A Protestant at Lent

Stretching Out in Faith

Lent is the season of the Church calendar before Easter. The word itself comes from the Old English meaning “lengthen,” in reference to the lengthening of the days in Spring. The practice of setting aside a time of spiritual preparation before Easter began very early in Church history as most people were baptized and officially joined the Church on Easter. Together they would spend the weeks prior praying, fasting, learning the tenets of the faith, and getting their habits and affairs in line with their new lives in Christ. As the Church grew and became culturally acceptable its leaders began encouraging members to join the acolytes in this process annually, as a way of shaking off the trappings of a merely cultural Christianity (we’re talking 4th century here; this is not a new phenomenon) and rededicating themselves to following Christ together body, soul, mind, and spirit.

Protestants have a hard time figuring out how to handle Lent, because we actually have to figure it out for ourselves. Orthodox and Catholic Christians have more established parameters informing them when to pray and fast and a more coherent structure of spiritual authorities clarifying these parameters as needed. Historically, Protestants have rejected many of these parameters and structures as adding requirements, conditions, and intermediaries to our walk with God where scripture, faith, and Christ Himself should suffice. As a Protestant I appreciate the inclination to unfetter our freedom in Christ and yet I can see how my Christian heritage has cut me off from Christian traditions that are useful, faithful, and ultimately freeing. Statistically fewer of us have grown up on the spectrum between confusion and mortal fear about doing certain things certain days and not others, but we’ve also lost that sense of collective spiritual rhythm and practice. Recently, many Protestants have been trying to reclaim the benefits of a common Church calendar and traditional spiritual practices without the sense of obligation or tying our works too tightly to our hope of salvation. We have lost some of the comfort of community, but gained the advantage of being able to enter these seasons mindfully, intentionally and without a sense of imposition.

Letting God Choose Your Fast

Spiritual disciplines help us learn to control ourselves, but we’re not to be cruel masters. One indicator of whether we control a habit or it controls us is how moderate the habit is. If you watch a couple shows a week as a way to unwind with roommates or family, giving up TV for Lent won’t make you a “better Christian.” But if you feel your prime time drained daily by the tube or there’s a particular show you know is coloring your outlook and language in decidedly un-Christlike ways, give it up and take up a more prayerful habit during the time it frees.  Maybe you sleep too much, maybe not enough. Eating chocolate or drinking wine to celebrate special occasions doesn’t indicate unhealthy use. If you discern that you are using them on a regular basis to stifle your negative thoughts, use this time to break that pattern and take your worries, moods, memories, and pain to God instead.

Write down 3 things that seem like good ideas to you, then draw a couple of blank lines to designate space in which to receive ideas other than your own and pray over the page. Maybe this year Lent will be about cultivating gratitude for what you have and committing to celebrate it daily instead of denying it to yourself. Maybe it will be about living more simply with less stuff or maintaining or organizing what you have to make it functional or useful again. Maybe it will be more about giving generously than giving up. In scripture 40 days is a long, yet finite time. Things shift over the course of 40 days or years in the biblical stories. 40 days is a credible and creditable amount of time to commit to trying on a new habit or changing an old one without it feeling onerously indefinite. What is God nudging you toward? How can you work it deeper into your life in this season?

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4 thoughts on “A Protestant at Lent

  1. Thanks, Jenn. I am finally starting to understand Lent more this year than ever before. Your article has cemented the ideas and outlook that I had as I open myself up to this ancient and meaningful tradition.

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    • I think it’s like any spiritual practice – it only really starts to make sense as you do it; you can’t insist in understanding it upfront. That’s where tradition comes in handy, I suppose – it encourages us to try things before we’ve experienced their significance because others have found them significant.

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