Baptists do Lent too

The other day I went into a local Christian bookstore and asked if they carried any children trinkets for Ash Wednesday–things like stickers and pencils and stuff.   I was caught off-guard when the store clerk informed me that, no, they don’t carry Ash Wednesday stuff because Baptists don’t celebrate Ash Wednesday.

That was a surprise to me.  I know many Baptists who observe Ash Wednesday, including me.  Why, many churches throughout the South, not to mention the North, also practice Ash Wednesday.  Perhaps we need to set the record straight.

Ash Wednesday is the first day of the season of Lent.  Lent is a time in the Christian calendar that eventually leads to Holy Week, or the week between Palm Sunday and Easter.  It lasts forty days and emphasizes repentance, confession, and fasting.  We follow Jesus into the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13) and recall Israel’s wanderings in the desert to live “not by bread alone, but by the very Word of God,” to feast on the spiritual manna of God’s forgiveness.

Ash Wednesday, therefore, inaugurates Lent by re-enacting the Jewish tradition of repenting with ashes.  This is an ancient custom, one in which a penitent sinner sprinkled ashes on the head as a sign that he or she was no match for God (Esther 4:1-3 for example; or, more dramatically, Jeremiah 6:26).  Although Jesus came to give God’s children “a garland instead of ashes” (Is. 61:3), this practice became a part of the Christian church as early as 130 AD.

These days, many churches are casting off rituals such as Ash Wednesday in order to get at the “relationship” one has with God.  Why practice these “rituals” when so many people no longer desire religiosity?

I can’t answer that on behalf of other Christians; but, for me, Ash Wednesday and the rest of the Christian calendar represents a structure that provides rich meaning in my own journey of faith.  It gives me a skeleton upon which to hang some healthy spiritual muscles.

To say that Ash Wednesday is not relevant is like saying my family tree has no relevance in shaping who I am as a person.  When I join Christ’s Church in practicing those time-tested traditions, I feel like I belong to something larger than myself–It gets me out of the self-centered, individualistic cult that Christianity has become for far too many communities of faith.

I’m not saying that a church is wrong for not practicing Ash Wednesday–After all, there is beauty in the mosaic of diverse communities that sustain faith on their own terms.  Rather, I am saying that a nose in the Body of Christ should not tell the arm what to do no more than the arm should look down on the nose because the nose can be snotty sometimes.

What matters most is that a variety of worship styles can bolster one’s relationship with God rather than hinder it.  For instance, I experience faith in a kinesthetic worship setting.  I like to use all five senses, not just sing songs or hear someone preach.  I like the feel of the ashes on my forehead, the smell of burning candles on the altar, the look of the purple frontal (tablecloth) on the communion table and the sitting-and-standing routine in the order of worship that helps engage my whole being.

It is a magnificent, inexplicable spiritual experience that actually has little to do with either ritual or religiosity.

Ultimately, Ash Wednesday reminds me that I am only human and that I, too, am in need of God’s grace day in and day out.   We who follow Christ pick up our cross daily and sing “Wherever He Leads, I’ll Go,” but a formal time of confession always makes me all the more willing to do so even in the midst of the failures and fragility of life.

Sources:

“The History and Meaning of Ash Wednesday,” by Richard Bucher

“The Beginning of Lent,” by Todd Olsen

“Lent for Baptists,” by Jim Denison

An Open Letter: Your plans for Lent…

Courtesy of Huffington Post (click picture for link)

Dear Baptist Spirituality  readers,

Lent is coming up rather quickly.  It begins on Ash Wednesday, February 22nd.

Lent is the time in which we follow Jesus into the wilderness and place our trust on God in a renewed spirit of faith.  It consists of 40 days (Sundays not included) that lead up to Holy Week (Palm Sunday through Easter).  These 40 days echo Jesus’ time in the wilderness.

It was there that Jesus faced several temptations, all of which sought to throw doubt on Jesus’ dependence upon God.  Satan told Jesus that he, Jesus, did not have to rely on God.   Jesus could be powerful, even avoiding death on the cross.  Jesus could satisfy his own longings by joining Satan’s forces on earth rather than ascend to His heavenly Father.  Jesus could test God and take the short-cut to become an earthly, divine messiah bent on war and conquest over Rome.

“Worship me,” Satan said, “And all the kingdoms of the earth shall be yours.”

Jesus, of course, resisted all three temptations.  “Humans,” Jesus told Satan, “Do not live on bread alone, but on every Word of God.”

How easy it is to turn stones into bread!  We, too, are asked to give up something or change something drastically–in a spirit of repentance–in order to follow this path of self-sacrifice and abandonment.

Every year, I hear lots of ideas about what people are doing for Lent.  Some folks fast this or that; others do something extraordinary to help their spiritual growth.  Yet others take remarkable, if not unusual, steps to help them get closer to Christ.

I’d like to know what you are doing this year during Lent.  What are things from which you will fast?  What books or devotionals are you reading?  What prayers or internet resources will help support your Lenten journey?

Please leave a comment on this thread, and let us know!  Perhaps your ideas will inspire those of others!

Blessings,

Joe LaGuardia

The wilderness of Lent and the journey to Calvary

Jesus Tempted, by Chris Cook

I have come to believe that God meets us precisely where we are.  Sometimes God meets us in the darkness of night or in the dawn of a new day.  Other times, in the green field of His pasture.  We find God on the mountain of praise or in the valley of grief.

During Lent, we travel with Jesus and meet God in the wilderness of testing (Matt. 4:1-11).  Just as Jesus learned to go without food in a place of vulnerability and temptation, we also sense our deepest needs and learn to trust God.

Biblical wilderness often evokes some sort of conversion and transformation.  God sent Israel to the wilderness right after the Exodus from Egypt.  There, they became hungry and thirsty; they were uncertain about their future (Ex. 16).

In facing the barren landscape of testing, Israel started to complain to Moses.

“Why have you brought us out here to die?” they asked, “When we could have stayed in Egypt and had a hot meal and a sense of purpose.”  God heard their complaint and rained manna down from heaven to test “whether or not they will heed my instruction” (16:4).

I’m sure Jesus knew exactly how the Israelites felt.  He had just passed through his own Exodus of sorts with John, and he was filled with God’s Spirit to fulfill his life mission.  He went to the wilderness for forty days and became hungry. No wonder Satan’s first temptation related to food.

“If you are truly the Son of God,” Satan said, “Then turn these stones into bread.”

Surely, turning stones to bread would have been easy for Jesus.  Satan was right: Jesus was (and is) the very Son of God.  This was the guy who eventually fed 5,000 people with a few loaves of bread and some leftover fish.  Jesus could have made some manna of his own.

But this was the wilderness, and it was Satan that tempted Jesus.  Miracles were not meant to impress those who deceive Christ, Satan included.

Nor is our wilderness a place for miracles either; rather, it is quite the opposite.  Here, in the barren landscape of the soul, we are stripped of all things that would satisfy our fleshly desires.  We are left to a God who wants us to relinquish our entire life to him.

God doesn’t even throw us a bone, He turns us into bones that He may breathe into us His new, life-giving Spirit.  “Arise and walk,” Ezekiel once said to similar bones thousands of years earlier.

In wilderness we do not receive entitlements; our notions of self-reliance and independence fail us.  Our illusion that we have made it “this far on our own” crumble under the weight of God’s test.  Wilderness is, as Henri Nouwen once wrote, the “fiery furnace of transformation where the old self dies and the new self emerges.”

And that is really what is at stake–for the Israelites, for Jesus, and for you and me.  God requires that we drop the facade, the edifice, of the false self–the person who we think we should be–in exchange for the Christ-centered self.  This is the call to live a radical lifestyle in which we trust God for all things, including the basics of life–food and water.

Lent is a time to remember these things and enter the wilderness of fasting and testing.  But there is hope and light at the end of the tunnel, for Lent eventually gives way to the redemption found at Calvary.  There we crucify once and for all the sinful nature of the old self, and experience resurrection with Christ by “putting on” the new self.  The question is: Do you have what it takes to let the Spirit drive you out to the wilderness so that you give your all to God?