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Women of the Advent | April 3, 2024

Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)

How often do I deny myself? This question woke me up in the middle of the night a few weeks ago. It was this question that fueled my desire to give something up for Lent this year. I should probably explain here that for years I have had a broken relationship with the whole Lenten discipline thing. It started in school when we were required to share with the class what we were giving up for Lent. This resulted in six weeks of policing and being policed by one another. I didn’t really understand the point of any of it, but somehow this didn’t seem right.

Later on, I thought that adding a discipline sounded like a better option – read a devotional or book in addition to my daily Bible reading, attend an additional church service. But it didn’t take long before I was either grudgingly dragging myself through whatever new practice I’d chosen or I’d skipped a day (or 12) and just felt bad about myself. This didn’t seem right either. Maybe I was just not right. Not being able to square what I had come to understand about God’s grace and the legalistic way I had experienced Lenten disciplines, I decided I was better off leaving them to folks who knew what they were doing.

And then, one day recently, in the wee hours of the morning, I was awakened by this question, “How often do I deny myself?” After so many years, this question was the catalyst for me to revisit the idea of giving something up for Lent. But what? And why? After a few days in prayer, I knew clearly what I would give up. I felt a real peace about my decision and a freedom I’d never felt in other attempts – until I tried to explain it to my husband and found it hard to articulate the whys and wherefores to someone else. My husband couldn’t understand why this had suddenly become important to me.

“You know your standing with the Lord is secure, right? And there is nothing you can do to make God love you more or less?”

“Yes, yes, of course I know all of that and that’s not what this is about. See, there was this question …”

It was very hard to explain, but somehow it made sense in my head and especially in my heart.

It seemed plain as day to me and to God. And that’s probably the point. Still, I felt called to articulate this experience so I took it up with God in my journal. Here is what I wrote:

How often do I deny myself? If I’m honest, not often. For my children, I guess I have, particularly when they were small – their priorities and needs over mine. Although, I was able to make it all happen a good bit of the time. Or at least I used a lot of energy, creativity, and scheduling skill to make it all happen – to avoid denying myself – to do what I needed to do to be a good mother (and sometimes, a good wife) while not giving up too much tennis or too many work or volunteer opportunities or time with friends or Bible study.

Could I deny myself? Was I willing to deny myself something that really mattered? And what was it that would matter?

If I denied myself tennis, well that’s only a day or two a week for me nowadays and mostly I don’t even want to go. Television? I would just read. Sweets? I’d only lose weight and congratulate myself for it.

Then it came to me. While it might sound ridiculous, I gave up using my colored felt tip pens. Turns out those probably matter way more than I realized. I look forward every morning to choosing the color for my journaling. And then the two colors I’ll use for my calendar throughout the day. What colors will I choose to take study notes – alternating between each different resource? Which shall I use to write a birthday card, a sympathy note, or just to let someone know she was on my mind? In my planner, birthdays are red, vacations are pink, office closings black, church-wide gatherings purple, and women’s events are green.

But for six weeks, these 40 days, everything is ballpoint black or blue. Everything looks the same. These black and blue pens aren’t special. I spend exactly zero time selecting a color. I can find one anywhere. Losing one is no big deal. Neither is loaning one out – there are hundreds in the supply cabinet. The box of them costs less than my pack of 18 colored pens. I hold these pens very loosely. They occupy none of my thoughts and guide me not at all. They leave a small opening in my heart and mind for God to fill a little more.

Processing all of this in my journal helped me understand the “why” of this exercise. It’s been a great Lent. I haven’t felt burdened in the least. I haven’t been called upon or even felt the desire to report to anyone else. No one has even noticed the absence of my colored pens (which is funny, because when I was using them, people commented almost every day!) so it has truly been a personal journey with the Lord – an opportunity to trust and obey him when I didn’t really understand why or what he was asking me to do, an invitation to deny myself in a way that enabled me to experience the discipline not as how good I was at following through, but as how God would use the experience for my good and to his glory.

Henri Nouwen writes, “The practice of a spiritual discipline makes us more sensitive to the small, gentle voice of God. The prophet Elijah did not encounter God in the mighty wind or in the earthquake or in the fire, but in the small voice (1 Kings 19:9-13). Through the practice of a spiritual discipline, we become attentive to that small voice and willing to respond when we hear it…. A spiritual life requires discipline because we need to learn to listen to God, who constantly speaks but whom we seldom hear…. A spiritual discipline is necessary to move slowly … from a life filled with noisy worries to a life in which there is some free inner space where we can listen to our God and follow his guidance…. Through a spiritual discipline we prevent the world from filling our lives to such an extent that there is no place left to listen” (Show Me the Way, pp. 94-95).

— Leslie Housman

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