Lent: A needed season change for the church and for me.

What is Lent? I find it interesting that as youth workers we are always looking for a new series to do with our students.  We inherently know that we must mix up the ritual and routine of youth group or kids will get board and get into a rut.  This need to mix things up might actually come from God himself.  I think that we were actually created for seasons, for change, for rhythm.  And this need for annual celebrations is affirmed all throughout scripture with the commands to celebrate all the different festivals.

While this need for seasonal change is needed and expected, many Christians seem to discard the traditional season change in the Church.  According to the church calendar, today is Ash Wednesday marking the transition from “ordinary time” to the season of Lent.

According to Wikipedia, Lent is the period of the liturgical year leading up to Easter.  The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer - through prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial.

Lent is the worst season in the Church.

There are several different seasons we celebrate in the church.  Some of them are official church seasons and some are traditional youth ministry seasons.  As far as traditional seasons go, my favorite is Advent.  This is a season I can really get behind.  The entire focus is on anticipating the coming of Christmas.  Even the world celebrates Advent by decorating stores as early as October.  This season of preparation is filled with warm hearted traditions.  It is an opportunity to mix up the rhythms of life and ministry and gives us a fresh start.  This season doesn’t cost us anything.

Besides traditional church calendar seasons we have traditional programatic seasons we celebrate as well.  We have our Fall kick-off season and our gearing up for mission trip season.  These are natural times in our calendar when we mix things up and for a short period of time add extra effort and excitement to prepare for the new year or a big trip.  This season doesn’t really cost us anything either.

Unlike other seasons in ministry and in the church, Lent is not about promoting anything.  Lent is not about adding thrill and excitement.  Lent is about prayer, penitence, almsgiving, and self-denial.  These are the four least exciting things we can use in ministry.  They all might be things we do in isolation or as part of other things we do, like praying and giving to the poor.  But a season of it is not glamorous.

 

Lent costs us something.

Many people shy away from Lent and discard it because it is “Catholic.”  But if we are honest and drill a little deeper, I think the real reason we discard Lent is because it is season of self-sacrifice.  We live in a world where we are not asked to give up anything.  In fact the exact opposite is true.  After a while, I actually start to believe that I deserve everything.  And when things don’t go my way or I have to wait for something longer then I expect I spiral out.

Maybe out of my entire life, a six week season of self-sacrifice might be exactly what I need.  Maybe Christians for thousands of years actually were on to something when they broke up the calendar and added a season of Lent to prepare our hearts for the Resurrection of our Lord.  Maybe God has something new to teach me through a discipline that is foreign to every part of my flesh.  So maybe, Lent is something I will consider a fresh this year.

Today is Ash Wednesday.

In a context where everything always needs to be amazing and full of energy, Lent might be exactly what we need.  Thankfully today is the day that begins this unique season.  In many traditions Lent begins with an Ash Wednesday service, where at the conclusion of the service you would be marked with ashes as a sign of mourning and repentance.

Celebration is not the only language of the church.  We paint a false view of our faith and of the world when we continually hype everything up.  The author of Ecclesiastes was onto something when he said that there is a time for celebration and a time to mourn.

James 4:7-10 says, “Submit yourselves, then, to God.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  Come near to God and he will come near to you.  Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.  Grieve, mourn and wail.  Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will life you up.”

Draw Near to God.

It is a proven exercise, that self-denial, prayer, almsgiving, and penitence actually help us draw near to God.  Lent is a season where we take our sin and the cost of our sin seriously, where we give up cheap grace and actually get our flesh under control.  And as we die to our flesh, grieve, mourn, and wail, and spend a season in humility, we will find that God will in fact lift us up.

During this season what are you going to give up, to sacrifice to prove that your flesh is not your master?  What rhythms are you going to add or subtract to intentionally unite your heart to Christ’s through humility and almsgiving?  How can you come to terms with our own mortality so that you can anxiously await the celebration of the Resurrection and our own resurrection some day?

This Lenten season, May you come near to God, and may he come near to you.  Blessings.

 

Ash Wednesday: The beginning of penitential preparation. YES PLEASE!

Today is Ash Wednesday.This is the start of the lent. According to Wikipedia "The traditional purpose of Lent is the penitential preparation of the believer—through prayer, penance, repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial. Its institutional purpose is heightened in the annual commemoration of Holy Week, marking the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, which recalls the events of the Passion of Christ on Good Friday, which then culminates in the celebration on Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ."

Everything about this paragraph is an anathema to our modern understanding of Christianity. It is an interesting gut check to see how the traditional penitential preparation fits in our grace based world view. We are saved by the blood, there is no more need for guilt, shame, law, or penitence.

But maybe we are missing something dramatic in our spiritual diet by missing out on some of the vegetables of the Christian Faith. A friend of mine recently took on a juice fast, and as he did, he noticed some remarkable things occur within his body. The chicken nuggets and soda that were part of his daily diet, now had a fowl stench, and he awoke a new craving for things healthy and fresh.

For this season of Lent I am leaning into this penitential preparation. I have decided to add a prayer exercise, a fast, and self denial. And my hope is that in 40 days, as I celebrate Easter, I will have awoken a fresh hunger and awareness to the Holy Spirit and the things of God.

My Prayer Exercise: The Prayer of Examine The prayer of examine is an ancient practice where you recount the activities of the day and reflect upon where you noticed God showing up, where you ignored the things of God, and in this Lenten case, where I have sinned intentionally or through omission. Normally this is a light hearted invitation to sharpen our senses towards the Holy Spirit, but because it is Lent, I look forward to become even more aware of my sin, take it seriously, recognize my overwhelming need for Christ, and work like crazy to limit its power and impact in my life and in the lives of those around me.

A Fast: See You Later Sugar! I know giving up sugar and sweets is the number one fast of Lent, so why not join the crowd. I do long to crave the healthy things of life and to not be such a slave to sugar and the instant high it seems to offer. No matter what the fast is, it is an intentional sacrifice that I will be confronted with for the entire 40 days and will provide me an opportunity to self-discipline and focused prayer.

Self Denial: The Dawn Will Once Again Be My Friend The more and more I have read about Lent the theme of self sacrifice comes up over and over. And because there is nothing my body desires that I deprive it of, then sleep is what is getting the axe this Lent. I often feel like God is inviting me into a discipline of early morning devotions, and I often discount that legalistic call in favor of praying whenever I want. But for this Lenten season, sleep is the focus of my self discipline. As I die to sleep and embrace the quiet of the morning, I am anticipating meeting Jesus in a fresh way. The natural fatigue that will follow this discipline will hopefully force me into a more sustainable rhythm with my evenings.

This discipline of self denial, together with my fasting and prayer exercise will beat my body into submission. For my spirit has always been willing, but my flesh is so, so weak. For this season I plan to flip the script and see what happens when I lean into the Spirit's leading and awaken my diet to these foreign disciplines.

This is what I am leaning into this Lenten season. What will you be doing for penitential preparation? Or does that phrase smell too much like the dark ages for you? Is there a place to embrace freedom and grace and intentionally die to it for season for spiritual discipline?