Lent starts this Wednesday and I have to confess that I have had a bit of a journey in my understanding of Lent. Growing up in a Pentecostal church in the West of Scotland meant that for me, “lent” was what we did when we allowed the next-door neighbours to use our lawn mower. Later I kind of picked up that “Lent” was something Catholics did before Easter and was probably designed to help them earn their salvation and so was deeply wrong. While pastoring in England I encountered more protestants, and strangely even people who weren’t part of the church, who talked about Lent but it seemed mainly to consist of just giving something up. To be frank most often than not it seemed to be women who were giving up chocolate or biscuits. Lent seemed like weight watchers with vaguely religious over tones.
My attitude in the last few years has changed, and I now think that Lent can be a helpful church tradition both for churches as a community and for individual Christians. I wanted to fill you in on a little bit of the background to what Lent is about and why potentially it can be of spiritual significance.
In basic terms, Lent is the period before Easter and starts on Ash Wednesday and then goes on 40 days. I know some of you are maths geniuses and will work out that that period is more than 40 days, well that is because traditionally Sundays have been excluded because on Sundays the church celebrates the resurrection.
So why 40 days? Well in reading the Bible you have probably realised that 40 is period of time of spiritual significance. Noah and his family were in the Ark for 40 days, the children of Israel learned what it meant to be God’s people through 40 years in the wilderness and Jesus prepared for his ministry by spending 40 days in the desert. So, if you observe the 40 days of Lent you are placing yourself in this tradition among God’s people down the centuries and all over the world of being open to God and learning from God.
The purpose of Lent is to be a time of spiritual examination and transformation through activities like fasting, self-denial, repentance, spiritual growth, bible reading, and simplicity. The word “Lent” comes from the old German word for springtime, and maybe the best way to understand it is a spiritual spring cleaning. Its a time for taking a personal spiritual inventory and then cleaning out those things which hold back our corporate and personal relationships with Jesus Christ and our service to him. That’s why in many more liturgical churches the season of Lent usually begins with a symbol of repentance: placing ashes mixed with oil on one’s head or forehead. The ashes mean that those who have had them applied to their heads are grieving over sin and are getting serious about picking up their crosses and following Christ.
A word of warning, we must remember that any Lenten spiritual disciplines we take part in are not an end in themselves they are designed to connect us to the power of the Holy Spirit in a way which transforms our entire person: body, soul, and spirit, and so help us become more like Christ. Fasting, prayer etc don’t get us brownie points with God, instead they open us to seek and depend on God’s grace and power.
There are a few basic spiritual exercises which traditionally have been associated with Lent. Many of these have a long history. These are fasting, giving to the poor, Scripture and devotional reading and prayer. If you wanted to make Lent a part of your spiritual walk then being committed to these four spiritual disciplines would be a good way of doing that.
Here is what they are in a bit more detail and how we are going to try and connect with them as a community
FASTING : Fasting has always been a major part of Lent, in fact the Catholic Church requires its members to fast on certain days during Lent. The essence of fasting is about abstaining from something, ie usually food, in order to develop discipline (vital for disciples) but also so you can concentrate on something else, God.
Recently the emphasis has moved on to the idea of “abstinence” rather than just stopping eating. The idea now is to experience spiritual growth by taking control over something which has been dominating or controlling your life whether its sinful or unhelpful. So people give up the internet, social media or tv, others pay special attention to putting effort into giving up a sin they are susceptible to, maybe losing their temper etc. The central purpose is for us, with the Holy Spirit’s power to regain control of our lives and so to allow nothing but our Lord and His Kingdom to be the dominating force in our life.
So why not spend some time thinking about what you should give up? Is there anything sinful or unhelpful that has been gaining power over you that Lent could give the opportunity to break its power? Its always easier to stick with a fast if you share with someone what you will be fasting from.
PRAYER ….. Jesus seems to have spent most of his 40 days of spiritual significance in the wilderness praying so its not surprising that in Lent the church has always put a big emphasis on it being a time of prayer. Let’s be honest most of us struggle with our prayer lives. Which means that Lent can be a great time of mutual encouragement and learning for us as we all try and develop our prayer lives.
SCRIPTURE READING: …. When facing temptation in the desert, Jesus relied on Scripture to counter the wiles of the devil. The Bible is a formidable weapon for us as well in our struggle against sin and the Evil One. Biblical illiteracy among Christians of all types is rampant and, quite honestly, shameful. So, Lent could be an excellent time to remedy this problem, its a great period for us to get into the Bible in depth. I will post a Bible Reading plan for Lent for those of you who want to be committed to this discipline. You are more likely to keep to that plan if you decide beforehand when you will sit down, read and reflect on God’s Word.
DEVOTIONAL READING … Another emphasis in Lent has been reading devotional books, listening to writers down the centuries and in our generation who understand what it means to live for God and can inform and inspire us in our walk with God.
I know that I read a lot of “junk food literature” mostly on line, stuff about motorbikes, rugby and history. Now there is really nothing wrong with that in itself but during Lent I will be giving that up and using the time to read some devotional books, maybe you could consider doing something similar? You can get some really classic devotional books very cheaply on Kindle or some times free in pdf form on line. Drop me an email if you want more information.
GIVING TO THE POOR …. The last big emphasis in Lent has always been about giving to the poor. That’s not surprising is it? If you concentrate on Jesus for any length of time you are going to be shaped by his sacrificial love and special concern for the least, the lonely and left out.
This could take the form of simple acts of kindness and generosity to people you encounter who are in need. We also as a Church support some tremendous projects that seek to help some of the poorest people in the world. Have a look at those mission projects on our Web Page, perhaps if you save money by giving something up, you could donate that money to one of those projects?
I know that Lent might something new or at least unfamiliar to many of us but I also hope you can all see the tremendous spiritual potential. There is a danger that Lent can become legalistic and just habitual but its also a chance to get serious about allowing Jesus to shape our lives and our lives together in transforming way. Let me know if you have any more questions.