How are you preparing to observe the Lenten season?
Mark H. Schewe
I’m sure you are preparing! The Lenten season begins the first week of this month, with Ash Wednesday on March 6. Pastors, worship planners, musicians, food volunteers, and many others have had plenty of time since the Christmas season to get at planning and preparation. All the questions to answer: Did the midweek bulletin covers come in? Did the piano tuner stop by for his annual visit? Are we using Evening Prayer or Compline for Wednesdays? Is the Junior Choir scheduled to sing? On which Wednesday will the youth group be cooking?
Reset your focus
If you’re a veteran called worker or lay leader in your congregation, you might be tempted to jump in and begin grinding out plans and filling in the blanks for a busy season. If so, you need to start over. Even if you’re a regular member of a church, your thoughts can’t begin with the activities and services that you will do during Lent. Your Lenten walk of faith will be adversely affected if it starts out in mechanical fashion. In fact, it’s possible to stand the season of Lent on its head altogether, finishing the season with relief simply because the extra planning and worship are over for the year.
Lent is not planning what to do for the season. To illustrate, our church has a subscription to an online church clip art program. This program has tens of thousands of images and Scripture verses that can easily be inserted into bulletins and newsletters. Very handy! But sometimes it can be a bit interesting or humorous what the Internet site suggests for appropriate clip art for Lent or any other season.
If you type “Lent” in the search box, a couple options invariably pop up posing the question, “What are you giving up?” One of these images even includes 20 suggestions within the clip art of what you can give up. Some suggested sacrificial items are common, ones we hear every year: chocolate, sweets, coffee, TV. But some newer ones have appeared: Facebook, credit cards, shopping, and Twitter. Yes, Twitter.
I know there are plenty of pious Christians who sacrifice something during the 40 days of Lent with a sanctified heart. It can be done properly, of course. But I’m also certain many people in the Christian world hear that the days of Lent are approaching and immediately think, Oh yeah, what am I going to give up this year? In other words, “How can I do Lent this year?” If that’s your starting point, you’re off on the wrong foot.
It can be the same for church leaders and called workers. Get ready to do Lent! More choir practices. Suppers to serve. More church services to plan and attend. Instruments to rehearse. More times to clean the sanctuary. More things to communicate. Extra sermons to complete. Communion to set up. Paraments to change from purple to black to white. An Easter vigil service on Saturday of Holy Week to prepare.
We have so much to do as we look forward to Lent. Or do we?
Remember what you did and what Jesus did
What do we do for Lent? The proper place to start is to ask, “What did we do for Lent?”
I was reminded of that when I served at a congregation in the state of Washington. It was my first Lenten season at the church. Our congregation worshiped in a sanctuary that was newly built. On one side were tall windows that faced a busy street. The Christmas tree had been in those windows during the holidays. It was a perfect spot, visible to worshipers and the community, and it made perfect sense to build a large, rugged cross to place there for Lent. It would be a striking scene for worshipers and commuters alike, draped in the appropriate color for the season.
One of our church members heard about the idea and offered to bring a tree that had fallen on his property, which could be cut and shaped into a cross. Perfect! After the delivery, we made some basic measurements, and the cutting, notching, tying, and erecting began. It’s what we did for Lent that year.
But as I notched the wood and hammered the pieces together, it dawned on me: This is not the first cross I’ve made.
It was true that I had never constructed a physical life–sized cross before, but I had most definitely had a hand in making one already. It was a cross that I had never seen, but one that I had caused. My sin was nailed to it. It was the original cross of my Savior, who went the way of that cross so that my sin and guilt could be paid for. “ ‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed’ ” (1 Peter 2:24).
How do we properly “do Lent?” We already did it. We caused it. And this is where a proper Lenten walk begins. Why must Lent come each year, that dark and somber season of the church year with its hymns in minor keys and ashes and blackness? We commemorate how the Son of God had to come in grace and mercy and pay the price that we could never pay. Lent is about what we originally did and continue to do as sinners. And it’s about what Jesus did for us before we saw the light of day.
So, this year, how can we properly “do Lent?” Come. Come and marvel that there is nothing you must do, nothing that you must pay for your forgiveness. Come with a contrite and repentant heart to receive what God has to give. Be amazed at the love of your Savior.
As Lent begins, perhaps the best initial activity we could do would be to meditate on a portion of Scripture or a devotion that reinforces where the true action of Lent lies and points out how we are undeserving recipients of God’s grace. Read through Isaiah chapter 53, Psalm 22, Psalm 51, or 1 John 4:9,10. Spend a few moments with the hymn “Jesus, I Will Ponder Now” (Christian Worship 98) and the many other hymns in the Lenten section of the hymnal that reinforce how we are “receivers” rather than “doers” during Lent. Go into your morning devotion with that intentional angle of emphasis, especially if you are a church leader consumed by how much there is to do during Lent.
Receive. Reflect. Be comforted. Soak in the Passion History as it’s read. Come ready to hear the old, old story that gives us so much peace. Sing about it. Marvel at it. Come early to meditate a bit. Enjoy some food and time with fellow Christians pilgrims. Rejoice that God loved you enough to do it all to win your salvation.
Then, with the right perspective on your Lenten season, you can make a sacrifice to help you concentrate on the cross. After all, maybe you could do without those sweets or chocolate for a while. And that Twitter account.
Author: Mark H. Schewe
Volume 106, Number 3
Issue: March 2019