Lent often carries with it the idea of giving up chocolate, cakes and sweets as a way to kick-start the post-Christmas, pre-Easter diet. I heard the prayer of someone who struggled to give up cakes one Lent: ‘Lord, if you can’t make me skinny, please make all my friends fat’. In reality, Lent is much more valuable, and counter-cultural than that. The 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Saturday offer Christians opportunity to recalibrate their lives as disciples in the Way of Jesus Christ, and to learn from Him the freedom of saying ‘Yes’ to ‘No!’
Watch and Pray
In Lent we are invited to accompany Jesus on a journey which starts in the desert and ends in the garden of Gethsemane. There Jesus calls his disciples to ‘watch and pray’. The experiences we have this Lent can be made into opportunities to draw closer to God, so that when the time comes for us to watch and pray in the rocky places, we may be better prepared.
Speed shortens life
Some years ago I heard the German theologian Jürgen Moltman say in a lecture: ‘Death shortens life and so does speed’. We often think that by going faster, we get more out and pack more in. But the reverse is often true. Speed means we don’t fully engage. Haste means we often fail to feel all life’s textures, the joys and the pain. We miss the enrichment both these can bring.
Before Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil, he had a tremendously affirming experience of his Father’s love at his baptism. As he rose from the waters of the Jordan, he heard the Father’s voice say: ‘You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased’ (Mark 1: 11). With this ringing in his ears, he entered the desert – the darkness of the divine withdrawal. Through testing he faced his fears, accepted the limits of his humanity and trusted in the assurance of God’s love.
Following the example of Jesus we need escape hatches from the pressure cooker called haste. Lent offers us opportunities to create margins or hard-shoulders in our lives, to learn quietness and attentiveness before God; to pray. One simple definition of prayer is ‘To keep trying to turn back to God’.
Living more simply
In our culture of consumerism, consumption and comfort- eating Lent offers us the challenge of ‘voluntary simplicity’. To consider how God might be calling us to simplify our lives, to choose not to indulge certain appetites, developing the discipline of giving things away, learning to enjoy things without feeling we have to own them. What disciplines are we intending to exercise this Lent in order to create space for God, to be ready for the challenge of the spiritual battle? One definition of repentance is ‘Getting free to be further drawn into the life of God’.
Human extremity is the frequent meeting place with God
The desert places we sometimes face are fierce, but can also be friendly, because God is in the facts, whether visible or not. The difficulties we face are like fire, they can refine us. Often the only way into the Promised Land is through the desert. In the Bible human extremity is the frequent meeting place with God. The fact that God didn’t remove the ‘thorn’ in Paul’s life is a reminder there are many things which can only be accomplished by waiting and living through the difficulties that grate against us and test our faith.
Don’t test God’s love, trust it!
Lent offers us the challenge of going on in Christian discipleship. In our instant age the only instant thing in our lives is our acceptance before God. The rest we need to work on, accepting God’s word that His grace really is sufficient for us, for His power is perfected even in our weakness! As we enter this Lent let’s remember we don’t need to test God’s love, we need to trust it.
A practical response to Lent
Each year I use the following three headings to help me engage with the challenge of lent: Giving things up, Taking things up, Giving things away.
Giving things up:
This is choosing not to indulge certain appetites. Fasting can lessons the hold material things have over us, and helps us make room for God in our lives. The obvious fast is from food. Some fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Others fast one meal a week or from certain foods. Of course you can fast from other things IE the TV. Here’s a possible list:
Meat free Monday
TV free Tuesday
World Wide Web free Wednesday
Thirst free Thursday (no alcohol)
Facebook free Friday
Shopping free Saturday
Sermon free Sunday (that of course is a joke!!).
Taking things up:
Jesus says we should fast to better concentrate on God, so I like to create space in Lent to take something up to help me do that:
Read a life of Jesus (one of the Gospels)
A devotional book (this year I’m recommending ‘My Father’s Tears’ by Mark Stibbe)
Book a Quiet Day (at a local Convent etc.)
One quiet evening each week with no TV, Radio, Computer etc.
Try different styles of prayer.
Create times of silence
Give things away:
In the OT fasting is often linked with acts of justice and compassion towards others. There are so many practical things we could do: shopping or gardening for a neighbor etc. The website http://www.40acts.org.uk details something practical we could do each day of lent.
God of stillness and creative action, help us to make space for you this lent, that we may live deeper lives as those who follow the Way of Jesus Christ; Amen