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Mark D. Roberts

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Well, we survived another Super Bowl. This year’s game turned out to be an thrilling one, unless, of course, you’re a New England Patriots’ fan. Nevertheless, last Sunday evening we watched the culmination of years and years of training, as top athletes displayed their wares in the “big game.” Win or lose, they can always say they played in the Super Bowl, which counts for a lot in American life today.
So here’s my question for you and me: Do we train for the things that matter most in life? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, I think. Most of us trained extensively for our professions, sometimes for multiple years after college. Yet, at the same time, most of us trained very little for parenting. These days, people often spend more time preparing for childbirth than for what to do afterwards. Similarly with matters of faith. I know some Christians who have prepared carefully for certain acts of discipleship, like going overseas as a missionary, for example. But others of us approach our faith rather like parenting, as something we can do just fine without much intentional preparation. Yet this, I would suggest, isn’t a helpful approach to faith. I didn’t make up this critique. It’s inspired by the New Testament, specifically by Paul’s first letter to Timothy:

Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. (1 Timothy 4:7-8)

(You might be interested to know that the verb “train” and the noun “training” in Greek are gymnazo and gymnasia, related to our word “gymnasium.” You might be even more interested to know that these Greek words come from gymnos, which literally means “naked.” Ancient Greek athletes trained and competed without clothing. But I digress . . . .) Scripture says: “Train yourself in godliness.” Even as an athlete prepares for excellence in sport, so we should prepare for excellence in spiritual things.
There are lots of dimensions of spiritual preparation. Today I want to focus on one, and it’s one that Paul didn’t have in mind as he wrote to Timothy. Nevertheless, I think it reflects the basic intent of this Scripture passage.
I’m talking about Lent. Lent is a season of spiritual preparation. In days gone by, it was a time for new Christians to literally prepare for baptism and for joining the church. I know of some churches that continue this practice today. But, for most of us, Lent isn’t about getting ready for baptism. Rather, it’s about training our hearts for a deeper relationship with God. And, in particular, Lent is a time to prepare our spirits for the Super Bowl of the Christian year, Holy Week and Easter.
In the season of Lent, many Christians participate in a fast of some kind, setting aside certain foods or non-essential activities. Yet the point of the fast isn’t deprivation so much as dedication of oneself to God. If I give up television for Lent, for example, I shouldn’t replace it with extra hours playing video games. Rather, I should devote additional time to various spiritual disciplines, maybe even to good ol’ fashioned rest.
Some Christian traditions emphasize, not so much giving up something in Lent as adding something. Here the focus is more directly on doing things that will help us draw near to the Lord: a Bible study at church, special service to the poor, reading C.S. Lewis, or . . . .  But whether you give something up, or take something on, or both, the point is to help you draw near to God, so as to prepare your spirit to invest more deeply in the worship of Holy Week and Easter.
Lent is often a season of penitence, that is, a time when we remember our sins so that we might feel genuinely sorry for them and truly repent of them (turn away from them to God). Some Christians make a special effort to confess their sins each day of Lent. This is not about wallowing in guilt. Rather, it’s a way to experience in a deeper way our need for God, and to receive His forgiveness more extensively.
No matter what you do or don’t do in Lent, I would encourage you to let this be a season of preparation for Holy Week and Easter. (Technically, Holy Week is the culmination of Lent, which ends at midnight on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter.) The fruit of Lent is both a deeper relationship with God now and a more exuberant and mindful celebration of Easter in six weeks.
If you’re not sure what to do in this Lenten season, let me once again suggest a simple Lenten discipline. Read one chapter of a gospel each day during Lent. Before you begin, ask the Lord to speak to you through his Word. Read slowly and prayerfully. Let the text sink into your mind and heart. When you’ve finished reading, pray about whatever has touched you. If you begin with the Gospel of Mark, you’ll have enough time to read it and one other gospel during Lent.
May the Lord bless you in this season of Lenten preparation!

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