Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Thinking About Lent

Yep, I'm a Baptist. Southern Baptist. And yet for many years my family and I have participated in one of the oldest rituals of the Church. Lent. It's the 40 day period (excluding Sundays) that precedes Easter. The idea behind it is to shake us our of our routine and help us focus more clearly on the sacrifices that Jesus paid on our behalf - to the cross.

As I said, I'm a Baptist, so I come late to the whole idea. When I first encountered it, I was in Birmingham Alabama at a grocery store reset. It was a Wednesday, and at lunch a lot of the guys went out and came back with smudges on their foreheads. I was so dumb I tried to wipe one off of the guy I was working with, thinking he had gotten some dust or grime on his head. Cultural sensitivity, thy name is David Wilson. :)

He sort of explained that it was Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. I thought it was kind of weird, frankly, and very Catholic, which for a Baptist can be very off-putting. Later, I learned that lots of folks participate in Lent, not just Catholics. Years later I started investigating the Spiritual Disciplines and Lent kept coming up. At some point, Bunny and I talked about it and agreed that it might be helpful for our family to try it. We've been at it every year since.

Starting on Ash Wednesday, Lent is an opportunity for the follower of Christ to shake up their routine and examine their daily walk with Christ in light of what He gave. By choosing to forgo some things that are part of your normal life, to a limited extent we share in His sufferings. And for those of us who haven't mastered the "deny yourself, take up the cross daily" part - especially the daily segment of that command, at least for a short period of time we can turn the heat up on our discipleship pursuit. Why? C.S. Lewis comments:

No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting it, not by giving in. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later.
That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it.
(C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p 13)
Denying yourself isn't meant to be a lark. It's war against the selfishness of our hearts. So Lent, with it's focus on introspection, reflection, confession and repentance, helps remind us of the task before us. This is not "sin management", this is war. Call it a "spiritual surge" if it helps.

In most cases, the main practice people use to focus during Lent is giving something up they would normally do every day, even several times a day. It can be whatever you decide. I'd encourage anyone to pray about what might make the most difference. It would be very easy for me to give up strawberries, asparagus, or the Lifetime TV network for 40 days. Giving up coffee, hot dogs, or ESPN... not so much. Over the years we've sacrificed quite a few different pleasures. Going meatless for Lent was... interesting. Giving up caffeine one year had Sean with a splitting headache on day three.

I can remember when we first started this, Sean was still a little boy. We were sitting around talking about Lent, what it meant, and what each of us was going to do. Sean thought for a minute, and you could almost see the wheels turning in his head. But what you couldn't see was what was going on in his heart. You see, the boy loved cartoons. Came by it honest. His Granddaddy used to sit with my brother and me in front of the TV on Saturday mornings and laugh and laugh. I've always loved them. So when Sean said "I'm going to give up cartoons, I knew that the calculations he did to arrive at that meant his heart for Jesus was ultimately making the decision.

If Lent is going to mean anything for you, should you take up the challenge, that's where the road to the cross should begin - in your heart. This is not a time to go Pharisaical and broadcast to the world what you are doing. You aren't working on other people's hearts. You are asking the Holy Spirit to work in yours by using what you do as a reminder. For me, it's an intensely personal time of reflection, confession, and repentance. My hope is always that I'll come away knowing Jesus better, and that I will be strengthened in my faith and practice beyond Easter.

Maybe you would benefit too. I'll have Lenten devotional/prayer guide books at church Wednesday night, and can send pdf files to anyone else that might like one.

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