O Me of Little Faith

A conversation:

Seriously? “The LENTerview”? That’s horrible.

Sorry. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing, like when I got that figure-skating demon tattoo.

Which is also horrible.

Agreed. I have my regrets.

So the season of Lent begins today, right?

Yes. Today is Ash Wednesday. Lent continues from today until Easter, which is April 4.

I didn’t know you were Catholic.

I’m not. My denominational background is Southern Baptist.

But isn’t Lent something that Catholics observe?

Well, yes. It’s also something that Episcopalians, Anglicans, Lutherans, and other high-church Christians have observed over the years. Lent is not exclusive to a certain denomination, though. It’s been a part of the Christian calendar since, like, the 2nd century. Since before Catholics were called Catholics, and before there was such thing as a Protestant.

Ok, then. But I totally didn’t know Baptists were into that kind of thing.

Uh, they’re not. Not really. The Anabaptists in our history tossed out any religious practice that seemed too Pope-y back in the 17th century, which meant the Christian calendar and Lent got pushed aside. Growing up, it wasn’t just that Lent wasn’t much emphasized in my church. It pretty much didn’t exist at all. Easter was a big deal, and the church was closed on Good Friday. But that was it. Never a word about Ash Wednesday.

The first time I ever heard about Lent was in the movie Fletch 2, when Chevy Chase’s character said he’d given up rattlesnake for Lent. I was in high school, I think.

Fletch 2 was totally underrated.

No it wasn’t.

So why do you observe Lent now?

Because I think observing Lent — which I’ve done for 4 or 5 years now — is one of the most valuable spiritual practices in my life. It’s something that I honestly believe all Christians ought to consider making a part of their faith. Not to earn some kind of holiness points or heavenly crowns or anything, but just because it makes Easter that much more meaningful.

By “observing Lent,” you mean fasting, right? Giving up something for Lent?

Yes. Fasting during Lent is a way to acknowledge (with great humility) the self-sacrifice of Christ on the cross. In observance of Lent, Christians give up something they love — coffee, sweets, alcoholic beverages, shopping — for a few reasons. First, it’s a mild form of discipline and self-denial. And let’s face it: there’s not much discipline or self-denial in the life of the modern Westerner. Second, you replace whatever you’ve removed from your life with something of benefit, like prayer or scripture reading or service. Third, giving up something helps keep your small personal sacrifice at the front of your mind, which means it’s a great way to focus on the larger sacrifice of Jesus and remain conscious of his death during the weeks leading up to Easter.

So the fast ends at Easter?

Exactly, and that’s the point. Before I began observing Lent, it seemed like Easter just kept sneaking up on me. Suddenly it was there, without warning. You’ll notice this never happens with Christmas. Christmas never sneaks up on us, because we start preparing for it as soon as we get the dishes washed after the Thanksgiving meal. That’s the role the Lenten season plays: because you’re fasting from something, it makes you anticipate the coming of Easter and the end of your fast. You start looking toward Easter several weeks beforehand. In a small way, this deepens your celebration of the resurrection.

What should I give up?

I’m not going to say you should give up anything. This isn’t a rule you have to follow. Lent isn’t a biblical command or anything like that. It’s just a religious tradition, and God doesn’t love Lent-fasters more than he loves everyone else. But it is a valuable practice. Anyway, to answer your question, there are plenty of things you could do without for the next six weeks. Give up sodas the whole time, or your morning coffee. Give up television on one day a week. Give up the game apps on your iPhone. Stop eating sweets. Stop snacking between meals. Give up Twitter or blogs or–

Gasp. You’re not giving up blogging, are you?

No. Not this year. I can certainly see the value of something like that — and it may be something I do in the future for Lent — but not this year.

Thanks. I was worried.

Whatever. The first time I observed Lent, I gave up listening to my car’s radio or CD player when I drove. No music or NPR or anything. Just silence. I used that time to pray. It was very quiet and pretty cool. And the result was that, by the time the Lenten season ended, I was ready for Easter. I had been thinking about it and preparing for it for those 40 days.

Wait. There’s more than 40 days between today and April 4. It’s something like 47 days.

Right. There are seven Sundays in there, and you don’t count Sundays. A lot of churches recommend you break your fast every Sunday, because the sabbath is a day for celebration — not self-denial. Take away the Sundays and you have the 40 days of Lent.

What about your atheist or agnostic readers? Is there any virtue in them observing Lent?

Well, I doubt the part about making Easter more meaningful will entice a nonbeliever into a Lenten observance. But I definitely think there’s some personal value in taking a few weeks every year to do without something. Self-denial is an important virtue, and its one that separates us from the animals. People deny themselves stuff all the time because of a perceived benefit. Dieters do it, then add exercise to their lives in order to become healthier. If you decide to train for a marathon, you’re willingly going to give up a lot of free time and replace it with jogging. I guess, if they wanted, a nonbeliever could observe a fast during the Lenten season without having to connect it to religion. Environmentalists might give up driving their cars the whole time. Take public transportation and let the planet benefit. Or you could go without sweets for a few weeks and let your body benefit from the sugar detox.

But to be honest, I wouldn’t expect atheists to derive much meaning out of Lent. And that’s OK. My Southern Baptist heritage doesn’t put much stock in it either. 🙂

Although Protestant enthusiasm for the practice is definitely growing…

Any other words about Lent?

Not really. But if you’ve never observed the practice, and if you’re a Christian, I’d encourage you to try it. Just to see. I have no doubt you’ll see the value in it.


Update: You might consider joining Blood:Water Mission for their 40 Days of Water campaign. Drink only water during Lent and donate the money you save toward building clean water proje
cts in Uganda.

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