Return to the Lord
The beginning of Lent is just a few days away and whether this is your first Lenten season or your 50th it is good to remember what we are called to in this season of repentance and renewal to make our hearts ready to receive the risen Jesus. According to the traditions of the Church, Lent is a season of preparation for those who intend to be baptized, for those who are returning to the communion of the Church after a season of separation, and all those who desire to renew their first love for God.
As an introduction to the season I recommend Esau McCaulley’s new book Lent: The Season of Repentance and Renewal, the first of the Fullness of Time series that gives readers a theological and thematic overview of each season of the Church Year. In many ways Lent is the most challenging of the seasons for modern American Christians because it can feel heavy with tradition and prescribed spiritual disciplines. McCaulley puts it this way, “The history of Lent is like our spiritual lives. The church stumbled around trying different things in order to discern the best ways to use this time to grow closer to God. We should not see the season Lent as a series of rules but as a gift of the collected wisdom of the church universal.”
A Baptist friend once commented about Lent, “It makes sense but where do you find it in the Bible?” You don’t find Lent commanded in the scripture. But all the components are there: seasons of preparation, repentance, fasting, prayer, giving to the poor, spiritual renewal, and following Jesus. If you already have a great pattern of incorporating all those things regularly into your life, you probably don’t need to practice Lent. I am lousy at doing the hard stuff of the Christian life and so the opportunity to follow the story of Jesus from his desert temptation to the cross in the company of generations of saints and the accumulated wisdom of their spiritual practices through the season of Lent is just the invitation I need.
Again McCaulley’s 100-ish page book is an excellent guide to the prayers and practices that shape the season. He commends and describes healthy habits of fasting, prayer, and renewal. And he explains the grace that can be found in practices that seem foreign to those from Evangelical backgrounds, like confession or the Stations of the Cross. In this season where many Christians pledge to do hard things for Jesus and then falter immediately, McCaulley, chastened by his own past failures, remarks, “I like to set goals for myself that require intention without being overwhelming.”
The invitation issued each Lent from Jesus’ teaching to his disciples in Matthew 6 is to give to the poor, pray, and fast. Consider how you participate in each of these practices as an individual or with other members of your household. McCaulley offers some wise advice especially about our giving: “While acts of charity are important, they do not always get to the causes of our neighbors’ suffering. It’s great to provide meals for the homeless, but it’s also necessary to ask how they became homeless in the first place.” Meaningful Lenten practices can include learning, practicing solidarity with the marginalized, and linking our fasting with our charity (Isaiah 58:6-7).
Fasting is the most well-known Lenten discipline with people declaring that they are giving up chocolate, alcohol, or social media for 40 days. It’s a good discipline to abstain from select foods or activities during Lent to create more time and resources for other endeavors. Maybe you could commit to eat more simply during the week and give the surplus in your food budget to support earthquake survivors in Turkey and Syria through Hope Tribe. Or reconsider the way your household uses resources with this Carbon Fast from Climate Stewards. Fasting can be flexible but traditionally many Christians go without on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and set aside their fasts to fest each Sunday during Lent.
No one needs to reinvent the wheel to establish a habit of prayer. If you would like to commit to follow the Daily Office Lectionary from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer you can pray with Christians all around the world each day. We will even have congregation members leading Morning Prayer on video to guide you through the season. Contact Kolby if you are interested in joining in the project.
Lent is always an invitation to return to the Lord. Don’t overcomplicate your spiritual practices for the season. And do consider getting Esau McCaulley’s Lent as a companion for the season. It’s ideal for the novice and for any of us who would like to reflect again on the grace of the season of renewal.