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Roxane Salonen, Published February 22 2013

Lent: Giving up ... adding to ... pushing through

PRAIRIE ROSE, N.D. – For years whenever Lent would come around, Pat Callens of here would go to her fallback sacrifice every 40 days before Easter, denying herself small pleasures like chocolate or other edible temptations.

But in August 2005, her sister Karen, a 44-year-old mother of three, was diagnosed with a brain tumor, rocking Callens’ world.

After witnessing Karen’s bravery and recovery, by the time Lent rolled around again, Callens had embraced a whole new reality of sacrifice.

“Before I would give up sweets, but suddenly that seemed so shallow,” she said. “I started thinking, ‘Really? That’s all you can do?’ So I began trying to do things that would better me as a person and help others out.”

Touched by her sister’s fortitude, and with her new attitude toward sacrifice and gratitude intact, Callens felt inspired last year to use the written word as part of her Lenten sacrifice. Throughout the season she wrote thank-you letters to people who had touched her life.

“These are things that a lot of times you don’t tell them in person, so it was good to be able to write it down, to tell my nieces and nephews how proud I am of them and that I love them,” she said, “and the same with my brothers and sisters, to say how fortunate I am to have them in my life.”

She hadn’t anticipated how touched they would be in turn. “Several of them wrote or called to thank me, saying the letter had brought tears to their eyes,” Callens said.

Like Callens, Jeanine Bitzan, of Moorhead, has grown in her faith and approach toward Lent through the years. Though she understands and even affirms the church’s “don’t” rules during seasons like Lent, she said, as a lifelong Catholic and lover of seafood, she never found meatless Fridays to be sacrificial.

“That caused me to go from thinking about fasting and staying away from eating in between meals to thinking more in terms of, ‘How can I do more to grow in my relationship with Christ and really connect with the sacrifice he made for

me?’ ” she said.

Bitzan decided that spending more time in prayer and taking time for daily Scripture readings would be more effective. She also began studying the lives of the saints because of how well they model Jesus’ ways.

Along with personal prayer time, Bitzan said, family prayer can provide a way during Lent to deepen in faith together.

“We begin by praying with thankfulness to God. Then we are living a prayer of unity and love together at our table as we eat side by side,” she said, noting that family meal time often becomes “a lively prayer, full of conversation and many laughs.”

Afterward, each family member offers petitions for people in their lives needing prayer. “We as parents are always so grateful to hear our children’s concern for their fellow humanity,” she said. “It is definitely the highlight of our day.”

But as binding as prayer can be for a family, she admitted, Lent remains, for the most part, a personal journey.

Several years ago during Lent, her daughters, Liz and Marie, began a tradition of gathering in one of their rooms and reading Scripture together before bed, with no parental prompts. “When it comes from their heart – a personal thing that they choose – that’s when they’re going to get the most out of their encounter.”

The Rev. Jeff Sandgren of Olivet Lutheran Church in Fargo said the church as a whole has been less inclined to stress the penitential aspects of it in recent times, but the reminder remains important and necessary.

“There’s a brokenness in humanity, and healing comes only in the resurrection of Christ,” he said, “I’ve found there’s a real eagerness in people looking forward to that.”

One year a snowstorm closed down the city just hours before Ash Wednesday services. After conferring with his fellow pastors, they decided to offer the imposition of ashes the following Sunday. “Folks expressed that they felt like Lent hadn’t really begun until they had that mark with the sign of the cross,” Sandgren said.

Nola Storm, of Fargo, one of his congregants, said the church’s penitential seasons are highlights of her year as a Christian.

“I’m one of those people who like Advent and Lent as a way to prepare spiritually for Christmas and Easter, instead of approaching them like, ‘Oh, here’s a holiday,’ and then it’s over,” she said. “It’s that time you take to contemplate, to do a little more study (of Scripture) than you would ordinarily do.”

Like Callens and Bitzan, Storm finds adding rather than subtracting to be more conducive to the intent of Lent, like being more intentional about praying for people in need.

Her feelings about it stem from an incident in childhood when someone she knew gave up cigarettes for Lent and couldn’t wait for Easter to start smoking again. It seemed backward to her.

“If what you give up makes you a nasty person, it sort of defeats the purpose of living that life that we’re supposed to,” she said. “I think we need to ask ourselves, ‘What does that sacrifice do?’ Do people see you and think, ‘Oh, Jesus died for our sins,’ or is what you’re giving up just making you crabby?”

For some, pushing through to the end of Lent can be challenging, like those who, on Jan. 1, exuberantly declare their resolutions, and by mid-February, find their enthusiasm waning.

Bitzan said that with the right frame of mind, we can reach Easter well.

“The best way to get through the times of Lent – or any suffering for that matter – is, when it gets difficult, gaze at the cross,” she said, noting that Jesus remained in the desert for 40 days not for his benefit but for ours.

“You gave up sweets, your beer, your juicy burger,” she said, “but (Jesus) gave his life so we could live with him forever in heaven. Gaze at the cross and really gain strength in prayer through being with him in silence.”

Roxane B. Salonen is a freelance writer who lives in Fargo with her husband and five children. If you have a story of faith to share with her, email roxanebsalonen@gmail.com.