), this comes as no surprise. As a teenager, Weight Watchers helped me to learn how to eat. At some point in my young life, I had developed very bad eating habits and, through the Weight Watchers program, I entered into a permanent re-orientation of my views on diet and exercise. Having learned anew how to eat, it has become a part of my life that I will prefer broiled chicken to chicken alfredo, salmon to a cheeseburger, baked sweet potatoes to french fries. Dieting isn't something I have to do, because healthy eating has become, more or less, an integral and integrated part of my life.

So isn't it fitting that the federal study was released at the beginning of Lent? How many of us begin Ash Wednesday with amazing resolutions and with great resolve: "I won't eat any sweets." "I will pray daily." "I will be nice to my co-worker, even though she's a pain." 

So did you make it through Sunday?

Have you already succumbed to "Lent Resent" because your Lenten fast has become an inconvenience to you? Already looking forward to Lent's conclusion so that business as usual can resume? 

Yes, it is a theme for me, but this dieting study simply impresses further on me the transformative power of Lent. When you enter into Lent as one enters into a fad diet, we see can often see immediate success and begin to feel really good about ourselves. We lose five or six pounds...we see the fruits of prayer flowering in our attitude toward the world and our disposition to our neighbors. BUT it soon becomes semi-inconvenient and we, deluded by our success, reckon that we can do it on our own. So we make shortcuts in the diet (just one piece of cake never hurts, does it?) or in our Lenten commitment (I'm so tired...God knows how I feel, so I'll sleep in rather than pray this morning). And, slowly but surely, the whole thing begins to crumble. The result? You get frustrated, hate dieting/Lent, and live with a guilt complex for the rest of the year (until next Lent) -or-  until you find another fad diet to jump into. 

This certainly isn't applicable to everyone but inasmuch as the above comments are partly autobiographical, I know it's a trend that's out there. 

In light of the diet study and now at the beginning of Lent, I think it a good time to reflect on how we are approaching our fasts. Are we doing it as a fad or as a way of re-orienting ourselves toward a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ? Does our fast heighten only our awareness of what we do without without even considering the one for whom we fast? Where is Jesus in Lent? Without Jesus, fasting is simply an endurance contest; but with Christ in our sight, Lent becomes a period of training and discipline that whips us into shape to celebrate at the great feast of Easter, when we as Christians celebrate the death of death and the triumph of life.

The banquet of Easter, where we are fed with the Bread of Life, permits no fad diets! "No thanks, the Bread of Life is not Atkins friendly!" Rather, it is a banquet for those who have been trained to realize where their true nutrition comes from. The Lenten fast is not meant to break you down but, rather, to train you for the veritable smorgasbord promised at the Last Supper and celebrated every Sunday in the Eucharist. The discipline of proper eating and living helps us to appreciate more fully and to savor more completely the gift of Christ's own self that is shared with us. 

Karl Rahner, SJ once wrote that "The good things in life aren't just for the rascals." And with Lenten eyes, I believe we can see how right Rahner was: when we have a good diet, we can permit ourselves indulgences from time to time, treats that recall for us the goodness of the world and the delights of the senses. I can say from experience that a stack of buttery, syrupy pancakes tastes A LOT better after running 13.1 miles than it does when I roll lazily out of bed and amble lazily into the kitchen. So too do I detect the small delights in my life when my heart is focused because of diligent prayer. 

I don't mean to be preachy this morning. I'm an extrovert and I'm thinking three feet ahead of me - on my laptop! Hopefully this acts as a help in re-framing our approaches to Lent in order to realize more fully the promise of this beautiful season in the church. 

Happy Dieting...errr, Lenting!
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