As we have been sorting through things accumulated over 9+ years in NYC and determining what to take back to NC and what to leave here, I have been examining a lot of clothing. In fact, I have been donating a lot of clothing to a local helping agency that provides garments to those in need. The clothes I have donated is in good repair. Some of it has barely been worn at all. I would love to claim that I am giving it away simply due to a generous spirit (and I hope that is at least part of the reason I’m doing so). However, part of why I am donating so much clothing is because I simply can’t wear it anymore – too little fabric, too much midsection. I am living proof of what we often hear: New York really is the greatest food city in the world!
So, I want to think with you in this blog about diets and why they work, and why they stop working. I’m pretty much an expert on that topic. I’ve been on so many diets across the years, and all of them have been successful... temporarily. If you ask me, “Should I try Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig or Atkins or South Beach?,” my answer will be “Yes.” Seriously. Any of them will work for you, probably about as effectively as any of the others. The reason is because when we go on a diet, we make an inner commitment to losing weight. Therefore, we consciously abide by the guidelines of the program. And subconsciously, we even begin to do other little things that assist (like walking more and taking taxis less). For the period of time we adhere to the program, we lose weight, sometimes dramatically. I’ve lost up to forty pounds on some diets. Correct that statement. I’ve never really lost weight when I dieted. It wasn’t “lost,” it was just “temporarily misplaced.” I have always managed to find it again.
What happens to folks like me who do the yoyo weight thing? I know what happens. I go on a program, and in time I finish the program. There is no real behavior modification, simply a season of self-denial. Once I conclude the two months of a diet plan, I begin to justify things: “I’ve denied myself pasta for two whole months. Adding back a little won’t hurt. I’ll watch my portions.” “I’ve gone without desserts for eight weeks. Surely a small cup of chocolate mint chip ice cream can’t do much harm.” And in a few months’ time, once again I’m giving away clothes because I can’t fasten the waist or button the collar. The only way a diet can make a lasting difference is if I embrace it not as a finite program but rather as behavior modification. If low carbs took the weight off, then maintaining a low carb lifestyle will keep it off. If exercise made me healthier doing a short time span, then exercise will keep me healthier during a whole life span. Behavior modification.
So, what does any of this have to do with faith? The answer is: A lot … and especially with the way we practice faith during the season of Lent. We frequently hear the question, “What are you giving up for Lent?” Recently I preached about the importance of another question: “What are you taking on for Lent?” If either is for forty days and then discarded, it may be a nice temporary spiritual discipline, but it won’t have lasting impact or value. Only when our spiritual disciplines form ongoing spiritual habits is transformation a possibility. Suppose a person decides to take on regular attendance at church during Lent. Or journaling. Or meditation (a form of prayer involving silent listening). At the close of forty days, are such practices no longer needed? Take meditation, for example. What if after forty days we live another forty years? Will God have nothing to say to us during that time? Shall we discard the practice of listening for “the still small voice”? (I Kings 19: 11 ff.) Or, if we give up gossiping or expressing resentment in speech or social media, but only do so for forty days, how does that change us spiritually or protect our victims? It’s just putting off being unkind, it’s not essentially changing our behavior. Fill in your own blanks. You get the point.
When Jesus referred to being “born anew,” (John 3: 7) He was referring to transformation. He was talking about becoming something we have not been before, a more redeemed and renewed human being. He was talking about changing directions, setting a new course, walking a new path. And that was not a for-the-time-being matter. It was a from-this-moment-on matter. I’ve taken on a lot of diet plans in the past, and they’ve worked well... until I concluded them. But, the bottom line is that every one has been a temporary fix, not a lasting solution. Why? Because they did not result in behavior modification. There was no lasting commitment to lasting change. If you have made a wise (and life and soul transforming) commitment for Lent, then it remains wise (and life and soul transforming) post-Easter. There’s a difference between a seasonal liturgical practice and a better life.