Why I’m Not Giving Up Sugar For Lent

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Lent crossYesterday was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in the church calendar. It has been customary since the days of the early church to observe this season culminating in Holy Week by focusing on repentance, prayer, and fasting. Certainly, by the Council of Nicea in the year 325, Lent was an established tradition. In our day and age, Lent has also become a time for discussion of what fasting means. The term “fasting” normally refers either to going a while without any food, or to reducing the amount or variety of food for a longer period of time. Either way, fasting is usually done specifically for spiritual reasons. In Christianity, fasting is most commonly associated with Roman Catholicism, largely because the Roman Catholic church has codified what, when, and how much someone should eat in order to officially be fasting. (Essentially, Catholics who are fasting can eat one regular-sized meal and two small meals a day, but no snacks and on Fridays, no meat other than fish) However, fasting is also observed by other Christians, although it is generally phrased as “giving up {fill in the blank} for Lent”, where the thing being given up can be pretty much anything. The purpose is not only to exercise self-control, but to draw the focus towards Christ.

As it is generally practiced, giving things up for Lent seems to me to be pretty similar to a New Year’s resolution, except with a specified end date. Some people participate in this tradition by focusing on “giving up” a certain vice, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me because it seems to imply that it’s okay to pick up that bad habit again after Easter. Other people decide to give up certain types of food. I get the impression that giving up processed sugars is one of the most common forms of Lenten fasting in twenty-first century America. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I feel like a lot of people are motivated by the health benefits or the possible weight loss, rather than spiritual reasons.

For a couple years when I was in college, I gave up certain specific types of foods for Lent. The past few years, I’ve considered it. In fact, this year, I had briefly been planning on fasting in a fairly traditional sense by giving up several different types of food and essentially limiting my intake to a few specific staples. The reason I decided against that fast is pretty personal, but I decided to blog about it anyway because it’s helpful for me to put my thought process into words and because there’s a chance that someone out there might find this helpful to read.

Once or twice previously on this blog, I’ve alluded to the fact that I have struggled with eating disordered tendencies. I’m not going to go into the details and tell the whole story, but the relevant detail is that I’m very prone to going through phases where I essentially take a break from normal eating. I’ve never been severely underweight or dangerously malnourished, but I definitely have engaged in eating habits that count as fasting. But for me, it’s not a religious thing at all. On the contrary, it’s a distraction from God.

various types of sugarThat may sound counter-intuitive, so let me explain. In our culture, there is a trend of self-righteous attitudes about foods. Vegans and vegetarians often make it sound as if they view themselves as being morally superior to meat-eaters, which makes some degree of sense, since most people choose veganism or vegetarianism because they’re ethically opposed to eating animals. But people who eat low-carb diets or low-sugar diets or gluten-free diets often act the same way. Overeating and being overweight are associated with a lack of self-control and a lack of priorities, whereas a rigidly defined diet is associated with good self-control and balanced priorities. That’s not entirely wrong, but it’s not morally wrong to have junk food every now and then. In fact, I don’t think it would be taking Matthew 15:11 and Mark 7:15 out of context to mention those verses here. Jesus was referring to the Pharisee’s dietary rules when he said that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man, but rigid dietary rules defined by health guidelines are comparable to rigid dietary rules defined by Jewish law.

Of course, eating disorders are very different from—and in many ways, contrary to—a focus on healthy living and a clean diet. Even the attitude is opposite, since people with eating disorders are almost always highly self-critical rather than self-righteous. But most people with eating disorders have been influenced by that cultural idea that eating the wrong things is disgusting, unclean, and perhaps morally wrong. Eating disorders that are characterized by undereating are often (if not always) just an extreme of that concept, in which eating is seen as unclean in and of itself. Compulsive undereating tends to be driven by perfectionism and low self-esteem that is so extreme that it’s just as self-focused as arrogance and self-righteousness. For someone with a history of a restrictive eating disorder, even one as minor as mine, fasting doesn’t make room for Christ-centered thoughts, it makes room for more eating-disordered thoughts.

My decision not to give up unhealthy foods for Lent was based partly on the fact that it might lead to long-term unhealthy habits, but it was mostly because it would serve no spiritual purpose for me. I don’t want to sound preachy here, but I think that even people without eating disorders might sometimes be fasting for the wrong reason. Giving up processed sugar or cutting back on carbs or consuming fewer calories are all things that people often do for themselves, either to benefit their health or to make themselves look better. If your Lenten fast is making you focus on your health, then it isn’t really a fast, it’s a diet. Even if you are giving up something that isn’t food and isn’t health-related, it isn’t really a fast if you’re focused on yourself.

The important thing to remember in Lent is that we are all sinners, (no matter how much or how little sugar we eat) and that sin is a big deal. It’s such a big deal that nothing we do, not even willing self-deprivation, can get rid of that sin or fix the problems it causes in the world. The only thing that can solve the problem of sin is Jesus’ suffering and death. This is the time of year for us to remember how sad that is, but when Easter comes, it will be time for us to again focus on the joy we have in our salvation. And that joy and that salvation have nothing to do with what you eat during Lent.

Random Thoughts on a Sunday Afternoon, Episode Five

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1. I have noticed an interesting pattern. Today is the third consecutive Sunday that the weather has been absolutely gorgeous despite having been less than satisfactory previously. Yesterday, it was dreary and cold and cloudy with flurries in the morning. I am in favor of snow, but ‘round these parts, early March is supposed to be springtime. I would have enjoyed the snow anyway if there had been very much of it or if it had actually stayed on the ground, but that wasn’t what happened. It wasn’t pretty or fun; it was just interesting, and anything good about it was outweighed by the annoyance of the cold. But when I woke up this morning, it was a bit warmer, and the clouds had mostly dissipated. They’re totally gone now, and the sky is blue. The view out my window isn’t nearly as pretty as it would be if there were leaves on the trees, but it still is quite nice. The birds are singing and the pale green grass reminds me of the fields of Settlers of Catan. Spellcheck tells me that Catan isn’t a real word. Silly spellcheck.

2. Just for the record, I would like to say that the people with whom I go to church are awesome people.

typos3. I really hate it when I catch typos in things I’ve already posted online. Fortunately, wordpress allows me to go back and edit things after I’ve posted them, and I frequently do post things before proofreading them, and then spend significant amounts of time making sure there aren’t any grammatical errors or typos. I didn’t do that for the one I posted last night, and now I notice that there are several mistakes. I could go back and fix them, but I have an inexplicable personal rule against editing something I posted online more than a couple hours ago. Either I have to break that rule, or those mistakes will stay there, tormenting me for all time. Actually, there’s another option. I could pretend that I did it on purpose and that it’s a game. Any grammar Nazis reading this are thereby invited to go back to my previous post (The one about the song Bohemian Rhapsody), make a list of the mistakes, and then put that list in the comments for this post. I don’t know how many there are, and you might catch some that I’ve missed every time I’ve looked. I kind of expect that nobody will actually participate in this game, but if anybody does, whoever finds the most mistakes wins. Sorry, there’s no prize, unless the satisfaction of grammatical superiority is its own reward.

Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed4. As of now, at 1:37 in the afternoon, the song going through my head is Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed. We did not sing this hymn at church today, nor did I sing it in the car on the way back. But since it’s a Lenten hymn, it is entirely appropriate for today anyway.

5. It’s a little weird how often people tell me I’m smart. While it’s true that my IQ is above average and my grades aren’t bad, it’s also true that I have difficulties telling my right from my left and am frequently too stupid to go inside when it rains. I think that the truth of the matter is just that I have a number of friends and acquaintances who are more aware of my strong points than my idiotic idiosyncrasies. But I guess I let that get to my head a little bit, because I’m kind of in the habit of considering myself to be unusually intelligent. I hope I’m not a conceited know-it-all. I don’t think I am, but that probably is one of those things that people can’t accurately judge about themselves.

6. I really hate it when I make one stupid move that loses the game. I was even thinking the right move while I did the stupid move. It was just so obvious that I was supposed to take the knight with my queen, because that knight wasn’t even protected, but instead I stupidly moved my king out of the knight’s check, and because of that, I lost my rook a couple moves later. Now I’m going to be annoyed at myself for this for the rest of the day.

chess game7. Well, that was an interesting game. And by “interesting” I mean “black really made some serious blunders there”, except that “black really made some serious blunders there” isn’t an adjective, so it doesn’t fit into the context very well. I have decided that if I was black, I would have played Nc6 in that situation. Alternatively, Be7 would have also prevented immediate checkmate. But black obviously didn’t notice either of those possibilities, because he moved his queen to a useless place and I checkmated with Qd8 in the next move. I also won the next two games, and they were both better games in the sense that no really bad mistakes were made, and so I earned those wins.

(EDIT: Not Nc6, duh. Stupid Self. It would have to be Be7.)

8. I am truly excited about the final paper I’m going to write for my postmodernism class. It’s going to be called “και ο λογος σαρξ εγενετο: Postmodernism vs. Logocentrism”. (The only problem is that I obviously want to say theological stuff in it, and I know that’s really not what the professor is looking for.) But first, I have to get through midterms. And before that, (right now, in fact) I have to do my math homework for the next two days.

Princess Bride9. A disturbing has just happened to me. I have just realized that there is a plot hole in The Princess Bride. (Inconceivable!) Two, actually, although they’re so closely related that I think they count as the same one. First, when Fezzik finds Inigo Montoya, he tells him about Vizzini’s death and the six-fingered man. It’s likely that Fezzik found Vizzini’s dead body, but how in the name of Galoompa did he find out about the six-fingered man? He never saw Count Rugen. I suppose we could imagine that they somehow crossed paths, but that doesn’t solve the second plot hole. When Prince Humperdinck turns on the torture machine and Inigo and Fezzik hear Westley’s scream, they know it’s “the man in black” because they know that his true love is marrying another. But how do they know that Princess Buttercup is his true love? They never found out who he was or why he was following them. It would have made sense for them to assume that Prince Humperdinck had sent “the man in black”.

10. Someone just followed me on tumblr who posts some really inappropriate things. I know this because, whenever someone new follows me, I always take a moment to look at their page, but that is definitely a page I won’t ever visit again. In fact, I clicked “ignore”, which is equivalent to denying the existence of this person; now I couldn’t find his page even if I looked for it. Although I am somewhat creeped out that this person followed me, I am also kind of amused, because now he’s going to be seeing Bible verses and hymn verses and quotations from Lutheran theologians on his dashboard.

11. Now that it’s gotten dark, it’s getting cold, and I feel like I ought to close my window. But I love having my window open. This is indeed a conundrum, and I do not know how to solve it. But I do know how to spell conundrum, and that, in my opinion, is an impressive feat.

Yes, I do look for every oppurtunity to make Matrix references. I ought to start looking for every oppurtunity to make Inception references, because that's an awesome movie, too.

Yes, I do look for every oppurtunity to post this image. I ought to choose a corresponding Inception image, because that’s an awesome movie, too.

12. Right now, I’m kind of having a hard time making myself do my homework and stuff. It seems like it would be a lot more entertaining to pace my room and think random thoughts about interesting things. I ought to learn several different languages and think random thoughts in different languages so that my brain can practice worthwhile things while I’m thinking random thoughts. Either that, or I need to learn how to think it a code based upon numbers. I think that it ought to be possible to convert every kind of idea into a simple mathematical expression or formula, and that this would increase the efficiency of every form of communication as well as simplifying the learning process, regardless of subject matter. Of course, the aesthetic and artistic quality of language still has value, and, as an English major, I shouldn’t dismiss it as impractical. The ideal balance would probably be to use language as a means of communication, but to use a mathematically coded thought process. Of course, then there would be a translation process involved every time I had to communicate thoughts, but I feel like that’s already the way things work in my life. This translation process would actually be easier if my thought code was mathematically based, rather than being whatever it is now. I’m really not sure what kind of code my brain uses now, but it’s very odd. I think it has multiple layers of coding, because sometimes I have some random images or numbers or emotions or phrases running around in my brain that I can’t readily connect to anything, but I have the sense that they are somehow related to reality or something akin to reality. Speaking of which, there’s something that begins with 2-1-5 in the first column that’s really important. I just can’t remember what it is, but there’s a word that has an O-I in the middle. Okay, Self, that’s enough of that. Now go do what you’re supposed to be doing right now. Whatever that is. Um, it has an A in it, and it’s yellow and light blue. Oh, yeah, calculus. Wait, no, I forgot! There’s that purple thing I have to do first!

Is it time for another Princess Bride reference now?

Is it time for another Princess Bride reference now?

13. Don’t you hate it when you start to watch an online video without intending to watch another one, but the background music is so annoying that you have to watch something better to keep from getting the wrong music stuck in your head?

14. I eagerly look forward to the coffee I shall drink tomorrow morning. Indeed, coffee is a great and wondrous thing.

This isn't from a game I played, but this is the same website. This image has become very familiar to me recently.

This isn’t from a game I played, but this is the same website. This image has become very familiar to me recently.

15. It’s getting late, which means that within a few hours, I’ll be playing Settlers of Catan.  I mean going to sleep. Because obviously, I’m not going to stay awake  until two in the morning sitting on my bed playing Settlers of Catan online. That’s not the kind of thing I would ever do. Well, actually, it is. In my life lately, there has been a very fine line between playing Settlers of Catan online and sleeping, so who knows which one will end up taking precedence tonight. (See the earlier remark about my idiocy)

Today is not a holiday; tomorrow is

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Mardis GrasI didn’t know what Mardis Gras was until I was twelve years old. You see, before that, my family had lived in The Land Where People Don’t Put Sugar In Their Iced Tea, aka not the South. It’s not that non-Southerners are in general completely ignorant of the existence of Mardis Gras; it’s just that it isn’t a major part of the culture, and so it didn’t happen to be something that had ever come up in my own experiences up to that point. And then we moved to the South, where Mardis Gras is a fairly noteworthy holiday associated with specific traditions and connotations. (I’d rank it somewhere between Saint Patrick’s Day and Valentine’s Day in cultural prominence) I’m sure that Mardis Gras here is nowhere near as big a deal as it is in New Orleans, but it still is an important enough occasion to be the topic of many facebook statuses, the theme in the cafeteria today, and the reason for various parties. That wasn’t the way things were in the Midwest. Don’t get me wrong; I love the South, (and I prefer my iced tea to be sweetened) but I’m really not a fan of the whole Mardis Gras thing.

Mardis Gras is, by definition, the day before Ash Wednesday. (Although, depending upon the context, Mardis Gras doesn’t necessarily refer only to the one day) “Mardis Gras” is French for “Fat Tuesday”, which, along with “Shrove Tuesday”, is an alternate name for the occasion. The original point was that the last day before Lent should be a day of feasting and celebration because of the fasting that would occur when Lent started. That already seems like a kind of silly idea to me. It’s comparable to deliberately eating unhealthily right before starting a diet, but even less logical because a diet is something you do for the sake of bettering your health, not because it’s Lent. (Although I hear a lot of people talking about going on a diet for Lent because they want to lose weight. They’re kind of missing the point; giving something up for Lent is not the same thing as a New Year’s Resolution.) What makes the observance of Mardis Gras even sillier, though, is that there are people who celebrate it who aren’t Christians, don’t observe Lent, and don’t think of Mardis Gras as being religious in any way.

Pictured: How to celebrate Valentine's Day

Pictured: How to celebrate Valentine’s Day

I do understand the argument that just because an observance had a religious origin doesn’t mean that it is still a completely religious occasion. After all, we observe Valentine’s Day by celebrating secular notions of romantic love and by eating red jello, and we observe Saint Patrick’s Day by celebrating Irish culture and eating green jello. That isn’t sinful, even though those days were originally religious observances, and so I suppose it technically also isn’t sinful to observe the last day before Lent by wearing colored beads and eating whatever color jello we think should be associated with Mardis Gras. (Yellow? Purple? Actually, as far as I know, Mardis Gras isn’t a jello holiday, but perhaps it should be, since it has so much in common with the other jello holidays. Maybe I’d like Mardis Gras better if it was a jello holiday.) Of course, some people would argue that the religious/secular shift goes both ways; they claim that Christmas and Easter weren’t originally religious holidays. Actually, it is more accurate to say that they are religious holidays that happen to coincide with pagan holidays, and that our current culture has a tendency of blending traditions with different histories and ignoring the fact that some of them are Christian and others are pagan. And yes, in the case of Christmas, it’s true that our observance of the holiday probably doesn’t fall very close to the time of year when it actually took place. But that’s something of a tangent because I’m really just talking about Mardis Gras.

Mardis GrasMardis Gras is more or less unique in being a holiday that I dislike; in general, I am in favor of any reason to treat any day as being special, to use it as an excuse to celebrate, and to associate it with enjoyable traditions. Basically, my objection to Mardis Gras is that it takes away from the significance of the beginning of Lent. For all of the fuss that people make over Mardis Gras, Ash Wednesday gets so little attention that some people think it only exists in the Roman Catholic church. (As a Lutheran, I can’t help feeling a little indignant when people ask me if I’m Catholic.) I haven’t heard my classmates talking about Lent, but I’ve heard an awful lot about Mardis Gras and about the Mardis Gras parties that will ironically be held this weekend after Lent has already started. The only reason that I’ve even seen much talk about Lent on the internet is that I know a lot of cool people who post religious things online. Even then, I think I’ve seen a lot more Mardis Gras themed things.

Because I’m a little short on time, I’m not going to continue this blog post in the logical direction (which would be to say something about Lent) and I’m also not going to try to justify the fact that I actually do like Halloween, which is also a secular holiday that was originally observed as the day before a religious holiday. I don’t think I really need to justify that anyway, because this really is just my opinion; I’m not trying to make any kind of moral statement. It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong about Mardis Gras, it’s just that I’m not used to observing it, so I am a little bit bothered by its cultural prominence. And also, if we’re going to celebrate it, we really ought to assign a certain color of jello to it. I’m voting for yellow.