“Every day do something that will inch you closer to a better tomorrow.” – Doug Firebaugh

Religion. It’s a touchy subject. As I mentioned before, I try to stay away from these kind of posts, but ironically the subject has ingrained itself into the conversations of our everyday lives lately. From my own spiritual journey and our return to Sunday church services, to my father-in-law’s death and 12-year-old daughter’s online class titled “Ghost, Ghoulies and Long-legged Beasties: Why People like to be Scared,” talk of God, Jesus, heaven, ghosts, spirits, etc. have been weaving in and out of conversations at the dinner table, on car rides to basketball practices and on the streets of Springfield, Mass., during a recent jaunt to see the Harlem Globetrotters and the Dr. Seuss Memorial. Throw Ash Wednesday discussions and what to give up for Lent into the mix, and our family seems to be buried in a heap of religion, and the only way to dig ourselves out is to begin exploring and discussing our various religious beliefs.

I have one child who can’t figure out weather he is an atheist, an agnostic, a believer in Creationism or The Big Bang Theory. He believes in heaven and that it exists in another dimension or universe somewhere, but he’s not sure who oversees that whole other world, and he can’t understand why, if there is a God, he/she would take away people and pets that he loves.

My 10-year-old, I just learned, isn’t even sure if he believes in heaven, so he is struggling more than most of us with his grandfather’s death, because he is not sure what just happened to Grandpa a month ago. Where is he? Where’d he go? Why’d he go? And why doesn’t he come to me in my dreams to let me know he is doing OK? It’s been cause for a lot of tears, sleepless nights and trips to the school counselor, and the healing process has only just begun.

My daughter, on the other hand, has always been interested in religion. For years she begged us to return to church after Sunday schedules and a family “crisis” had us abandoning it, and she used to talk frequently about her views of God, Jesus, heaven, etc. But as our conversations began to wane, so did her interest. Now our return to church and her class have her asking the bigger questions once again — Is there an afterlife? Ghosts? Spirits? Who was Jesus and what do I believe about him as a person and son of God? And she is coming up with some pretty amazing insights in the process.

Recently, she interviewed our pastor about the United Church of Christ‘s beliefs in general, and of ghosts and the afterlife for a term paper, and the hour interview proved to be an educational experience for both of us. The most important lesson that my daughter learned, that I had learned only a month earlier, is that it’s OK to question what you have learned in the past about religion. It is OK to hear some of the scripture and question it’s meaning, and try to interpret it in a way that makes sense to you. This practice may not sit well with some, but it was exactly what our family needed to hear at this time in our lives, when all of us are wrestling with our own spirituality and religious belief system.

In the middle of all this searching and reflection, we have entered into the “Season of Lent,” the time that distinguishes Christianity from all other religions. Lent is seen as a time of sacrifice, deprivation, reflection. The 40 days of Lent (which my son informed me was the length of time Lent lasted, that’s how uninformed I am about some of our Christian traditions), are a time to remember the time Jesus spent in the desert preparing for his ministry. According to a journal post on http://whitestonejournal.com/lent1.html,  “The desert experience is about deprivation. Most of the world experiences it involuntarily. For many people, however, deprivation is a great evil, and to be avoided at all costs. In deprivation, we discover that we are not all-powerful. We are slaves to our bellies, to the opinions of others, to pleasure. We cannot bear pain, so we take a pill. We cannot bear growing old, so we dye our hair. Like Darth Vader in Star Wars, we replace our humanity with technology until there is little of our selves left. Doing without can strip away some of the illusions and give us a glimpse of truth.”

When we spoke of Lent in our family recently, my kids immediately began discussing what they were going to deprive themselves of for the next 40 days. “I’m giving up all meat,” my daughter informed me. “I’m giving up hanging out with my brother,” another child informed my husband and I. From my 10-year-old, “I’m giving up video games … no,sweets … no, cookies … no ….” This was a hard one for all of them.

But then we were told of the UCC’s take on Lent. It was described in a March 2011 article titled “New Lenten practices redefine tradition” at http://www.ucc.org/news/new-lenten-practices-redefine.html. Lent, it has been said, was originally a time to “give up something and sacrifice” that is true, but giving up that “thing” was supposed to make way for something new, something that would increase your spirituality and  your connection to God and Jesus, a time to do SOMETHING for others like Jesus would have. “We have forgotten the second half of the tradition,” our pastor told my daughter and I the other day.

Ahh, I knew my husband and  I chose this church for a reason all those years ago! You see, these 40 days of Lent aren’t necessarily about depriving ourselves, but about giving back to others. In the 2011 article mentioned above Gregge Brecke and the RNS wrote about Lenten movements such as the 2011 Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast which was an effort to reduce energy consumption and fight global warming. This passage in the article particularly appealed to me:

“Fasting from anything is never an easy sell in a culture that values convenience, according to Jim Antal, who heads the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ.

But as a spiritual practice, he said, personal sacrifice can be a key driver in advancing larger movements.

‘We’re trying to deal with the mingling of individual Lenten disciplines with social change,” said Antal, whose conference is spearheading the carbon fast. “And that is precisely what will save the Earth – if individuals who begin to get it… begin to say, `Gosh, I need to change my life, and I need to become an activist.’ ‘

Now this to me, symbolizes more of a life change, than merely a 40 day sustainment from drinking, or eating chocolate, or playing video games. This is something that makes sense to my family and me, and life in the “real world.” So during this Lenten season, my “struggling with spirituality” family will not be giving anything up, but we are going to figure out a way to give back, whether it is in the name of religion or just simply in the name of promoting a philanthropic lifestyle for ourselves. My daughter has already been planning a collar drive for the Southern Jewel Dog Rescue from which we adopted our beloved Murph. My husband has always wanted to take our children to spend an afternoon serving in a “soup kitchen,” so we may be looking for local places where that can happen. I have yet to broach this subject with my boys, but I am absolutely positive they would be thrilled to donate each other to any cause that would take their brother. 🙂 We may have to guide them a little in all this so that we don’t lose any family member in the process, but I definitely feel that approaching the season, whether religious or not, in this manner will not only bring more happiness and light into our lives and within the lives of those we will be helping, but seriously, it has GOT TO BE BETTER THAN DEPRIVING OURSELVES OF SWEETS AND (for my husband and I) A COCKTAIL OR TWO during this 40 day period.

Now if we can only wrap our minds around the whole concept of Easter and the resurrection, and make that fit into our everyday lives. That is going to be much more difficult.