by Jodi Craiglow
It’s that time of year again. It seems like we just put away the purple vestments — and now it’s time to pull them out again. However, this season of “royal preparation” tends to take a more somber note than the one we’ve just completed. Instead of singing carols and drinking eggnog, we’re rubbing ashes on our foreheads and hightailing it away from anything chocolate-covered. If we’re honest, Lent often ends up getting a bum rap in American society. Asceticism doesn’t typically play well to the masses, and in an era where organized religion increasingly tends to be viewed as little more than hoops to jump through, the idea of deliberately taking on an additional level of spiritual rigor can be confusing at best and laughable at worst.
So why, then, do we liturgically-oriented Christians do it? What’s the purpose of these 40 days (plus Sundays) every springtime? We find our answer, actually, when we look to the very name we’ve given this period of preparation. Our modern-day term Lent comes from the Old English lencten, which (you guessed it) means “to lengthen.” As Norman Tanner, a Jesuit priest, describes, “Lent comes at a time when the hours or daytime are ‘lengthening,’ as spring approaches, and so it is a time when we too can ‘lengthen’ spiritually, when we can stretch out and grow in the Spirit.” So, in a way, Lent is the equivalent of putting ourselves through a regimen of spiritual Pilates — we’re willingly contorting into positions in which we wouldn’t ordinarily find ourselves in order to build strength, flexibility and endurance. We’re “extending” our spiritual stamina so that we’ll be fully able to travel the road God has charted out for us.
Let’s extend the metaphor, then: If Lent is like spiritual Pilates, then Christian educators can think of ourselves as fitness instructors. We’re responsible for leading our fellow believers in exercises that help strengthen and tone their faith. As I’ve considered the different Lenten exercises believers have engaged in over the past couple of millennia, I’ve discovered that they fall into three broad categories: restraint, refocusing and restoration. Each category contains two practices; while each practice is distinct from its counterpart, they work in tandem, multiplying the impact and effects of one another. (A note of caution: The following paragraphs present many different options. Just as a fitness instructor would injure her participants if she made them work through all the different exercises in one workout, so too will you spiritually exhaust your fellow believers if you try all of these practices during one Lenten season. Remember, there’s always next year.)
RESTRAINT: REDUCTION AND RESTRICTION
First, we encounter exercises of restraint. These are the practices most people tend to think of when they hear the word Lent — yet, unlike memes that float around social media every March, these practices are not about getting closer to God by spending a few weeks not eating M&Ms. Instead, they’re about deliberately clearing the way for God to come in and start working in our lives. In fact, that’s often the biggest problem with Lenten exercises of restraint: People mistake them for an end in themselves when, in reality, they’re merely the first step in the process. (Think of it this way: Only a fool would send a dinner invitation to an important guest, clean the house from top to bottom and then consider the event completed.)
Composing the exercise of restraint we find the practices of reduction and restriction. Reduction involves clearing away all the unnecessary “stuff” that suffocates our spiritual vitality, including both physical items and time commitments. Restriction is temporarily saying “no” to those things and/or experiences that are, for all intents and purposes, good, in order to remind ourselves that our true hunger is for God and God’s righteousness. These practices, taken together, force us into a new pattern and rhythm of life, allowing God to breathe fresh wind into our otherwise stale routines and cluttered lifestyles. They also remind us that God doesn’t love us for what we have or what we do — we’re loved because God is love and we’re created in God’s image.
What might these look like in the church setting? Obviously, when it comes to restriction practices, we can encourage people to engage in Lenten fasting — it’s a time-honored tradition that (when done well) helps believers to identify with the struggles Christ faced throughout his life and in his death. We might also organize corporate fasts like the 30 Hour Famine or hunger simulations like the Oxfam Hunger Banquet to open our eyes to the suffering going on in the world around us. In terms of reduction, we could arrange an all-church decluttering day — or, for those congregants with exceptional intestinal fortitude, mutual house-cleaning sessions — in order to clear our physical space. We could bring in organization specialists and/or spiritual directors to help us learn how to reprioritize and restructure. On the other hand, we might also consider how we can clear out our temporal space by decluttering our congregation’s corporate schedule. (Yes, I’m meddling here, but just imagine: What would it look like if there were no church committee meetings during Lent?) Regardless of the specific practices we adopt, though, the point is to clear our minds, our schedules, our spaces and/or our palates so that we can encounter God afresh and recognize anew God’s central place in our lives.
REFOCUSING: REFLECTION AND REPENTANCE
Next, we consider refocusing exercises. Now that we’ve put aside our usual routines and cleared away the clutter, we can begin to re-envision our self-understanding and realign our priorities. We refocus by engaging in reflection, a long, honest look at who we are and where our lives (both individual and corporate) are headed, and repentance, turning toward God and away from our own rebellious tendencies. Two biblical terms — one from the New Testament, one from the Old — will help to shed a little more light on this. The first is metanoia, which literally means “to change (or go beyond) one’s mind.” It’s the word first-century Greek speakers used to indicate that the true nature of their situation had finally dawned on them — they’d come to their senses, and they realized that changes needed to be made. The second, teshuvah, is often translated “repentance,” but it means more than that. It indicated the heartfelt remorse and thorough confession that (especially) took place during festivals surrounding the Day of Atonement when the sins of the nation of Israel would be wiped clean for another year. Thus, when we refocus, we come to a clearer understanding of where our lives are situated in light of who God is and who God has created us to be, and we commit to making significant course corrections that will bring us more into alignment with God’s priorities and purposes. Only after we allow the bonds of whatever else controls us to be broken can we truly experience what it means to have freedom in Christ.
As Christian educators, how then might we encourage and equip our fellow believers to refocus during the season of Lent? We can engage in sessions of contemplative prayer and Bible study, perhaps in the pattern of lectio divina. We can also make our Lenten reflections and prayers concrete in the form of devotional journals (which, if you plan ahead, can include meditations written by congregation members), works of individual or collaborative art, or Lenten photo projects. Or, if you’re looking for a multi-sensory experience, Tori Smit from the Presbyterian Church in Canada designed what she calls the CrossWalk, a narrated “spiritual journey” through stations representing the events of Holy Week.
In terms of repentance, we might consider organizing a time of lament and confession. During this time, participants could write down the personal and corporate sins that they wish to bring before God, and then symbolize God’s removal through nailing them to a cross (evoking Christ’s crucifixion), tying them to a stone and dropping them into water (representing baptism) or attaching them to helium-filled balloons and releasing them into the air (in the pattern of the “scapegoat” that would receive Israel’s sins and then be released into the wilderness). We might also encourage our brothers and sisters to approach those with whom they have caused disagreement or difficulty and make amends.
RESTORATION: REDEMPTION AND RECONCILIATION
Finally, once we’ve cleared off our physical and spiritual spaces and recalibrated our perspectives and priorities, we’re ready to participate in God’s restoration. This is when, in the words of Cornelius Plantinga, we have the opportunity to take part in resetting things to “the way they’re supposed to be.” We get to be agents of shalom, which he defines as “universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight — a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom [God] delights.” This takes place through the practices of redemption and reconciliation.
Redemption has a twofold meaning: It involves both “buying back” things or people from somewhere they weren’t intended to be and re-engaging their true, God-created purpose. It’s about investing our God-given abilities, opportunities and privileges in others, so they too can experience the fullness of Christ’s freedom and the richness of God’s blessings. For a definition of reconciliation, we turn to our Catholic sisters and brothers (for whom it’s a sacrament — which most of us Protestants recognize by its other name, “confession”). Basically, it’s the practice of laying ourselves bare — spiritual warts, wounds, wrinkles and all — and hearing a fellow believer tell us, “I see you for all of who you are and, through Christ’s power, I love and accept you. Let’s work together to restore what’s broken.” When we act as agents of God’s reconciliation, we can approach one another as we truly are — simultaneously broken and beautiful — and, instead of acting in self-serving fear, we can extend trust and receive grace. We can freely share our gifts, skills, and knowledge with one another as an act of grateful worship to the One who has bestowed them upon us, and we can work to “expand the borders” of Christ’s kingdom throughout the earth.
“That’s wonderful,” I hear you saying, “but how can I bring this back to my Sunday school students?” This is where partnerships and field trips can come in! There’s no better way to learn about redemption than to see it in action. Start rubbing elbows with folks who spend their time on the front lines of God’s kingdom work — mission workers, Christian community organizers, social advocates, nonprofit workers and volunteers, anyone who is living out their call to follow Jesus in “taking the form of a servant” and investing their own power, resources and influence in the lives of “the least of these.” Invite them in to speak to your congregation, or — better yet — invite the congregation to go observe these folks where they live and work. Likewise, encourage and equip your fellow churchgoers to invest themselves in a cause that helps to reestablish “universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight.” And, simply put, reconciliation can’t truly be understood unless it’s lived out. This may be the toughest “sell” you give your congregation, but take it from me, it’s far and away the most rewarding. Engage in what I like to call “sanctified stupidity” — acts that seem like utter foolishness to the rest of the world, but make perfect sense when you’re operating from a Christ-centered mindset. Cross boundaries that you’re afraid to cross. Get to know people that you’d normally shy away from, be it for political, social, racial, economic, doctrinal or any other category of reasons. Remember that the same God who created, redeemed and sustains you is the One who “fearfully and wonderfully made” every person who walks on the earth; is the One who’s in control of every situation we might face; and is the One whose love, grace, and mercy we have the privilege of sharing.
There’s quite a bit more to Lent than smudgy foreheads and ice cream withdrawal. If we make the most of our 40-plus-day training regimen of restraining our routines, refocusing our priorities, and restoring God’s shalom, we’ll understand the joy and significance of Resurrection Sunday in a new light. We’ll expand our understanding of and relationship with God, and we’ll be able to “lengthen” our spiritual perspective. The options proposed in this brief article merely scratch the surface on the countless ways to approach Lenten spiritual formation. Take these suggestions and run with them. Exercise your own God-given creativity as you prepare yourself and your brothers and sisters to celebrate the Risen Lord!
JODI CRAIGLOW is an adjunct professor and PhD student at Trinity International University, a ruling elder at First Presbyterian Church in Libertyville, Illinois, and a curriculum developer for the Synod of Mid-America’s Theocademy.