As a Christian from a non-liturgical background, which means one that doesn't emphasize the more scripted and ritualized aspects of Christian Tradition, I generally tend to ignore the Lenten Season or de-emphasize it's relevance. Many believers who celebrate my style of Christianity, often view Lent as rather superstitious at worst, or superficial at best. It is further viewed by many from "my side of the Christian House" as a time where people try to bribe God to overlook the bad they enjoy doing by immersing themselves into a concentrated period of sacrificial living, giving up their treasured vices for a time to impress God with their ability to "take one for the Gipper" for an extended duration.
While this view of Lent is certainly a distortion, there is often significant and troubling misapplication of the principles of Lent. Why is Fat Tuesday (or Mardi Gras - Tuesday Fat in French) celebrated with such recklessness and abandon as the culmination of Carnaval (or Carnival)? Frankly, it is an attempt by many to sew all of their wild oats the day before they enter into the Lenten season of austere and sacrificial, though self-absorbed, living. It's much like overloading on your favorite unhealthy, cholesterol-laden delicacies on Tuesday, and attempting to correct that misstep with a dose of Lipitor on Wednesday - it misses the point, doesn't accomplish the goal and ultimately does more harm than good.
This misguided behavior has led many to ask, "If this the result, why celebrate Lent? If it can be misunderstood and lead to misguided patronage so easily, why not just forget it?" For the same reason we don't throw babies out with bath water - there's something precious inside all that dirt that we need to retain! A few years ago, I had the blessing of serving as a Chaplain Intern for Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan - a major hospital in a major suburb of Detroit. In that service, I had the pleasure of fellowshipping with fellow Chaplains from many different faith backgrounds. Though there were important differences in some of our beliefs which are respected and protected, there were also common and practical principles that inspired us to be more excellent in our service to the Lord and to humanity.
An unyielding demand that was part of our spiritual service in the Clinical Pastoral Education Program (CPE) was the discipline of self-reflection. The thought behind the persistent call to self-reflect can be boiled down to this - You can't give away what you don't own for yourself! When a person is consistently engaged in reflecting on what God is doing in their own life, day by day, and making the adjustments as they serve, they are much more likely to minister with passion, energy and effectiveness. I've found over the years that this is an essential element of Christian service for any believer who wishes to be useful to the Lord, regardless of denominational background. For those who embrace this kind of discipline, I have observed that there is often a more ready ability to "Be still and know that [The Lord] is God." There is also a corresponding ability to hear from God and to aggressively and courageously move forward in obedience. This discipline helped me to remember that I need the Lord to work in my life in a deep and dynamic way if I'm going to make people aware of His ability to do His amazing and transforming work in their lives as well.
All of which brings us back to "Why Lent?" Starting with Ash Wednesday, a reminder of our mortality and the finite nature of our present life, Lent calls us to reflect on the Via Dolorosa, the painful road Jesus traveled to the Cross. Though our salvation is a free gift from God, it was not purchased cheaply. It cost Jesus the stress of temptation in the barren wilderness, the toil of a life of selfless service all throughout Israel, the anguish and burden of the bitter cup at Gethsemane and the pain and suffering of the Cross of Calvary. With the sacrifices of Jesus in mind, we can calibrate our observations in a Biblical and meaningful fashion and transform Lent observance from a selfish and superficial ritual into a meaningful and challenging spiritual discipline. From this foundation, Lent can serve as a thundering call to return to the nitty-gritty essentials of the Christian faith - Christ-focused, self sacrificing service, performed out of a deep and faithful love of God and a compassionate and committed love of all humanity.
My call to you as a friend and brother is this - If you're going to observe Lent, don't focus on what you're going to give up. That's just a smokescreen for more self-indulgence and self-centered living. Focus instead on what Christ gave up - Philippians 2; how Jesus walked - the Gospels; and how this is supposed to impact you and how you live - the entirety of the Scriptures; not just during Lent, but each and every day. This is particularly important on "Fat Tuesday" and its heavyweight offspring sprinkled throughout the year. If you don't celebrate Lent, you're not off the hook. In Luke 9,Jesus issued this challenge to all Christians "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." That sounds a lot like Lent doesn't it? The difference is it isn't a call to a list of do's or don'ts, or table of foods to avoid or activities to exclude. It is the adoption of a lifestyle that models what Jesus did day in and day out, every day of His ministry from His baptism to His resurrection! It's the way we the People of Jesus should live everyday whether we have ashes on our foreheads or not. So let's endeavor to live a Lenten lifestyle. One that looks to Jesus for our strength, inspiration and example so that others can see our good work and glorify our Father in Heaven.