Growing up as a child in a Southern Baptist congregation, the church year was pretty much the same Sunday by Sunday. We attended Sunday School and read the Bible, but did not learn much about liturgy in that church.
Only when I got into a degree program at a Methodist seminary in Southern California did I get “baptized” into the history of the church year and specific Sunday liturgies. The first time I saw a Roman Catholic friend with ashes on his forehead, I was embarrassed to ask about their meaning. “Today’s Ash Wednesday!” Then he went on to explain to me his parish ritual. Maybe you aren’t as familiar with all the rituals either, but most of us realize that in the spring the church plans for Easter. Like some other Christian traditions, there are elements of nature, paganism, and spiritual experience mixed into these seasonal and church year celebrations and experiences.
Lent is one of those. The early descriptions in the New Testament of Jesus’ public ministry began with His baptism by John and then a 40-day testing in the wilderness before He returned “preaching and teaching the kingdom of God.” The 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter are based on that experience.
Part of the preparation for Easter includes focus. Some churches will practice “fasting” to focus on greater spiritual awareness. Others encourage us to “give up” something for Lent. These are all extra-Biblical additions to the church life. But there are certainly ways for each of us to allow this season of the year to bring into focus our own spiritual growth. I’d like to suggest three ideas for your consideration:
Gratitude calls for a deepening sense of spiritual sensitivity. Paul’s awareness of his need to grow led him to pray “that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection…” Paul had met the Risen Lord on the Damascus Road; he knew Jesus, but he wanted more.
Knowing first begins by establishing a relationship with Christ by grace through faith. But we add to that as we learn to trust God in the everyday walk which opens our spiritual senses to be drawn to Him. The Bible uses the word “to know” to describe the deepest intimacy between a man and a woman. Paul wanted to be in an intimate relationship with God. If you are a believer, you learn to appreciate “walking” with God as faith heroes like Enoch, Abraham and Moses did.
But there is no spirituality in being a taker without becoming a giver. As one of the most quoted verses of the Bible says, “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son …”John 3:16)
Lent leads us to generosity. God, the greatest Giver becomes our model. As you consider how to be generous in this season, don’t stop at the physical offering to your church or wider community. This is a time of the year when we can explore being generous with ourselves to those in need around us.
I saw a man stop outside a gas station on a cold day. He went in and returned with a hot cup of coffee and a sandwich for a homeless man waiting there. When our children were small, we lived near a retirement center. We deliberately went as a family to greet those sitting in the halls and often to sing a hymn. The owner said it was the highlight of the week for the residents who had no relatives nearby.
A little girl who lived in a multi-story apartment building was missing for a while. When she returned to her own apartment, her mother asked her where she had been. She answered, “I went upstairs to visit with the lady whose husband died.” “What did you do?” The little girl said, “I just sat beside her and cried with her.” “A little child shall lead them!”
Whether you had ashes on your forehead, or prayed the aspiring words of Paul, let this season of Lent be an opportunity to act out your appreciation to someone in need. It may be someone no one else will sit and cry with or a nursing home resident who simply needs a smile or a hug. Jesus said, “If you did it to one of these, you did to me. You are blessed!”
May your Lenten preparation lead to a joyously rewarding Easter!