A Baptist Girl Celebrates Lent

Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent.

lent
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I grew up in north Louisiana, where most people are either Baptist or Pentecostal. My family was Baptist.

Baptists don’t do Lent. Pentecostals don’t do Lent either, for that matter.

To say that Lent was not a big deal in my early life would be the understatement of the year. In fact, I was in high school the first time I heard about Lent, and I was well into adulthood before I even began to understand what it was all about.

Then about 8 years ago, I moved to the very heart of Cajun country, where the people are mostly Catholic.

Catholics do Lent. And it’s a VERY big deal.

So … what’s a Baptist girl, who lives among the Cajuns, supposed to do during Lent?

Well, over time this Baptist girl has learned that Lent can be a very special time that draws a person into a closer relationship with God.  I recognize that many of the practices of observing Lent are actually Biblical truths:

  • fasting
  • making personal sacrifices to honor God
  • being intentional about growing in one’s faith.

 

Lent can certainly be a season of intentionality about faith.

Yet, the Baptist in me would say it shouldn’t be the only time we fast or sacrifice or focus intentionally on our relationship with the Lord.

Kind of similar to Valentine’s Day …

Most people participate in celebrating Valentine’s Day, especially those of us with significant others. But there are those people who outright refuse to participate.

You might hear them say:

“Valentine’s Day is just a commercialize holiday. I can send flowers any day of the year, and it would be far more romantic than doing it on a specific day just because everyone else is sending flowers on that day too.”

This is true.

However, I always want to ask Valentine’s Day protestors:

Do you actually send flowers other days? And exactly how often during the rest of the year do you intentionally romance your spouse?  

Yet, I also know that if Valentine’s Day is the ONLY time a married couple romances each other during the year, that marriage isn’t likely a healthy or happy one.

Romance is important in a marriage. Whether it’s on Valentine’s Day or another day, you gotta have some romantic overtures. Right? Which is why there is nothing wrong with specifically and intentionally making romantic gestures on Valentine’s Day. In fact, in my own experience, I have found that by observing Valentine’s Day, I am reminded to practice being romantic more often in my marriage.

I find the practice of Lent to be quite similar. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with observing Lent. In fact, these practices can be an incredibly worthwhile practice of faith.

But if Lent is the only time you focus on your faith, something is not quite right.

Several years ago, I began to observe Lent in my own special way.

Most people I know choose to give up something for Lent: caffeine, social media, sugar, TV, etc.

I rarely do Lent that way. I suppose it feels too much like a punishment, which seems like the wrong approach. After all, the goal of Lent isn’t to punish myself. The goal is to grow in my faith and relationship with God.

That’s why instead of giving up something for Lent, I choose to make my sacrifice through positive changes. Each Lent I try to pick one new thing to do that I feel like will draw me into a closer relationship with God.

In the past, I have attempted to memorized a lengthy scripture (or one shorter Bible verse each week) or maybe volunteer my free time with a local ministry. But the best thing I ever did for Lent was to read my Bible.

Bible
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Up until a few years ago, I had been hit or miss with daily Bible reading. Truthfully, I was more miss.

I might do really well for a couple of weeks, and then not read the Bible at all (outside of church) for the next month. I could not seem to get into the habit of reading the Bible each day.

As a result, I often felt weak in my faith, as well as guilty for not having a time set aside each day to connect with God personally. I knew I should be reading God’s word, but I just wasn’t disciplined enough to make it happen.

Therefore, that particular Lent I decided my focus was going to be simply reading God’s word each day.

I did not rely on using a devotional book. I didn’t search out any Bible study to help me decide what to read,  or listen to Bible teachers who would give me insights into what I read.

It was just God, me, and my Bible for 15-20 minutes. 

Biblecoffee
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Reading the Bible every day has been a faith game changer for me.

You cannot know God if you don’t have interactions with Him. In Christian circles, we talk about how we connect to God, and often the main answer is through prayer.  Prayer is definitely an essential part of the Christian faith. It is when we talk to God.

Bible reading is more about God talking to us. It’s not the only way He speaks into our lives. The Holy Spirit can move us through a myriad of ways, but Bible reading is one of the biggest ways God reveals Himself.

Here are just a few Scriptures that tell us why the Word of God is so important for Christians to know.

Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light on my path. ~ Psalms 119:105

All Scripture is inspired by God, and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. ~ 2 Timothy 3:16-17

Imprint these words of mine on your hearts and mind … Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down, and when you get up. ~ Deuteronomy 11:18-19

illuminatedBible
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If knowing God’s Word is important, then we need to be diligent about studying it. 

Back when I was a college student, I spent quite a bit of time studying my textbooks.  I read every assignment diligently, highlighting the important sections and copying facts directly from the text into my notebook. I did this because I wanted to understand the material and make a good grade in my class.

If the Bible is the definitive book on God and Christian living (and it is), then we should diligently study it.

This means actually reading the Bible for ourselves.

All of it. Not just the New Testament. The whole thing. Not skipping over the parts we don’t like or have trouble understanding.

We also shouldn’t replace opening our Bible with the reading of devotionals. There is nothing wrong with reading books specifically about the Christian faith these books cannot begin to compare to actually reading the Bible for ourselves.

The reason for this is that we do not need any other human to interpret the Bible for us. The Holy Spirit is able and willing to impart wisdom to us through the words of the Bible. All we have to do is ask for His wisdom.

But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit — the Father will send Him in My name — will teach you all things, and remind you of everything I have told you.  ~ John 14:26

And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. ~ 1Corinthians 2:13

The words of the Bible are unlike any other book. 

The more you read it, the more you will want to read it. The more you begin to understand, the more you realize how much more you still have to learn.

Hebrews 4:12 says this:  For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the ideas and thoughts of the heart.

Simply put: Bible reading is powerful.

Perhaps you are looking for a way to grow in your faith. Maybe you are pondering what you should give up for Lent.

Then allow me to suggest that if you aren’t already in the habit of doing so, a great option would be to make Bible reading a daily habit.

It won’t cost you anything but a few minutes of your time. Simply open your Bible and begin reading.

John
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If you don’t know where to start, then I suggest that you begin with the book of John. It is an encouraging book that focuses on who Jesus is, the events of His earthly ministry, and how we can receive the gift of salvation.

Additionally, there are 21 chapters in John, none of which are extremely long. Scientists tell us that it takes about 21 days of consistently doing something new in order to make it a habit. If you read a chapter in John each day, then at the end of the book of John you will have created a new habit of reading the Bible.

Bible reading is perhaps the most powerful thing you can do to grow in faith. 

If you haven’t started this life-changing habit yet, this Lent is a great time to begin! 

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Several years ago, I wrote about my first experiences with Ash Wednesday. It’s by far the most read post on this blog. If you haven’t read it before, or if you would like to reread it, here’s the link:  A Baptist Girl’s Ash Wednesday

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A Baptist Girl’s Ash Wednesday

I grew up attending a Southern Baptist church in rural north Louisiana.

My family attended the First Baptist Church, which was the biggest Baptist church in our tiny town. The population was barely 500 people, yet there were at least four other Baptist churches in the area: Bird’s Creek Baptist, Kidron Baptist, Wallace Ridge Baptist, Pisgah Baptist.

It seemed like everyone I knew was also a Southern Baptist.

But if they weren’t Baptist, then chances were pretty good they attended one of the many Pentecostal churches. And there were just as many Pentecostal churches as there were Baptists.

As an elementary school child, I never really understood the difference between Pentecostal and Baptist beliefs  … that is, other than the obvious one. Pentecostal women wore long dresses, had long hair and never wore jewelry or make-up; the men always wore long pants and long sleeves shirts, even in the middle of the hot, humid Louisiana summers. Oh, and Pentecostals believed in raising hands, speaking in tongues and other mysteries I never could quite wrap my childish brain around.

Still, I understood that at its core, Baptists and Pentecostals weren’t all that different. We believed in the same Jesus. We just expressed it differently.

But Catholics … well, that was a different story. I really didn’t understand what Catholics believed.

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I had only one Catholic friend growing up.

Somehow we never did talk religion with each other. She moved away in the sixth grade.  I never did have another close friendship with a Catholic until after my 30th birthday.

Catholicism baffled me. Somehow, even though we talked about the same Jesus and read the same Bible stories, our religions were so different that it felt like we didn’t worship same God at all.   To me it was this huge mystery, too sacred to touch, too frightening to ask questions about.  Yet, more than anything else, I wanted to unravel it to discover everything that was hidden underneath.

Growing up, all I knew about Catholics were that they went to Mass and not church. They prayed to God and Jesus, but also to Mary and the saints. There was this mystery called Confession. And then there were all the different sorts of clergy: fathers, priests, nuns, cardinals, bishops, and the Pope who ruled over them all.

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Much of my understanding of the Catholic faith came from the musical The Sound of Music. Oh, how I loved that movie! It came on TV at least once every year, back in those days before VCR’s and DVD players.

I was always fascinated by the main character Maria, who desperately wanted to love God enough to be a nun, but couldn’t manage to keep all the rules.  I identified with that longing, so much so that I often pretended that I would grow up to be a nun … even though deep down I knew good Baptist girls didn’t become nuns.

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A little over four years ago, I married my husband Jon and moved to his home in the middle of Cajun Country. If you know anything about Cajuns, you know that they are all Catholics. In fact, their religious beliefs is the very reason they were exiled to Louisiana in the first place.

The city of Lafayette has always been home to Jon. Like me, he grew up a good Baptist, our childhood faith stories mirroring each other’s almost perfectly. However, he lived in the shadow of the Catholic church, part of the Protestant religious minority. As a result, his understanding of Catholicism was much better than mine.

We had only been married a matter of days when Mardi Gras season officially kicked off. My previous Mardi Gras knowledge was very limited … essentially parades, beads and King cake. I also knew that it would all culminate on Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras day itself.

Jon had already spent most of that winter in and out of the hospital, literally fighting for his very life.  As the Mardi Gras season came to a dramatic close, Jon was back in the hospital. All day on that Fat Tuesday, the nurses bustled in and out of his room, beads and baubles around their necks.

“You missin’ the parades this year, Sha?” they playfully teased Jon.

I could tell that Jon was happy to be away from all of the Mardi Gras madness, but I grumbled because I was missing out on my first real Mardi Gras in Cajun Country. All I wanted was a chance to experience it for myself, to unravel a little more of the mystery.

But Jon wasn’t sympathetic to my desires.

“Paige, it’s just a bunch of people in costumes throwing out cheap beads. Trust me, the most you are missing is catching a couple of plastic cups … and if we are needing more cups, then you can just go buy some.” 

So, I spent my first Mardi Gras in Cajun Country sitting in a hospital room, trying to be content to watch re-run episodes of Swamp People on the History Channel.

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The next day was Ash Wednesday. Instead of being greeted by giddy nurses wearing beads, this morning everyone who walked into the hospital room seemed much more somber. The lively spirit from the day before was completely gone.

I questioned Jon about it.

“It’s Ash Wednesday,” he responded. “The party is over. Now it is time to repent.”

Late in the morning, my friend Catherine stopped by the hospital to check in on us. At the encouragement of my husband, Catherine decided to whisk me away for a few hours. Lunch, window shopping, but mostly time with a good friend were sure to cure my sagging spirits.

As we walked down one of the long passageways on our way out of the hospital, we passed by the chapel, where an Ash Wednesday service was just about to start. The next thing I knew, Catherine and I were seated inside.

And when we got up to leave, we both had an ash cross marked upon our foreheads.

photo credit: wikipedia.org
photo credit: wikipedia.org

It was well-after 1 pm by the time Catherine and I walked into a little sandwich shop for lunch.  The lunch crowd has mostly left, and there weren’t but just a couple of other customers. As Catherine and I approached the counter to place our orders, the man behind the counter (who was clearly a Cajun) commented on our ash crosses. He went to great lengths to assure us that he was going to an afternoon service later in the day to get his ash cross as well. Soon, he was peppering us with questions about our plans for Lent.

Catherine, who had grown up Catholic though now practiced a Protestant faith, chatted easily with this friendly man, while I stood by silently, feeling like a mute impostor of sorts.

My mind raced frantically. What was I doing? Did this even represent my personal religious beliefs? I’m a Baptist, for crying out loud.  Good Baptists don’t put ashes on their foreheads. I’m nothing more than a pretender!

Throughout the rest of the afternoon, those ashes burned against the skin along my forehead.

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Several hours later, I walked back into the hospital room. Jon looked up at me and raised his eyebrows quizzically. “I see that you went and got yourself some ashes.”

I hung my head, not really sure how to respond.

Jon grinned. “It’s okay, Paige. There is nothing wrong with putting ashes on your forehead. In fact, it represents a beautiful truth. Without God and His forgiveness, our lives are nothing more than heaps of ashes. But, when we give our hearts and the ashes of our lives to Jesus … well, He takes that and turns it into something beautiful for His glory. Wearing ashes on your forehead is just an outward symbol of your belief in Jesus, and not something to be ashamed of at all!”

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Four years later, I can laugh about my first Ash Wednesday. 

Since that day, I’ve made more than a few Catholic friends here in Cajun Country. I’ve discovered more about their beliefs, comparing them to my own.  I’ve come to the understanding that we do, in fact, follow the same Jesus, proclaim the same Savior, desire to know the same God. Our expression of faith might be vastly different, but the basis of our faith is the same.

I’ve also learned to treasure Lent, something that my Baptist faith never taught me to do. What a blessing it is to spend forty days focusing my attention on intentionally living my life so that I grow closer in my relationship with Christ!  Easter means so much more after this period of sacrificing and fasting and preparing my heart for the glory of Resurrection Sunday. It’s a worthwhile practice and I’m blessed each time I diligently consider how I might spend Lent seeking God.

Today is Ash Wednesday. While I won’t go get ashes smeared into the shape of a cross on my forehead, I will spend the next 40 days seeking God a bit more diligently. I am grateful to my Catholic friends who taught me how.

After all, even a good Baptist girl can celebrate Ash Wednesday.

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Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  ~ John 4:16