This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lent season, which begins a 46-day countdown to Easter Sunday. Although many associate Lent with Roman Catholicism, it is also celebrated by Protestant denominations such as the Church of the Nazarene, Methodists, and Lutherans. Lent is traditionally marked by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. As someone who grew up in a Jewish household, I find these traditions familiar. They remind me of the practices which Jews engage in during the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, as we daven (pray) and fast; they also bring to mind the Jewish practice of tzedakah, obligatory acts of charity.

Lent is more than simply traditions. Lent is a time which spiritually prepares us to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday. Spiritual preparation can often come through exercising spiritual disciplines, practices which aim at bringing Christians into a state of holiness and purity. I think it is safe to say that throughout the history of the Church that such practices have not been necessarily easy to engage in, nor have they always enjoyed popularity. My friend David Brickner, executive director of Jews for Jesus, has for years engaged in the spiritual discipline of reading one chapter from Psalms each morning and meditating upon it. I have tried this discipline myself on and off over the years since he first shared it with me, and cannot say that I have had the discipline to maintain it.

Over at United Methodeviations, Dan Dick has been talking about such disciplines and whether or not church members practice them or not. Shockingly, he reports being told by a clergy leader, “we can’t expect people to practice spiritual disciplines.  They are relics of a bygone age.”  Not surprisingly, Dan asks what type of faith this will lead to:

Really?  And what kind of faith will this leave us with?  When I don’t exercise, I get fat.  When I don’t practice on an instrument, I get rusty.  When I don’t study, I don’t learn as much.  To become Christlike, won’t I have to do something?

Dan’s point is well made; in order to grow to maturity as a Christian, more is required than simply proclaiming oneself a Christian. One must engage in spiritual disciplines designed to focus one on Christ, rather than on the things of this world. John Wesley devoted his life to the practice of such disciplines in his personal life, and to teaching others to engage in such practices themselves. Among the spiritual disciplines Wesley practiced and taught were: public worship of God, regularly searching the Scriptures, regularly participating in the Lord’s Supper (communion), private and family prayer, fasting or abstinence, feeding the hungry, welcoming in strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison, and sheltering the homeless.

I think it’s interesting to note that some of these disciplines directly benefit us in our walk with Christ, while others of the disciplines seem to directly benefit others (feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, etc.). Perhaps the message in that is that it isn’t about us, rather that it is about Jesus and doing the things He did, and treating others the way that He did. As Lent begins, I plan to abstain from several things which can normally prove to be distractions from my spiritual life. I’ll also be praying about whether it’s enough to give them up for a 4-week period, or whether they are things that simply don’t need to be in my life. If the goal is to prepare myself to be in a state of readiness to celebrate the holiness of Resurrection Sunday, and to be more Christlike, why should I stop once Easter is done?

Will you join me in spiritual preparation?