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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. alexandra zimmerman

    I am Epsicopalian and the Anglican Church has always observed the Lenten Season. I see all the posts about giving up something to remember the pain and suffering of Jesus. However, I would also remind everyone that this should also be a time to do something to strengthen your relationship with God. Try reading the Psalms again everymorning before you start your day.

    April 3, 2011 at 10:46 am |
  2. Argle Bargle

    I gave up Lent for Lent. Good Friday comes soon (and what Friday isn't good?) and then Chick & Bunny Day. Mmmm...can't wait to bite the ears off those chocolate bunnies! Nom nom nom...

    April 3, 2011 at 10:46 am |
  3. Joe Canada

    This guy probably practices necromancy like the catholics as well. Not a true protestant. I can`t believe anyone would go to his church.

    April 3, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • Argle Bargle

      I always thought it was interesting how the wine and wafer became blood and flesh. Mmmm...cannibalism.

      April 3, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  4. FifthApe

    Definition of Christianity: the belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.

    "When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."
    – Stephen Roberts

    April 3, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • Argle Bargle

      Wow. Was that an original thought? Jewish Zombie...

      April 3, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • Jesus

      When you boil down the dogma into short paragraphs, it reveals the idiocy of religion. I personally got turned off at the age of 10 when the dude living in a whale story just made no sense. From there the credibility of religion was all downhill. Then I traveled to the middle east and found the semitic culture there hundreds of years behind us and the rest of the western world. Why worship the pronouncements of these people at the depth of their ignorance two thousand years ago? Would you worship the Gods of the Maya, Inca, or Mongols that were worshipped by those peoples two thousand years ago?

      April 3, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • The Truth

      You don't understand because you are an ape. Jesus died for people not for apes. Accept Jesus as your lord and savior or else you will live in hell for eternity after you die. Wake up!!!!

      April 15, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
  5. Herb Gray

    I observe Lent because I am a catholic (small c) Christian and believe that it is the best way to prepare fro Easter.

    April 3, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  6. KLR

    Now we all see, religion's just synthetic frippery
    Unnecessary in our expanding global cultural unefficiency.

    April 3, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  7. Kay

    Not all atheists troll and spew vile messages. All groups have bad apples spoiling it for everyone else. There aslo doesn't seem to be a believers only disclaimer anywhere. In any event, I'm an atheist and I enjoyed reading this blog. The author seems like a very thoughtful and good man.

    April 3, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  8. ratickle

    We are fortunate that Catholics don't believe in killing "infidels". It is unfortunate that Catholics don't believe in birth control.

    April 3, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  9. Huios*

    Thanks this really opened my eyes to certain things I was unaware of. Yes Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice for all humans and we have an option to die to our own fleshly desires so we can have more understanding of Jesus' laying down His life. And everyone has an opinion but judge your own hearts when it comes to the truth. Eyes only see what the mind knows. I'm a lover of Jesus and all He stands for which is love for God is love!

    April 3, 2011 at 10:21 am |
  10. theoldadam

    Lent is a great time to realize that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves or make ourselves look better in the eyes of God.

    It is a great time to realize that we need a Savior, and to focus on who that Savior is and how He has freed us from religion (what WE DO).

    April 3, 2011 at 10:12 am |
    • Peter G

      You sound like a clueless git.

      April 3, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • photoman1

      Try believing in yourself rather than some invisible being.

      The only thing we know for sure is that you have this physical life, here an now. Rather than living for something that may not be real – an afterlife – live for today and lie it well.

      April 3, 2011 at 10:38 am |
    • photoman1

      Try believing in yourself rather than some invisible being.

      The only thing we know for sure is that we have this physical life, here and now. Rather than living for something that may not be real – an afterlife – live for today and live it well.

      – sorry for the spelling mistakes in the first post 🙁

      April 3, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • james

      U need help. Try giving up reliigion for lent.

      Lose the fear, feel the freedom.

      April 3, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  11. Sandy

    I am a Catholic whose birthday always falls during Lent, which has made me the world's most specific "giver upper." For example, I never give up chocolate, because then my birthday cake would be disgusting; instead I give up chocolate candy. I love chocolate, so this is indeed a sacrifice, just one I can keep. I do find the sacrifice element of Lent compelling, but that is only half the story. Focusing on alms, or charity, and increasing the time you spend on your spiritual life is also part of what makes this one of the best times of the church year. I also find that participating in services on Holy Thursday and Good Friday make Easter far more meaningful, as does the Easter Vigil, if you can swing it (with kids it can be a struggle).

    April 3, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • james

      Try giving up religion for lent, you might actually enjoy ur life.

      April 3, 2011 at 10:48 am |
  12. Skip Guinness

    I'm always in a spiritual & physical slump. so I developed a method exercising and praying at the same time and it helped open my eyes to simple things, like the homeless people that I pass by every day going to work. I have a nice, but very brief story I can share with you. I put it online http://www.skippyguinness.blogspot.com. Check it out if you are in a slump. It's like a little bit of Lent every day.

    April 3, 2011 at 9:45 am |
    • james

      Heres a tip. Quit beleiving in all of this nonsense and that slump will go away.

      Best day of my life was when I stopped beleiving in God. Not because I wanted to, but because its just not logical that it exists.

      And even if it does, do you think it wants blind observance? And if it does, then I dont care and will not follow.

      Lose the fear, lose the burden. Enjoy your life.

      April 3, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • LOL

      Ya but on the plus side religion does keep a lot of these nuts in line. Some people need that threat of eternal doom to do the right thing. Let them live in fear.

      April 3, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  13. jude

    when i was catholic i always thought the no meat on friday thing was unnecessary and i never gave up anything but rather did something to improve myself personally like study harder or eat better. giving up a small thing you enjoy doesnt mean much but striving to better yourself as a person i think does far more better.

    April 3, 2011 at 9:41 am |
    • Amy

      I'm not Catholic and this is my first year participating in Lent. I gave up Facebook...not because I would in anyway consider it a sacrifice comparable to Jesus' suffering leading up to the cross, but because it is the single activity that sucks my time away. By giving it up, I've found more time to do things that will cultivate my spiritual life. I've found it to be a relief to not feel I need to check it all the time to see what people are up to (which is usually nothing at all lol)

      April 3, 2011 at 9:50 am |
  14. braddah

    First of all, Amen to this article. My family and I are Catholic. We observe Lent and my kids also make the spiritual attempt to give up something. I think just their attempt at ths stage in their life will give them the drive to keep it going in their life as they grow. For me, it has definately made me spritually stronger. When I do make a sacrafice for Lent, I also think that what small or somewhat major thing in my life can I change or give up for 40 days in recognition to the huge sacrafice that Jesus made for me.....for us. During the recognition, knowing what I am sacraficing also lets me reflect on why I'm doing it. It gives me that particular "moment" to acknowledge that I'm doing this to grow as a Catholic as well as reflecting on Jesus and his sacrfices leading to the "Ultimate Sacrafice". Your article actually brought me to tears when mentioning Jesus sacrafices. I'm not the best of Catholics but I make every attempt in my life to be. We are all growing physically, mentally and spiritually. It doesn't hurt to make a decision by observing or do something you as a person, individually or spiritually might feel something will fill a void as long as the intentions are good. My favorite part of Lent is when a stranger offers me something and I say, "No thanks, I gave that up for Lent." Some people understand what I'm doing and others ask why I'm doing it. That's when I do my job as a Catholic and "Spread the word of God" by telling them why I made a sacrafice. Following the teachings of Jesus is a hard part of life since we do it based on our faith tells us. As long as you "Believe", I think you're ahead of the game rather than not believing. God bless.

    April 3, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • Rabia Diluvio

      For Lent I have given up all acts of self-denial.

      April 3, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • Jesus

      For lent I have given up Catholicism.

      April 3, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • james

      Try giving up religion for lent.

      April 3, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • LOL

      I read as far as 'amen.' I already know the rest of your post is filled with fallacies and illogical conclusions based on a 2000 year old book so I'm not gonna waste my time.

      April 3, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  15. Rich

    Religion is delusional.

    April 3, 2011 at 9:33 am |
  16. Sean

    Ain't we all from the same root?

    April 3, 2011 at 9:30 am |
  17. george

    Interesting story. I wonder, he laments that other protestants' ignorance of Christianity prior to the "reformation", yet seem blissfully ignorant of the history of the Orthodox Christianity.

    Rather than following in the footsteps of Luther, why not delve a bit (quite a bit) deeper and see what the Church Fathers had to say about Lent?

    The Orthodox have been practicing Christ's Christianity for 2011 years. They never saw the need to innovate or to use their imagination.

    April 3, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • Chez

      Yeah, they never saw the need to use their brains, that much is clear. Have fun with your intellectual wedgie, george.

      April 3, 2011 at 9:48 am |
    • Felicitations

      Isn't it interesting and revealing how chez feels the need to make an insulting remark to your comment. So amusing how atheists insist on reading every article about religion! I love that about them.

      April 3, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • clarification please

      Hi George,
      Could you please clarify what you mean when you say Orthodox Christianity? Not asking to be annoying, I just see the phrase Orthodox Christianity used so much and some people tell me it refers to Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodoxy, the Old Catholic Church, Independent Catholic Church, Liberal Catholic Church or the Continuing Anglican Movement. I even had someone tell me it refers to any mainstream christian church that isn't a cult (not putting a lot of weight into the last once though).

      April 3, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
  18. Julie

    The author seems to be unaware of the Protestant churches that do practice Lent. The Moravians, some Lutherans, and some Presbyterians celebrate Lent with prayer services, Wednesday communion services, and fasting. Moravians will celebrate Holy Week (the week between Palm Sunday and Great Sabbath) with nightly readings from the gospel, communion on Maundy Thursday, crucifixion service and lovefeast on Good Friday. Lent is not only celebrated by Catholics.

    April 3, 2011 at 9:18 am |
    • Heather in SoCal

      Many Methodists also celebrate Lent - once a week at my church, we have a Labyrinth to walk, and a prayer service with music from Taize.

      April 3, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • Sarah

      Episcopalians also celebrate Lent, including Ash Wednesday. Reporters really need to clue in that Catholics aren't the only people who celebrate Lent. The Washington Post made the same mistake.

      April 3, 2011 at 10:02 am |
  19. Elizabeth

    I find Lent meaningful too. I am an Orthodox Christian, which is not Protestant, and not Roman Catholic. When somebody says "absolutely Orthodox in theology," I think of the Orthodox Creed agreed upon 1685 centuries ago, in 325 A.D. I think of the words of in Greek "in remembrance" which mean to "keep in mind," not a past memory, but eternally present among us, and therefore an eternally present Sacrifice for us, and a true Eucharist, not some sort of "re-enactment." Most Christians try to live Christianity, not re-enact it, but few understand that the Scripture actually says what it means, "I am the Bread of Life;" there is no way that we could protest our Lord's gift of Himself to us. Then there is a continuous Lent of sorrow; Orthodox Christians are being squeezed out of places they have lived in and worshiped in for 2000 years. We gladly welcome them in America, but many here do not realize that other Christians suffer in the Middle East. Finally, I think of the many things we give up in Lent in Orthodox churches, and the many wonderful joys we have: shared Lenten meals on Friday evenings, beautiful hymns for the Blessed Virgin Mary (who was one of the few who stayed with Jesus at the place of the Cross). We look with joyful anticipation to Pascha, the Resurrection, and in the rush service, we carry the light home, and we carry on.

    April 3, 2011 at 9:18 am |
    • Jesus

      I lent a few bucks to a friend years ago and he never repaid me. I find that to be a meaningful learning experience.

      April 3, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • nik

      @ jesus, i lol'd irl.

      April 3, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • james

      You are an idiot that has been brainwashed.

      April 3, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • LOL

      Blah blah blah more incoherent, overly verbose ramblings of a crazy person trying to make a 2000 year old book apply to reality.

      April 3, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
  20. im4sanity

    Why are all these viscerally anti-religion types reading the Belief Blog?

    April 3, 2011 at 9:02 am |
    • Jim

      Because their hearts and souls cry out for a connection with God, but their polluted minds enviscerate what is written here. I feel sorry for their struggle.

      April 3, 2011 at 9:18 am |
    • Chez

      "viscerally"? You deny that we can do this from higher motives or as intellectuals? Not willing to admit that we have morals or something?

      April 3, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • Elizabeth

      They think that "freedom of religion" means "freedom from religion." In public schools, work places, and public owned land and buildings, religion may not be discussed, taught, or displayed, which leads to a dangerous ignorance about each other. CNN is a private corporation, and is allowed to post articles about any subject. Newspapers traditionally had religion articles in their Saturday editions. However, there are people who are outraged, it is very few people, but they do not want to discuss anything, only continue the ignorance in America that eventually could lead to deep divisions. If you see such a negative post, I suggest you ignore it, because these people are trolls; they have no interest at all in the subject, but they are trying to stop it. It is as if religious people attacked their favorite subjects (which, because they only attack, we wouldn't know what these subjects are).

      April 3, 2011 at 9:25 am |
    • Chez

      Elizabeth, you should rewrite that. It sounds rather garbled.

      April 3, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • i am the unicorn god that created the universe.

      because the link is on the front page. reading about crazy people can be entertaining. hence, reading about the crazy things that religious people do is entertaining (and sometimes scary). just making sure they arent becoming more crazy than they already are. =) they should really move this to the entertainment pages. cheers.

      April 3, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • Jesus

      Atheists comment here because we want YOU, the gullible non-thinking zombie, to wake up and smell REALITY. When more people realize that religion, all religions, are a ruse and a scam, then maybe we as a species can move forward in making life here on Earth a lot better.

      April 3, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • Priyath

      Kind of odd isn't it. Atheists reading BELIEF BLOGS!

      April 3, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • Karen Neff

      Elizabeth: you can teach about religion. I don't know where you got your info but teaching about religion, (not preaching, mind you, but teaching for knowledge's sake) is not a problem as long as you aren't trying to indoctrinate. This is coming from a music teacher who routinely performs arrangements of sacred music and feels free to give the why's and wherefore's regarding it's origin. I don't expect them to believe nor do I follow the particular doctrine of the song being performed, but I think any education is incomplete without a little knowledge regarding the roots of our society.

      April 3, 2011 at 10:33 am |
    • nik

      lol we read these silly religion blogs and articles to simply get a good laugh, then make fun of you for believing in this non-sense.

      if youre looking for answers either find them yourself or take a few hits of lsd.

      April 3, 2011 at 10:38 am |
    • Felicitations

      I love that about Atheists. Always amusing.

      April 3, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • Almighty Dollar Worshipper

      I don't believe in god, only in the Almighty Dollar. All praise the Almighty Dollar! However, I DO celebrate Easter but only because I love the candy. Does this make me a hypocrite? – like the hypocrites that go to church and sin like crazy when nobody is looking?

      April 3, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • Felicitations

      Atheists love reading about religion. II love that about them. Always amusing.

      April 3, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • Phage0070

      Isn't there anything that you consider a detriment to the world and are firmly against, but wouldn't consider it odd to seek out in an effort to speak of its ills? You wouldn't for instance turn a blind eye to racism and just leave a racism section in a world news service alone, so why should you expect that from those who believe religion is a great ill?

      April 3, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • jbg

      im4sanity, Don't you enjoy reading fiction?

      April 3, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • jbg

      Felicitations,

      We get it. You are easily amused. Especially by Atheist who study religion. (I enjoy a good science fiction read as well). And we get that you love them for reading and studying religion. How could we not deduce this, everyone on this blog has read about it so many times (and twice in this thread). Please break up the monotony and include something new in your next posting, even if it is your love for penguins.

      April 3, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
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