I thought I’d share what I was up to while away from the blog and on Lent.
I want to first explain what Lent is about for me (and millions of Christians like me). I don’t practice Lent because I think it makes me more righteous. I don’t do it because I think God will like me more or give me a better place in heaven. I do it to make some extra space in my life to start preparing for Easter. If I were to give up watching sports for lent every time I would want to watch sports I would get a personal reminder that Easter is approaching and that something better than sports is going to be celebrated. I could then use that time to pray, meditate or read the Bible or at minimum spend a moment reflecting on the sacrifice that Jesus made for me. In addition, in a similar way to fasting, I learn discipline which I can take into other areas of my life. If I can control my body and give up something non-sinful, I can take similar steps to remove sin from my life.
Typically, Ash Wednesday sneaks up on me and I’m not prepared for it and haven’t given a great deal of thought to what I should be giving up. This is a benefit to the more liturgical churches, they give you a heads up about these things. Many Protestants have thrown the baby out with the bath water and want to avoid appearing “too Catholic” so Lent is not universally practiced. Many in my church practice Lent, but no announcement was made about it from the pulpit.
I often find that by the end of Lent, whatever I had given up no longer seems like such a big thing to give up anymore. The season is just long enough to make you forgetful of how familiar an item had been in your life.
What I did not realize when Lent began was that I would be adding a time of fasting to it this year. My wife and I encountered a situation which became critical enough that we decided to fast and pray about it. We didn’t do this because we believed our prayers would be better received by God if we were hungry, but instead because it made space in our lives. We spent our time away from meals in prayer and when we felt our hunger pains we were reminded to pray to the God whose words we live upon.
4 weeks before Easter my church stopped their “regularly scheduled” programming and started a series in preparation for Easter. The sermon topics were on the binding of Isaac, finding new life in Jesus and the Passover Supper / Communion.
1 week before Easter they distributed “Seek Week” packets. The packets contained devotionals for every day of the week. In this way the entire congregation was reflecting on the same scriptures throughout the week. In addition, the sanctuary was opened for prayer services 3 times a day throughout the week (morning, noon and night). The evening services had a special emphasis on worship.
On Good Friday my family attended a special Good Friday service. As part of the communion element of the service, large wooden crosses were scattered across the room. Before taking the bread and the wine (we use grape juice) we were encouraged to write down on a piece of paper something that was keeping us separated from God. Then we could take a nail and hammer the paper to a cross. The sound of hammers and nails filled the room in a very powerful way.
Easter was held at an outdoor amphitheater at our country fair grounds. On a weekly basis our church has 5,000 people show up. This Easter we had 12,000 people in attendance. The Gospel message was delivered a couple of dozen first time decisions were made to follow Jesus after the sermon (Billy Graham style) Then we did something we’ve never done before. We had three large inflatable tubs filled with water at the base of the stage. A young woman came out and told the audience why she had become a Christian and the difference it had made in her life. She was then baptized in one of the tubs. The invitation was then extended for anyone who wanted to be baptized to come forward.
This was something that had been announced in weeks prior to Easter and special baptism classes were held for those who might like to be baptized on Easter. But the invitation was also open to anyone on that day whether or not they had been to the class. About 150 people were baptized in each of the two services (300 total). It was exciting to see so many people “take the plunge”. (this picture was taken near the end of the service I attended).
Some people were excited and jumping up and down while coming in and out of the water. Others were weeping and needed help walking away.
A key difference between our baptisms and Mormons baptisms is that we aren’t baptizing people into church membership. Our church doesn’t even have a formal membership status. Instead we’re baptizing people into the kingdom of God. Our little organization seems to be too tiny and petty for what people are entering into. What’s always interesting about our Easter services is that not once is our church’s name mentioned. In fact we hand out a 2 page list of area churches that we recommend people attend. It’s part of the way our church is trying to insure that Jesus is the only name lifted up on that day.
After the service we did the traditional American family get-together with lunch, Easter baskets and chocolate. Which is always good but no where near as exciting as the Easter service I had just attended.
What I love about the season of Lent is that it builds anticipation for Easter. If you start thinking and dwelling on a party for more than a month, it gets to be a big deal in your mind. The increasing emphasis and events before Easter build to a crescendo. I wake up on Easter Sunday excited both for what will happen on that day and what did happen on that day.