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. Christina

    You should check out the Eastern Orthodox Church. They've been observing Lent since the early Church days. Fasting, alms-giving, repentance, and a cycle of services to prepare for the celebration of Pascha.

    April 3, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  2. Steve

    There seems to be a lot of negative comments on what is otherwise a great article. What gives? My sense is that there is a lack of accountability here and there's a few that are simply trying to pick a fight. To sort things out, I'd like to challenge those who are actually saying such hurtful things to include your personally identifiable information in your comment so that we know you want us to take you seriously. Thanks.

    April 3, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Andy Anderson

      The "Anonymous Fallacy" was dealt with a long time ago.

      April 3, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
  3. Andy M

    From someone with strong Catholic upbringing who appreciates articles like this concerning a cross-interest and tolerance of other versions of Christianity...I've come to learn about a spiritual teacher named Maitreya who has said religions are merely ladders to get onto the roof. After you get onto the roof you don't need the ladder anymore. Maitreya is the one known by Christians as the Christ, and also World Teacher for all humanity, who is now emerging into the public. Christ has not truly left us, but rather is here to inaugurate a golden era ahead, in which peace will be born of social justice and nations sharing together.

    April 3, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
  4. CatholicMom

    I can appreciate your joy, Mark, in discovering Lent but your thinking that we have to put ‘our unique fingerprint on those Traditions to keep them from being empty rituals’, as you say, is a rather strange way to look at Lent. It has never been an empty ritual for Catholics; but it has been from reformation times a trait of protestants to take something Catholic and put their ‘twist’ or fingerprint on it as if to say that the way Mother Church has been teaching all these thousands of years is ‘empty’ ritual.

    Another very protestant way is to say that ‘good routines can become bad routines if we don’t change the routine’ like you say, however, ‘good’ does not become ‘bad’ unless we change it! So the only thing I would suggest is that if you are in a bad routine change it back to the way it was…’good’ in the first place!

    Picking up a new translation of Scripture, as you suggest doing, is what started happening in the reformation days….and all that did is cause 38,000 differing ecclesial communities to come into being, each with its own ‘interpreted translation’ of Scripture…using private interpretations to produce yet another translation! Even when the Bible tells us that Holy Scripture is not a matter of private interpretation. [2Peter 1:20]

    God bless you, Mark Batterson, on your journey to the One Path, the One Church, the One Way, the One Truth, that you are searching for.

    April 3, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • Rob

      Lent has never been an empty ritual for me as an Episcopalian either. Your complaints against Protestants show the same ignorance displayed by the author of the article.

      The "protest" that gave rise to the Protestant churches was not against God but against man. It was against how man had twisted the word of God and used his position to advance worldly desires instead of the word of God.

      We pray to the same God. We celebrate the same Christ. We do so in different ways because of the failings of men, not God.

      April 3, 2011 at 10:51 pm |
  5. Pegleg6162


    April 3, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  6. Jeremiah

    Another example of a highly intelligent Protestant leader who has figured out for himself what the Catholic Church has to offer. What I can't figure out is what the Protestants are protesting... Martin Luther himself in his later teachings proferred that he should have never split from "THE" Church. Now we have 20,000+ Protestant denominations. What are they protesting???

    April 3, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • Burn burn burn

      Even your own bible says there's only Jesus and no Pope to "talk" through when seeking God. No Pope needed.
      Take your filthy ped0preists and burn in hell.

      April 3, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • Mike

      Read some history of the reformation Jeremiah. It is EASY to find answers to your question.

      April 3, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  7. frank

    i want to know why theres no repulicans who are also catholic? dark!

    April 3, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  8. Pegleg6162

    There is no do it yourself salvation...you are at the mercy of the creator

    April 3, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
  9. Newfie

    I'll start to pratice these riituals as soon as some god sends me a fax, e-mail or a registerted letter stating that he exsists and this is his will. Till then I will obey the real word, Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.

    April 3, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  10. Jarrod

    I curious what kind "slump" you are in if you have to deprive yourself of the physical to get in touch with the spiritual. I can see if the physical thing is a sin you are giving up but to simply deprive yourself because the loss while somehow connect you to God in a more real way is eluding me. I can see fasting but simply giving up one thing for Lent is no different than giving something up for New Years.

    April 3, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  11. Jason

    I said it, crackhead. Of course you think your god is perfect, why wouldnt you? Your rationale is intriguing. I love to know what your thoughts are on how religion has evolved so as to remain relevant in the current day and age where people are able to see past the smoke and mirrors and think for themselves.

    April 3, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • Rob

      Good to learn that before you could comprehend the "reply" button you called me a crackhead. Im just wondering how your use of insults proves that you, the non-believer, are more intelligent than I? Is your argument so empty that "crackhead" is the best you can do?

      April 3, 2011 at 10:36 pm |
  12. Jough

    I've been doing this for eight years, making it harder each time. I don't consider myself very religious (I even make sure I say I' doing this during lent rather than for lent so it doesn't sound hypocritical of me), I find it important to see where your limits are; and then pushing them. It started with just pop, then the next year, it was meat. The next year it was both, then swearing. It's now year eight and I'm up to meat, pop, swearing, junk food, restaurants, and complaining.

    It's truly gratifying to know you can do it, and enlightening when you find you really can't. There have been things I know I have trouble giving up and it is great to figure out the line.

    April 3, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  13. LizardMom

    This guy says,"We put our unique fingerprint on those traditions, and that keeps them from being empty rituals." As a devout Catholic, I resent anyone calling any ritual we cherish "empty." Our Judeo-Christian heritage has a rich history of ritual and every one we observe has meaning to us.
    On a different note, I do believe the atheists and so forth could refrain from writing nasty comments on an article about religion. Your opinions do not matter to believers. Perhaps you should write your own articles. I, for one, would not read it, let alone comment on it.

    April 3, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Colin

      If one hopes to help people emerge from their childish superst-itions, one must go to where the sick people are.

      April 3, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • ScottK

      On a different note, I do believe the round earthers and so forth could refrain from writing nasty comments on an article about how flat our earth is. Your opinions do not matter to believers. Perhaps you should write your own articles. I, for one, would not read it, let alone comment on it.

      See how silly it sounds? And very likely to be why it took so long to convince people of the truth.

      April 3, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  14. Gerri

    To Pastor Mark Batterson – It's interesting to learn that throughout your religious training, you recently learned that other denomination observes the Lent tradition. I am 67 yrs old, member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and as long as I can remember,we've always observed Lent; one of the most observed periods within the church. Pastor Batterson, where have you been?

    April 3, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
  15. Ohmybuddha

    Oh, my buddha, bickering among chritians over a ritual?
    I do like the idea of Lent, though. I shall try next 4 weeks.

    April 3, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  16. RichardSRussell

    Years ago I discovered the perfect thing to give up for Lent: religion. Never had to worry about it again.

    April 3, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  17. Doug Meredith

    What a whack job the author is. It's nice that starvation makes him feel closer to his imaginary friend.

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

      What a biggot you are knocking other people's beliefs in favor of your own.

      April 3, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Andy Anderson

      People who believe in ridiculous things open themselves to ridicule. Calling a spade a spade isn't bigotry.

      April 3, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • Mike

      Doug and Andy, OK, I'll bite....what do you got going?

      April 3, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
  18. Whiz

    I think you've bee fasting your whole life. Your posts strongly prove it.

    April 3, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
  19. Ginny

    I'm a practicing Catholic and Lent always has more meaning for me if I give up something. This year I gave up two of my favorite foods, and whenever I crave these things, I'm forced to think about the true meaning of Lent.

    By the way, I never go around saying derisive things about atheists and agnostics. Why do so many nonbelievers feel the need to say such provocative and disrespectful things about religion and religious people?

    April 3, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • Andy Anderson

      Because religious people believe in silly nonsense.

      April 3, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  20. Alex

    Pastor Mark,

    Great as always! I attended NCC when I was in college and have since moved away from DC. It taught me so nuh about my relationship with the Lord and was a time in my life when I felt the closest God! I'm returning to DC soon and can't wait to get back to NCC!

    GW student, attended Georgetown location,
    In Christ,
    Alex M

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

      Alex wants some of that man-love.

      April 3, 2011 at 1:16 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.