What is the point of Lent?
I found myself asking that question a lot this past week. So I did some reading.
Lent has been around almost as long as Christianity itself. Early on, people who desired baptism into the Christian faith were required to fast for a few days beforehand. Eventually, sometime around the year 400, most of the church began observing a forty-day fast leading up to the celebration of Easter. The reason for the forty days comes from Jesus’ forty days of fasting in the wilderness. And the purpose of Lent has always been a time of “self-examination and penitence, demonstrated by self-denial, in preparation for Easter.” In the earliest days, it was a true fast: eating only once-a-day. But over time, the meaning has changed toward general self-denial. Most people decide to give up chocolate and call it good. But could there be more to it?
A month ago or so, I mentioned in a sermon how I find the word “repentance” to be a major turn-off. Well, I feel the same way about the word “penitence.” It makes me think of that scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the monks are smacking themselves in the face with the boards. It doesn’t inspire me.
I wonder if there is a better way to understand penitence or “self-denial.” When we fast during Lent, we don’t do it to torture ourselves like those monks in the movie. We don’t do it punish ourselves for all the bad stuff we’ve done. We don’t do it because God likes it when we suffer or because God hates fun. So then why do we do it?
In our gospel reading Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” These words, to me, embody the spirit of Lent. The self-denial of this season is all about discipleship—following Jesus. And the only way to follow Jesus is with a cross upon our shoulders.
The cross is the symbol of death. It is the way in which Jesus was executed. When Jesus says that we must be willing to take up our cross, he is saying that we must be willing to be put to death. Now, I don’t mean that literally. I simply mean that we must be willing to put our selfishness to death, our pride, our sinfulness, anything that keeps us from loving God and our neighbor.
Martin Luther says that in baptism the sinful person is daily killed and a righteous person is raised to new life within us. When we take up our crosses, we allow the sinful parts of ourselves to die so that something new and holy can rise up. The self-denial of Lent is actually an affirmation of the goodness of life. We put to death all the stuff that separates us from God so that we can have a new, richer life in God.
One of the best ways we can take up our cross and follow Jesus, then, is through spiritual practices. Spiritual practices are habits specifically designed to take the focus off ourselves and focus us instead upon God and our neighbors. For that reason, spiritual practices are not easy. They can be uncomfortable. But death is not easy; death is uncomfortable. The discomfort you feel when you take on a spiritual practice is actually the feeling of dying to yourself. When you adopt a practice, you “kill” your selfishness and bring to life a more God-centered person. Spiritual practices help us become better disciples of Jesus.
During this season of Lent, I encourage you to take on a practice. If you’re not sure what to do, I’ve listed a bunch of different spiritual practices at the bottom of this page, each with a brief description. They are divided into two groups, practices of abstinence and practices of engagement. Practices of abstinence are simply practices in which you give something up, like fasting, silence, or frugality. Practices of engagement are simply practices in which you take something on, like study, prayer, or service.
Each of these practices is designed to challenge you, so don’t pick one just because you think it will be easy! For instance, if you are a workaholic, choose rest as your practice. If you like to boast about yourself, pick secrecy. If you are a compulsive shopper, pick frugality. If you are a pessimist, pick gratitude. Of course, don’t torture yourself, but strive for something challenging.
And here’s the honest truth: no matter what practice you pick, at some point, you will fail at it. And hear me when I say: that’s okay! Although Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him, he knows we cannot carry that burden ourselves. You are not saved by these spiritual practices; you are saved by God’s grace alone. So when and if you fail, don’t be ashamed. Trust in God’s grace. A key point of these practices is to remind ourselves of our dependence upon God—nothing teaches us that lesson better than failure!
On this Ash Wednesday, I invite you to do something a little different. Perhaps, due to the pandemic, you were unable to attend an Ash Wednesday service. Perhaps the service you attended, like our service here at Beaver, didn't include the imposition of ashes this year. I invite you instead to grab a black marker and a small piece of paper. Say to yourself “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return" as you draw a black cross on the paper. Then, next to that cross, write down the spiritual practice you intend to keep during Lent. When you're finished, put the card somewhere you will see it every day.
Christ calls us to discipleship. He calls us to follow him. That road is hard and it leads to death. But know that there is life on the other side. So may you deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus.
A list of spiritual practices
As we enter into Lent, you are invited to take on a spiritual practice, something that will help you pick up your cross and follow Christ. This list is here to help you get started. There are plenty of other practices you could add to it. Do not attempt to do all of them. Instead, pick one and try to do it well. Remember that your salvation is not tied up in keeping this practice. There will be moments when you fail and that’s okay!! Don’t feel ashamed about it. God’s grace will cover you, lift you back up, and give you another chance at it.
Practices of Abstinence (things to give up)
Solitude — This is the practice of being alone with God. Solitude gives us distance from our daily lives and helps us to gain perspective on the things that trap, worry, and oppress us.
Silence — This practice turns off all the noise of daily life that keeps us from God. Dwelling in periods of extended silence (10 minutes or more) makes space for us to hear God’s voice.
Fasting — This is the practice of abstaining from eating for a period of time. In our hunger we come to a deeper understanding of our dependence upon God, who feeds us in ways physical food cannot (check with your doctor that you are fit for this practice before starting).
Frugality — We often spend money on things we don’t need in an effort to fill a void in our hearts that actually only God can fill. In frugality, you opt to spend money only on what you absolutely need. Frugality also helps us become better stewards of the gifts God gives us.
Chastity — In this practice, we abstain from dwelling on or engaging in the sexual dimension of our relationships—even with our spouse. Sex is a good gift from God, but we live in a culture obsessed with it. Chastity cleanses us from these obsessions which damage our relationships with God and our neighbors (married couples should both be in agreement before taking on this practice).
Secrecy — In this practice, we abstain from telling others about our good deeds and qualities. Secrecy kills pride and cultivates humility. When we don’t take credit for our good deeds and when we don’t boast about ourselves, we serve others because they need our help, not because we need their praise.
Sacrifice — In this practice, we give up things that we actually need as a way of throwing our dependance entirely upon God. It is total abandonment to God, a stepping into the darkened abyss in the faith and hope that God will bear us up.
Rest/Sabbath — This practice is the act of abstaining from work. When we take a Sabbath day, we remind ourselves that our value is not in what we do, but in what God has done for us. Rest gives us space to dwell in God's grace.
Practices of Engagement (things to take on)
Study — In this practice, you spend intentional time dwelling in the scriptures, meditating on them, memorizing them, learning more about them. In study, you use the scriptures to come to a deeper understanding of your own relationship with God.
Worship — In this practice, you proclaim God’s worth. Although you worship every week, this practice calls you to a deeper version. Does your attention wander during worship? In the practice of worship, we truly seek God, rather than just going through the motions. The practice of worship calls us to pay attention.
Celebration — In this practice, we come together with others to eat and drink, sing and dance, and tell stories. This is not a call just to party. It is a joyful response to God’s goodness and focuses attention on God (this might be an impossible practice in a pandemic).
Service — This is the practice of doing good things for other people. But not just occasionally. Those who engage in service will need to do so often as an act of self-denial, as a way of killing the pride, possessiveness, envy, resentment, or greed that grows within us.
Prayer — In this practice, you find regular times in your day to sit down and have a conversation with God. It is as simple—and difficult!—as that.
Fellowship — In this practice, you enter into the presence of other people. Fellowship reminds us that our faith and salvation is not a solitary thing—it exists in community (Again, this might be an impossible practice in a pandemic).
Confession — In this practice, we confide our secrets, our shame, and our failings in someone else. In confession we “confess” to others all those things about ourselves that seem too terrible to admit. And in doing so, we can hear the person to whom we confess proclaim back to us the healing promise of God’s forgiveness, grace, and love.
Submission — In this practice, we allow ourselves to be mentored by another; we find a Christ-like role model and seek to emulate them. This does not mean allowing ourselves to be abused; rather, it means setting aside our pride, and entering into a loving, compassionate relationship with someone who can guide our steps and teach us what it means to follow Jesus.
Gratitude — In this practice, you take time every day to give thanks to God for something. It can be anything for which you are thankful. This practice undermines our tendency toward pessimism (which is a form of unfaithfulness) and focuses us on the good things God gives us.
Lament — In this practice, we get honest with God about all that is wrong with the world around us. We voice our sorrows openly and honestly to God and then wait and listen for God to speak a word of hope back to us.
*These spiritual practices and their descriptions are adapted from Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines (1988). For more information on these disciplines, read chapter nine of that book, or talk to Pr. Jim.
 Christianity Today: https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2008/august/beginning-of-lent.html