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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. Artpokalips

    I thought lent (sp.) was the stuff that builds up in your Naval. Go Figure! You can worship that just as much as a mythical creature god. Your belly button will bless you just as much as your fake god.
    Anyway I'm giving up on every religion on Earth for good! That's good as in a better life! Sacrificing your religious stupidity from my head.

    April 3, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  2. Alan

    Why is it that an Op/Ed such as this one must always become fodder for whomever wishes to express hateful, disrespectful, and offensive comments? Why is vocal prejudice against Christianity and more specifically Catholicism the last acceptable form of hate speech?

    April 3, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • Do Tell

      u mad?

      April 3, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • Colin

      Probably because the Catholic superst-itions are soooo silly, they are the low hanging fruit on the theological tree of silly beliefs. I mean, a 6,000 year old world, a talking snake, a worldwide flood, all animals on the ark, people living to be 900 years old, a man living in a whale's belly.

      Might I make a suggestion. If you do not want to be called foolish, stop believeing in foolish things. I told you I thought the World behgan 4,000 years ago with Adam, Eve and a dancing bear, you would be justified in thinking me an idiot. Why is 6,000 and a talking snake any less silly.

      April 3, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • Dave

      It's because people are very insecure about themselves. They don't know if they are right or not. Real Atheists wouldn't give a cr@p and move on.

      April 3, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • Jeremy

      Good question Alan. I don't know. Colin, in general, it is Protestant theology which is characterized by the literal interpretation of the Bible, including the creation accounts in Genesis. Catholic exegesis on the other hand (and some strands of Protestant theology, e.g. Karl Barth) is marked by a multidimensional hermeneutical framework in which the literal sense of the Scripture is just one type of interpretation. Many Christians do not hold to a literalistic interpretation of Genesis, but I agree with your implication, namely that a certain Protestant understanding of "Sola Scriptura" has had the negative consequence of portraying Christians as naive individuals who believe in the literal details of myths. And while they are myths, they conceal profound truths. In fact, this is a peculiarity to the genre of mythology. Whereas modern historians prefer just the facts, the myth maker reveals by concealing, as it were.

      April 3, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  3. Josh

    Of the many Protestant churches Mr. Batterson has visited, it seems he has skipped over the Episcopal Church entirely, where Lent has remained an important part of the church calendar. While the Anglican Church movement was not technically part of the Reformation, it certainly was heavily influenced by it, and the Episcopal Church, the U.S. arm of the Church of England, is a Protestant Church. I'd be interested in hearing from Methodists on the role of Lent within their church, since John Wesley was originally an Episcopal priest I believe.

    April 3, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  4. Rich Jones in Nevada

    Interesting; an article the goes on about how Protestant churches do not celebrating Lent with absolutely no mention of the Episcopalians. Has the author never seen the Book of Common Prayer? The section for Ash Wednesday starts on page 60.

    It’s admittedly only a minor sect, with around 2,006,343 adherents, making it only the nation's fifteenth largest denomination.

    April 3, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  5. Alan

    Why is it that a story such as this one must always become fodder for whomever wishes to express hateful, disrespectful, and offensive comments? Why is vocal prejudice against Christianity and more specifically Catholicism the last acceptable form of hate speech?

    April 3, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • Do Tell

      Would monsieur like some cheese with his wine?

      April 3, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Can't speak for others, but I'm an equal-opportunity detractor who doesn't discriminate against any one particular religion.

      In what possible way is this "News" fit to be at the top of CNN's home page? Nothing but more pandering to the lowest common denominator – or, in this case, denomination. Actually, the word "denomination" should be replaced by "abomination"...

      April 3, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • Colin

      To Praise The Lord. Ok, I am stealing both plays on words. they are good.

      April 3, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Colin: I loved your line elsewhere: "Thanks Meaghan. You pray for me and I'll think for both of us.”

      A classic !!!!!!!!

      April 3, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
  6. elenita

    According to scientist, particles are particles and waves spread out all over space at the same time, so that means that the particles in my body, you body and the particles the form the entire universe exist and don't exist at the same time. How is that thinking not religion like?

    April 3, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • Colin

      I assume you are talking aout the photon theory of light. The answer is simple. It is because we observe that happening. Religion, on the other hand is totally made up. There are no observations to support it.

      April 3, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • Do Tell

      If you cannot speak English or find a good translator, then please do not bother posting your gibberish.

      April 3, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • elenita

      DO Tell, why don't you learn QM first and then reply to my comment.

      April 3, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
    • elenita

      Yes Collin I am referring to the double slit experiment observations and the wave-function theory of a particle, which in fact applies to all particles, so tell me, how is it that the entire universe exist and don't exist at the same time, and I want to clarify I am not a religious fanatic, although I am spiritual. May be the spirits inhabit one of the other seven dimension the scientist talk about!!

      April 3, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  7. Jeffision

    I'm embarrassed for the author of this article. Religion is a common psychosis. Visualize a post religious era.

    April 3, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
  8. Lutheran Ho

    I appreciate your thoughtful reflection, but here's the thing we all need to remember. Lent isn't about you and me. It's not about our spiritual practices, disciplines, or lack thereof. It's about JESUS making his way to the CROSS for the sins of the world!

    April 3, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  9. PhilG.

    I observe lent because it comes out of my dryer.

    April 3, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  10. Nathan H

    At any other time if you were to smear dirt on your face people would think you were nuts but if you tell them it is lent and you are trying to appease your sky fairy everyone nods like it is the most natural thing in the world. The columnist's first react was right, be embarrassed for the producer.

    April 3, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  11. Zenith

    Thanks for sharing your spiritual philosophy with us.
    I find that a strenuous 1 hour. Cardio workout daily, an occasional fast and acceptance pf others helps me stay balanced and focused.
    Acceptance of others doesn't mean an adoption of their traits and choices, but it does eliminat frustrations that come with trying to make the world into what I want it to look like.
    Live and let live.
    I also try and avoid being around peopl and situations which create pain and annoyance. When that cannot be avoided, I look for meaningful growth in the situation. It helps.

    April 3, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Gerald

      You sound like someone who lives a comfortable life. Unfortunately manu do not. Most people give money and go about their cardio workout. Others actually pray (meditate) for the well being of those who suffer. I doubt an athiest does much of that.

      April 3, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • u mad?

      obvious troll is obvious

      April 3, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  12. Scott Morrison

    Very nice meditation on Lent. I would question your Seminary's curriculum if they allowed you to get all the way through without learning the history behind Lent and ashes in the Church. It dates far back before the Reformation, as you note. Besides this, there are many many more Traditions and traditions that date all the way back to Christ. Going deep in history is to caese to be Protestant. God Bless you and your work for Christ.

    April 3, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  13. 21k

    some years ago, i gave up believing in god for lent. and stuck to it. it's been great since!

    April 3, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  14. UncleM

    How about giving up religion.

    April 3, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  15. UncleM

    How about giving up religion! That really would make the world a better place.

    April 3, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Gerald

      And then we just simply think the way you think. Right?

      April 3, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • Dave

      "That would make the world a better place" – I hear that statement all the time but I have not yet heard a reasonable explanation to why that would be true. Most people say it's because it will end war. Well that's just idiotic and naive. Wars will still happen. No modern da war has been caused by religion. So please, tell me, how will it better the world?

      April 3, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • angelosdaughter

      Giving up humanity's need to dominate, conquer, take what it another's, and kill would make the world a better place, but that isn't going to happen with or without religion. Religion at least tries, (not always succeeding, but at least it tries) to reign in the worst of human instinct.

      April 3, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  16. Colin

    I will never understand why otherwise educated people will kneel down, close their eyes and imagine that a being that created the entire Universe and its billions of galaxies is reading their minds (or "hearing their prayers" as they put it).

    They have moved on from rainbows and crayons in the field of art, and Dick and Jane in the field of literature. However, on the big questions, their view is totally stymied and retarded. They cannot get past their hokey Sunday school stories about talking snakes and the son of god coming down to Earth.

    I know so many otherwise smart, critical people, who would never be as voluntarily retarded and as readily hoodwinked in any other aspect of their life as they are by religion. An old saying goes, “The first priest was the first fraud to meet the first fool.” Perhaps a more accurate truism is "The first fool was the first genius who listened to the first priest."

    Go figure.

    April 3, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • Jeremy

      I think that the notion that modern science is capable of explaining everything in the universe and the naive acceptance outside of the laboratory of its presupposition that there is nothing apart from material reality is "stymied and retarded." Science itself has undergone numerous paradigms. Science does not have a monopoly on truth, and the majority of human beings on the earth are religious.

      April 3, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • Colin

      Jeremy, Iagree with both points. Science will never "expalin everything" and most people are religious. I guess my question is "so what?"

      April 3, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • Andrew

      I too would agree somewhat with both points. To your point, Colin, there are many people who blindly follow religion without any thought whatsoever. However, there are also those who have sought meaning in their day-to-day lives and found it in a communal observance of faith. One definition of the word "faith", of which I am particularly fond, is "sincerity of intentions." I think this captures what most people seek in religion, to sincerely join with others who wish to add meaning to humanity, united behind a "greater good." The coming together isn't the point (although, for many people the preservation of two-thousand years of tradition is also meaningful), rather the intentions. With your point, Jeremy, I would also agree. Science cannot explain everything, and many aspects of what makes religious observance good (i.e. the intention) has little to do with scientific thought. However, we cannot exclude science, itself a gift. What would be healthy religious discussion without scientific challenge, or health scientific discussion without challenges from our spiritual side. Humanity is like a bird, one wing from religion and another from science. Without both wings, the bird cannot fly anywhere, but with them working together, it can soar to heights never thought imaginable.

      April 3, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • Jeremy

      Colin, my point is that one should not criticize religious people because religion is (among other things) a mechanism for creating meaning and explanation in a world that has little of either. It helps people make sense of their world. Sure, there are some naive religious people, but to be religious is not tantamount to having a stunted psychic development, as you seem to make it out to be. Because most people are religious implies that it is a "default" setting. In fact, a common anthropological interpretation is that religion is one of the main components of civilization and of what makes human beings human. The very phenomenon of self-consciousness, oriented to the outer world and the inner world of the individual, compels one to at least consider the possibility that there is a transcendent being. While being religious and being open to a transcendent being are not quite the same, they are interrelated. As for religion itself, yes, there have been, are, and will be many abuses in religion; however, it is logical to believe that if there is a transcendent being whom human beings are oriented towards, that this being would provide a way for humans to have access to this being. It also makes sense that if this being is the creator, that there are certain moral imperatives that are to be held and that there ought to be a certain code of conduct vis-a-vis this being. This is where religion comes in. Is religion imperfect? Yes. Finite? Certainly. Evolving? I believe it is. But does it serve a purpose for human beings which should not be considered naive? I think so.

      Andrew, I agree that science is a gift. I was not attempting to disparage science; I was just trying to point out something which people usually never consider. Science certainly is a gift, but it is oddly ambiguous. The more technology advances, the more the human spirit jeopardizes its humanity. While we have made huge strides in curing various diseases, there exists something which never existed before history: the capacity for human beings to cause themselves to be extinct through nuclear or bio-chemical war (not to mention the ecological crisis). Knowledge is power, but power without knowledge is reckless.

      April 3, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  17. Cindy

    This is utterly ridiculous, considering "Lent" is just another Pagan practice. It has nothing to do with the death or resurrection of Jesus Christ. If you do your research, you will see that most of today's Catholic practices, as well as "Christian" ones, are Pagan. Have you ever seen the word "Lent?" in the Bible? Have you ever read in the Bible where you are supposed to celebrate "Easter?" No, because it isn't in there. And this minister knows it, just like other priests and ministers know it, they just don't care that they are lying to you.

    April 3, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • Andrew

      With all due respect, Cindy, simply because an observance within Christianity has roots in paganism does not exclude it from being a meaningful one. If we took out all the observances that originated in another religion, Christianity would cease to exist. Jesus was an observant Jew, many of the first converts were Greeks and Romans, and as the religion spread across the world, it absorbed traditions and practices that were meaningful to the converts. There may not be any explicit instruction in the Bible to observe Lent or Easter, but neither is there instruction not to. You, as an individual, are free not to observe Lent or Easter, but to millions of Christians around the world they are wonderfully meaningful ways to prepare for and celebrate Jesus Christ's death and resurrection, a key event that one could argue as the foundation of Christianity.

      April 3, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  18. Bobs

    @Kain Jesus was born Jewish. He founded the catholic church..

    April 3, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • John

      Where do you get your info? Jesus Never named a specific Church.

      April 3, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Dave

      He didn't found the Catholic church. The Catholic church is based on his teachings.

      April 3, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • Reply to John

      John,

      In Mt. 16:18 Christ appoints Simon (who Christ renamed Peter, meaning "rock") as head of his church. This is why Peter is shown as the final arbitrator in disputes among the apostles in the book of acts. After Peter was crucified in Rome, Linus succeeded him as Bishop of Rome. The succession has been unbroken ever since, with Benedict currently holding the office of head of the Church Christ founded.

      April 3, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  19. Dan

    CNN, stop putting religious stories on your home page as if it were news.

    April 3, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • Watnen

      Amen!

      April 3, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Judy

      Dan,
      Do you really think anyone from CNN will read what you wrote or even care? CNN does not read these comments in SoundOff, so writing here is a waste of your time. If you have a complaint, go to the bottom of the page to Contact Us, write them a letter, and they will likewise, ignore your complaint as well.
      Best advice: If you don't like a particular article – don't read it!

      April 3, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • Andrew

      Dan, if you do not like reading about beliefs, perhaps you should not read the Belief Blog.

      April 3, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • Upset Voter

      There is a reason this is in the Belief Blog section of the website instead of under news.

      April 3, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  20. Margaret

    I am non denominational but I always observe Lent & even Ramadan. Too often, people only realize what is important after a natural disaster or war.

    April 3, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • Watnen

      What exactly do you think is important?

      April 3, 2011 at 12:40 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.