Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Simon Says, Part 2

Philippians 3:17-4:1: Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. 18For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. 19Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. 20But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. 21He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

4:1Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

I think it would be helpful to our understanding of the passage to have some background information.  Paul is writing this letter from prison – persecuted by non-Christian authorities.  The church at Philippi faced some of these same struggles.  He is writing to a church that is tempted at times to follow heretical teachings.  They struggle against those who would have them believe that in order to be Christian, they must first follow all Jewish laws.  Perhaps they are tempted to believe the Gnostics, who tell them that they can do anything they want – they can be free from moral restraint, because the world of the flesh doesn’t matter.  On top of all of this, Philippi was the urban center of a Roman colony and was located on a major east-west road linking Rome with the East.  So Paul is writing to them from prison, urging them to not be swayed by the culture around them or those who would lead them astray, but instead to imitate him.

I think we live in a world that is very much like the world the Philippians lived in – except ours is even bigger.   While Philippi was on a road connecting Rome to the east, we live, metaphorically, on a road that connects every part of the globe to where we stand.  We could leave today and be in Rome tomorrow.  We can turn on the TV and see any part of the world in seconds.  We live in a global culture, and we are impacted and seduced by that culture in ways too numerous to count.  The culture tempts us to value ourselves above anyone else.  Me, mine.  We are taught that might makes right, that success is defined by our accomplishments and possessions and that whatever we can get away with is our best option.   The culture lifts up heroes for us to emulate, but those heroes have reached that status because they have been successful as the culture defines it – through accomplishments in the sports arena or through the accumulation of wealth or star-power.

We are tempted to live a life of self-centered interest, where our own lives become the entire focus of our attention.  A life where our needs and even our wants are translated into rights.   When we follow the ways of the culture, we place ourselves at the center of our lives.  That kind of self-centeredness leads to lifelessness.  Martin Luther said, “Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.”  Is that the kind of life we want to lead?  A life where we are trapped by our own fears and insecurities, left lifeless in our pursuit of what the culture tells us to value?

Paul stands in prison and says, “Join in imitating me.”

When Paul uses the word imitate, he isn’t talking about duplication.  He isn’t claiming to be a hero we should follow.  He’s not even suggesting that he is the ultimate Christian.  One commentary I read said the word imitate, in this context, means “an incarnation of a living example.”  In other words, Paul is seeking to imitate Christ, and he is inviting the Philippians to do the same – imitate Christ.  Paul is urging his readers to pick up their crosses, as Christ did, and as he is doing, and follow.

Cruciform living – following Christ – is countercultural.  It means emptying ourselves, instead of living only for ourselves.  It means success is defined as servanthood and our greatest need becomes offering love to the world. 


Monday, April 29, 2013

Simon Says, Part 1

The following three posts are from a sermon in early March:

Philippians 3:17-4:1: Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. 18For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. 19Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. 20But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. 21He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

4:1Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

I don’t want to start my time with you today by embarrassing you, but how many of you remember the game of Simon Says?  Can you raise your hands?

And would know you know what I meant if I said you were “out” because I didn’t say “Simon says, raise your hands?”

Do you remember playing that game as a child?  I remember playing it on the playground during recess or on rainy days, in the audicafenasium – you know that room?  The one that is the cafeteria at lunch, the gymnasium during physical education and the auditorium for the Christmas play?  We would all stand in lines while the leader would have us do silly movements – like jump on one foot, or raise both arms.  If the leader preceded the command with “Simon Says”, you followed the instructions.  If not, then you were to ignore the instructions.  If you followed the leader without the Simon Says command, then you were “out.”  And I remember the leader would try to trick us, with phrases like, “OK, you can put your arm down now.”  And we would fall for the trick.  Why was it so hard to win the game?  It seemed simple enough, but it didn’t take long for there to only be two or three really excellent players left, while the rest of us sat on the sidelines.  We had gotten tired of listening, or distracted by something else, or maybe we had fallen for the sneaky leader’s tricks, but we were out, in no time flat.

As I read the epistle lesson from this week’s lectionary, the game Simon Says came to mind.  Paul is telling the Christians of Phillipi who they should follow.  He says, “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.” 

As I read it, I wondered how a church of today would react if the pastor stood in the pulpit and said, “Follow me.  Do what I do.”  What would we think?  We would go to lunch after worship and talk among our friends about the pastor’s arrogance?  Who is he to hold himself up as someone we should follow?  Who does he think he is?  Is that the reaction we have to Paul’s statement to the Philippians?


Thursday, April 25, 2013

Lecture 5: Isaac

Lecture 5: Isaac
What moral judgment should be made concerning Abraham?  Concerning God?

On the surface, the story seems to call for us to judge Abraham as good, for his obedience.  C.S. Lewis says, in his book Mere Christianity, that we all have an internal capacity to judge right from wrong – he sees it as evidence of our creation by God.  We know that child sacrifice – child murder – even as commanded by a god, is wrong.  We cringe at this story, because we judge God as wrong for his demand of the sacrifice and Abraham as wrong in his obedience.  We hesitate to say it, because God is God, and we are not, and yet our moral compass comes from God, and this passage makes that compass spin.  How do we come to terms with the Akedah?

Sacrifice was as common in antiquity as television is today.  Why did it become less common, and is it something that has replaced or should be revived?

I have no desire to go back to sacrifice as outlined in the Old Testament, and I don’t think God has called us to do that.  Jesus was the ultimate, never-needs-to-be-repeated sacrifice.  Our idea of offering as worship could be strengthened, and we would benefit from it.

Why might Judaism have chosen this passage as the New Year (Rosh ha-Shanah) reading?

The main themes of the Prayer Service for Rosh ha-Shanah are repentance by man and judgment by God.  Sacrifice, in the Old Testament, was often about repentance – could this story be a repentance / sacrifice story?  Does God “staying the hand of Abraham” translate into an image of mercy?

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Lecture 3: Murder, Flood and Dispersion

Lecture 3: Murder, Flood and Dispersion

What are today’s equivalents for “sacrifice” – a practice in antiquity as common as we find watching television?
My first thought is that today’s “sacrifice” is offering – bringing gifts to God as an act of worship.  I would add to that the practice of sacrifice during Lent – giving up something in order to grow closer to God.  Could that be extended to practices such as fasting?   Could “sacrifice” be defined as an outward ritual to indicate an inward devotion?  Then perhaps communion could be used as an example – a ritual remembering of Christ’s sacrifice and an outward movement of devotion to indicate a internal communion with God.
 Is Noah a hero?  Is his story comforting or threatening?  Why would ancient Israel so describe its flood story’s protagonist and its God?
Heroes in the Bible are rarely perfect.  Noah is considered a hero – someone God calls to move forward the work of God’s kingdom.  The story is really not comforting.  It is a story of a society so separated from God in sin that God decides to destroy it.  He saves one person and his family – maybe only so that Noah can provide care for the rest of creation?  I hope that is not the case.  We do receive a promise that God will not destroy creation with a flood again, but it’s a promise with a rider – only by flood.  And there is nothing in the story that says God’s creatures, humans, have improved any.  God doesn’t stay his hand of flood destruction because we have done better, only because he has promised not to respond to sin in the same way again. 
Ancient Israel would have nothing to tell if it avoided telling about non-perfect people.  I think the story portrays the society’s (far from perfect) understanding of God and its real understanding of sin.
Why does Israel detail, at the beginning of its sacred history, God’s disappointments and humanity’s continual failures?
The answer to this one is much the same as the answer to the last question.  What would the stories be about if not humanity’s continual failures.  We continually fail.  Anything else would be disingenuous.  We continually disappoint God.  We need stories to demonstrate to us God’s response to our failure, because that is where we are.  And that’s why this story isn’t very comforting.  We don’t like this response.

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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Lecture 2: Adam and Eve

Lecture 2: Adam and Eve

This story of Eden is never mentioned again in the Old Testament/Tanakh (its next canonical appearances are the Old Testament Apocrypha / Deuterocanonical writings).  How then, if at all, does the story affect interpretations of later texts (e.g., the man speaks of leaving home to cleave to his wife; do most male characters do this)?
I think first and foremost, the story of Eden provides a basis for us to understand who we are.  We are created by God in God’s image.  I think that would certainly affect the interpretations of later texts.  For example, Psalm 139 – “he knit us together” – created by God.  Job has many references to the idea of God as the one who set the world in motion.  The Adam and Eve story create a reference for the rest of scripture that God expects obedience, and there are (perhaps even self-inflicted) consequences of disobedience.  The Adam and Eve story sets up the idea that we have been expelled from paradise and we cannot return.  It establishes the idea that we have the freedom to choose.  And the expulsion story sets up the idea of family – a unit working together.
 How closely do later retellings (Milton’s Paradise Lost, the film The Bible, popular cultural renditions) adhere to the text?
We have a tendency in the retelling of any biblical story to homogenize the story – for example, the first chapter of Genesis combined with the second chapter into one homogeneous story.  We also have a tendency to stamp the story with our own cultural interpretation.  We have an impression that Eve tempted Adam to eat the fruit, when he was standing right there as the snake tempted her.  
 Is Eden a desirable place?  A return to childhood?  A prison?
I would think that for it to be considered a prison, the occupants would have to lack free will – no ability to make their own choices – and they would desire to leave.  Neither one of those are true.  In some ways, one could consider it a place of child-like life and faith.  Before the fall, the occupants were innocent and were in close relationship to God (as one would be with a parent).  I imagine they found it to be a desirable place, and were sorry to be made to leave.  Do I think heaven is like Eden?  No, not really.  We don’t have the innocence that Adam and Eve shared – even in our salvation, we are not like them in that way.  We are called to a more child-like faith in God, and the day to day walk with God is a frightening but desirable relationship.

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Friday, April 19, 2013

Biblical Literacy

I'm working my way through one of the classes from The Great Courses, an online business where one can purchase courses recorded by well known professors throughout the country.  I'm listening to The Old Testament, taught by Amy-Jill Levine, a professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. 

After each lecture, I'm trying to have the discipline to read and answer the questions from the study guide.  This one is from the first lecture.  I thought it might make an interesting blog post.

Cultural critics have claimed that biblical literacy is on the decline among today’s youth.  Is the text as important, culturally or religiously, today as it has been in the past?

Important is a subjective word, and I think the question can be answered two ways.  First, do I believe that the text is deemed to be important to today’s youth?  To some of them, yes.  The decline in biblical literacy could perhaps be attributed more as a failure of an older generation to teach the text than the younger generation to value it.  Blaming young people for biblical illiteracy would be like blaming the kindergartner who can’t read;  has he been taught the value of reading?  Has he been taught to read?

Secondly, is the text important to the youth of today’s society?  Yes.  God speaks through the text – to those who lived 500 years ago, to those who lived 100 years ago, and to those who live today.  My faith tells me that it is a means by which God makes himself known, so it has immeasurable value to all of us.

So, if youth are biblically illiterate and may not value the text, and we believe it is of high value to them because it reveals God, then woe to us for not teaching the faith to the next generation.

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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Sun and Moon

Have you noticed that in Genesis 1, God creates heaven, earth, light, darkness, the sky, the separation of the water from the earth, and vegetation -- and THEN he created the sun and the moon.  On the Fourth Day?

Remove yourself from our world.  Forget that we have launched rockets into the sky and watch men walk on the surface of the moon.  Ignore that we know how the sun works, what causes an eclipse and why the moon waxes and wanes.  Forget about telescopes and radio observatories.  Just imagine what the moon and the sun seemed like in the far, far past.  Wouldn't they have been mysteries?  Who could blame the Babylonians (and others) for calling them gods?

And here are the Jews, claiming that there is only one God -- and that God created the sun and moon.  It was a radical thought that I don't think we appreciate very much.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

In the Image

Have you noticed, as you read the Old Testament, the propensity for people to try to be like God?
  • In the Garden of Eden, the snake tells Adam and Eve that God doesn't want them to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, because then they "will be like God."  They eat the fruit anyway.
  • Right after the Flood, humans build the tower of Babel, "with its top in the heavens." 
  • In Job, God says to him, "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth..."  In other words, are you God, or am I God?
I could list other examples, but these struck me today.  I think we often try to be God, or try to take the role of God.

So, one day God sent his son, in the form of a man, to show us the error of our ways (as one purpose, anyway).  I wonder if part of our problem is that our image of God isn't right.  We try to be who we think God is; instead, God says, "This is who I am.  Be like this."

Be like Jesus if you wish to be like God.

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Tuesday, April 16, 2013


Fred Rogers often told this story about when he was a boy and would see scary things on the news: "My mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' to this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother's words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers-so many caring people in this world."

Look for the helpers.

Did you see the helpers on the news yesterday?   Did you notice the first responders who ran toward the blast?   Did you hear about the people of Boston who opened their homes to stranded runners, brought hot meals, and gave rides to the airport?   Did you see the helpers?  

Too often I hear people wondering why God lets bad things happen.   We blame God for tragedy when the fault lies with the person or persons who murdered three people yesterday and injured so many more.   God is in the midst of tragedy.   God motivates helpers to move into action.

Look for the helpers, for there you will see grace.

In the very beginning, God realized that we needed helpers, so God created Eve. God is even characterized by the same word as Eve -- helper -- in the scripture (lest you think it is a subordinate role).

Look for the helpers, for there you will see God.


Friday, April 12, 2013


Yesterday I was reading Exodus 16.  In this passage, the Israelites, traveling through the wilderness, are fed by God by collecting manna.  They were told to only collect what they could eat in that one day.  When they collected too much, the leftovers, on the next day, would be spoiled by worms.  On the day before the Sabbath, they were told to collect enough for two days so that they could rest on the seventh day.

My study Bible says that manna is a pun.  When the Israelites say it, they said, "What is it?" -- Man (What) hu (is it)?  Man hu  This can also be translated as It is manna -- and thus it became the name of the food.

How often do we look at God's providence - God's manna -- and say, "What is it?"  I think there are times we don't even recognize it.  I would propose another level to the pun -- Man says huh?

Manna was to teach the Israelites to rely on God -- God was providing what they needed.  God would provide manna -- everything they needed -- every day.  They didn't have to worry about tomorrow.  God would provide for today and for tomorrow.  Don't collect extra.  Don't worry about tomorrow.

And when God says, "rest" on the Sabbath, he provides to them on that day as well.  To rest on the Sabbath is another way to trust God.  It is a way to give up control for a day and do nothing. 

God will provide.  Manna will come.  Let us not say "Huh?" but instead, trust and obey.

(The image is of a bluebird in our backyard sitting next to our backyard bluebird.  The real bird sat there for a very long time.  I think they became friends.)

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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Fences and Walls

Go read this news story.
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli police on Thursday detained five women at a Jerusalem holy site for performing religious rituals there that ultra-Orthodox Jews say are reserved for men.
I thought the above image was striking. The woman is reaching across the fence, trying to touch the container that holds the Torah. She can't get to it because only men are allowed on the other side of the fence. (Note that this is not an image of the women who were arrested and is not the act for which they were arrested.  It is an image that accompanies the story -- one of several that show how women are excluded from particular areas on the site of the Temple.)

The image is striking. The problem is prevelent, and certainly isn't isolated to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem or to the Jewish faith.    Do you think it doesn't happen here?

What about the church in our Annual Conference where attendees stopped coming because a woman was appointed as pastor?

What about the leader of an Emmaus walk who said that she would only be comfortable serving with a male spiritual director?

What about the committee at the church that was organized to raise funds for a capital improvement project but included only men?

What about the steering committee organized with only women members to plan a new ministry for children?

What about the United Methodist Men's group that also serves as the Endowment Committee?

What about all the ushers being male while all the teachers of non-adult classes are all female?

What about the family that keeps changing church membership to avoid having a woman serve as the pastor of their church?

We don't have fences like the one in the picture, but we do have walls.  They are walls built by men and women -- not by God.

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Monday, April 08, 2013

Not in the Driver's Seat

The other day I was driving toward to meet the carpool.  My route takes me to an intersection where there is usually a line of cars, waiting to turn either right or left onto the main road. It's slow going, but eventually, everyone gets to go where he or she is going. 

On this particular day, a person was driving on the main road and wanted to turn right onto our side road.  She should have just turned -- she had the right of way.  Instead she stopped her car and waved on the person who was in front of me, wanting to turn left, and then she gestured for me to go ahead and turn right.  Neither one of us would have prevented her from turning onto the side road -- I wondered (and still wonder) why she felt the need to stop and take control of the traffic. 

Do we do that?  Do we needlessly try to take control of situations?  Do we find it very hard to release control?

When my younger son was learning to drive, it was necessary for either my husband or me to be in the car with him as he practiced.  We did pretty well, but every once and a while, J would scare us.  J asked, "Mom, you act nervous when I'm driving."

Well, yes.

No matter how well he was doing -- HE was driving, and not me.  I was out of the driver's seat -- not in control.  It's not a pleasant place to be.

Sometimes, I think, it is exactly where we are called to be.  What do you need to give up control of today?


Friday, April 05, 2013

Hit and Run

Image from Smoky Mountain National Park
I was watching NCIS the other day.  Gibbs was talking to Abby; she was concerned she wasn't "good enough."  Gibbs told her that she wasn't taking into account her "hit and runs" -- the good kind.

A hit and run is when you do something good for someone and you don't even know it.  The consequences of your good act are not evident to you, or perhaps even to the recipient at the time it happens -- a hit and run.

There are times when we are gifted to know the outcome of the work we do for God -- times when the "good" of it is evident to us.  There are other times when we don't see the good, and we may not even realize that we had followed God's will in doing what we did.

The truth is, I think, that we aren't actually called to "be good."  We're called to be the light of God.  Good happens because we shine, but the light isn't always for us to see. 

Shining involves trust.


Thursday, April 04, 2013

God of Power

Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians.  So the people feared the Lord ad believed in the Lord and his servant Moses.  Exodus 14:31

This verse in the 14th chapter of Exodus is right after God parts the Red Sea for the Israelites to pass and then destroys the Egyptian Army by closing the sea.  I imagine, as the Israelites watched as dead Egyptians washed ashore, they absolutely did see the work of the Lord, and they were afraid.

There is a word play in this verse that one only sees in the Hebrew.  The words "to see" (ra'ah) and "to fear" (yare) sound very similar.  To see and to fear, leading to belief....

Does it remind anyone of Thomas, who had to see in order to believe?

My study Bible mentions that part of what the Israelites witnessed was God's power not just over the Egyptians, but over nature. God is more powerful than the sea (or the frogs or the flies, etc.) God is more powerful than chaos.

The Israelites aren't the only ones who have witnessed the power of God.  Do we see God at work?  Does it move us to fear (reverence) and belief?  What do we do about it? Does belief change our actions?

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Wednesday, April 03, 2013



How many times in the Bible are we told to remember? 

I was reading Exodus 13 today, and I was struck by how necessary it was to God (is to God) that the Israelites remember God's action.  The feast of unleavened bread lasts for 7 days, and it was a teaching tool for adults to pass on the story to their children.

Communion, among its many purposes, is a tool of remembrance.  Eat, drink and remember me.

How well God knows us that he would institute tools of remembrance.  We are certainly prone to forget.

Remember that you are loved.  Remember that I am here.  Remember, and it will make a difference.

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Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Thoughts on Exodus 12

I'm reading my way through Exodus and read Exodus 12 this morning.  What I'm about to write about is nothing new, but it struck me today because we are so close to Good Friday.

It's interesting to read about the Passover observations in light of the Crucifixion.
  1. The lamb for passover shall be without blemish.
  2. Hyssop shall be dipped in the lamb's blood and used to mark the door for protection.
  3. No bones of the lamb shall be broken.
Christ was without blemish. Remember the hyssop, dipped in vinegar?  Remember after his death, when they broke the bones of the other two with him, but did not break Christ's bones?

As I said, it's nothing new, but just struck me this morning.

What kind of act of faith was it for people who had been slaves for 400 years to dress themselves for travel?  Do we have that kind of faith?

And then, a question that makes me uncomfortable -- what does the killing of the first born in Egypt reveal to us about the nature of God?

And then a bit of trivia from the study notes in my Bible -- the Israelites were in Egypt for 430 years. The first temple in Jerusalem stood for 430 years. 

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Monday, April 01, 2013

Lenten Evaluation

I have two more words to complete the Rethink Church lenten image a day exercise.  I'll get to them; maybe today.  But, today, back to regular posts.  I have enjoyed getting back to posting pictures -- I hope I can continue to do that.

A look back before moving forward....  What do you think about Lenten disciplines?  I've heard lots of opinions -- give something up, why bother to give something up, pick something up....  This past season of Lent, I tried to focus on a Lenten discipline that included both picking up and putting down.  I tried purposefully to make it complicated. 

What was my discipline during Lent?
  1. Continue to do daily devotional readings -- not just on weekdays, but on all days.  I got back to that practice during Advent, and have kept it going.  I wanted to keep it going.
  2. Use the Rethink church exercise to focus my mind on watching for God.  
  3. Put down soft drinks for the entire time of Lent. 
  4. Give up beef all days of Lent except Sunday.  I wanted to have a sacrificial practice that didn't apply to Sunday (which isn't really included in Lent) so that I could see if increased the Sunday celebration of resurrection that continues through Lent.
  5. Don't eat meat at all on Fridays.
This post is already getting long, so let's skip why I chose to focus on meat and abstinence from it.  It came from a vaguely Catholic idea in my head.

So what did I learn?  Did it all make any difference? 
  1. There are those who think giving something up, like soft drinks or meat, is silly.  Why focus on something like this that has no really meaning.  What I learned is that while my giving up soft drinks is giving up something meaningless, it did end up having meaning for me.  Giving up requires discipline.  It is a practice -- a rehearsal -- for giving up something that does matter.  It's stretching and building the control muscles for when they are really needed.
  2. Making it complicated meant that each day I had to remember what I was doing.  I had to remember why I was doing it.  The practice brought God to my mind each day.
  3. What do you do when you go to a spaghetti fundraiser on a Friday to raise money for homeless veterans and you're not eating meat on Fridays?   You eat meat.  Grace -- the giving of the meals to benefit those who have no homes -- always trumps anything else.  Grace wins. 
  4. It's harder to pick something up than to put something down.  Sounds counterintuitive, doesn't it?  Even though choosing what to give up was a long process, especially because my main question was, "How much will I miss that?  How inconvenient will that be?"
  5. Now, after having given up something for six weeks, it's easier to no pick it up now.  I can do without.
Happy Easter!