In 1522, Protestant reformer Ulrich Zwingli was involved with the scandalous consumption of sausage during Lent, an event that sparked the Reformation in Switzerland. (Given that some of my ancestors were Mennonites who immigrated to America from Switzerland, I can’t help but wonder if the sausage gave Zwingli and his crew a bad case of indigestion?) Ever since, many Protestant churches seem to have no use for Lent. None of the churches I’ve attended have talked about it, and the few mentions I’ve heard of it have come people who seemed to regard it as a spiritual self-improvement program—a chance to lose weight, quit smoking, or kick an electronic addiction “for God.” Not that there’s anything wrong with those things, but even in my ignorance, I couldn’t help but feel that they were somehow missing the point.
This year, I have decided to observe Lent. (Or perhaps “practice” Lent, since I have no idea what I am doing, and could use a practice run!) I am not following the traditional practice of giving up meat (because that wouldn’t be much of a sacrifice for an ex-vegetarian who doesn’t love meat anyway), but I will be laying some things down and taking others up.
What shocked me was how hard my spirit struggled against sacrificing things for Lent, once I had purposed in my heart to do it. I mean, while Zwingli and my ancestors may not have seen eye to eye on some issues, he was right about one thing: “Christians are free to fast or not to fast because the Bible does not prohibit the eating of meat during Lent.” Verses about false humility with the appearance of wisdom popped into my mind, and really, hy spend almost two months focused on penitence when I’m already forgiven? Sola fide, right?!
What it really came down to was the fact that I didn’t have to do it. God wouldn’t love me any more or any less if I took on the spiritual disciplines of Lent, so why bother? Why put myself out?
Why put myself out? Why put myself out???
The more I thought about it, the more apparent it seemed that this mindset is part of the disease infecting Western Christianity in general, Protestantism in particular, and me specifically. We don’t have to do anything, so all too often, we don’t.
We don’t have to tithe—God doesn’t need our money. We don’t have to do good works—after all, they’re not what saves us. We don’t have to keep the Sabbath, because, well, we just don’t. Even Jesus’ final marching orders, the Great Commission, is easily blown off—that’s for people who are “called.” To hear some tell it, all we have to do, ever, is read a little prayer off the back of a tract, and boom—instant disciple. Forget the Parable of the Soils—we’re spiritual Chia Pets!
So, I have decided to observe Lent. Not because I have to, but because I want to. Not to wallow in the wretchedness of my sins, but to present to God those areas of my heart and life that desperately need to die and be re-created in the image of Christ. I don’t want to have a half-way heart, a wishy-washy mind that wants to do good but is too comfortable, materially and spiritually, to tolerate being “put out.” I want to go all in for the purposes of Christ in my life. And that may take some “practice.”