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Avoiding Lenten loopholes

lent-coffee There is no secret that I enjoy my morning trips to Starbucks… and my afternoon trips to Starbucks… and my meetings often held at Starbucks. Coffee is perhaps my favourite beverage. By far it is the one I drink the most. I look forward to it in the morning; If I have a free moment during the day I go searching for my refills; It often marks the end of my work day. Given all of this, I must be honest, I was a little unprepared for the amount of shock people had when they learned that part of my Lenten devotion entailed giving up coffee. People seemed generally surprised that I would make this decision. Some saw it as akin to pigs flying and hell freezing over.

Giving up coffee for lent has been something that I have thought about for a some time. Whenever we have something that we enjoy on a regular basis, perhaps becoming so habitual that we rarely think about it, it is good to challenge ourselves to do without it for a while. Lent provides the opportunity for this to happen. This year I decided that I would take the plunge.

What I found interesting, however, was how many people attempted to offer me advice about how I should manage this fast, or even make it easier. Some suggested that I keep a well-stocked supply of dark chocolate to nibble on whenever my body ached for a coffee. Another suggested I merely replace coffee with strong tea or hot chocolate. bloodtypeThen there is the ever popular suggestion pertaining to what can only be referred to as the ‘Lenten loophole’—“Well, you do remember that, technically, Sundays are not part of Lent!’ The obvious implication is that I could choose to faithfully refrain from coffee for six days of the week, and have a pot of coffee with every meal on Sundays. I could have what I want, and still feel good about my Lenten discipline. Everybody wins.

Somehow, I don’t think a Lenten fast is to work that way.

I’m not meaning to disparage these suggestions. People seemed honestly concerned for my well-being. Their suggestions on how to navigate this fast is drawn out of place of care. That in itself should be a head’s up for me regarding a possible unhealthy attachment that coffee plays in my life. Yet, it seems to me that entering our Lenten fast with a mind that searches for the loopholes, or the various things we can do to make our discipline lighter, essentially misses the point.

Through the prophet Isaiah, God charges Israel with this very thing. “On the day of fasting you do as you please, and exploit all your workers, your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.” People were engaging in the external observance of the fast without an inner movement of the heart. Landowners would simply take the day off! Sure, they would say that they would be fasting from all work, all labour and all toil, but then they would turn around and force their workers do their work for them. They found the loophole. Their fast became a discipline of getting what they wanted while pretending to observe a spiritual discipline.

Would going to Starbucks every morning and ordering a Chai-Tea Latte instead of a Toffee-nut Americano amount to the same thing?

The discipline of fasting which is so tied to the observance of Lent is not about replacing one thing with another. Fasting is not about replacement; It is about doing without. We voluntarily remove ourselves from an action or a desire for the expressed purpose of drawing nearer to God. The same holds true if we decide to “Take something on.” Some decide to do the office of Morning Prayer every morning, or read the bible every evening. The point is not simply to do another outward action; it is to inwardly reach out to our Lord and Saviour. Our discipline is about a turning of the heart to God; a turning which is centred in desire to be filled with God’s transforming Spirit.

Lent often holds a sense of difficulty to it, doesn’t it? We don’t relish our entrance into this season. I don’t think I have ever heard someone says ‘Yay, it’s Lent!!” True to form, then, fasting is also seen as a hard discipline. It shocks us—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. People seem concerned about the eventual ‘headache’ that I will have from my withdrawal from coffee. Yet won’t the onset of this headache be a powerful testimony to my over-dependence on something as trite as a $4 beverage?

Our Lenten disciplines have the power, when done properly, to uncover how much of our life may in fact be lived in pursuit of our appetites. They disclose, sometimes uncomfortably, how dependent we may be on the superfluous stuff we fill our lives with, and the luxury items that we happily consume. It shows us how much time, money, and effort we spend in chasing after transitory things, and how little amount we spend in seeking first the kingdom of God.

Yet as hard as these disciplines may be, they are transformative. They are powerful. They are healing. Jesus says that this type of discipline, done in the secret places of our lives, is that which is rewarded by the Father. In uncovering these deep and hidden places of over-indulgence, dependence, or neglect, we free ourselves from the tedium of pursuing that which ultimately does not satisfy or nourish. We are then able to turn these secret places of our lives over to Jesus’ Lordship and mastery. We realize—again physically, emotionally, and spiritually—that our lives are upheld by the gracious compassion of God and that as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His love for us.

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith.

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9 Responses to Avoiding Lenten loopholes

  1. I don’t look for them. They find me.

  2. Toffee Nut Americano….that sounds good! And the article’s good too! 😉

  3. I appreciate this. I do want to counter the point about Sundays though, because they are explicitly NOT fast days. Of course you can’t go crazy, but it’s important in my opinion to not be held to your fasting during these “mini Easters”

  4. I frequently gave up coffee in past Lents. Given that I sometimes go through 1.5 litres of the stuff in a day, that means fasting from the daily java had consequences. Usually there is a day or three of headaches, combined with temporary pseudo-narcolepsy. Then it gets better. Hang in there, my brother!

    • Indeed. I’ve tried it (and failed) a few times, concluding only that I confirmed just how much I can’t do this on my own. Peace be, Kyle.

  5. Kyle Norman

    My fast is actually more extreme that just coffee – I am giving up all beverages except for water – although it’s the coffee that has people concerned.

    It will be interesting to say the least. I am excited (and nervous) to see what happens. My hope is that it is transformative.

  6. It always amazes me that we seem to be called to give up for lent things that are not all that good for us. Eugene Cho on his site had a statement ““Umm, I didn’t ask you to give up coffee or chocolate. I asked you to surrender your life.” – God. He looks,on his site, at this idea of giving up things for lent. http://eugenecho.com/2011/03/09/lent-giving-up-coffee-or-my-life/

    • Kyle Norman

      In some respects I completely agree, Tony. The idea of fasting, of giving something up is an internal discipline more than it is an external action. That being said, part of the uncomfortable reality for us all is that sometimes, unbeknownst to us, coffee IS our life. We may not always realize how much time and care we take chasing after the satisfaction of our physical body, or the satiating of our desires. The challenge also comes when we understand that the internal discipline must inform outward action.

      If you say ‘Does Jesus want your life or your coffee’, what Cho says is completely true. However I don’t think it’s as cut and dry as that. We are, after all, a messy lot at times.

  7. Kyle, I enjoyed your post very much. Thanks for posting it. Xo

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