by Rev. Antony W. Ball
In ‘free’ or ‘independent’ or ‘nonconformist’ Churches like ours we tend not to make such a ‘big deal’ out of Lent – the season leading up to Easter – as they do in Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches. I’m not sure why that should be except, of course, that being ‘nonconformist’ implies that we can ‘do our own thing’ rather than conform to what other Churches are doing. Whether or not that’s ‘a good thing’ is largely a matter of opinion, but common sense suggests that there should be some limits to our independence – it would surely be absurd, for example, if we were to assert our independence by celebrating Christmas on any day other than December 25th.
Personally, I’ve never been a fan of ‘giving up’ things for Lent – whether it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ things, there’s always the temptation to ‘binge’ once you’re past Easter and you’re soon back where you started and wondering what exactly you’ve achieved. Marginally more meaningful, in my opinion, is the more recent practice of doing something (a ‘good’ thing, of course) extra during Lent which, if it turns out to be not too burdensome, you might find you can continue to do indefinitely after Easter.
That ‘clipart’ image above suggests three such things: prayer, fasting and works of love – all ‘good’ things, obviously, and all things which you might indeed be inspired to continue indefinitely.
Prayer means more than whatever we’re already doing at present. (In my case: a service of Morning Prayer most weekday mornings since retiring and a too-often-too-repetitive recital each evening and, of course, as part of worship in church.) Prayer is part of an ongoing, developing relationship we have with God (or with Jesus, if you find that easier) and, just as with human interactions, our relationship with God can become too routine and taken-for-granted so that we miss most of what He’s trying to tell us. Some change in that routine during Lent might extend and deepen that relationship.
Fasting again means more than whatever we’re already doing at present. (In my case: avoidance of too much saturated fat and sugar, but for health rather than ‘religious’ reasons.) In the Old Testament it used to be a significant sign of self-discipline within worship – hence both Jesus and John the Baptist following Jewish customs by fasting in the desert – but in the New Testament (largely thanks to St. Paul) it has become less significant. If it helps your self-discipline or is for you a reminder of how blessed we are in this land to have so much food, then fasting in some way during Lent can still be effective.
‘Works of Love’ obviously needs no commendation from me – either during Lent or at any other time – love (both of God and each other) should be our Christian, motivating force throughout our lives.
So is Lent the ‘Big Deal’ some other Churches make it out to be? Perhaps not, but if it prompts us either to reconsider what our faith means to us or encourage us to exercise more self-discipline (or both) then I’ll happily and comfortably ‘sit on the fence’ where Lent is concerned.