Can it be Lent already? As a pastor, I was keenly aware of the movement of the church year—Advent, Lent, Pentecost, etc. Our church planned for special emphases, sermon series, retreats, church-wide studies and readings.
As a bishop, I sometimes find myself surprised to realize that a key spiritual season is upon us. Such was the feeling when it dawned on me that Ash Wednesday is this week and that Lent begins in a couple days. Lent is a season of spiritual preparation for which I feel almost totally unprepared this year!
I’d love to know about what your community of faith is doing for Lent this year. A church-wide emphasis? A common daily devotional reading? Special services? A sermon series? How are we framing our small group ministries, prayer ministries, service ministries, and worship services to deepen a sense of attentiveness toward God or a sense of learning or renewal? Are there daily spiritual exercises or additional worship practices that cause people to explore the spiritual life and the following of Christ with greater depth? How are we allowing God to use our congregational ministries to reshape lives? How are we offering openings for others to experience Christ with us? These are vital organizational and leadership questions that I hope you and your church have been exploring for several weeks in preparation for Ash Wednesday, Lent, Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter.
I’d also love to know how you are personally preparing for Lent. What are the personal practices or daily habits that help you attend to God with greater depth during this season? How do you cooperate with the Holy Spirit by creating special openings for God in your life through these forty days? How do you renew your following of Christ, and what are the personal practices that help you do that?
I grew up in a community where there was much talking about “giving up” something for Lent. Giving something up is supposed to remind us of the sacrifice of Christ. Sometimes these exercises seemed trite and other times they seemed rich with meaning and depth. Some people would give up things they perhaps never should have been doing in the first place—smoking, gambling, over-indulging in certain types of eating. Lenten disciplines became a prompt to a healthier lifestyle. Other times, people would give up little extras, personal indulgences such as chocolate or dessert. Occasionally, I’d know of someone who radically changed the direction of his or her life by embracing substantive and permanent change.
Our United Methodist pastor always reversed the language and encouraged us to “take up” something for Lent—daily prayer, devotional reading, giving, or daily service.
Whether you prefer the notion of “giving up” or “taking up,” I commend to you some form of personal practice during Lent to interrupt our common daily habits and to draw our attention toward God. Over the years, I’ve discovered the value of intentionally changing some key daily practice temporarily in order to draw our attention more consistently toward God and the path of Christ.
Some people fast one day a week and give the monetary savings to a missional cause; others fast for lunch a couple days each week; some fast beef or all meats, or all drinks except water during the entire season of Lent. Some step away from the television during certain hours of the day throughout Lent, or change their reading or computer habits to redirect time toward the reading of scripture or of prayer. Some introduce a daily fifteen or thirty minutes of pure silence, to allow the spirit to breathe in a fast-forward world. Some covenant to pray for peace in each day, and others to offer a significant time of service in each week. Some covenant with other family members for a brief time of prayer together each day. Some take up a daily devotional or scriptural reading. The possibilities are unlimited.
The point of Lenten practice is not merely to rid ourselves of bad habits or little guilty pleasures; the purpose is to intentionally interrupt our daily patterns of living in order to draw our attention toward God. God uses these interruptions to reach us in ways beyond conscious awareness. When we cause ourselves to stop and think several times a day about our commitment to a temporarily changed schedule or eating pattern, our stopping and thinking creates an opening for God to speak to us, to cause us to reassess and reconsider God’s presence and will in our daily lives.
A day or two or three may seem to make little difference; in fact, the first day of a new practice usually feels like an annoying distraction to me. But as the days go on, my attitude adjusts. I begin to listen. God finds a way to break through and teaches me things I would otherwise not have learned, helps me to see things I would otherwise have missed, or calls me to act in ways I otherwise would have avoided altogether.
Paul writes, “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you. Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to you culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.” (The Message, Romans 12: 1-2)
This Lenten season, may God change us from the inside out.
Yours in Christ,
p.s.—I apologize for falling so far behind on the blogging. Since the last blog entry, my life has been focused on funerals, travel commitments, Episcopacy Committee Meetings, College of Bishops meetings, assessment week, teaching commitments, and other writing assignments. My day job (and wrestling with the weather to do it!) has occupied my energies completely. I hope to get back to a regular pattern of blogging soon. Thanks for the many notes, emails, and letters that continue to reveal the impact of Five Practices. In the weeks to come, I look forward to announcing an important next step that will take the Five Practices into a new arena of our faith experience. Stay tuned! Thank you.