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Maybe Australian Evangelicals Need to Borrow Lent

Tuesday, 1 March 2022  | Megan Powell du Toit




The social media world has made Lent more visible. People declare they are giving up social media for Lent and, by doing so, bring to the forefront a practice that was often foreign to Evangelicals in the past. I was brought up Baptist and Evangelical, so it wasn’t part of my spiritual formation. Yet I have practiced it as an adult, in my own scrappy Baptist way.

It suffers from a rather opaque name in English. Lent conjures nothing much, except maybe umbrellas and hand-me-downs. Moreover, it comes from the Old English for Spring, which doesn’t help much here in the Southern Hemisphere. In other languages, it is named for its forty-day length or the practice of fasting.

The forty days ties Lent to a significant number in the Bible. We think of the forty days of rain in the Flood and the forty years of wandering in the wilderness of the Exodus. Of most significance here, we remember the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness before his ministry began. It is connected with periods of testing and refining. While not found in the New Testament, it is an old practice. Though its precise origin isn’t known, it seems to have firmed as a tradition by the Council of Nicea in 325 AD.

While as a Baptist and Evangelical I am not part of a tradition that makes it incumbent upon me to practice, it does make me curious. Why is this such a long and well-established practice? Why have so many Christians valued this practice? I find in myself a loving curiosity towards the experiences of other saints.

When I left pastoral ministry, I found one of the things I missed most about it was how it imposed a seasonal rhythm on my time. Easter and Christmas take months of preparation for a church, and pastors are usually central to this preparation. So I would spend much time dwelling on these significant events in the life of Jesus and their import for Christ’s people.

Now, without intentional care by myself, Easter and Christmas can find me ill-prepared. These times of remembrance and reflection jostle for attention amid the myriad concerns of a busy life. I say this not because I feel guilt but because I feel disappointment. The joy of these times has diminished, squashed into the public holiday days. I find myself longing for the time given over to preparation and anticipation.

After all, Easter and Christmas are post-biblical traditions that most of us find of great value to help us fix our eyes on Jesus. Lent and Advent open us up to a deeper engagement with both. Advent seems to be more established now within Australian Evangelicalism, perhaps because Christmas as a secular affair already demands much preparation of us. We buy presents and arrange social occasions. The danger in Advent is not that we don’t prepare for Christmas, but that our preparations are emptied of spiritual significance.

But, apart from the hot cross buns that seem to follow hot on the heels of mince pies these days, in the Australian calendar Easter finds us mid first semester, having just settled our kids into a new year, or ourselves settled into new jobs, projects or homes. We come to Easter at a very different point from our Northern Hemisphere counterparts. It heralds not the new life of Spring, but the start of relief from the heat of summer. Instead of the winding down mode of a community approaching its long summer holidays, we are in the thick of our year, full of hopes and worries.

Perhaps all this gives us, as Australian Evangelicals, the room to envisage our own version of Lent. As Australians we bring a different expression of its seasonal place. And as Evangelicals we come to Lent with fresh eyes.

To do so, we can begin with how the tradition has already been shaped in different times and spaces. People often imagine that the blank slate enables more creativity, but in a world where nothing is new under the sun, blank slates are usually an illusion – we often just reinvent the wheel. But instead, as we engage with the patterns of others, we can both honour and adapt. We can also take hold of the high regard for the Bible we have as Evangelicals to re-shape practices towards vital biblical purposes.

Perhaps the most common Lenten practice is that of giving something up. This is a broadening of the original fasting, one which at times becomes connected to giving up or reducing bad habits. I think some of the distrust here has been warranted, as it easily becomes a performative action, in which we can get credit for pious action, rather than perhaps dealing with the underlying issues with those habits we have put aside for a time.

I have found myself wondering about the new Lenten practice of giving up social media, along with warnings as to its dangers. Is Lent a way to induce lasting change, or does it merely enable us to feel like we have done something with no lasting change? And is social media an indulgence to be reduced (such as chocolate)? Or is it a relational space with its own versions of the complexities of relationships? The Evangelical attempt to re-take Lent can at times appear shallow, more aligned with modern practices of detox or self-help.

Is this what the practice of fasting was about? After all, food isn’t a bad habit. To a middle-class Australian, food is usually abundant, in and out of season, and available to be purchased without leaving your sofa. In that scenario, abstention from food or drink can even become part of a personal makeover. A glow up, as my teens would say.

This seems different from the practice in an agrarian culture where the supply of food is more connected to the seasons and the visible work of yourself and others. Food is a good thing, a gift from God for our sustenance and enjoyment. To abstain from it, then, is not a period of doing what we should have been doing already. It is a marked-out time, separated for a purpose.

There are many examples of fasting in the Bible, but a good place to start is that time of fasting by Jesus in the wilderness. When tempted by the devil to produce food from stones, Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’ (Matthew 4:4).

It would reduce the impact of these words if bread became chocolate, Netflix or Facebook. The Word of God isn’t compared here with non-essentials but with the fundamental sustenance of existence provided by the most basic of foodstuffs. In this exchange, fasting reveals our fundamental need of God. It is the antithesis of self-help. In this, we see the benefit of a traditional fast, rather than variations which may turn the focus back on our own work.

Talking about the Word of God, Evangelicals have often been most drawn to Lenten practice that involves a Bible reading program. This aligns with the tradition in Lent of taking on new practices rather than abstaining from our usual behaviours. Such practices include special prayer or giving to those in need. Lenten devotion does seem like a beneficial practice, drawing people both into preparation for the season and giving time to enrich our understanding of it.

However, we can also be informed by our knowledge of tendencies we are prone to as Evangelicals. For example, one tendency is to so promote Bible reading that we lean towards a discipleship that overemphasises head knowledge and doctrinal assent. Instead, our Lenten practice will be all the better for engaging our whole selves, leading us towards a whole person discipleship. Therefore, it is a good sign that some of the groups most likely to provide Lenten reflections for people are those connected with aid or advocacy work, such as Common Grace or Tearfund. Yet, of course, Lenten reflection should not be siloed off to one part of the Church’s mission, but rather be a communal practice of the whole Church.

It is perhaps this communal nature of Lent in which Evangelicals are most deficient, as we pick and choose our own individual and private practices rather than embedding it firmly within our worship. I speak here most of all to my fellow free church people, reminding us that freedom from a particular prayer book or liturgical calendar often becomes a deficit, depriving us of the wisdom of saints. Instead, this freedom can be an opportunity to learn from these traditions to establish our own contextualised practices.

In all of this, I have been just raising some possibilities for distinctively Evangelical Lenten reflection and practice. I invite you all to further reflection within your own contexts and traditions.

I want to end with some brief thoughts on Australian practice. Over time, our Christmas has become less connected to the cosy pleasures of the warm hearth at winter and instead has given us a different celebration, one in which we experience the Sabbath rest of play under the light of God’s sun. We can have a similar seasonal reorientation for Easter.

While in the Northern Hemisphere Spring allows for ready connection with the new life of the Resurrection, our own seasonal timing might allow us to develop symbolism more directly connected with the cross. After all, hot cross buns have been popular in Australia as the weather cools, showing how we move to adapt the old to our experience. Perhaps we will find practices connected to the shortening of the days, reminding us of that time in which day became night as Christ died (Matthew 27:45).

The timing of Lent in Australia, in the first part of our year following our long holidays, may give us an early year moment to reorient ourselves to an eternal view and dependence on God. It could disrupt the inexorable rush and urgency of our post-industrial times.

In all this, my focus is not Lent itself but Jesus. I am encouraging us to find ways to fix our eyes on the unchanging Christ in our changing contexts. Practices such as Lent orient us towards engaging with the truth of the gospel in the pattern of our lives.

 

Megan Powell du Toit is a Baptist minister, writer, editor and podcaster. She is Publishing Manager at the Australian College of Theology and co-hosts the podcast With All Due Respect with Michael Jensen, which is part of the broader project they have developed together, The WADR Project.


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