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Mark Bennett Opinion

March 13, 2011

MARK BENNETT: I'm giving up (your voice here) for Lent

Facebook seems to be a popular sacrifice for society this year

TERRE HAUTE — Sometimes, comedy packs a subtle lesson.

On a “Saturday Night Live” episode in late 1979, veteran cast member Al Franken (now a U.S. senator) bid “good riddance” to the 1970s, also known as the “Me Decade.” Tongue in cheek, Franken predicted a cultural tsunami during the next 10 years.

“Oh, sure, some people did some positive things in the ’70s, like jogging, but always for the wrong reasons — for their own selfish, personal benefit. Well, I believe the ’80s are going to have to be different. I think people are going to stop thinking about themselves and start thinking about me, Al Franken.” Later, he acknowledged, “Oh, for me, Al Franken, the ’80s will be pretty much the same as the ’70s; I’ll still be thinking of me, Al Franken. But for you, you’ll be thinking more about how things affect me, Al Franken.” The ’80s, he declared, would be the “Al Franken Decade.”

The message: Unselfishness sounds like a great idea, as long as it benefits me.

Last week, the season of Lent began for 2 billion Christians worldwide. The purpose of Lent, according to ChurchYear.net, is to be a season of fasting, self-denial, Christian growth, penitence, conversion, introspection and simplicity. The period recalls the 40 days Christ spent fasting in the desert, resisting temptation.

The traditional fasting through Lent begins on Ash Wednesday — when Christians are reminded of their earthly mortality — and continues for 40 days (excluding Sundays) through Holy Week, culminating with the celebration of the resurrection on Easter, which falls on April 24 this year.

Some liken Lent to a spiritual spring cleaning. Through prayer, fasts and acts of generosity, the “me” takes a back seat. That’s not a simple achievement in the 21st century. The “Me Decade” never really ended. Just as in Al Franken’s spoof, we humans simply put a new face on each decade — our own.

One common practice is to give something up for Lent. Typical choices are chocolate, caffeine drinks, alcoholic beverages or other cravings or activities we could do without. This year, a popular sacrifice seems to be Facebook. Across the globe, 500 million people use that social network. Half of them, according to Facebook, log on daily. The world spends an average of 700 billion minutes a month on Facebook. For 200 million earthlings, Facebook rarely leaves their personal space, because their mobile phones are connected to it.

Less than eight years ago, there was no Facebook. Where did all those minutes go?

Forty days without Facebook probably qualifies as a form of self-denial in the same way as foregoing chocolate or beer. And, certainly, those lost minutes — if redirected toward family and the community’s needy — could change lives for the better. But what if sacrifices made in this season happened silently, without any announcement that “I’m giving up [fill in the blank] for Lent”?

The Rev. Philip Meyer, longtime pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Terre Haute, explained that Lent “should cause you to look at your life, not just in a narrow relationship between you and God, but especially in light of your relationship to God through your neighbor.” Giving up, for Lent, sweets, cake or favorite activities may be a noble gesture, but as Meyer wrote, “Most of these seem rather self-centered and self-serving. It’s still about ‘me,’ isn’t it? If there is an idea of sacrifice, it should be on behalf of your neighbor. If you are going to give up something for Lent, give it up so that your neighbor might benefit.”

Now in his 38th year at the church at 645 Poplar St., Meyer said last week that quiet, anonymous acts of giving represent a “part of Lent that nobody sees. That would be ideal.” One example might involve a contribution to feed orphans in a foreign country, “whether or not anybody here in Terre Haute knows anything about it,” Meyer added. Another might be something as simple as a father getting up in the middle of the night to change a crying baby’s diaper so his weary wife can continue sleeping. “Nobody will ever know you did it,” the pastor said, “but that is good work.”

It’s difficult to sincerely try to end our own, personal “Me Decade.” Even in this season, acts of self-denial could still be me-motivated; a sweets-free diet, for example, could be more about a slimmer body than curtailing selfish desires. An act of giving could be more about getting praise. Instead, imagine no pats on the back, no brownie points, no “likes” on Facebook, just subtle changes for the better, not only within us, but especially outside of us. What if each of us answered a need for a spouse, son, daughter, parent or sibling without saying a word in advance, or telling them afterward?

Lent puts “me” to that test.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@ tribstar.com.

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