Well said, Mr. Denison.
Why is Lent relevant for Baptists?
Three reasons for observing some form of Lenten practice suggest themselves, in ascending importance.
One: we need to live in community with the larger body of Christ. Since the vast majority of Christians practice some form of Lenten observance, joining them in some way is a good step toward solidarity of faith and ministry. This is also an important witness to others, answering Jesus’ prayer, “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me” (John 17:23).
Two: we cannot fully appreciate Jesus’ resurrection unless we have experienced something of his sufferings. A fast of some sort is an appropriate means of spiritual identification with our Lord’s suffering for us.
Three: we need a period each year for intentional spiritual introspection and contemplation. John R. W. Stott said that he required an hour a day, a day a week, and a week a year to be alone with his Lord. We need a time every year for spiritual renewal. Just as students need a Spring Break, so do souls. Lent is a wonderful season for such renewal: as the physical world is renewing itself, so should the spiritual.
Can a spiritual discipline practiced for more than 17 centuries by the vast majority of Christians be irrelevant for Baptist souls today?
The New Testament, particularly the book of Acts, indicates that the usual procedure in the first century was for recent converts to Christianity to be baptized first and then instructed in the Christian faith. By the second century (i.e., the Didache), the procedure was largely reversed. Teaching came first, and then one was baptized.
Why the change? Alan Kreider suggests four possible reasons. The words are his; the headers are mine:
1. Because Old Habits Die Hard
Contemporaries did not discuss it, at least in writing, but one scholar, Joseph Lynch, has proposed several reasons. Lynch has observed that Christianity’s earliest converts were primarily Jews or god-fearers who already shared in the Jewish heritage of story, morality and world-view; the second-century converts, in contrast, were ex-pagans who needed a far-reaching programme of instruction and resocialisation.
2. Because Bad Theology Must Be Addressed
Lynch has also hypothesised that a longer catechetical process as a precondition for baptism was a result of the theological disputes which were present in the second century.
3. Because the Church Has Enemies
A third reason, which Lynch did not mention, had to do with the need, in an age of persecution, of screening out possible spies and informers.
4. Because Discipleship Costs
A final possible reason is that pastoral experience indicated that the teachings of Jesus, which the movement was committed to incarnating and practising, were sufficiently strenuous as to require a process of resocialisation on the part of all would-be converts, Jew or Gentile.
(Alan Kreider, “Baptism, Catechism, and the Eclipse of Jesus’ Teaching in Early Christianity,” Tyndale Bulletin 47/2 [Nov 1996] 318).
What reasons for diligence in instructing new converts seem most convincing to you? Does it make more sense to give these instructions before or after baptism? In what should this instruction consist?
I’m thinking of this schema in light of a couple of things. First, I’m teaching my Sunday school’s Lenten series this year. We’re looking at some of the early catechetical texts Kreider mentions in his paper and how they lay out some of the building blocks of discipleship. I expect that for most members of my class, reason #4 is the most personally relevant. We are mainly folks who have been in church a good long time, and still feeling the need to hear again Jesus’ call to follow him—and to hear some encouragement and guidance on the journey.
Second, somebody told my wife the other day that a young person, formerly a member of my church, had since joined a different Baptist church in town. This second church apparently required their new member to be rebaptized. I can’t think of an interpretation of this requirement that doesn’t sound like a grave insult to the spiritual validity of the church of which I am a member. I can only assume this church’s thinking process included healthy doses of reason #2. (Not that it’s never appropriate to give folks a heads-up about some of the more off-the-wall interpretations of Christianity that are going around—a certain faith community in Kansas springs violently to mind.)
I expect reason #1 may eventually encroach on the post-Christian American church as mainstream cultural mores and the values of Christ drift further away from each other. To be sure, even in my grandparents’ day the church (on its better days) had its hands full confronting racism, materialism, pride, greed, envy, and other besetting sins. Unless I’m mistaken, however, they didn’t have too much trouble with society itself applauding the sexualization of children, drug abuse, or the crippling inability to admit that there ought to be community standards of any kind.
As for reason #3, I expect this is on the minds of many Christians in countries and regions where Christianity is actively opposed. I won’t comment other than to suggest that—perhaps with a few particular and highly localized exceptions—any Christian in the USA who laments that they are being persecuted does a disservice to millions of their fellow believers around the world who know what real persecution looks like.
Points to make? Rocks to throw?
I have to chuckle at that headline, not because I don’t know there are tons of Baptists who won’t get within ten feet of Lent and barely know what to do with Communion, but because I remember when I was also deeply suspicious of anything even vaguely “liturgical.”
Introducing unfamiliar practices to church members can be challenging, but congregations often are far less resistant than expected, according to some pastors who have tried it.
“I think people are hungry for ritual, especially those who don’t come from a Christian tradition which has them,” said Sterling Severns, pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Richmond, Va. “Communion is the closest many Baptists come to ritual. But there’s something that is inside Scripture, a way that God uses ritual and rhythm to help people understand something about God’s nature.
“I think that instinct is also inside us, and we don’t know it,” said Severns, who introduced his congregation to Lent soon after he was called to the Richmond church. “And sometimes when we start sharing these rituals with individuals unfamiliar with them, it taps into something they didn’t even know they were hungry for. When we bring ritual to the rhythm of worship, it’s one of the things that bring us together.”
Lift up your hearts!
Here are some comments from around the blogosphere about the Lenten season that has now arrived:
Ash Wednesday by Joshua Hearne reminds us that
As we prepare to journey with Jesus through the desert that leads to Golgotha, we must take time to prepare for what it will cost both us and our Lord. We know that Easter will follow shortly in the devastation of that fated day because Jesus has come to offer life more abundant and not even death and sin will prevail over him. But, we cannot see that day from here. So, we must take time to prepare for the journey.
Clean Week and the Start of Lent by Mark Olson. This year the Western and Eastern church calendars agree in placing Easter/Pascha on the same day, April 4. Here is a brief glimpse at how my Orthodox brothers and sisters are welcoming the Lenten season.
Lenten Memory by Amy Cannon. Amy observes,
While it’s nice to know that advertisers were not the ones who invented long holidays, it is particularly probable that no marketing agency would ever come up with Lent. For Easter (and Passion Week as a whole), the Church has historically taken a different route of preparation than starting up the celebrations early. Lent is preparatory for the remembrance of Christ’s Resurrection because of its contrast to that fact of utmost joy, rather than its continuity with it. Lent is meant to be privative, the fast before the feast, a reminder of why we need God’s intervention in the world in the person of Jesus.
Ash Wednesday Inspiration from The High Calling by Mark D. Roberts describes a Presbyterian’s pilgrimage toward Lent.
Ashes to Ashes: One Baptist’s Reason for Observing Lent by Michael Westmoreland-White does the same thing from a Baptist perspective.
Gospel in the Dirt by Beth Felker Jones ends with a Lenten challenge:
Dust is a public testimony to who we really are. It strips away our facades. When we leave the church and run into friends and neighbors, they find it hard to look away from the dust on our faces. The problem, though, is that most friends and neighbors don’t know the biblical referents the dust contains and so can’t see the witness to our true human condition that is written on our faces.
So we’ll have to do something to translate.
We’ll have to speak the truth of that dust, not only in the marks on our foreheads, but with our words and our bodies. Perhaps our dirty faces can be a little means of grace. Perhaps they can be a nudge from God, the push we need to live out the truth of repentance in our everyday lives. Perhaps they can prompt in us the courage to go public with the truth that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
I’ve safely arrived at the Committee on the Uniform Series meeting in Corpus Christi. Last night Michael Fink did a great presentation about learning and teaching in which he made an interesting point about how people see. The human retina actually perceives objects flipped on both a vertical axis (i.e., like the inverted image one sees in a mirror) and on a horizontal axis. In effect, the picture our eyes send to our brain is upside-down and backwards from the reality that actually exists in nature.
So why don’t we perceive that this is the case? It’s because our brains know how to unscramble the signal and turn everything back to the way it is supposed to be. Unless something goes terribly wrong, this works automatically and we don’t even know we’re doing it.
That is how physical sight works, but I (following Michael’s lead) am wondering about spiritual sight. Our ability to unscramble the data we pick up from the spiritual realm is not nearly as precise as the mechanism of sight that exists in our brains. That is why spiritual truths often still look upside-down and backwards to us. Jesus says the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and we say, “That can’t be.” Or he tells us that those who lose their lives will save them, and those who try to save their lives will lose them. We respond, “That doesn’t make sense.”
Maybe we can look at something like Lent as the equivalent of a spiritual eye exam, or perhaps trying on a pair of corrective lenses, to hone our spiritual sight and bring it into conformity with how things really are, not as we see them to be.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent for those of us who follow the western/Gregorian calendar. Here is a sampling of good introductory reading on Lent and Ash Wednesday that I found in my feed reader this morning:
- What Is Ash Wednesday? (Mark D. Roberts)
- Beginning Great Lent (Vindicated)
- For Ash Wednesday: The Prayer of Manasseh (Internet Monk)
- Ashes, Ashes (The Way of the Fathers; link to some good Ash Wednesday readings)
- Wilderness (The Owl’s Song; not strictly Lenten but a brief meditation on Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness)
Lent is a season of renewed discipleship. It’s a time to get serious about the things that are holding us back spiritually and explore ways not only to get us back on track but even to advance in holiness. My Lenten plan this year will include some work on memorizing more of the Psalter as well as devotional reading from the Desert Fathers, as well as the usual stuff about listening more attentively to people when they’re talking and taking better care of my body. I don’t know what your goals are for Lent, but I would challenge you to make some!