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Individuals draw the most power from sacrifice


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POSTED: Saturday, March 21, 2009

National Public Radio did a story Thursday from a small town in Oregon where there's mass dieting going on. Young and old, retired and employed, fat and not-so-fit people in Fossil, population 450, are living out their own version of the TV reality show "The Biggest Loser."

People at the town clinic incited the fitness competition, and they're delighted as cholesterol and blood pressure readings go down. There's a school gymnasium where the dedicated losers work out together. The only market in town stocks more yogurt, fruits and vegetables and fewer chips and Twinkies. The grocery owner as well as the only restaurant in town give the customer a running calorie count on whatever snack or meal they buy.

When you think about people bolstering each other with moral support on their quest, it sounds wonderful. But for someone who grew up in a small town, it also brings a twinge. People watching one another, even when it's an exercise in being good, can turn sour and judgmental. It doesn't take a village—that can happen in any group dynamic, including in a church.

It so happened that the chatty news report was playing as I sped away from Zippy's with never-mind-how-many doughnuts, thus breaking my Lenten vow of pastry abstinence for the umpteenth time. And here we are only halfway through Lent.

How would I have responded had the clerk told me, "That's 240 calories each"? What if my coffee klatsch crew were still there to note that I went beyond the "just a cuppa" regimen I made the mistake of bragging about? If not shame, it would bring chagrin.

It led to some ruminating about the whole idea of "give-ups" as a religious practice. As children in my religious tradition, it was the boot camp exercise. Lent meant giving up candy as a way to feel the pain, get an inkling of the sacrifice that is the story of Good Friday. My parents weren't punitive if you gave in to temptation and ate a Butterfinger bar, but I wouldn't say the same tolerance was practiced by Sister Mary Penitence.

When you got older in that Christian tradition, there were rules, and a watered-down version still applies today. Some days you don't eat meat. Some days it's only one full meal. You are not to "excuse yourself lightly" from those obligations. But those who are at least a bit mature in their faith know it's your frame of mind and making a deliberate choice that define your relationship with the almighty, not ticking off the time you ate a ham sandwich on Friday.

As I've learned about other faiths, I'm awed at the almost universal tradition of fasting as a path to connect with the Divine. Humankind recognized ages ago that there's more to us than physical functions. Suppress the appetites and you might find your spiritual self. At Ramadan, at the High Holy Days, in the austerity of Buddhist traditions, you give yourself up to something so much deeper than a stomach twinge.

Doughnut denial was a childish, quick-fix version of "doing Lent," and I confess it.

Two weeks ago, Amy Wake, a pastor at First United Methodist Church, wrote about her Lenten practice. She talked about entering the wilderness with Christ by turning off the distractions of 21st-century life. She gives up television for the whole six weeks. She seeks quiet time uncluttered with technology and shopping and busyness, at least for a few hours a day. It sounds so much harder to do than bypass a bakery. It's only three weeks until Easter, and it's worth a try. Even if I have to tune out the car radio and never find out who won the competition in Fossil, Ore.