Some Thoughts on Lent

Although I don’t come from a Catholic or Orthodox background, after years of watching my mom faithfully practice Lent, I started to as well.  I have come to appreciate how much more joyful Easter becomes when practiced with intention, and also with fasting.

Usually I give up sugar, but this year, while the thought was still in my head, I felt the nudging of the Holy Spirit that Facebook should go too. And online shopping…

I pushed hard back, because I’m nursing a baby and taking care of a 3-year-old, and there’s only so much Paw Patrol a girl can take. (Where does this weird child-billionaire get all of this money to build cars for his dogs??) My phone was my saviour! (And as I type that, I see the problem…)

But that quiet push was still there, and I knew I had to do it. Here’s what I learned:

Sugar:

This was a hard break up. (Don’t think I am on a high horse… lots of lax rules about things like ketchup and sauce were used.) I keenly realized that I have an emotional attachment to sugar, especially late at night. When I was working, I craved it while I was up late writing reports, because I felt sorry for myself. Basically, salving one unhealthy habit with another, and not dealing with the root of the problem: unsustainable work habits!

I also became aware that what they say about sugar is true: once you have some, the ‘instant fix’ in your dopamine receptors makes you want more. I was feeling out of control, and waiting for a reason to stop.

Interestingly, I didn’t find it that hard to quit sugar when I had a faith-based reason in place, but couldn’t find any worthwhile reason to quit earlier.

And then at the end of Lent, came this shocking analogy of sin: For the past 46 days, we had a box of Pot of Gold chocolates in the house. I hid them in the cupboard on Ash Wednesday, but my husband kept taking them out and leaving them on the counter. Not nearly as addicted to sugar as myself, this box kept appearing all through Lent (I would have finished it in 3 days tops, if it was up to me!) On Easter morning I told him that I was going to break my fast and have one with my coffee. I was excited! He told me they were ‘gross.’ I took a bite and discovered he was right… they tasted cheap and musty. I thought about throwing the other half out and how empowering that would be, but dang it, I had EARNED this chocolate, and looked forward to it for so long! I ate the other half. It was still gross. I was disappointed and wished I’d waited for something of truly great quality.

Isn’t that just like sin? We want it, and want it and want it, and think it will satisfy, and then we taste it, want to spit it out, but can’t? We are left with disappointment and regret.

Online Shopping:

Somehow, all of my email accounts had filled up with marketing emails. (I say “somehow” but it’s because I signed up for all of them to get subscriber discounts…) I’d like to say that I wasn’t swayed to visit the sites, but I am a chronic buyer (and returner) of clothes. (I seriously can’t believe Old Navy hasn’t blacklisted me yet, because I must make their free return policy not worthwhile.) But the commercial ‘noise’ in my inbox, was becoming overwhelming. I spent Ash Wednesday clicking ‘unsubscribe’ each time a new email came in.

Surprisingly, online shopping was what I missed the least. And importantly, I learned that those feelings of want, and need, and having new things was actually really easy to shut off. I just had to turn away from the noise. The clamour of commercialism was still there when I returned. I had missed nothing. Contrary to what the emails would have me believe, there were still sales! Literally every weekend!

Facebook:

You, my social media friend, are what I missed the most. But as with the email marketing, the noise, noise, noise, had been really getting to me. I felt like so many people’s opinions were always shouting at me, and that opinions tended to be highly polarized and reactionary. Not only did removing myself turn down the noise, it left a lot of space (often uncomfortable space) to think, pray, read and journal. But lest you think I did a great job of that, I also learned that I will do almost anything, (including watch Paw Patrol) before earnestly praying and journaling.

Referring to the passage in Mark 1, where Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness, Ronald Rolheiser writes:

“For us, Satan and wild animals refer particularly to the chaos inside of us that normally we either deny or simply refuse to face: our paranoia, our anger, our jealousies, our distance from others, our fantasies, our grandiosity, our addictions, our unresolved hurts, our sexual complexity, our incapacity to really pray, our faith doubts, and our dark secrets.

The normal “food” that we eat (distractions, busyness, entertainment, ordinary life) works to shield us from the deeper chaos that lurks beneath the surface of our lives.

Lent invites us to stop eating, so to speak, whatever protects us from having to face the desert that is inside of us. In invites us to feel our smallness, to feel our vulnerability, to feel our fears, and to be open ourselves to the chaos of the desert so that we can finally give the angels a chance to feed us.” (God for Us, xiii)”

This has been the most productive Lent I’ve ever had, in terms of spiritual fulfillment. I’m not really sure what has brought about the change, but the thought sticks with me that perhaps Lent (and the pursuit of God in general) gets better with practice.  I’ve tried Lent a bunch of different ways over the years. Earlier on, I found that while I could stick to giving something up, the practice lost its meaning as the weeks went by, and I didn’t gain any of the spiritual closeness I was desiring. In reaction to this, I tried my own version of a Lent of ‘addition’, where I would commit to praying and reading my Bible every day and try not to break the habit for 40 days. Regardless of how you try Lent, or any sort of spiritual fasting, I would encourage you to just try it and stick with it. There are many examples of fasting throughout the Bible (Matthew 4, Luke 2:37, Acts 13:2 are just a few), and if even Jesus felt the need to fast, then we will also benefit from following his example.

Ultimately, I think what I’ve learned (so far!) about fasting with purpose is this:

  1. Pray beforehand, and be open about the ‘plan’ (ex. what you are fasting from, length of time, purpose, etc.) Listen for direction from the Holy Spirit.
  2. Pick a reading guide to help you along the way. (I found it motivating to have a book to finish, and could see the progress of Lent along the way.)
  3. Do a bit of writing in a journal to help you really solidify and internalize what you’re learning/hearing along the way. (Otherwise you’ll forget!)

Most importantly, eagerly wait on what the Lord will reveal to you, and expect that He will meet you in a personal and profound way! Jeremiah 29:12-14 promises:

Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore you…”

Call, pray, seek with your whole heart. God is waiting to restore you!

“God Remembers”

“God remembers”

Two months ago, we welcomed a baby boy into our family! We named him “Zachary”, which means “God remembers” or, “the Lord has remembered.” As I recovered in the hospital, and got to spend the first minutes and hours with this peaceful, little guy, all the ways in which God had remembered me in the last couple of months started rolling over me. Memories and half-forgotten prayers came over me in waves, and I realized just how much truth was held in that name.

  • Often, we don’t pray specifically to our situation because we can’t imagine that there’s a solution that God could provide.

My final month of work was extremely stressful. I wanted to finish off well, tie up all loose ends, and have a strong plan to transition to maternity leave. Of course, none of that happened. The new hire started late, and then texted me to say she’d quit on her last day of training. We received 3-day’s-notice about a massive transition of services that would impact my very last week of work. A huge wait-list of kids needing care within 10 days was released. Instead of winding down into mat leave, I was drowning. I panicked. I forgot to pray. I freaked out. Does this sound familiar?  I didn’t really pray about it, because I felt that this 10-day deadline was immoveable. Instead I prayed that God would help me make it through. That He would help me manage my stress. I didn’t think to pray about the source of the stress directly. You know what happened? When I finally started praying, suddenly a text came from my supervisor. The deadline had been extended by a month. She wanted me to be the first to know, because she knew how stressed I was.

            Friend, this NEVER happens. But it did. God remembers, and has solutions that we cannot even fathom. Furthermore, He remembers us, and answers prayers in practical ways.

  • We forget to pray about the little things, but the little things make up our days and eventually our lives.

Zachary was born two weeks early. Even though this was our second child, the first time around I had been induced, and was worried that I wouldn’t know when to go to the hospital. This time I remembered a little bit earlier to pray, and asked God for “wisdom and a clear sign” that it was time. On January 3rd, I left the house for a doctor’s appointment, and the doctor sent me right to the hospital. How clear of a sign is that? I had to drive myself, and was anxious (yet again!) about parking the car. I tentatively prayed for a parking spot… and drove right through the gate to find one waiting right ahead. (I even successfully backed into it… probably prayed not to hit anything too!)

            Sometimes we are afraid to pray for the little things, because they seem trivial. Why would God care? Because He cares about YOU. Psalm 139: 2 – 6 says:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is high; I cannot attain it.

He is already ‘acquainted with all your ways’: your idiosyncrasies, your thoughts, your fears, your small stresses. He’s already thinking about what you need to get through the day. He is always remembering YOU.

  • God means for us to live in “perfect peace.”

I can’t really pinpoint the place in my life where I started living in a heightened state of anxiety, but undoubtedly as rowing engulfed more and more of my life, and the stakes got higher and higher, I had more difficulty managing stress, and became so desensitized to it that I thought it was just a normal part of pursuing the ‘best’ life. It was not until I retired from rowing, and found myself still battling worry and anxious thoughts, that I realized this wasn’t just part of sport – it had become a part of ME.

            When Jesus was preparing for His own crucifixion, He tells his closest friends that he is leaving them with peace. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27, ESV)

            Worry is just a way of hanging onto control, and control is just an illusion. Isaiah 26:3 says:

“You will keep him in perfect peace,
Whose mind is stayed on You,
Because he trusts in You.”

We will never find peace until we are able to let go and give things over to God. It sounds so easy, but my experience has been that it’s a daily necessity. I have to give things back, because I keep picking them up! He will remember you, and will keep you in perfect peace, when your mind is focussed on Him.

Running the Race

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

~ Hebrews 12:1-2

Sarah and VictoriaThis weekend I ran my third half-marathon, but my first since baby Zoë has been in the picture. It took me a long time to commit to doing this race this time around. When I started running again, it was barely what my friend, Heather, dubbed “wogging” – somewhere between walking and jogging. I would only be able to “wog” for about 2 minutes and then I would walk for 2, or 3… or 4 minutes. In the early stages I wouldn’t even write it down. Gradually my body began to recover, and I pushed the ratios down until I was mostly running and only occasionally walking. But by the time we got to race day, I still hadn’t run for more than 5 kms without taking a little walking break.

In long-distance running, the training plan typically takes you to within five kilometers of your actual race distance. I found myself extra nervous about racing the half marathon because even with my little walk breaks, I hadn’t yet come close to running the race distance. Would my body hold out?

 

Oars

 

That’s a lot like life, isn’t it? The author of the book of Hebrews exhorts us to “…run with endurance the race that is set before us”. Life certainly is a marathon, not a sprint. We definitely don’t have the privilege of knowing what it will be like to run the whole distance ahead of time! Every definition of ‘endurance’ that I looked up mentioned the capacity to withstand pain, unpleasant things, difficulty or hardship “without giving way.” It doesn’t mean to simply let life take its own course and push us off ours.

The next key element in Hebrews 1:1-2 is that we keep “looking to Jesus”. Indeed, Jesus is the finish line. Right after the famous “Golden Rule” is articulated in the Book of Matthew, Jesus says, “…the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:14) Not only does this race require endurance, it requires a map and a compass because the racecourse itself is hard to find!   By His grace, we have been given both of these things: the Bible and the Holy Spirit to help us keep on track.

Lastly, Jesus is described as the “perfecter of our faith”. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I can get pretty disgruntled that the race seems to be so long and hard. Sometimes it really bugs me that the course isn’t obvious, and I resent the obstacles that are in my way. I long to see the finish line, yet fear how close I might be to it at the same time. But notice especially that we are not the perfecters of our own faith, Jesus is. Our job is to run and to run with endurance… His job is to perfect. AMEN!

We do have one other responsibility, however, and that is to “set aside every weight, and sin which clings closely”. Again, this is a perfect racing analogy. In an effort to be as fast as possible, all racers across many sports will remove any extra clothing and jewelry, and if they use equipment, will make sure that equipment is as legally light as possible.   Are you as light as possible in your spiritual life? Or are you running the race with all of your baggage that you can’t let go of?

Fortunately for us, “…the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)

I urge you to free up your arms and feet for this race, and set aside anything that is slowing you down. There is freedom to be found in the Lord, and as this freedom is found we are being transformed!

PS- My friend and I finished the race. We didn’t even walk once, and we shaved 3 minutes off our personal best times from 2013!

There Was Also Rugby

When I share the part of my story about how I came into the sport of rowing, I often say that I chose rowing because “it was the only varsity sport that had a novice team.” (Meaning, you could join without having any previous experience.) Well… watching the Olympics this week reminded me that that’s not quite the whole story. It wasn’t the only varsity sport you could join without any experience.

There was also rugby.

canada-faces-britain-in-bronze-medal-match-in-women-s-rugby-sevens-event-article-image-0I actually spent some time debating with my new friends which team I should try out for. Some of them even tried to convince me I’d be good at rugby. Can you imagine how different my life would have been? I am so NOT a rugby player. But even then, the rough-and-tumble side of the sport held a certain appeal, as I (briefly) fantasized about me crashing into other girls and letting my alter-ego take the field. Or pitch. Or whatever it’s called. I can only imagine this adventure ending with a broken nose, or worse, some broken teeth (which my mom always reminds me, cost $6,000.) And then that probably would have been it.

Watching our Canadian women’s rugby sevens team compete really drilled that home. What an incredible group of hard-hitting girls!

 

Oars

 

At the same time I was watching rugby sevens make its debut at the 2016 Olympics, I was also reading the book of Jeremiah. I inevitably was reminded of the oft-quoted verse, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare [other translations say ‘good’ or ‘peace’] and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jer. 29.11, ESV)

It struck me that God is planning our lives out and orchestrating all of our options for us everyday. I’m sure we only realize it a small fraction of the times that He masterfully guides our paths – like steering me away from the rugby team and to rowing.

I also remember an experience I had in 2008, at a conference put on by the Canadian Olympic Committee to help us all get to know each other and mentally prepare before heading off to China. I was headed down to the gym with some teammates, and Kyle Shewfelt, already an Olympic gold medalist from the 2004 Olympics, looked at me clutching my weights program. He asked, “Do you have a coach that plans all that for you? Man, I wish I had something like that!” I couldn’t believe it.

Well, God is that type of coach. He is your strength coach, but also your sports psychologist and your nutritionist (He feeds the sparrows, so He can feed you! [Matt. 6.26]) He has planned all of the details of your life. He knows when things are going to go well, and when you are going to face hurdles.

But you know what? He is also your equipment specialist. He has given you all of the things you need to succeed – and He cares that you have a hope and a future.

If you’re having trouble finding your equipment – if your quiver feels like it’s running out of arrows, or you’re fading in the final leg of your race, take a look at the following verses: “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jer. 29.12-13, ESV)

If you’re an athlete, you probably already know what it’s like to train with all of your heart, soul and mind. What if we sought God that way too?

The Story Behind the Book

2016will mark the first summer Olympics that I will not be training for another chance at Olympic gold. I am sitting on my couch at home, with my 3-month-old daughter, Zoë, asleep in my arms. The Olympics are coming, and my Facebook news feed is filling up with notices of competitions and updates from all my friends who are still competing. I’m starting to dream about rowing, about competing. I fantasize about making a come back, maybe in a different sport this time, and do the math about my age and the likelihood of that happening.

Sometimes I feel like I will never, ever get over it, and I just want to be free from those thoughts and from my own experiences. Yet God has used this all tremendously in my life, and as I sit on this couch, suddenly His voice cuts through my spinning thoughts, and I hear Him louder than I have in a long time.

“Are you willing to stop striving? You are already everything I want you to be. I created you! I knit you together in your mother’s womb! I didn’t make any mistakes. I CAN’T make any mistakes. I am Yahweh! Do you believe that, Sarah?”

He’s telling me that He’s not finished using me – using this life yet. He is telling me to write it down and to have it ready for the 2016 Olympic Games.

It is May 12th, 2016. This seems like a harsh deadline, considering He just said, “Stop striving…”

Oars

So now that you have this e-book in your hands, you can see that I listened to the call. But more importantly, God listened to mine, when I prayed, “If you want me to do this, are you going to make the baby sleep? Are you going to give me the time? Are you going to help me find a way to get this into the hands of athletes?”

And the whole time, He said, “Yes, yes, yes. Stop striving. Just answer the call.”

God totally blessed me as I worked through the process, and I really enjoyed it. Many of the chapters are adapted from articles I wrote for the Women Alive website while I was still competing with the National Team.  Many of the sports introductions come directly from my training journals. Putting everything together really helped me to work through and put into words everything that God has done in my life through sport.  It’s been an amazing process!

thumbnail_image1And yes… most of the writing happened like this:  With Zoe in the Jolly Jumper, or asleep on my lap, or doing her baby push-ups on the floor (she is determined to crawl, but isn’t quite there yet!)  So I have to thank her for her patience.

That being said, she is getting pretty antsy in the Jolly Jumper right now, so it’s time for us to move onto the day’s adventures.

I really hope you enjoy the book, but more importantly, that God really speaks to you through it.  Once you’re done, I would love for you to let me know what you thought through the comments section of the website.

Have a great day, and if you can’t watch it live, be sure to PVR the Opening Ceremonies tonight!