Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Structured Path

For many years I have tried to do something (or as the case may be, refrain from doing something) for Lent. In the church tradition in which I grew up, it was common to “give up something for Lent.” For kids, that meant things like chocolate, swearing, hitting your brother, or in my case, hitting my brother with chocolate while swearing. I didn’t think much about the deeper meaning behind it all.

In my adult years I have developed a renewed appreciation for this annual rhythm of consecrating a specific period of time to God marked by simplification and sacrifice. In our non-liturgical tradition we don’t formally mark this period between Ash Wednesday and Easter, but individual Christians often undertake rituals and practices on their own.

Lent is technically forty-six days, but the six Sundays are not counted because they are seen as “mini-Easters.” The number forty is significant because Jesus retreated into the desert, fasted forty days, and was tempted by the devil in preparation for his public ministry. It has also been a traditional belief that Jesus lay forty hours in the tomb before being raised from the dead.

Within a few centuries the early church, especially in Jerusalem, guided prospective converts to Christianity through a strict period of instruction and discipline prior to their baptism on Easter Eve (thus, their first participation in the Lord’s Supper was on Easter). Sometimes Easter Sunday was preceded by forty hours of fasting. Since Jesus quoted scripture to Satan in the wilderness, memorizing scripture and focused scripture reading have also been important components of Lenten observance.

This season of Lent has been a special one for me because I was more ambitious than in previous years. I was reflecting on this recently as I listened to a group of Christians express their desire to read the Bible more, pray more regularly, and develop a closer walk with Christ. It occurred to me that what many Christians are looking for is a structured path. I yearn for that too, and will miss it when I finish the forty days of Lent. There is something empowering and, yes, liberating about having a curriculum, if you will, of disciplines and practices to follow. Can its overzealous use become a legalistic straitjacket? Of course, but any good thing can be abused.

I think, for instance, of the phenomenal success of the ministry of Bible Study Fellowship International. BSF sponsors a curriculum in which participants read prescribed scriptures and study notes daily, answer reflection questions, and then meet for a group lecture and discussion. It is very structured and the accountability is high.

In a perfect world, perhaps, all Christians would be motivated and self-disciplined enough to read, study the Bible, and draw closer to God on their own. But the reality is that we often need structured practices which provide a path for us, people with whom to walk the path, and liturgical traditions which give us a historical connection to those who walked with the path before us.

I sense a hunger among more and more Christians for rigorous practices which call us beyond the world’s superficiality into the great riches of life with God through Jesus Christ. I am eager to embrace this.


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