Even Though I’m Baptist
My earliest experience with Lent that I can remember took place in Burlington, Iowa when I was in middle school. I was in the car with my dad, driving down Roosevelt Avenue, when we passed our local Arby’s restaurant. The bright, red LED reader board proudly proclaimed “WE HAVE FISH SANDWICHES. 2 for $5!” I asked my dad why that was a big deal, figuring maybe the fish was rare or somehow special. “It’s because right now is Lent and some people stop eating beef for 40 days. But they can eat fish so lots of restaurants have specials to draw them in.” The idea of giving up any type of protein seemed incredibly dumb to my young self. No meat? I would starve! It was an uncomfortable thought.
Years later, I again encountered Lent but this time as an adult in Portland, Oregon. Having been enrolled at Multnomah University for a number of years at that point, I had many friends and acquaintances who were not mainstream baptist like myself. Some were more liturgical in their traditions and had a history of observing the 40 day period before Easter as part of their Christian faith. This felt altogether foreign to me – Easter got 1 day, not 40. And really it wasn’t even a full day but more like a couple hours in the morning with a big lunch and family pictures! Plus you couldn’t forget to wear really nice clothes. And, almost most importantly, on that one day you had to remember to initiate a specific greeting with a loud “He is Risen!” and then wait for the responder to equally proclaiming “He is Risen indeed!”
That was the extent of my Easter tradition. To do more would be…weird.
Lent bothered me. I couldn’t explain this “new” thing I saw my friends doing as un-Christian because I knew them to be God-fearing, theologically sound people. And this 40-day thing was something fish-loving, old people back in Iowa did, right? Why were my twenty-something friends doing it too? Was it because they were young, hipster, west coast Christians? If so, should I be doing the same? Was this a new, “in” thing to do like carrying around a weathered copy of Blue Like Jazz and Wild At Heart (no regrets, I loved this book for many years)? I half heartedly decided to investigate this Christian tradition and concluded that I needed to try it out. After all, I didn’t want to be late to the party.
After a couple hours on Facebook, here’s what I gathered: first, I needed to pick something to give up for my 40 day Fast. Lots of people did beef but I wasn’t going to cut out food because food was delicious. I needed something easy (and public): Social Media! Second, I needed to make sure everyone knew I was with the current trends with a timely Facebook post. “I am giving up social media for Lent! See you in 40 days!” Good job! commented a few of my friends. I wish I had your commitment! said others.
I felt very holy indeed.
That initial experiment lasted for less than a week because fasting from my life-blood was harder than I anticipated. I don’t think anyone in my circle noticed that I had been gone or remembered why I left in the first place either! No matter, I thought, I’d try again some other time.
Fast forward a few years later to a time shortly after graduation. I was a little older, a little wiser, and a lot bored. As good a time as any, I surmised, and so began my second attempt to observe Lent. This time, I would give up pasta (crazy, I know) and would attempt to read through the Bible in 40 days. In the process, I’d write a big Facebook / Blog post so everyone would know that, even though I was out of Bible College, I was still very much a Christian (sensing a recurring theme here?). I printed out my reading plan, wrote a post with day by day references for others to follow along, and dug in. While I ended up making it all 40 days without the pasta, I barely made a dent in my reading plan which made the whole effort moot in my mind. Maybe, I thought, Lent just wasn’t meant for Baptists like me. I had set a goal but couldn’t check off the box that I had succeeded fully – I felt discouraged. The realization that I wasn’t doing it for quite the right reasons didn’t enter my brain until much later, unfortunately.
So here I am today.
It is 2017, I have been a Christian for nearly 20 years, and have been a Pastor / in ministry for 10 of them. But I have yet to properly observe Lent as part of my Easter celebration. Each year it comes and goes and each year I catch myself wondering “what am I missing out on?” Over the past few weeks, as I debated trying it again, I couldn’t help but feel as though skipping this year would cause me to miss out on something beautiful and beneficial.
I wish to change this cycle, not because I am looking for likes on Facebook or because I want my Youth Group to think I am a young, hip pastor with retro ideas. I need to observe Lent this year because I want to be connected with the Church – the world wide Bride of Christ, not just my small, local body. While I love my Woodland church family, it is not representative of all Christendom.
Lent is a tradition going back some 2,000 years and encompasses the large majority of believers around the world – be they catholic, orthodox, or protestant. Admittedly, my worldview is very, very small in comparison. For better or for worse, I am most familiar with the Baptist subset of the American church, specifically the Baptist General Conference. In recent years, I’ve been able to expand that to include some independent churches in the PNW and a few local Assemblies of God churches too. But the Church (check the capitalization) is so much bigger than that!
I believe Christianity has survived for 2 millennia in the face of countless trials and real, physical persecution because it is truth. Likewise, there must be a reason for why a tradition as simple as fasting for 40 days prior to Easter has survived. There must be a purpose and it must be worthwhile because if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t continue to be around.
There’s something to be said for following an ancient, universal Lenten custom like this instead of choosing your own adventure. Most of us are not capable of being our own spiritual directors. We don’t have the perspective needed to choose the things that will really change us. (Deep down, we may not even want to change. I like to say, “Everyone wants to be transformed, but nobody wants to change.”) A fast like this, observed for 2,000 years by Eastern Christians in lands from Eastern Europe to Africa, India, and Alaska, is time-tested. – Frederica Mathewes-Green
That connection is not the solo reason as I also wish to see myself grow spiritually. I would be lying if I claimed to have this whole “pick up your Cross and follow me” thing figured out completely. I want to constantly be going deeper and gaining a more complete understanding of my God. Unfortunately, when you’ve been part of the American Christian subculture as long as I have, it’s easy to feel a little stagnated in your walk with Jesus – even a bit jaded at times. At nearly 30 years old, that scares me.
Why do Christians need to fast during Lent? Because most of us have just about everything we could ever need. We are fat & happy, and that situation is not good for the human soul. We need to go without for awhile, and tap into the deep well of strength that lives just beneath the surface of our soul. – Tim Suttle
I didn’t grow up participating in Lent so my knowledge of the tradition is limited to what I’ve gained from talking to those who did and reading articles on the topic over the past few years. What is certain is that Lent has continued to grow into an increasingly large and mysterious (but inviting) thing to this Oregon born, Iowa raised, Washington refined pastor’s kid. Lent isn’t some magic pill to instantly make my faith level up and participating won’t make me more holy than those who do not. But there is a proven history contained within its tradition that has been pushed and pulled forward through millennia to this moment in time by the Holy Spirit. That can not be ignored any longer.
I yearn to be challenged in my faith. To be made uncomfortable. To feel something…old and worn. I want to be pushed past my norm, firm in the expectation of meeting God in the unexplored. I don’t want new-age; I want tried and tested.
Lenten fasting is not part of my local church’s tradition and that is not likely to change which I am totally ok with. However, it is part of the Church’s tradition and if God has allowed it to persist for this long then it must be of some good use that is worth exploring personally. For the next 40 days, regardless of if anyone else joins me or not, I need to push myself to focus on the Savior by stripping away some of my day-to-day comfort because I crave to be closer to Him. Just as God repeatedly called Old Testament saints out into the wilderness to commune with Him, I need to venture into the unknown where my Lord is waiting for me to be willing to listen and learn.
Because, honestly, I think I got too comfortable.