For the first time in my Christian walk, I am observing Lent. I haven’t converted to Catholicism, so what’s going on here?
I was raised in and continue to be part of the Southern Baptist community, so Lent wasn’t really something that I was even aware of until I reached college. Although the idea of giving up something that I enjoyed/relied on for 40 days was intriguing (I always love a good challenge), I never really saw the point of participating in what–from all I could see–amounted to a Spring-Break-prep diet of no chocolate (or bread…or alcohol…or sodas…or whatever troublesome food group the friend chose). Good thing I don’t have to do that since I’m Baptist!
Obviously, I was missing a critical piece of the puzzle.
In the past several years, I have gained a deeper and more meaningful understanding of the Catholic faith through interaction and discussion with some of my dearest friends (along with several great bloggers that I enjoy following). I have also gained a bit of maturity (I hope) and the ability to better appreciate and understand the value of learning from others with greater experience and perspective than my own. I have realized that there is a wealth of beauty and wisdom in many of those time-honored traditions which are simply lacking in my own experience. There is a reason that the church, many years ago, instituted this practice of setting aside a season for the preparation of believers’ hearts and minds for Easter. The reasons are both biblical and practical. In order to be able to fully celebrate the Resurrection, we must break out of our routines and spend time drawing closer to God in preparation. To facilitate that process, the Catholic church created a structured set of expectations and obligations to guide believers in the weeks leading up to Easter.
Since I am not Catholic, however, I am not under any obligation to observe those rules. Whew! That’s a relief…they seem kind of tough…
The problem is that we, as Protestants, often reject the traditional/structured methods of accomplishing such things (Lent, confession, etc.) automatically without understanding their purpose and therefore fail to see the need to replace them appropriately. It is fine to say that we aren’t going to follow the prescribed Catholic Lenten policies of when to fast, when to break our fast, what to eat, and so on. It is fine to do so, however, ONLY if we implement our own appropriate plan of spiritual preparation instead–which should only be undertaken with much prayer and using scripture as your guide.
The thing is, the structured observance of the Lenten season was specifically and carefully constructed over the years to fulfill the spiritual needs and scriptural obligations of Christians (not just Catholics) with the experience and wisdom from centuries of walking believers through this process. It addresses the many issues and struggles that can keep us from having a deep and meaningful experience in this season. It is also, quite honestly, a much better plan than I have come up with thus far in my life, and I’m pretty sure that it would take a LOT more trial and error before I got anywhere close.
So the question I’m left with is this: why should I insist on reinventing the wheel and rejecting the observance of Lent just because I (or my denomination) didn’t come up with it? Why can’t I, as an educated and capable individual, examine the practices for myself to find the biblical and practical reasons and thereby understand the intrinsic value of those traditions?
Is it my (our) own pride that is the reason for the automatic rejection of a plan that could provide huge opportunities for obedience, growth, and spiritual cleansing in this most sacred of seasons? Or is it as simple and juvenile as a “You can’t tell me what to do!” mindset? Either way, it seems short sighted and self defeating to me.
Now, don’t get me wrong–I’m not suggesting that the observances I witnessed in college are what I should attempt to replicate. What I had observed was often people going through the motions of following their faith, completely divorced from any meaningful discussion or awareness of the underlying spiritual journey that should be taking place as a result. Ritual without reflection is empty, powerless, and even potentially harmful. It lures people into a cultural christianity which depends on “checking boxes” instead of challenging the believer to dig deep and draw close in a personal relationship with God. That’s NOT what I’m looking for, and I’d dare to guess that it isn’t what any of us have in mind–Catholic OR Protestant.
With that understanding in mind, I would like to share with you my plans for observing Lent this year. Please let me know if you see any Rookie mistakes.
Sacrifice: Instead of “giving up” a food or drink or something similar, I have decided to give up sleep. Not all sleep, of course, but sleeping-in specifically. I’ve made a commitment to embrace the model set by Proverbs 31:15–rising early to plan for the day ahead. I will use the time for prayer, Bible study, and planning for my household duties for the day.
Why this makes sense to me–the practice of choosing something to sacrifice (however small) is intended to prepare our hearts to appreciate the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice for us. It also serves as a way to repeatedly draw our attention to that sacrifice each time we think of (or struggle with) that small personal sacrifice. In those moments, we have the chance to offer up prayers of praise and thanksgiving as well as prayers for strength. Adding the additional element of Bible study will add another layer of spiritual growth to this season of preparation. I’m going to be continuing my efforts to read through the entire Bible (now stretching out to almost three years with my distractions and delays…), and I should have just enough time to finish the rest of the Old Testament if I push myself! How exciting to be starting the New Testament on the day we celebrate Resurrection of the One whose coming divided the two Covenants into old and new!
Fasting: This year, I’m choosing to adopt another element of the Lenten season and fast on Fridays and special Holy days (like today!).
Why this makes sense to me–I have never participated in a fast. Ever. At all. Then I read Matthew 6:16 where Jesus said, “and WHEN you fast…”. Wait…that’s a problem. If Jesus took it for granted that his followers would spend time in fasting, then as a believer I should have some reflection of that in my walk. Fasting (when executed thoughtfully and intentionally) helps to focus a believer’s mind and energies on God and specifically on prayer. It is also intended to be an act of penance and remembrance of the death of our Lord. I know that the traditional rules say to fast specifically from meat on those days, so that’s the minimum I’ll observe. I have a very real and pressing prayer need right now as well though, so today’s fast is going to be more strict–perhaps they all will. I am going to try to eat only minimally, and only raw fruits/veggies on fasting days. I am going to let God lead on this, and I am going to really focus on prayer for that issue on those days. I know that He is more concerned with my heart than my stomach, so I am not going to allow this to become an “all-or-nothing” thing where guilt gets to hang out and beat me up. I’m making an effort to choose obedience, and that’s 90% of the battle, my friend.
Worship: To the best of my knowledge, traditional rules also require attendance at a weekly worship service as well as those held on special Holy days. This year, I will commit to attend at least one worship service each week from now until Easter.
Why this makes sense to me– I have been out of the habit of corporate worship for a while now because of a lot of different reasons–schedule conflicts, personal struggles, family obligations, and so on. The bottom line is that God created us as a body of believers, and He instructed us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. So…we will be there. It’s that simple. There are many churches in this area, and they hold too many meeting times to allow for my lame excuses. Even my own home church offers at least 4 different opportunities each week between small groups, two Sunday services, and Wednesday night prayer meeting…and we live close enough to walk there. No more excuses.
That’s it! That’s the plan. It seems a bit overwhelming when I write it all out like this, but I believe that the end result will be more than worth it. I am in desperate need of spiritual growth after the last year and a half of stagnation, and that’s honestly my only motivation. I desperately want to be closer to God. I’m not checking a box. I’m not competing with myself or anyone else. I wouldn’t even be sharing this at all, but I really felt like I was supposed to. Maybe it was just so that I could hold myself accountable, or maybe someone else needed to hear someone think through all of these things too. I don’t know, but here it is for what it’s worth.
In short, I’m adopting a mantra of “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it” in regards to some areas of spiritual tradition like the methods for observing Lent. Because it doesn’t make sense to throw out a perfectly good system–unless YOU’VE got a better plan. :)