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How to Lean Into Lent

Mac McCarthy
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February 23, 2022

The season of Lent carries different connotations for different people. In this post, we'll take a look at some common misconceptions about Lent and then explore what Lent is and how to engage it meaningfully.

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I grew up in a family that practiced Lent each year. I remember going to church at the start of Lent and wearing ashes on my forehead for the rest of the day.

My mom fasted from chocolate every year, which also meant the entire family was forced to give up dessert for a couple months (she made the cookies).

We also didn’t eat meat on Fridays. But unlike some of my friends who compensated with the Filet-O-Fish from McDonalds, my family wasn’t into fast food.

The best part of Lent was “Fat Tuesday,” the day before Lent when we pigged out knowing that Lent would be starting the next day.

Nope, Lent is not a "Catholic thing”

The season of Lent tends to carry different connotations for different people based on their experiences and reference points. For some people, Lent is unfamiliar and can feel a bit strange. For others, Lent is something they grew up with but now tend to avoid. For many, Lent is a rich and meaningful season marked by deeper engagement and spiritual formation.

As a pastor in a protestant context, I’ve occasionally heard people dismiss Lent as a “Catholic thing" that should be avoided. Lent is for Catholics and not something we should be doing.

While Lent is practiced by Catholics, it is, in fact, not strictly a Catholic thing. Protestants from all kinds of denominational affiliations have found Lent meaningful and spiritually formative.

While this is more common among “liturgical churches” (note: every church follows a liturgy) that follow the church calendar (Anglican, Lutheran, etc.), Lent has become a common practice among a variety of evangelical and non-denominational churches alike.

What is Lent?

Lent is a 40 day period of time leading up to Easter each year. The focus throughout the season of Lent is repentance, marked by deeper spiritual engagement and a preparation for the joy that Easter brings.

The number 40 carries special significance in the Bible with well over 100 different occurrences. Some of the most notable include:

  • Moses spent 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai with God.  
  • The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.
  • The Israelite spies explored the Promised Land for 40 days.
  • Elijah spent 40 days walking to Mount Horeb.
  • Jesus spent 40 days fasting and being tested in the wilderness.

Lent starts on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday. People often fast or give something up during Lent (more on that below), but it is not required on Sundays because Sunday is the day Jesus rose from the dead, and therefore, is always a feast day.

Here are a few specific days during Lent worth noting:

  • Ash Wednesday
    The first day of Lent. Officially known as “The Day of Ashes”. The focus is repentance. You may encounter people wearing ashes in the form of a cross on their foreheads.
  • Palm Sunday
    The Sunday before Easter when Jesus rode on a donkey triumphantly into Jerusalem as people celebrated him as King.
  • Holy Week
    The entire week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday.
  • Maundy Thursday
    The Thursday of Holy Week when Jesus shared The Passover meal with his disciples and washed their feet. “Maundy” comes from the Latin word mandatum, meaning command, referring to the new command Jesus gave his disciples to love each other as he loved them.
  • Good Friday
    The Friday of Holy Week when Jesus was crucified on a cross outside of Jerusalem and then buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. The descriptor “Good” in Good Friday highlights that Jesus’ death was for our sins.
  • Holy Saturday
    The Saturday of Holy Week is when Jesus’ body remained in the tomb.
  • Easter Sunday
    The day that Jesus rose victoriously from the dead defeating sin, Satan, death, and all evil.

How to Lean into Lent: The Three Pillars

During Lent we are invited to shift how we normally engage and live life to more intentionally focus on Jesus and experience his transformation.

There are three traditional pillars for Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. You can think of these as three different focus areas or ways to lean into Lent—three different ways to engage this season with intention and focus.

Jesus provides instruction on all three in his Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 6:1-18. Let’s look at each one of these and how they can be used to lean into Lent.

Prayer: Engaging Up

The practice of prayer can cause some people’s hands to sweat, provoking feelings of insecurity. Many feel like Greg Focker (played by Ben Stiller) in the movie Meet The Parents when asked to pray before dinner.

"Oh, Dear God. Thank you. You are such a good God to us, a kind and gentle and accommodating God. And we thank you, O.... sweet, sweet, Lord of hosts…"

The entire clip can be found here. It’s painfully awkward. And we are often afraid of being painfully awkward, like Greg, not knowing what to say or sounding stupid when we pray.

For others, who aren’t as intimidated by prayer, prayer can be used to feel good about one’s spiritual engagement or even to appear super spiritual to others. Listen to how great I am at praying!

But both of these ways of relating to prayer (fear of being awkward or desire to be spiritually impressive) miss what prayer is really about. Prayer, at its center, is simply about connecting with God. Rich Villodas, a pastor at New Life Fellowship in NYC, recently put it this way: "God doesn’t love you more because you pray a lot. God doesn’t love you less if you pray just a little. God’s love is perfect and unconditional. And, the more we pray, the more we are aware of that perfect love."

Prayer, at its center, is simply about connecting with God.

Prayer isn’t a way to earn God’s love or affection. God doesn’t love you more or less based on how much or how little you pray. Rather, prayer is a way to connect with God and experience God’s love for you. This is why Skye Jethani, an author and pastor, says: "The foundation of Christian prayer should not be petition (asking God for things) but rather presence (abiding with God)."

So, one way to lean into Lent is to engage up. If you feel led to do so, I’d encourage you to create some consistent space over the next 40 days to spend time simply being with God.

The goal in this space is simply connecting with God and receiving God’s love. Don’t worry about doing it right. Don’t worry about having the right words. And don’t worry about getting something out of each prayer time. Just create space to be present to the God who loves you perfectly and see what happens.

As we give up some of our usual distractions and create intentional space for prayer, our connection to God can grow stronger and our sense of God’s love can grow deeper.

Fasting: Engaging In

One popular health trend right now is intermittent fasting. While there are a variety of ways to practice intermittent fasting, the basic format is to cycle between fasting and non-fasting at specific times. Intermittent fasters claim that this way of structuring food intake can help with weight loss, improve metabolism, promote gut health, and a wide variety of other health benefits.

This is NOT what fasting during Lent is about. Unlike intermittent fasting, the goal of fasting during Lent isn’t to lose weight, get in shape, or reign in those poor eating habits. Nor is the point of fasting, as we discussed with prayer, to earn God’s favor, approval, or love. Ben Sternke, a pastor at The Table and co-founder of Gravity Leadership, says this about fasting: "Christian fasting is intentionally withholding something we’d normally partake in (normally food) for the purpose of creating space in our lives to feast on the presence of Jesus 'directly.'"

Just as the goal of prayer is connection with God, so also the goal of fasting is connecting with God. And dependence. When we fast, we intentionally go without something upon which we rely (ex. food) in order to more intentionally rely on God. Fasting and cultivating dependence on God go together.

There are lots of different ways to fast. Here are some of the most common:

  • Fast from food.
    While you may be inclined to fast from all food for an entire day, many choose a particular kind of food to fast from to help them draw near to God (alcohol, caffeine, meat, sweets, etc).
  • Fast from technology.
    Every year my wife takes a break from all social media. She reports that time spent aimlessly scrolling and being distracted is replaced with intentionally seeking God and others in new ways. Limiting your screen time can create space to notice things within you that God might want to speak to and transform with his love.
  • Fast from a leisure activity.
    We all enjoy different things—shopping, exercising, eating out, board games, etc. Fasting from something you enjoy doing on a regular basis to connect with God can be incredibly transformative.

A second way to lean into Lent is to engage in. By “engage in” I mean pick one of the areas above to fast from and then attend to what that fasting stirs in you as you go without it.

When I’ve fasted from food in the past, for example, I noticed that I tend to be more irritable and impatient. The problem really isn’t the lack of food. It’s my irritability and impatience. The lack of food simply exposes the irritability and impatience already within me that food normally masks and conceals. Fasting becomes a form of grace to me as God transforms my impatience into patience, my irritability into placidity.

The lack of food simply exposes the irritability and impatience already within me that food normally masks and conceals.

As we give something up we will notice some things within that God wants to touch and transform with the power of his love.

Almsgiving: Engaging Out

It might be tempting to approach Lent as something primarily focused on me and my relationship with God, but throughout the Bible we see that spiritual formation always flows outward towards others.

When Jesus was put on the spot he summarized the entire law by saying we are to love God and our neighbors (Mark 12:29-31), combining content from Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19. John says that if we say we love God but fail to love our brothers or sisters, the love of God truly is not in us (1 John 4:20-21). James says that if we turn away those in need without offering tangible help, our faith is pretty much dead (James 2:14-26). John agrees. "Let us not love with words or speech, but with actions and truth" (1 John 3:17-18).

Growing in our relationship with God and cultivating the character of Christ in our lives does not reach full maturity unless it shows up in the way we relate to those around us, particularly toward those in need.

Almsgiving refers to the act of donating money, food, or other items to those in need. Of course, generosity encompasses all of life—not just your financial resources, but your time, your talents, your entire self.

There are lots of way you can practice almsgiving during Lent:

  • Donate items to your local food pantry each week.
    We have a food pantry here at Crosspoint that not only welcomes donations, but people to help organize those donations. 
  • Donate financial resources to those in need.
    We have a benevolence fund here at Crosspoint where the resources given are specifically used to provide assistance to those experiencing financial hardship. When you give to it, it goes to those in need.    
  • Join others who are living on mission.
    We have a few Kingdom Communities that are committed to each other and to joining God’s work in the world in a focused way. Join the group that goes to GodTouch in Milwaukee each month and see the work God is doing there or consider becoming a student mentor.  
  • Participate in a serve team.
    We have a variety of serve teams and ministry areas where you can give of your time and energy to make a difference. Invest in the next generation by serving in our kids ministry. Become a greeter and welcome new people. Or, open up your home to people looking for community by starting a small group.
  • Help a neighbor who is in need.
    Consider the people on your street and in your neighborhood. Does anyone need a helping hand? Does anyone need a friend, someone to talk to? Who can you be present to in this season?

A final way to lean into Lent is by engaging out. By “engaging out” I mean finding ways to give yourself away in love toward those around you. If none of the examples above grab your attention, spend some time praying about how God might be inviting you to show love to those around you.

As we give ourselves away in love we follow the pattern of Jesus who gave his very life away for us.

Questions for Reflection:

  • How have you experienced Lent in your life?
  • How might God be inviting you to engage up this Lent?
  • How might God be inviting you to engage in this Lent?
  • How might God be inviting you to engage out this Lent?
  • Who else could join you in your journey with Lent this year?
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