Saturday, April 30, 2011

Mormon Lent Part 2 - Diet, Exercise, and Cold Showers

Sacrifice isn’t sacrifice unless it hurts, at least a little bit.

The law of Moses didn’t demand sacrifice of a lamb and then allow the offering of the gimpy runt that is about to die of the footrots anyway. It demanded the first-born, and without spot or blemish. I know this was also a symbol of our Saviour’s own sacrifice, but I think it was more than that as well. I think that as children of a divine Father housed temporarily in these fleshy temples that we often must push ourselves to do the opposite of what our bodies want us to do. (Like wake up on time for work in the morning!) Our spirits and our bodies are in a constant battle for dominance, and to force our bodies to comply with something our spirits are demanding strengthens our spirits in the same way that physical exercise strengthens our bodies. I call these little acts of sacrifice “spiritual push-ups”.

This year, I decided to celebrate Lent with my Catholic friends and give myself a spiritual workout. Although it is not a typical part of a Latter-Day-Saint Easter observance, I liked the idea of a 40-day spiritual workout, as well as an opportunity to leverage my faith for some quantifiable physical benefits. I chose as my Lenten sacrifice, daily exercise, a reduced calorie diet, and (for perspirational reasons...) cold showers.

Since the physical benefits are much simpler to describe, I will start there. Weight loss was the first and most easily quantifiable result. I weighed 260 pounds when Lent began. In the first week of my new regimen I lost ten pounds. It took two more weeks to lose the next five pounds, but that seems to be my current plateau. I am confident that as my metabolism adjusts to this new discipline, the pounds will continue to slowly drop off, though it would be nice if they would continue to flee as rapidly as those first ten!

Weight loss was not the only result. I noticed that I had more energy, and Emily noticed a distinct change in my appearance and attitude. I credit the yoga with the improved posture. It forced me to think more carefully about how I was carrying myself. With an increased effort to straighten my spine and keep my shoulders back, I also noticed that under my paunch, I could actually see some abdominal muscles. I don’t remember the last time I saw those!

Whatever else I took from this experiment, I could very easily see and document the physical benefits. But what about the spiritual?

That is a bit harder to quantify, and even harder to express. I would love to report that I reached a new level of spirituality and enlightenment. It would be great to report that I had lost all doubts about myself, my faith, and my religion.

I can’t.

Forty days of commitment to God is a good thing, and I can report that I am stronger and wiser for the experience. I can tell you my confidence in my ability to place my body in subjection to my spirit is increased. I can say that my faith in the strength that comes from dedicating your life to God is increased.

Each time I passed up a soda with my lunch at work and drank water instead, I was doing a spiritual push-up. When I filled up my car with gas and didn’t walk in and pick up a package of Zingers and a bottle of chocolate milk, I was doing a spiritual push-up. When I turned the water on in the shower and stepped into that breathtaking cold, I was running a spiritual 5k. My body rebelled, even despite the obvious benefits it was receiving along with my spirit. It wanted warm water, it wanted chocolate and sugar, and it wanted second helpings of dinner. My spirit chose otherwise, and each time I made this choice it turned my thoughts to God and the marvelous blessings he has given me.

I live in such a time of peace and prosperity that without conscious effort, I will find myself becoming overweight. I live in a time of such technological advance that the idea of a cold shower is anachronistic. The idea that one might be required to wash oneself with cold water is an idea that is almost absurd in our day (Or, one might say, Kooky.) The constant reminders of how blessed I am did much to bring me closer to God and strengthen my faith.

Still, forty days is not nearly long enough to create lasting change. It is not nearly enough to erase a lifetime of doubt, of weakness, of habit.

But it is a great start. And I think that is the great lesson I learned from Lent. Any positive change in our lives must start somewhere and to start it with an effort dedicated to God is the best way I can think of. I will definitely make Mormon Lent a regular part of my Easter celebration in the future. In fact, why wait for Easter? Anytime I recognize the need for change in my life, I can get on my knees and make a commitment to my Heavenly Father that I am making a change in my life. And I need only commit to forty days. Or thirty, or fifty. Whatever interval of time I work out with Him, it will be much easier than trying to make a lifetime commitment, and I think that is the beauty of Lent.

I can do anything for forty days, if I know that I don’t have to do it for a lifetime.

Thanks Bernie, and Rachel, for inspiring this experiment. I declare it a success. Fifteen pounds, better attitude and posture, stronger faith and one lasting habit...

I now prefer cold showers to warm. Call me kooky.

PS: I suppose I should clarify a misstatement I made in part one. I said that I didn't like to disappoint my Heavenly Father. While this is true, it is a bit misleading and contrary to the nature of God. No matter how badly I mess up, my Father loves me perfectly. And perfect love, at least in my humble understanding, has no room for disappointment. All things, even (and especially?) my mistakes will serve His purposes in the end. I have not the power, nor does anyone on this earth, have the power to frustrate His plan. Hence, disappointment is something He cannot feel. Sadness, pity, perhaps. Not disappointment. The disappointment I referred to is the feeling I have towards myself when I make a commitment to Him and then break it. (Something which has been a bit of a theme in my life. But that is a topic for another day.)

Monday, April 25, 2011

Mormon Lent - A cross-denominational experiment...

Regular readers of this irregular blog will know that this is primarily a writing blog - I post some of my rough drafts here for input. Although I rarely receive any, it meets my need to feel as if I am doing something towards my dream of being a writer. However, today I am turning in another, far more personal direction: Faith. This is no pithy piece of fiction, it is an exploration of my feelings towards God.

While I expect to receive as little feedback as I do with any of my blog updates, be forewarned that I am not inviting debate nor do I wish to stir up controversy. I just feel the need to share.

So, here it goes...

First off, you should know that Mormons do not generally practice Lent and it is most definitely not an official rite of worship. In fact, having been raised in Utah and never having much familiarity with other religions at all, I don't remember even knowing of such a thing until well into my adulthood. Even so, until this year I never had a real understanding of what Lent even is. It was just one of those things that Catholics do at Easter time, along with the ashes and the palms and such. This year, I learned a bit more about Lent.

I have a great friend, named Bernie who is a devout Catholic. Now, I know that in this day and age, to call anyone a devout anything is to summon the Hollywood archetype of the closed-minded prude who gasps at the audacity of the much more enlightened world for their utter godlessness. I know this stereotype to be very false, and especially so in Bernie's case. He has a very sharp sense of truth and beauty, and his ability to bring an idea into a very sharp focus with a very colloquial style of writing is one of my favorite things about him. Neither is he judgmental or prudish - he is very firm in his belief and allows all others the freedom to feel the same way about theirs.

Bernie has a blog, which he updates on a regular basis. (Much more regular than this poor, neglected space!) And about a month and a half ago, he wrote an entry on his feelings towards Lent. As usual, when Bernie 'splains it, it makes perfect sense. Lent was the custom of giving up something, or committing to do something every day until Easter. The purpose was to bring us closer to God through the act of sacrifice and commitment. (Did I get that right Bern?) Us Mormons get that concept - once a month we are asked to fast for two meals, and donate the money saved to the poor. That is why the first Sunday of each month is called Fast Sunday, and the young deacons are dispatched around the ward to collect the Fast Offerings. We fast for many different reasons, not the least of which is to help the poor. Nevertheless, there are many deeper reasons for the sacrifice of food for a time, no matter how short. And these reasons are very similar to the reasons that Bernie described for Lent.

I really liked Bernie's description of Lent, and was pondering it later when I ran across a comment posted to Facebook by another friend, who also happens to be a Mormon like me. She said "Although I'm not Catholic, I've always liked the idea of giving something up for Lent."

It had never occurred to me that I could also participate in Lent. There is nothing in this observance that is contrary to the doctrine of my church. We Mormons do believe in seeking after "anything that is virtuous, lovely, or of good report" after all. And I have always had a hard time with commitments to give up something, or to begin a new regimen or discipline. Here was a ready-made timeline and plan for doing so. And I would be making my commitment to my Father in Heaven, whom I most hate to disappoint.

It wasn't hard to find something to commit to. Last fall, due in large part to my overall lack of fitness and at least thirty extra pounds (OK, I might even admit to as much as forty... but no more!) I tore the ACL and smashed the Meniscus cartilage in my knee and had to undergo re-constructive surgery. As a result of a squabble with my insurance company, my physical therapy was cut short, and I was left rehabilitating myself, but doing so very badly. When the scale tipped over to 260 pounds one morning, I knew that enough was enough. My wife had bought me a Wii Fit for my birthday, and I decided, as part of my Lenten observance, that I would work out for at least twenty minutes each workday, in the morning before I went to work.

The second part of my Lenten commitment may sound a bit kooky at first, but stick with me... I promise I can explain.

Working out in the morning was great, but it left me in a very... ummm... perspirational(?) state. (I did mention being fifty pounds overweight, didn't I?) When I went upstairs, I would jump in the shower, and the hot water would wash the sweat off, and then make me sweat even more. It got to where I was sweatier after getting dressed than I had been after working out! So I decided, that along with my commitment to exercise every day, I would also give up warm showers for the duration of Lent. (See? I told you it was a bit kooky...)

Finally, I asked my dearest Emily to put me back on the diet that she tried to put me on a couple of years ago, which she eventually gave up because I would just eat more at work to make up for the calories she was trimming at home. (Cursed candy machines...)

So, to sum up: Diet, Exercise, and Cold Showers. This was my Lenten sacrifice.

I learned a lot about myself, and the strength that we can receive when we hand our weakness over to the Lord.

But it's late tonight. I will have to tell you more about that later.