Some Semi-Random Thoughts About Lent
Every year for the past five, we’ve observed Lent in the churches I’ve led (that’s three churches, if you count the one where I was the Young Adult Pastor). And every year, I struggle to figure out exactly what this season is and why we observe it. You see, we never observed Lent in any of the churches I had attended, and so I have no ingrained sense of purpose about it or traditions or rituals to fall back on. While in seminary, I was exposed to a lot of ideas and traditions that were different than mine and the idea of falling in line with the church calendar (at least for Lent and Advent) seemed like a good way to keep myself and my congregants grounded (I’ve always been pretty non/anti-traditional as far as church goes). And so I began the process of fumbling through the season each year, beginning with Ash Wednesday.
I pulled an Ash Wednesday Service out of the United Methodist Book of Worship and tweaked it a bit to fit our context: we use worship songs instead of hymns, we replaced all incidences of “King James” English with “modern” English, and we use the service as a time to confess our sins, writing them down and burning them to symbolize God’s forgiveness and to provide us with the ashes. This way, the cross of ashes on everyone’s forehead symbolizes not only our humanity (ashes to ashes, dust to dust), but our sins and the forgiveness paid for through the cross. Despite my lack of understanding, God shows up in a big way and this service is one of the highlights of the church year for us.
Lent has also provided us with a great opportunity to engage in the disciplines of Scripture reading and prayer in an organized and corporate way. For the past two years, we’ve printed prayer journals which provide us with a short framework for prayer (with blanks to fill in specific names, prayer requests, etc…) as well as a Scripture reading. We do this in the rhythm of six days on, seventh (Sabbath) off, in an attempt to build this rhythm into our lives even outside of Lent. To be leading a church that reads the Bible and prays daily is a goal of mine, and I look forward to seeing how God uses such a group of people!
The one facet of Lent that I was previously familiar with is the idea of fasting from something during the season. What I wasn’t aware of was the six-on/one-off rhythm of Lent where we fast for six days, but not on Sunday (the Sabbath) since every Sunday is to be a “mini-Easter” celebration (this is where the prayer/Scripture reading rhythm comes from). What we fast from is a personal choice, and the time we would spend doing (or eating) that thing is an opportunity to remind ourselves of what Jesus gave up for us. This has been especially meaningful to me as I’ve given up non-Christian music the past two years (I know, we usually don’t say what we’re fasting from, but read on). I love a lot of different kinds of music, so this can be quite a sacrifice for me, but I’m not here to brag, only to say that this has been beneficial in the following ways: the fast itself forces me to think about Jesus more often (namely, every time I get into the car or put on a pair of headphones), limiting myself to Christian music forces me to listen to things I haven’t listened to in years (or maybe ever, I have a lot of music), and is truly reinforcing the idea of Lent as a season different than other times of the year.
All this being said, I am finding God to be more than capable of working in and through me, even if I’m not sure exactly how everything is supposed to work. I suppose that is why it’s called “faith!” To finish out, here’s an excerpt from the “Invitation to the Observance of Lenten Discipline” from the Ash Wednesday Service which nicely sums up the way we observe Lent:
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church,
to observe a holy Lent:
by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial;
and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.