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O Me of Little Faith

Today is Ash Wednesday, which means it’s the first day of the Lenten season for Christians around the world. I thought it might be best to relay my thoughts about Lent in a self-interview format…just because it’s been awhile since I did that. This is a modification of a post I first wrote on my old blog.

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So the season of Lent begins today, right?

Yes. Today is Ash Wednesday. Lent continues from today until Easter, which falls on April 24 this year.

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 way back around the 2nd century. Since way before Catholics were called Catholics, and before there was such thing as a Protestant, or Rob Bell.

Do universalists observe Lent?

I have no idea.

What about heretics?

Move along, please.

Fine. I wasn’t aware that Baptists like you were into that kind of thing.

Well, first I should make it clear that I am a very poor representative of Baptists — Southern or otherwise — so don’t get any ideas.

Second, you’re correct. Most Baptists are big on Easter but don’t pay much attention to Ash Wednesday or the season of Lent. Back in the 17th century, our predecessors, the Anabaptists, tossed out any religious practice that seemed too Pope-y back in the 17th century, which meant the Christian calendar and Lent got thrown out with the bathwater.

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 major Sunday celebration, and the church offices were closed on Good Friday. But that was it. Never a word about Ash Wednesday.

In fact, the first time I ever heard about Lent was in the 1989 movie Fletch Lives, when Chevy Chase’s character said he’d given up rattlesnake “for Lent.” I was in high school. Fletch was in the Louisiana bayou.

Fletch Lives was totally underrated.

No it wasn’t.

So why do you observe Lent now?

Because I believe observing Lent — which I’ve done for the last half-dozen years — is a valuable spiritual practice, and one I think would benefit most Christians. Not to earn some kind of holiness points, but just because it helps to make Easter more meaningful.

Hang on. Isn’t Easter meaningful enough already?

Yes, of course. But here’s the thing. Before I incorporated a Lenten fast into the year, I found Easter sneaking up on me. All of a sudden it was spring, and then it was Easter, and suddenly the most important day in the Christian calendar had arrived and passed on by.

We start anticipating and preparing for Christmas as soon as we clear the table on Thanksgiving. Why wouldn’t we want to do the same for Easter?

By beginning a fast on Ash Wednesday — and, as a result, looking toward the conclusion of the fast on April 24 — it helps you prepare for Easter. You spend the season of Lent in anticipation.

So when people (like, apparently, Chevy Chase) say they are “giving something up” for Lent, that means fasting, right? But fasting from what?

From almost anything. Fasting during Lent is a way to acknowledge (with great humility) the self-sacrifice of Christ on the cross. In observance of Lent, Christians will give up something they love — coffee, sweets, meat, alcoholic beverages, shopping — during the entire period.

We do this 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. In fact, in recent days, certain celebrities have come to describe an undisciplined, self-indulgent life as, ahem, “winning.” But just like physical health requires the disciplines of exercise and healthy eating and occasional self-denial — I guess we should call this “losing” in Sheen-like fashion — so does spiritual health.

Second, you replace whatever you’ve removed from your life with something of benefit, like prayer or reading or community service. Something that improves your spiritual health and “prepares you” for Easter. It’s like replacing your chocolate cake with another helping of broccoli.

Third, giving up something helps keep your small personal sacrifice at the front of your mind, which means it’s a great way to maintain focus on the larger sacrifice at the heart of Christianity — that of Christ on the cross — during the weeks leading up to Easter.

So the fast ends at Easter?

Exactly, and that’s the point. 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 ahead of time. 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 anyone else. But it is a valuable practice.

Quit dancing around and answer the question. What should I give up?

There are plenty of things you could do without for the next six weeks. Give up sodas or your morning coffee. Give up television on one day a week for the weeks of Lent. Fast from meat, like many Christians have done for centuries. Stop eating sweets. Stop snacking between meals. Give up your addiction to Angry Birds (or, at least give it a break until Easter). Give up Twitter or blogs or —

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

Did you just say “Gasp”?

Audible noises of surprise and dismay do not communicate well in written format.

Noted. No, I’m not giving up blogging, or twitter for that matter. I can certainly see the value of a social-media fast — and it may be something I do in the future for Lent — but not this year.

So what are you giving up?

In the past I’ve gone without sweets for the entire period (I love chocolate-chip cookies), or audio accompaniment while driving or riding my bike to work (it turns out that commuting time is a good time to pray, as long as you keep your eyes open). This year I’m doing something that, on the surface, sounds pretty silly.

Salsa dancing?

No. I’m giving up Words with Friends.

The Scrabble-ish iPhone game?

Yep. I play it every day. Literally. I tend to have 12-15 games going simultaneously with friends and family. I’m not obsessive about it or constantly checking it (I tend to limit myself to around one play a day in each active game), but it certainly can snare a lot of my attention if I let it. So I’m finishing out my current games and won’t start new ones until Easter, 40 days from now.

Wait. There’s more than 40 days between today and April 24. It’s something like 46 days.

Right. There are six Sundays in there, plus Easter Sunday, and traditionally you don’t count Sundays in the 40 days of Lent. A lot of churches suggest you break your fas
t every Sunday, because the sabbath is a day for celebration — not self-denial. But either way, take away the Sundays and you have the 40 days of Lent.

For what it’s worth, the Sunday thing isn’t a hard, fast rule. Lots of people just continue their fasts the whole time, straight on through. Some people break them that one day each week. (I’ve done both.)

Any other ideas about stuff we might forego during the next 40 days?

Why, yes, I do have another idea. Thanks for asking. Every year, the good folks at Blood:Water Mission sponsor a “Forty Days of Water” campaign during Lent. Make water the only thing you drink for 40 days. Save the money you would have spent on coffee, soda, beer, or whatever and help Blood:Water
Mission provide clean water for people in Africa who, to be honest, would consider it an unthinkable luxury to drink clean water AT ALL — much less anything else — for 40 whole days.

Can this interview be over now?

Yes.

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Your turn:

Do you observe Lent? Why or why not?

And if you have any good ideas about potential fasts, make those suggestions in the comments…

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