Lent and the Spirit of Sacrifice
MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
And this Sunday is Easter, marking the end of the 40-day Lenten period. It can be tough going for those who have sacrificed something dear, chocolate, red meat, shopping, whatever it may be. But this final week of sacrifice holds the promise of a light at the end of the tunnel. If you've given up something particularly difficult this Lenten season, tell us what it is. What are you most looking forward to once Lent is over? Our number is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK.
And joining us now to talk about sacrificing for Lent is the Reverend Dr. James Forbes. He's the senior minister at Riverside Church in New York, and he joins us by phone from his home in New York City.
Welcome, Dr. Forbes.
JAMES FORBES: Hi, Michel. Good to be with you.
MARTIN: It's wonderful to be with you. Now, we hear a lot about people giving up things for Lent. What is the origin of this practice? Is it described in the Bible?
FORBES: I suspect that the Bible always talks about the fact that faith requires discipline and it requires dedication and it requires a kind of determination. Therefore, out of the study of the Bible, you see that Jesus had a 40-day period in which he was tested, to build up his strength for the entering into his public ministry. It is probably due to that period.
Moses, also, had a 40-day period when he went up to get the 10 commandments. So, a 40-day period of intensive concern regarding faithfulness to your belief. That's something of, I think, the Biblical foundation for a Lenten observance.
MARTIN: Would you happen to know, and it's okay if you don't, whether a 40-day practice of sacrifice was part of early Christian practice or is it something that came in later?
FORBES: My thinking is that it evolved in the course of the history of the church.
MARTIN: Is giving up a favorite item for Lent still a widespread phenomenon? Are people still doing this?
FORBES: In my church, people talk about it and we laugh. Is it going to be chewing gum? Is it going to be Haagen Das ice cream? Is it going to be cigarettes? Is it going to be movies, red meat, whatever? And so much so until we've sort of decided, hey, folks it's not only what you give up. Maybe it's what you take on. Like daily devotions, Bible reading, prayer, some kind of service in the community. Or even perhaps a kind of reading program designed to strengthen your spiritual IQ.
MARTIN: But you raised a good point, though, which is that it's kind of something that even committed Christians sort of joke a little bit about. You know, it's the life of abstention doesn't seem to be something we're very interested in, in this country, anyway.
FORBES: Well, I think we all like freedom. But people understand that freedom apart from strength to follow through on your ideals is a hollow kind of thing, and therefore, I think we all understand that if you're going to be conscientious, sometimes you have to make a little symbolic effort that, yes, I do have the moral strength to say no to some things and to hold. And if I can develop my moral muscles, then on very weighty matters, I may also be counted upon for faithfulness.
MARTIN: How did you — Did you preach on this at the beginning of Lent?
FORBES: Of course, I did. And I encouraged my people. I really teased them. I said, look, let's take on some things or either let's do some things different. I told them one year I remember giving up complaining for Lent. And I said I was so glad when Easter came so I could start complaining again. They laughed about that. Others said, let's give up on criticizing our enemies and hopefully we won't have too much of a problem doing that. Mostly, it's let's decide that if we say we are people of faith, let's find some symbolic exercise that helps us to say, yes, it's not just a religion in words, but our bodies participate in discipline that would suggest that we're going to be conscientious about our faith.
MARTIN: Let's go to Cincinnati, Ohio, and Meg. Meg, what's your thought?
MEG: Hi, how are you? Thanks for having me on.
MARTIN: Glad to have you. What's your thought about Lent?
MEG: I think giving up something at Lent is a wonderful way to sort of get in touch with a little bit of suffering, a little bit of, just, you know, feeling like you're a little bit more in contact spiritually with what Christ had to do.
MARTIN: Did you give up something for Lent?
MEG: This year I gave up, my family says I gave up everything this year. I haven't done a Lenten sacrifice in a couple of years, for various reasons. But this year I hit the jackpot. I gave up all alcohol, I gave up anything with sugar in it, and I gave up all refined carbohydrates, which, I'm a bread lover, a biscuit lover. It's been hard.
MARTIN: I was going to say, how's it going?
MEG: Well, I haven't cheated once. And I'm very, very pleased and I feel very proud of myself. And I just, I feel I'm giving myself a pat on the back but I'm real happy.
MARTIN: And Easter's coming.
MEG: And the 18 pounds that I've lost hasn't hurt either.
MARTIN: And what are you going to look forward to most come Easter?
MEG: Oh, I am baking a big batch of biscuits, with honey and butter.
MARTIN: Thank you Meg.
MEG: Thank you. Bye.
FORBES: She's going to be stronger when the period is over.
MARTIN: What, how would you encourage people to think about choosing something to give up for Lent? Or to take on for Lent, as you said?
FORBES: The way I look at it, just think you go down to your sports center, and if you've got some weak muscles, it may be a kind gesture to say, look, let's have exercises that are going to strengthen the muscles that are the weakest. So if eating, that's your problem, or if it's talking that's your problem, or if it's indulging some of the pet desires that's your problem, concentrate on where you see your strength needing to be, encouraged to be strengthened and renewed and refreshed. Don't just pick something at random or pick something you heard somebody else say,
But now it's too late, Easter is coming up this coming Sunday. But whenever we do discipline, let us do discipline with a sense of what wholeness would look like, and what can we actually do that makes us stronger at the end of the period than we were when the discipline began.
MARTIN: Let's go to Nashville, Tennessee, and I think it, is it Charmean?
MARTIN: Charmean. Charmean.
CHARMEAN: I gave up chocolate for Lent, and I've been feeling rather, I don't know, that it wasn't a sacrifice for me. It was kind of a luxury already, and it's something I really enjoyed but I felt almost guilty this Lenten season about just giving up chocolate. That it wasn't contributing to sort of my spiritual growth in any way. And I was just wondering, at this point, how I can reevaluate that sacrifice coming up on Easter?
FORBES: My sense is it might have been interesting that those who give up, say some food items, could combine it with also making some resources available for people who actually have nothing at all. That way, you have a little discipline, but you also are contributing to the wellbeing of others. And that might deepen the sense of your spiritual satisfaction, that you made a meaningful sacrifice during your Lenten observance.
MARTIN: Charmean, what do you, can I just ask a question? Do you think that at the beginning of Lent that you were kind of cutting a deal with yourself? That you're thinking, you know, I don't really feel like doing it this year, so I'm kind of just going to do the chocolate? Do you think?
CHARMEAN: Yeah, it seemed like, to be the easy thing to give up, and something that I enjoy. And I didn't really have to think about it. And then, as the Lenten season has progressed, I've just felt that it was sort of the cheap way out, yeah.
MARTIN: Cheap grace. Thank you, Charmean. Thank you for calling.
CHARMEAN: Thank you.
MARTIN: Dr. Forbes?
MARTIN: Okay, did you give up anything for Lent?
FORBES: I told the people that I was going to give up saying negative things about people.
MARTIN: Is that a problem?
FORBES: Yes, it is a problem. There are a lot of things that you need to comment on negatively. But at least it reminded me of how easy it is to spend your time critiquing other people. And maybe if you reduce the amount of time you're critiquing others, you may have a little more time to look at yourself for ways in which you don't live up to all of your aspirations.
MARTIN: Now, do you mean that on a personal level, or do you mean that part of, I think you would consider your responsibilities as a spiritual leader, is to comment on some of the issues of the day. And that might lead one to comment on individuals. So is that part of your Lenten sacrifice? To avoid commenting on, say, political leaders?
FORBES: No. No. I think, during Lenten sacrifice I probably said we ought to give up any form of injustice, as though I had to make that kind of comment. But in terms of interpersonal relationships, friends, enemies, adversaries, you know, we do spend a lot of time just identifying that the problem is over there. That person is the one that's responsible.
I think maybe if you give up on pointing the finger to others, maybe you may spend more time asking what responsibility do I have for the shape of the world that we're all lamenting these days.
MARTIN: Dr. Forbes, I'm having trouble envisioning you picking on people.
FORBES: I would say, when you, that is a very natural thing. That when people actually inconvenience you, that you pay attention to it and sometimes you derive a perverse sense of pleasure in saying, you know, that person, that person, that person. But I think that's almost a hollow exercise.
Do something substantively about it, or either, find what your responsibility is. And so I'm encouraging people, as Jesus said, look, you spend your time trying to get something out of somebody else's eye. You ought to get a little eye cleaner for yourself and wash that out.
Of course, maybe you will see more clearly what things should be criticized by others. But anyway, Easter's coming, and I can go back complaining. But I thought it was a very interesting way to sort of say, hey, be responsible yourself, and do what you can do, and spend a little less of your energy simply jawboning about what somebody else has done.
MARTIN: Let's go to Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and Fran.
Fran, what did you give up for Lent?
FRAN: Hello. Well the, a couple things. The easier things that I gave up really were the chocolate and wine. I like to have a glass of wine while I'm cooking dinner, even if I don't have any with dinner. But, you know I put that aside, and I'm going to take the money I saved from not buying the wine and you know send that to a relief organization.
But the hard thing was giving up being snappy and moodish, and inflicting my bad mood on everyone that I live with. You know, so you'd have to ask them how I did on that, giving up. But I, other callers have said it, in a way, the easy thing was not, don't have the wine and chocolate in the house, and, you know, I won't have it. But, when you have to check the way you're behaving, and you know, how are my actions affecting other people is the hard part.
MARTIN: Let me just pause here to say, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Dr. Forbes, what did you think about what Fran had to say?
FORBES: I like that. I really liked, you know, we could all be more civil.
These are very troubling times, times of fear, anxiety, and it is so easy to just snap off at other people. Again I say, let's do substantively whatever we can to make the world better, but let's cut each other some slack, as the kids in the street say. Let's see if civility wouldn't be a way that we could at least change the tone in the nation, even as we grapple with continuing problematics around the world.
MARTIN: Fran, thank you for calling.
FRAN: Thank you.
MARTIN: Dr. Forbes, do other faiths practice giving things up?
FORBES: My thinking is that every religion, at one point or the other, will require some self-discipline. For an example, if, at Yum Kippur, there are those who are going to be fasting, that's one form of self-discipline. At other times, there are those who actually are not going to be going to parties, because it is a time of a more penitential spirit.
I suspect that there is not any religion that can function without at least at some times asking people to deny themselves the instant pleasure in promotion of more noble and widespread benefits to the common good.
MARTIN: Let's go to Placerville, California, and Kathy.
Kathy, did you give up something for Lent?
KATHY: Yes, I did. I gave up eating between the hours of six o'clock in the morning and six o'clock at night, so I just have water and tea the rest of the day.
MARTIN: That's a bit like Ramadan, isn't it?
KATHY: Well, yeah, it is sort of like that, yes.
MARTIN: And how did you settle on that?
KATHY: Just a friend told me that this other friend did that at one time, and I thought it sounded good. And so that's why I chose it.
MARTIN: How did that go?
KATHY: Plus I'm a food obsessed person, and I thought it would really help me to, you know, not have to think about food for twelve hours a day.
MARTIN: Did it?
KATHY: Yeah. Yeah, it helped a lot. It helped me focus on other things that I needed to do. Rather than plan my next meal, or whatever, so.
MARTIN: What about Dr. Forbes's thought about, does this carry forward in some way? Do you think that this will, knowing that you could do this, does this carry forward in some way?
KATHY: Definitely. As a matter of fact, a few years ago I gave up deserts, and so I did it a couple of years in a row, and I realized that I could do it and I now only eat desert on Sunday. I don't want to be deprived, so I allow myself to eat desert on Sunday. But the rest of the week I don't. And it's really helped me a lot, because I, like I said, I'm a food obsessed person, and so now I'm wondering what am I going to do after Easter? Because this has really been good for me, and I'm trying to think, well should I just keep doing it? Because I'm eating a third less food, and I can use, like the doctor said, use those resources for things like to help hungry people and that sort of thing, so.
MARTIN: Dr. Forbes, what do you think? Thank you, Kathy. Thank you for calling.
FORBES: Yes, you know, I think that we all are going to require some discipline and if the exercises make her strong enough to move on to even more substantive things, for an example, if we ever decided that we were going to be environmentally responsible, that would probably mean denying ourselves some things.
I told my wife I was going to help her a little bit more with respect to recycling but all of these things that are going to make the world better will at some point require some relaxation and also, in regards to lifestyle and sometimes some inconveniences, are we strong enough not to simply give in to our impulses but to actually decide that for the sake of the world I live in, I will deny myself some of the things I've been accustomed to?
Now when we get to some of those biggies like that, having had the Lenten exercises, Ramadan or either the High Holy Days within other religious traditions, maybe we will be a nation where we'll have moral muscle enough to say, I don't like to do this, but if its for the good of the whole, for the common good, I have the strength to do it. I've tested it during my High Holy Days. I know I can be faithful to it.
MARTIN: It's been a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you so much for joining us.
FORBES: My pleasure.
MARTIN: Reverend Doctor James Forbes is the senior minister at Riverside Church in New York. He joined us by phone from his home in New York City.
And Dr. Forbes, Happy Easter to you.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
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