How do I connect with God?
Is there something I need to do?
Do I have to impress God?
Does God really care? I’m not so sure God wants to connect with me!
Deep down, many of us have questions and feelings like these. We’re entering the season of Lent when Jesus’ followers give focused attention to these questions. But there is a fundamental assumption that must be addressed to determine whether Lent is a season of effort or a season of freedom. Before we consider that, what is Lent?
Lent is one of those old “churchy” words that seems to be coming back into use as Jesus’ followers explore the practice of the “Christian Year.” One of the fascinating trends in spiritual formation has been called “ancient-future worship” (a term coined by Robert E. Webber) in which Jesus’ followers are blending ancient practices of God’s people with contemporary worship and spirituality. There’s a new appreciation for tradition, especially when it is distinguished from traditionalism.
Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering we are where and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.
SOURCE: Christianity Today, Jaraslav Pelikan in an interview in U.S. News and World Report (June 26, 1989).
Symphonic composer Gustav Mahler said, “Tradition is not the worship of the ashes, but the keeping of the fire!” Tradition is a gift given us from previous generations to be understood, assessed and reinterpreted in our day. Remember, we will pass our tradition to those who follow. May they see it as fire, not ashes.
The Christian Year includes Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Eastertide, Pentecost and Kingdomtide or Ordinary Time. The season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and lasts for eight Sundays, followed by Holy Week which includes Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. The word “Lent” comes from an Old English word that simply refers to the lengthening of days as we enter Spring time. It is not a theological term, but speaks about the changing of the seasons. Lent is a penitential season. We prepare our hearts for the Easter message by focusing on our sin and our need for repentance and salvation. The forty days of Lent (which do not count Sundays because Sundays are always ‘Resurrection days’ for believers) also remind us of Israel’s forty years in the wilderness and Jesus’ forty days in the desert.
One of the themes of Lent is fasting, abstaining in full or in part from particular foods and/ or activities. Here’s where we get back to my opening question: Is Lent a season of effort and obligation or a season of freedom? In my experience, many view fasting as a way of showing God they sincerely regret their spiritual apathy and repent from their sin. In other words, it could be seen as their way of getting God’s attention. As if God will really pay attention to them because of their exceptional efforts. Please understand, I am not devaluing these efforts. But I think we need to examine our theological assumptions if we think we need to impress God with our sincerity to get God’s attention.
Scripture gives countless assurances that we have God’s continual attention:
Psalm 139 (selected verses)
1 O Lord, you have examined my heart
and know everything about me.
2 You know when I sit down or stand up.
You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.
3 You see me when I travel
and when I rest at home.
You know everything I do.
4 You know what I am going to say
even before I say it, Lord.
5 You go before me and follow me.
You place your hand of blessing on my head.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too great for me to understand!
7 I can never escape from your Spirit!
I can never get away from your presence!…
13 You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body
and knit me together in my mother’s womb…
16 You saw me before I was born.
Every day of my life was recorded in your book.
Every moment was laid out
before a single day had passed.
Jesus said, “What is the price of five sparrows—two copper coins? Yet God does not forget a single one of them. 7 And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows (Luke 12:6-7 NLT).
You see, the problem isn’t God’s attention, it’s ours! The spiritual disciplines, including fasting, are tools, means, practices and habits to enable us to develop a deeper awareness and mindfulness of God. As we truly repent, we are not earning God’s grace. We are receiving it more fully.
In Lent we don’t give things up to get God’s attention, but to give God our attention.