March 9, 2009

What is Lent?

According to my counting we're 11 days into Lent. In the different churches I grew up in, Lent was always part of our tradition. In fact, until recently I assumed every churchgoer understood and embraced this season. Turns out I was wrong.

A while back a friend told me her church doesn't "do" seasons like Lent or Advent. Huh? Isn't it a given? I asked her why and she explained they see these seasons as traditional, not biblical. Fair enough, but I wondered how they prepared for the miracle of Jesus' birth or the suffering of Holy Week, culminating in the glory of Easter.

At my own church, even though we mark the season of Lent, I recently overheard some friends saying they really don't know what Lent is all about. On the flip side, I've seen other churches make this an extra special time using Lenten-specific worship, studies or prayer.

With all of the church to church discrepancy, I've been pondering Lent (it doesn't take much for me to ponder). I want to know your thoughts on the matter:

Why Lent?
Why do most churches celebrate Lent, but some don't? What does Lent mean? What are we supposed to do during the 40 days leading up to Easter? Is Lent strictly traditional or is it rooted biblically?

To give up or not to give up? That is the question.
Do you give something up for Lent? Why? If you don't, why not?

In my church we're not specifically encouraged to give anything up, in fact we're encouraged to take ON something that deepens our relationship with God, like extra time in devotions, Bible reading or prayer.

That said, for the past few years I've given up all forms of dessert for Lent. Not because I have to, but because I want to—and because I didn't think I could. See, I have no self-control when it comes to sweets. The first year I gave up desserts I was astounded to find that my taste for sweets disappeared immediately. I knew only God's power could effect such a change because I have NEVER been able to exercise such self-control on my own. Each Lent I've experienced the same ability to "just say no" that's way stronger than my own weak willpower!

But I wonder if this really is a good thing to do for Lent.

Everyday or extra-special?
Does your church or do you do anything extra special during Lent? Do you fast? Do a Lenten study or devotional? Or is your spiritual life business as usual?

Tell me your thoughts. I think we'd all like to know what's going on in different churches and traditions. What is does the season of Lent mean to you?


For more of thoughts on the topic, here's an article I put together for our church newsletter:

What Exactly is Lent?
If you’re like many at Woodside, you know we’re in the season of Lent, but you’re not quite sure that means. Here’s a look at Lent.

Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. It falls 40 weekdays before Easter (Sundays aren’t counted in the 40 days of Lent). Ash Wednesday takes its name from ashes, a traditional Jewish sign of penitence. In some liturgical traditions, palm fronds or palm crosses from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are burned, and then the ashes are applied to the worshiper’s forehead on Ash Wednesday as a token of their commitment to observe a “holy Lent.”

Ancient Christian tradition was to observe Lent with fasting (a discipline of going without food at certain times), study, self-examination, confession and prayer. Many churches continue those traditions.1

Commonly, Lent is seen as a time of being “extra good” so that when Easter rolls around we feel more deserving to receive the incredible gift of Jesus’ resurrection. Often we give up something in an effort to “shape up” up our souls. By doing so, we hope that by denying ourselves and exercising willpower over our earthly, carnal appetites we’ll become more spiritual—and we’ll earn favor in God’s eyes.

But, this way of thinking does nothing to improve our relationship with God and is based on the assumption that we can overcome sin and failure by trying harder. Contrary to popular wisdom, “doing right” is not the opposite of “sin.”

Sin is distance or separation from God. It’s a condition of the heart or an expression of that condition where we are estranged from God and fail to trust Him.

There’s only one “cure” for our sinful nature—and it’s not being “good.” The cure is receiving the reconciliation that only Jesus Christ can give to us as a free gift of grace. But you need to acknowledge and accept it.

The point is this: Every single one of us is always and already loved absolutely, profoundly, and unconditionally by the God who created us and who knows us better than we know ourselves.2

Lent is a time to prepare our hearts for Easter. It’s a time to renew our commitment to Jesus, to explore anew our relationship with the Almighty, and to reflect deliberately on His great Truth. Instead of giving up something for Lent, add something like extra Bible reading, prayer or quiet time with God; fully engage in the current sermon series, The Way I Was Made; and set aside time for just you and God.

Use Lent as an opportunity to transform your faith. To open your heart, mind and soul to Jesus. And to prepare to receive the utterly incredible gift of Easter.

1 www.explorefaith.org
2 www.explorefaith.org, What is Lent All About? by The Rev. Dr. Robert Hansel

9 comments:

Peggy said...

Dear Kelli,
Lent....my Mom always told us that God asks us to prepare our hearts and souls for the gift of life eternal that we recieve by Christ's suffering and dying at Calvery for us.
We are asked to prepare for Holy Week, the grand entry to the Holy City, the Last Supper, Christ's trial, Calvery and finally Easter Morning.
I never give-up anything, but I try to come closer to God and the love and grace that was given to me and all of us if we only accept the Gift.
I always ask god to prepare my heart and soul and life during Lent, and that is what it means to me.
Blessings and Love....Peggy

Melanie Dorsey said...

My church, the denomination I grew up in as a PK and still am a member of, is not a liturgical denomination. We are always encouraged to be disciples of Christ and participate in the disciplines of Christianity - prayer, fasting, giving. Although not a written "tradition" we have annual times of corporate fasting and use of prayer guides and special prayer services (by choice). I have never felt that I was missing out on drawing closer to God by not participating in Lent, etc.
I do believe that a Christian indwelled by the Holy Spirit who stays in the Word will have a hunger and thirst that leads her to desire to give more of herself to God through worship and service. This is a continual state of preparation and expectancy.
Melanie@Bella~Mella & http://dotellmel.blogspot.com

JerryLyn said...

Kelli, I've given a great deal of thought to this since we spoke. I actually think growing up in the Presbyterian Church there some meaning as I remember beginning Ash Wednesday services and remember hearing in sermons, but it was in my adult life at my last church (different denomination) that I really began studying Lent. It first started one year when we were thinking about Jesus in the wilderness. Since that was a "wilderness" time in my own life, I really feel God spoke to me about that as a time of reflection, introspection and repentance...of cleansing my heart and soul to prepare me for the journey to the cross. I was privileged to be the Worship team leader and we planned a lot of very creative worship which included a soup dinner every Wednesday night, a blend of traditional and contemporary music, and specific devotions--one year poetry and art offerings, one year Psalms study, one year dramatic offerings around the 7 Last Words. We also coordinated a Lenten devotional booklet written by the congregation. This is probably why Lent is so deeply meaningful for me...the chance to really study, look honestly at myself. And my kids and I started a tradition of serving others in a different way--serving breakfast to the homeless, saving money to giving to a charity, etc. Thanks for the post...and the ponderings...it makes my faith life richer.

elaine @ peace for the journey said...

Intentional remembrance is a good thing; I confess to you that I have not done as well this year as in year's past. Lent is my favorite time of the year, as I pilgrim to the cross to remember and offer up my thanks. I try and read through all the Gospel accounts of Jesus' final days during this time as a way of keeping focus on the gift of his grace.

In the past, I've done various studies. Our community of churches host lenten luncheons on Wednesdays (a different church each week), where we dine on soup/sandwich and then share in a brief devotion. We also held an Ash Wednesday service and will be fully "on point" when Easter week arrives.

One of the most interesting aspects of the traditional "Lent celebration" is the fact that whatever is "denied" is not denied on Sunday...Sunday's being the day of blessing and resurrection and celebration. So, if you've given up chocolate for the season, enjoy a piece on Sunday.

Enough said. Thanks for the teaching.

peace~elaine

Sue J. said...

I've spent most of my life in denominations that emphasized tradition. But it seemed, growing up, that Lent was reserved for the Catholics, specifically. I didn't learn about Lent until my first adult church experience, and even then, it was about upholding traditions--traditional services, songs, Maundy Thursday tenebrae, etc.

In my current church, Lent is reserved as a time for churchwide Bible study. We are all focusing on Rick Warren's latest: 40 Days of Love.

I needed to see Jesus' journey outside of the Lenten season. Too much of my time was spent studying the same scriptures at the same times of the year. I needed to look at His death and resurrection during a different season, and realize how important it is to see that DAILY and not just once a year.

We do need a Lenten season, but I might suggest that it's timing could be flexible.

Chatty Kelly said...

We always celebrated lent when I was growing up in the Lutheran church. Then we were challenged one year instead of giving up, just giving one year. So that year we did service projects & stuff.

The purpose is to focus on God & what Jesus did. (For instance, if you give up chocolate, you are to think of Jesus every time you crave it, and what he gave up on the cross).

Now I'm in a Bible centered church, and since Lent isn't biblical we don't celebrate it.

God doesn't call us to celebrate Lent. He calls us to remember Jesus regularly (in communion) and what he did for us. I am doing that.

saleslady371 said...

I can't say it any better than Melanie. That's the kind of church I'm in presently. I grew up in the Catholic Church with beautiful traditions that I'm very grateful for. I'm all for traditions that point to Jesus, that are life giving where we celebrate our saviour. He's got to be the center, where we draw our life from. I'm going to write a post about this. It's in my head!

Cheryl Barker said...

Kelli, thanks for sharing the article about Lent that you wrote for your church. Good info -- and good food for thought -- for those of us in churches that don't emphasize it. In the days preceding Easter, I try to prepare my heart by reading the passages in the gospels that tell the story from the Last Supper through the Resurrection.

Anonymous said...

I'm a "good Baptist" and our motto is "solo scriptura" (Scripture only). Show me Lent in the Scriptures and I'll start observing it. Why not instead use the Biblical Feasts of Israel as your liturgical calendar? In the spring there is Purim (the story of Mordechai and Esther), then in quick succession Passover ("behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world") and First Fruits (Jesus - the "first fruits of the resurrection") and then 50 days later the Feast of Pentecost ("and you shall receive power... ")

That sure beats Mardi Gras, fasting as "penance" for sins Jesus has already forgiven, and then Easter Bunnies, Easter eggs, etc. (pagan fertility rituals).