I was 24 years old and in the third year of a Master of Divinity program when I observed Lent for the first time. It was not a decision that I made lightly — I had been circling the idea of participating since my first year at Regent College. Many of my fellow students came from traditions that respected and followed the church calendar; I did not. For two years I curiously watched my friends give up something for the forty days that paralleled Jesus’ time in the wilderness. In the American evangelical denomination in which I was raised, any practice that had the faintest scent of Catholicism was suspect (though eschewed might be a more accurate verb). At Regent, an international graduate school of Christian studies, I met and befriended men and women from over 20 countries and various Christian traditions — Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Episcopal and Pentecostal, to name a few. In this diverse environment, I daily stumbled across new theological ideas and fresh perspectives. The observance of Lent was just one of the many foreign Christian practices that intrigued me.
Every year during Vancouver’s dreary February, I watched friends and professors prepare for Lent. Most thought carefully about what they would sacrifice and their choices were as diverse as our student body. Some gave up certain types of food or drink, others sacrificed comforts like sleeping with a pillow, and a few gave up pleasures like TV or music. All of their choices were to join in the simplicity, the sacrifice and the temptation of Jesus in the desert. They prepared themselves like seasoned travelers, gathering only what they needed, solemnly waiting to cross a foreboding landscape. Ash Wednesday arrived and with dust smudged on their foreheads they began their journey. I watched, interested, from the sidelines. What would this do for them, to them? Why was it significant?
There seemed to be some chaffing around days 8 and 14 but overall my friends settled in without too many complaints. As they progressed further into Lent, they grew quieter and I more intrigued. Each Tuesday the students and faculty at Regent worship as a community. At the risk of sounding too mystical, I noticed that during Lent our worship experience was richer. Though the mood in chapel was subdued, there seemed to me a clear and growing sense of anticipation. The anticipation was so palpable that I wouldn’t have been surprised if people fell forward out of their seats. Even though I did not participate that year, I discovered the harvest of Lent. The self-denial, the confrontation of temptation and the simplicity of those forty days helped the “observers” do more than observe. In their various ways they participated in the life of Christ and the harvest of their participation was a renewed and observable gratitude for what Christ had endured for our sake. Tired, hungry, thirsty, inconvenienced, uncomfortable, hounded and stripped down, the pilgrims finally reached Holy Week only to experience the darkness and mourning of Good Friday. Maybe deprived is too strong a word for what I saw in their eyes on Friday, but then joy is the only word that matches what I saw on Sunday. In their vulnerable state, the pilgrims were more able to empathize with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, thus transforming Easter into the heart-pumping, ear-ringing, foot-stomping, voice-raising, full-bodied celebration that it should be.
I’d observed enough. It was time for me to participate in what was clearly a meaningful practice. One January, after a stirring and convicting lecture on the Sermon on the Mount (particularly Mt. 5:33-37) given by former Regent professor Darrell Johnson, I decided to give up exaggeration and sarcasm for Lent. It was a unique choice, one that made friends laugh when I told them. I’ve always been rather verbose, an enthusiastic storyteller who specializes in exaggeration and sarcasm, so I knew sacrificing these things would be challenging. I am not exaggerating when I say that my first practice of Lent was one of the most challenging experiences of my life. Just a day into Lent I found myself constantly starting and stopping conversations like a new driver jerking and stalling in search of first gear. I’d start a story, get two or three sentences in, and a friend would say, “Wait. Did you really think you were going to die?”
Lent trimmed my speech a lot, making me realize just how many unnecessary words I use and how my words might mislead or hurt someone. I discovered that my propensity to exaggerate hid an insecurity that people would not care to listen to me. Simple, straightforward speech was a lot harder to produce than I thought it would be. As Lent continued I grew increasingly drained from the effort of keeping my words and stories true and simple. I was unnaturally quiet which made me feel boring. But whittling down my speech increased the silence in my life, which opened wide spaces for me to listen more, to friends and to God. Devotional and prayer time during those forty days were about listening and waiting rather than talking and talking. For the first time, I entered the pew on Good Friday and felt a true sense of loss in Jesus’ death, rather than just cognitively registering that it was the day we remember Jesus’ death. Two days later, Easter was an exhilarating day of celebration, my tongue revived to sing my gratitude and share laughter and stories of God’s goodness.
Now, I’m an evangelical who practices Lent. My choices sometimes get me strange or confused looks from other evangelicals, but those don’t deter me. I’ve found meaningful and enriching practices in many Christian traditions and I’ve incorporated some of them into my spiritual life. I’m very thankful to have found a way to better appreciate the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I’m thankful too for a diversity of friends and a unique graduate school that widened my love for God and challenged my faith.
If you’d like to find out more about Regent College, its unique mission and courses of study, visit http://regent-college.edu If full-time graduate school isn’t for you, then Regent summer school offers short but meaningful courses that appeal to all kinds of Christians in various professions. Check out http://summer.regent-college.edu for more details.