Growing up in southern Arizona, I was surrounded by folks of two religious persuasions: Catholics and Mormons. Both of them—to my adolescent mind—were obsessed with giving things up.
My Catholic friends gave up all sorts of things during the spring. I didn’t even know enough to call it Lent. I just knew they gave up “stuff” before Easter and seemed to suffer miserably for it. No chocolate, no Slurpees, no cussing, no Nintendo. It seemed awful.
My Mormon friends gave up caffeine year round, which didn’t seem quite as onerous until we got to the soda machine together. Coke? No. Pepsi? No. Mountain Dew? Definitely no. Not even Dr. Pepper? No. The restaurant where I worked had to order double tanks of Sprite just for the Mormon families who came in.
The practice of giving up anything struck me then as bizarre and antiquated. After all, like the Rolling Stones said, “I’m free to do what I want any old time,” right? As I tell my kids over and over again now, though, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do something. Any time we give anything up, any time we fast from some thing upon which we’ve become dependent, we are practicing this difficult art of saying no.
In a book I once read, a woman confessed an obsession with cheese. She realized one day, to her horror, that she’d eaten white cheddar cheese with every meal and snack for the past several days. As a woman of faith and someone sensitive to the ways that a certain carelessness leads to moral laziness and a high cholesterol count, she decided to give up cheese. Of course, she was confronted, immediately, in a cafeteria line, with a sandwich layered in her old favorite white cheddar cheese. She reached for it, but she then remembered and said no. It reminded her, she wrote, that she can always say no. (Lauren Winner, Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity)
There may be times when, by ourselves, we don’t have this power to say no. We are human, after all, and, if not totally depraved, we are at least weak and fragile. Fortunately, we are not alone. Jesus is Emmanuel, the Christ. He is God with us.
So, my Mormon and Catholic friends, thank you for my early lessons in giving up. I get it now and practice it as often as I can. Maybe we all could practice saying no a little more often, now during Lent and throughout the year.