Rachel Bomberger is the copywriter at Eerdmans. She loves writing and reading (now more than ever), and she promises to turn in a proper book review next time.
Lots of Christians use the forty days of Lent, with its emphasis on Christ’s sacrifice, as a time to ramp up their spiritual discipline. I know people who have given up coffee, alcohol, and even worrying — with varying degrees of success. My corner of the blogosphere has recently been abuzz about the guy who’s giving up everything but alcohol for Lent.
I have observed Lent every year in one way or another since I was a teenager. I’ve given up the usual things (desserts, pop, biting my nails) and embraced a few less orthodox disciplines (“This year for Lent, I’m going to floss every day!”). I’ve even at times added various wholesome practices — exercising, drinking water, reading my Bible — as a way to observe this holy season of self-restraint.
Lent is an ideal time to engage in a little self-improvement, for practical as well as spiritual reasons. It falls in a gray time of year (at least in Michigan), at the end of a long, stagnant winter. By the time the snow mostly melts and Lent begins, we’re in the mood to see some real growth — some change for the better — both in the weather and in our lives.
What’s more, Lent begins approximately one month after we’ve finally ditched the last of our New Year’s resolutions, and it presents us with a convenient opportunity to go about improving ourselves on a holier and yet more modest scale: since Lent is only six weeks long, a Lenten fast feels much more manageable than those “forever-and-always” New Year’s promises we make to ourselves.
Usually, any Lenten discipline I observe is a private thing for me, something I keep mostly to myself. This year, however, my fasting has taken on a more communal nature. Together, our family of five has embarked on a Lenten fast that is (for us) of massive proportions. We’ve given up TV.
I know, I know. Most Americans under forty have pretty much stopped watching TV in recent years, so this may not seem like a big deal — a fast no more trying than that of the four year old I once knew who gave up coffee. But in this instance we’re using a broad definition of TV that includes just about all “moving pictures.” So: No TV No movies. No videos. No Hulu. No Netflix. No Youtube. No video or computer games.
My husband was hesitant but willing as we committed ourselves to this rather radical fast. Our three children were downright surly at the idea of six weeks without Wild Kratts. I, however, was thrilled.
As we drove home from church on Ash Wednesday with the black token of our human frailty and finitude smudged on our foreheads, I confess that I was thinking less of my own frailty and more of the exciting possibilities awaiting us. Without those colorful screens to distract us, I thought, we’d finally have a chance to mold the kind of utopian family life that has generally eluded us. We would at last have ample time and motivation to exercise daily and cook lots of nutritious gourmet meals involving locally grown produce. Our dishes and laundry would always be done. Our house would always be tidy. We’d do lots of crafts with our kids using pompoms and paper plates. We’d play lots of family board games — heck, maybe we’d even start to look like those happy families on board game boxes! And, we would recover (okay, I’ll be honest: we would institute) personal and family devotional practices to carry us all to new heights of faith and holiness.
I wish I could tell you that all these wild fantasies have come true — that our life was instantly transmogrified into something worthy of a full-page spread in a Christian Pottery Barn catalog (if such a thing exists). But of course, they didn’t, and it wasn’t. We don’t exercise any more now than we did before; we eat pizza and Chinese takeout almost as much as ever. Any gains in household productivity have been pretty well offset by the fact that we can no longer plop the children in front of the television for Saturday morning cartoons while we do chores.
No, life isn’t yet even close to perfect. I have, however, noticed two distinct ways in which we have definitely changed for the better.
First, we read a lot more — even those of us that can’t yet read. Coming home after work, I’ve been regularly greeted by the sight of picture books spread wall-to-wall across the living room floor. I’ve had to tiptoe carefully around Good Night, Moon; Good Night, Gorilla; and Good Night, Chickie just to say “good evening” to my little ones. My kindergartner has, in less than a month, made the leap from sounding out a few words to reading whole pages at a time; her preschool brother is soaking up words and letters almost as quickly. In light of scary statistics about children’s media consumption today, our children’s newly turbo-charged love of books and reading is both comforting and highly gratifying.
The kids aren’t the only ones. My husband and I have been reading more, too. After the children are in bed, when we might otherwise sit around twiddling our thumbs to the rhythm of the ticking cuckoo clock in a quiet house, we’ve been reading aloud to one another from Eugene Peterson’s Under the Unpredictable Plant and Robert Farris’s Ten Commandments for Pastors New to a Congregation. When our voices give out, we enjoy the companionable practice of reading silently side by side — he with his stacks of biblical and pastoral theology books, me enjoying Jan Karon’s cozy Mitford novels and the exciting adventures of Joe Rat.
The second positive effect of our Lenten fast has been subtler and much harder to trace: we think more. At least, I think we think more. (It’s kind of hard to measure.) Without the constant cacophony of video entertainment, we have greater space for contemplation. The unaccustomed peace and quiet has given me greater time to listen to the needs of my own soul, to read with greater attention into Scripture, to meditate more raptly on the things of God, and to respond with greater clarity and sincerity (and yes, regularity) in prayer. I didn’t set out expecting to pray more, but somehow it has happened anyway. I wanted a cleaner house and more active lifestyle; what I got was a cleaner, more active mind.
Our forty-day fast will soon be drawing to a close. The gray, Lenten days are about to get much darker as we descend into Passiontide. When we emerge into the glory of Easter, the lifestyle experiment our kids have dubbed “TV Turnoff Lent” will be over.
I’m actually going to miss it. Not my daughter, though. She’s already planning ahead: “Mom,” she told me recently. “Next year for Lent, can we just give up sweets?”