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My Take: Snap out of spiritual slump with Lent
Catholics traditionally mark the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday, but Lent is for Protestants too, Mark Batterson writes.
April 3rd, 2011
01:00 AM ET

My Take: Snap out of spiritual slump with Lent

Editor's Note: Mark Batterson is lead pastor at the National Community Church in Washington, D.C. He is the author of “In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day,” “Wild Goose Chase” and “Primal: A Quest for the Lost Soul of Christianity.”

By Mark Batterson, Special to CNN

When I was a seminary student, my wife and I went to downtown Chicago for a taping of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” When the producer came out to prep us for the show, I was embarrassed for him because he had dirt on his forehead. Didn’t he look in the mirror that morning? Why didn’t someone tell him? My embarrassment for him turned into embarrassment for myself when I discovered it was Ash Wednesday and the dirt on his forehead was actually ashes that symbolized the day of repentance that begins Lent.

I grew up going to a wide variety of Protestant churches, but none of them practiced or even mentioned Lent. It wasn’t until a few years ago, well into my tenure as lead pastor of National Community Church, that I discovered the value of Lent. It has since become a meaningful season in the cycle of my spiritual life. During the last few Lenten seasons, I’ve incorporated a fast into my routine. One year I gave up television. Another year I gave up soda. I’ve also done a variety of food fasts for Lent.

In my experience, giving something up for Lent has made the Easter celebration far more meaningful and even helped me develop the spiritual discipline of fasting. Fasting during Lent has helped me identify with the sacrifices Christ has made for me, and it’s also helped me focus on the reason for the season. The celebration of the resurrection of Christ has become far more meaningful since I started observing Lent.

The church I pastor is a rather non-traditional Protestant church. We are absolutely orthodox in theology but a little unorthodox in practice. We meet in five different theaters around the metro D.C. area. We own and operate a coffeehouse on Capitol Hill that gives all of its net profits to local community projects and humanitarian causes in other countries.

Along with new innovations, however, we’ve also rediscovered the value the ancient traditions. While we may not practice Lent the same way the Catholic church does, we are reinventing it in a way that is meaningful to us. We put our unique fingerprint on those traditions, and that keeps them from being empty rituals.

I’m afraid that many Protestant churches have a very short-term memory. For them, church history only goes back to the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther. While we may have our theological differences, we share a long history, and I believe there are things that Protestant and Catholic churches can learn from each other in ways that don’t compromise their core beliefs.

I for one am thankful for the Lenten tradition that has been cultivated, celebrated and cherished within the Catholic church. I think more Protestant churches will re-adopt some of those traditions that are part of our common church history from before the Protestant Reformation.

I think of Lent as a spiritual pre-season of sorts. The six Sundays leading up to Easter are considered mini-Easters. Like pre-season games, they prepare us for the ultimate celebration in Christendom: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And one of the benefits, not unlike the Advent celebration surrounding Christmas, is that the celebration is extended to a longer period of time.

A few years ago I came up with a formula for spiritual growth: change of pace + change of place = change of perspective.

Let me explain what it means.

The key to spiritual growth is developing healthy and holy routines. They are called spiritual disciplines. But once the routine becomes routine, you need to disrupt the routine via a change of pace or change of place. Why? Because sacred routines can become empty rituals if you forget why you started doing them in the first place.

I’m certainly not suggesting that routines are bad. Most of us practice a morning ritual that includes showering, brushing our teeth and putting on deodorant. On behalf of your family and friends, continue practicing those routines.

But here’s the spiritual catch-22: good routines can become bad routines if we don’t change the routine. When you start going through the motions spiritually, it’s time to mix up the routine. And Lent is a great opportunity for a natural change of pace.

Lent disrupts the status quo. It can get us out of an old routine and into a new routine.

In physical exercise, routines eventually become counterproductive. If you exercise your muscles the same way every time you work out, your muscles start adapting and stop growing. You need to disorient your muscles by changing your routine. And the same is true spiritually.

When I’m in a spiritual slump, I often snap out of it by a change of pace or a change of place. And it was Jesus who modeled this practice. He would often walk the beach or climb a mountain. I think those changes in geography are not disconnected from the practice of spirituality. It is a simple change of place that precipitates many of the epiphanies that happen in Scripture.

To snap out of a slump, sometimes all it takes is a small change in routine. Volunteer at a local homeless shelter or nursing home. Start keeping a gratitude journal. Get plugged into a small group or Bible study. Take a day off and do a personal retreat. Or just get up a little earlier in the morning and spend a little extra time with God.

One of the small changes in routine that has helped me rejuvenate me is picking up a new translation of Scripture. New words help me think new thoughts. And while you can institute those changes at any time, Lent is a perfect excuse to mix up your spiritual routine.

Why not leverage Lent by mixing up your routine? If you do, you’ll celebrate Easter like you never have before.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mark Batterson

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Catholic Church • Christianity • Lent • Opinion • Protestant

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soundoff (834 Responses)
  1. Robert O Martin

    I'm always amused that when we talk of Lent and the imposition of ashes, the Mass or even Easter and Christmas, it always seems that news outlet always report these events as if they are inherently Catholic. Lutherans celebrate and practice all the above along with Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox.

    April 3, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
    • Bo

      umm, because they are? Not to say that other churches don't also celebrate these major events, but I'm pretty sure they're inherently Catholic since the Catholic church was founded in Christ's time and all other Christian religions came after.

      April 3, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
    • cnn134

      the lent came directely From jesus christ we fast as Jesus christ so all christians should fast, catholics are christians so thry fast, actually orthodox do fast 55 days, 40 for jesus, prepearation week and the week for the passion of christ, but they do not eat any meat, the difference between the churches is not that big, when people talk about religion they say catholic, protastant, those not religions they are christians all, that what weaken us now, we all christians, catholic, protostant, and orthodox

      April 3, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
    • lgkp

      Bo,

      Just gotta put this out there, since I am Orthodox. :-p The early Church was founded during Christ's time, and then, in 1054, it split into the Catholic Church (in the West) and the Orthodox Church (in the East). Orthodoxy's just as old as Catholicism. Only problem is not that many people in America even know what it is...

      April 3, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
    • gerald

      Yes, the closer you get back to the "trunk" that traces back to Christ, the Catholic Church the more truth and authentic worship you find. The closer the doctrines are to what Christ taught. It is not surprizing at all that Lutherans and Anglicans do lent.

      April 3, 2011 at 9:23 pm |
    • Da King

      Not really Robert. Jesus' disciples were not catholic. The Pope makes things catholic and he obeys to Jesus' gospel except when the Catholic church needs/wants something not in Jesus' gospel. Then the Pope and his church make up their own religion. The liturgy is catholic. Christians just go by the Lord of God. The Catholic religion had a great influence over the world for many years but that has been in decline. Nondenominational christian churches are bring the Word to the world. The Popes position is that the Bible can only come from the church. The problem is that the Catholic Church does not teach the Bible. Many priests do not know the bible.

      April 3, 2011 at 10:36 pm |
    • gerald

      Da King,

      Your information is quite tainted. Catholics don't teach from the Bible? Every Mass there are three readings FROM THE BIBLE that the priest preaches on. There are Bible studies in CC as well. If you read our catechism it is full of Bible quotes and references as our our religous ed books.

      April 6, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  2. J.R.

    Catholicism needs to be called out for what it is: a HATE GROUP. Religion is the biggest scam mankind has ever known. As a former Catholic and now Agnostic (a scientific FACT-based spirituality) I can attest that i have never been happier and everything makes so much sense. Unfortunately, I am still surrounded by people who think this hippie-looking, greasy-haired man sits in the clouds watching every move you make and will judge you accordingly if you're not on your best behavior. Please ... we have psych wards for this. SCIENCE is the only true way of belief – it's not only there in front of you but it also has no right or wrong answer. It just is. Religion = lies, myths and scare tactics. SCIENCE = truth, reality, reason & logic.

    April 3, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • Leon

      Well said.

      April 4, 2011 at 12:38 am |
  3. Fuyuko

    I don't observe lent. I've never much cared for the easter holiday, even as a child growing up and going regularly to church. Although I realize many Christians enjoy and celebrate Easter, I've always felt the holiday was a bit grim, and I don't particularly believe in the resurrection. I prefer to remember and celebrate Jesus's life while he was alive.

    April 3, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
  4. Jim

    Fasting hardly has its origins in Christianity. While the New Testament asserts Christ fasted and endorsed fasting, early books of the Old Testament attest to God instructing the Israelites as to when and how they should fast.

    Specific to the article, while I agree with the author that when you get stuck in a rut it is time to change your routine. But the structure provided by Catholicism and Orthodox fasting regimens can do that in a mature and refined way that making it up as you go along can't. I know that the world has evolved in many ways over the last few hundred years and we have advanced scientifically in amazing ways. But spiritual evolution has been pretty stagnant if not in retrograde. You can learn a lot for 7th century theologians. They weren't distracted by Snooki so they had lots more time to think about salvation.

    April 3, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
  5. Roseann

    What does being a Catholic have to do with observing Lent?

    Goodness. I am a Christian. What I do in personal observance of this Christian season is my own PERSONAL business. I answer to no one, but God about all of it.

    Get over the Catholic Church dysfuncitonal reasoning – in regard to anything one does – it ain't relevant globally or Christian faith wise. A Christian does not have to "belong" to anything or any corporate body – other than one's own comiitment to God and Jesus Christ.

    April 3, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  6. Smartass

    No problem, lady. Everyone knows Catholicism is bunk anyway.

    April 3, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
  7. Babs

    I love this article...I love its longsightedness and its adherence to fundamental Christian beliefs, while at the same time acknowledging that there are theological differences.

    Nonetheless, rituals such as Lent can benefit all Christians and not compromise the orthodoxy of any stripe of Christian. After all, as Batterson says, we all came from just one religious 'denomination' to begin with; plus there is 'one Lord and father of us all.' I enjoyed this article.

    April 3, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
  8. mbh

    I am a lifelong Christian and growing up as a child our church (United Methodist), did recommend following the tradition of giving-up something during the season of lent leading up to Easter to help us to focus on the events leading up to Good Friday and the celebration of Easter. It was not a requirement in our home, but I recall a couple of times trying to make the effort.

    As an adult, and especially within the church I have been attending for the past 13 years, some of the protestant traditions have been replaced with other traditions, especially in the area of service to the community, etc. Other traditions such as communion continue. My church is a mix of Christians from various backgrounds – and out of a congregation of ~ 10K, at least a third come from the Catholic church. Personally, I like traditions and in keeping with the times and the needs of others, I also like adopting new traditions.

    April 3, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  9. GrammaB

    I have been a Lutheran all my life, and have never attended a church that did NOT observe both Lent and Advent. Both are times of reflection and preparation. One for life, one for death. Ash Wednesday always meant the disposition of ashes on the forehead. What I have observed in the past 25 years, has been a move away from the "giving up" during Lent to "doing something" for the good of others. I still usually give up something, but also look for some way to enrich the lives of others. I feel that is a better testimony to life of Christ.

    April 3, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  10. AJ

    The last place you could see GOD is in Church and by observing those man made rituals. If GOD is found only in churches than there will be no other buildings in this world. If you want to see GOD look within you and around you. Do not become a seasonal believer in GOD by observing Lent. Observe those Lent practice for your entire life if you are a true believer. Becoming a part-time Non-vegetarian, non-alcoholic for 45 days only makes your body good and not your soul.

    April 3, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  11. Michael

    Why mention only Catholic? If you really want to fast for lent, try Orthodox Christianity.

    April 3, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • Varangian

      Exactly! I don't understand why the Catholics are always the focus. We've been around for just as long.

      April 3, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
  12. Aaron

    Many other non-Catholic denominations observe Lent. Why is this called a Catholic tradition and not a Christian one?

    April 3, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  13. Methusalem2000

    To ignore FASTING - one of the biggest mistakes Protestant Churches have made over the course of history.

    Mortification of the flesh through fasting, as described in Sacred Scripture is still held up by the Church as one of the "three pillars of the spiritual life." — together with prayer and almsgiving.

    Fasting immediately frees one from the world, the flesh and the devil.
    It begets prayer. Through fasting, one becomes available in a mystical
    sense to others. And it's not possible to follow the way of fasting
    and the way of the flesh at the same time.

    Fasting is the ticket to ride the Train.

    April 3, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  14. JackoB

    Funny how the atheists' most frequently used weapon in these threads is the ad-hominem. Speaks volumes.

    April 3, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  15. radsi0j0hn

    I don't think anybody has much of a right to comment on someone else's inner life, unless they are sacrificing virgins or killing people because someone disagreed with them or farted in the general direction of their holy book.

    April 3, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  16. MashaSobaka

    Many of my Christian friends make a minor “sacrifice” during Lent. They give up meat. They give up soda. They give up alcohol. And I sit back and wonder how on Earth this would ever help them identify with someone who (according to their beliefs) allowed himself to be brutalized, tortured, and nailed to a cross so that his followers could live with God after they died. I just don’t see the comparison. I wonder if any of them have ever considered giving up something a tad more existential…give up judgment for Lent, say. Give up prejudice. Every time you think a bad thought about someone you don’t even know, admonish yourself and reflect on it and try to change your small-mindedness. That seems a touch more "Christlike" to me. But then again I am a pureblooded heathen and maybe I just don’t understand how going sober for a few weeks can bring one closer to God.

    April 3, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • brin3m

      that may be what they told you they gave up......as a Catholic we were taught to not brag about what we gave up.....it was between us and God plus we were not only to give up something, we were to do more good works or acts of charity and again not brag about it....just do it.....

      April 3, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
    • Ora et labora

      Masha, Good observation! Many Christians still retain a very child-like view of "fasting" during Lent. Giving up something like candy or soda is often where children start because it's a small sacrifice they can understand. Denying oneself something that one really wants to join in some small way with Christ's sufferings is a begninng. As one matures in age and faith, the "sacrifices" should also mature. Many priests do make suggestions such as yours: give up criticizing others; give up being judgemental; give up harsh words; seek to do something positive like helping others in some way. Unfortunately many Christians do still have an underdeveloped sense of spirituality, and it's easier to not think about it and just give up sweets.

      April 3, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  17. AGuest9

    A girl I dated in college was once told by her mother that we shouldn't go swimming yet, because it was too early in June and "the pope hadn't blessed the water yet". They were baptists.

    April 3, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • Elinorina

      Really? That's a pip! (I knew lots of religious folk - of many denominations/persuasions - growing up, and NEVER heard of the Spring Blessing of the Waters by the Pope.) (But it wouldn't surprise me, either...)

      April 3, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
  18. bu

    Religion is a disease of the Mind! Be part of the cure, not the problem!

    Help cure the religion disease!

    Faith = Motivation to delude the public and yourself

    April 3, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
  19. Magdousha

    Be a vegetarian and give our animal frieds a break.

    April 3, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
  20. bp

    ahh the replies are broken once again on yet another topic

    April 3, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.