Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Lent is long enough...

…long enough to argue about whether it is to any great purpose in my spiritual life. Not having come from a church tradition which observes the Lenten fast, I found myself curious about this custom, and after learning a bit about it, I decided to try it. According to, Lent is a period of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving which precedes Easter by some 40 days. While some view it as an act of penance (a personal act of atonement for sin, acting in concert with confession and the reception of divine grace), many today are re-capturing its original sense of introspection, a time when we take an honest look at ourselves, searching for signs of persistent, hidden sin. 40 days is plenty of time to pass through all the cycles of interest, confusion, frustration, breakthrough, and quiet joy. I’ve seen all of these in the first week.

…long enough to miss the things I’ve laid aside for 40 days. I settled on two major areas of my life. First, I have laid aside my frequent visits to bookstores, my personal hell of lustful materialism. I love books, I love everything about books. I always want more books. I spend my coffee money on books, and that’s saying something. So, no bookstores, and no for 40 days. And with that simple act of “fasting”, it has brought into sharp relief my need to search and gaze upon new things to consume. In the absence of bookstores, now I want to go wander the aisles of BestBuy and ogle the software shelves at OfficeDepot. Sheesh, enough with the discovery of sin, already. I also have given up some portions of my diet, trying to focus on “real food”, but so far that’s been the easier part of the bargain. Except for the phenomenal apple pie Trevor and Jacque brought over last night for Home Community. 40 days is a long time to go without pie.

…long enough to outlast the initial “honeymoon” phase with a new spiritual discipline. I am a “spiritual disciplines” junky in the worst sense of the term. I grab on to new practices I haven’t tried in the hopes that they will be easier and more fruitful than others I’ve tried. And Lent is long enough for the glow to wear off and for it to become what it is: a discipline, which requires dedication and focus. Once this threshold is crossed, the real fruit begins as we consistently, patiently come before God with an earnest and growing desire to be cleansed and transformed.

…long enough to realize that this is a battle I cannot win. Over at First Things, the contributors there drew on the works of Cardinal Newman, saying this about the struggle the Christian experiences during Lent:
Is there any Christian who starts by taking Lent seriously on Ash Wednesday and yet comes to Easter Sunday who does not feel “bloodied by the contest,” caught up in the ganglia of sin coiling about the soul? But for Newman that’s just the point. For it is the struggle itself that teaches us how we stand before God. Reliance on grace is taught in the pedagogy of the struggle, and Lent is that pedagogue: “I am speaking of . . . what everyone must know in his own case: how difficult it is to command himself, and do what he wishes to do; how weak the governing principle of his mind is, and how poorly and imperfectly he comes up to his own notions of right and truth; how difficult it is to command his feelings, grief, anger, impatience, joy, fear; how difficult to govern his own tongue, to say just what he would; how difficult to rouse himself to do what he would, at this time or that; how difficult to rise in the morning; how difficult to go about his duties and not be idle; how difficult to eat and drink just what he should, how difficult to regulate his thoughts through the day; how difficult to keep out of his mind what should be kept out of it.” These are difficulties for all Christians, of course, but most especially for those serious about Lent.
This is all true, and already part of this first week of my Lenten experience. But quickly I realize the truth of this “battle”, this “bloody contest”: that this is a battle I cannot win. The language used by Scripture is one of taking up the cross, of putting sin to death, of putting on Christ. The battle is the Lord’s, and He is the one with the weapons to fight it victoriously. Were it not for Christ and His victory over the powers, I would squirm helplessly in the “ganglia of sin coiling” about my soul. “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25).

…and long enough to realize this isn’t a discipline to attempt alone. I came across some thoughts on Lent early this year which prompted me to consider undertaking the observance myself. Not sure enough of the practice to openly invite my church into it, I decided to give it a try this year alone. But once I had mentioned it, first to my wife and then to several other good friends, I quickly discovered that without their help I would have already quit the struggle. One more practice to be experienced only in the midst of a loving, supportive, prayerful community. One more stretch of the spiritual life which promises life-giving fruit, but only alongside my co-struggling brothers and sisters in Christ. One more reason to praise God for the gift of His church.

1 comment:

Kyle Turney said...


You have stirred my curiosity a bit. I have heard alot about Lent this year from several in the church of Christ. I cautiously wonder where this is going. But spiritual growth isn't an area I think we're having a ton of success in right now, so I am encouraged by your experience thus far.