Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Ashes to Ashes: One Baptist’s Reason for Observing Lent

The Western liturgical calendar was largely abandoned in the Protestant Reformation, especially by the Radical Reformers and later Believers’ Church groups, including my own tradition, the Baptists.  The more “low church” one’s tradition, the more likely that Christmas and Easter were the only holy days left in your liturgical calendar. (I can still remember one Baptist minister who said his church wouldn’t be doing anything on Easter that was different from any other Sunday because they ALWAYS celebrated Christ’s resurrection.)

The Medieval Church NEEDED huge reform, including reform in worship. And the desire of Reformers, Puritans, Anabaptists, Baptists, and others to scrape away encrusted ritual and return to forms of worship more directly patterned on the New Testament was laudable.  But count me among those who think that, in many cases, we threw out the baby with the bathwater.  The liturgical renewal movement, including the forging of a common church calendar and a common lectionary, has been one of the great gains of the Ecumenical movement.  Those Baptists who have been part of various national ecumenical bodies (e.g., the National Council of Churches in the US) and/or the World Council of Churches, have usually participated in this liturgical renewal. The American Baptists, the Alliance of Baptist, the Baptist Union of Great Britain, are in this conciliar ecumenical movement.  The Baptist groups which have not participated (including the SBC, the CBF, the Baptist General Conference, the Conservative Baptist Association, the North American Baptist Conference, etc.) have generally stood apart from this renewal–although individual congregations in each of these groups have participated.

Recently, several Baptists from my part of the world (the U.S. South), have written some strong arguments for observing the 40 days of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, today.  Here is one such article by Darrell Pursiful, and another by Beth Felker Jones.  But I wanted to explain my own journey to the common Western liturgical calendar and then my personal reasons for observing Lent (and I’m lucky to belong to a Baptist congregation that observes Lent, too). (Note: There is tragedy and brokeness in my speaking of the Western calendar–for it points to the great schism between the Eastern churches and the Western churches.  Much healing is needed there, but that is a subject for another time. UPDATE: I learn from Pursifal that this year, the Eastern and Western churches both celebrate Easter on 04 April–which means we’ll also have the same Lents, Holy Weeks!)

First, I was not raised Baptist, but Methodist.  Now, if the United Methodists were participating in the ecumenical liturgical renewal (as they certainly are now) as far back as my childhood in the ’60s, I was not aware of it.  But we at least observed enough of the church calendar to have services all through Holy Week.  When I became a Baptist, I found no such services and we went straight from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday with nothing in between.  This made me uncomfortable, but I didn’t know why.  One day, a Catholic theologian friend of mine said to me, “The problem with you Protestants is that you raise Jesus from the grave too soon!” Well, I don’t know whether that was fair to all Protestants, but it certainly fit my experience with Baptists!  Going from the triumph of Palm Sunday to the triumph of RESURRECTION without any observance of abandonment and betrayal, suffering and death, was false to the gospel and it led to a triumphalism–a theology of glory instead of a theology of the cross, to use Luther’s terminology!  It gave us the “sweet Christ,”  when our suffering world cries out for the “bitter Christ,” (Thomas Müntzer) of Gethsemane and Golgotha. So, when I first began to be a student pastor, myself, I made sure to include services on Maunday Thursday and Good Friday.  (The Church might need to add to this to tell the Story correctly. We may need to add a “Confrontation Monday” that focuses on Jesus’ nonviolent civil disobedience in the Temple, too! And a Teaching Tuesday and Interrogation Wednesday, perhaps, as well.)

Building on that recovery of Holy Week, this then-young preacher discovered the need for the liturgical calendar: It teaches us Christians to narrate our lives according to the Christian Story: Advent teaches us to await the Christ (which also points to the Second Advent, we await as well) and prepare for his gracious coming. Christmas, despite its very maculate origins and borrowings from various pagan traditions, or, perhaps BECAUSE of that, helps us to celebrate fully the Incarnation, the En-Fleshing of God’s very Wisdom/Word. Epiphany, Pentecost, they all have their lessons. And Lent, too, as I’ll soon relate.  But without some such calendar, the Church gathered and scattered plots out life together and life scattered in the world by other calendars, other stories.  The liturgical calendar helps us make time sacred–to make our lives sanctified by living them according to other patterns than that of our respective cultures.  The forces of secularization are everywhere mighty–and the liturgical calendar is a shield that helps us resist the secularizing of time in our lives.  Without it, our churches still take note of the calendar, but worship is planned around President’s Day, and Independence Day, Groundhog Day, Veterans Day, Labor Day—a different narrative, often a RIVAL narrative, to the gospel.

So, I as a young preacher, started to plan my sermons and worship services  according to the liturgical calendar, and then to use the New Common Lectionary so that I did not simply preach my hobby horses. (I did not, at first, tell my congregation what I was doing! And I remain Free Church enough to not be ENSLAVED to a tool like the Lectionary–which can be set aside if the Spirit leads to a special need of the church. And since the selections for the Season of Pentecost/Ordinary Time are more haphazzard than the rest of the lectionary–especially in Year C–I would preach through whole books during the summer, a tradition that Calvin called Lectio continua and which has deep roots in Baptist life. It still put me on someone else’s agenda so that I did not preach only “my favorite verses” or my own “canon within the canon.”)

But, I admit, that I didn’t at first “get” Lent.  It seemed very “hair shirt” and to smack of “needless ritual.”  Smudging the head with ashes? Fasting or renouncing something for forty (40) days while spending time in introspection and repentence? Isn’t that too much bemoaning our sin and not celebrating the grace and new life in Christ which is ours to claim?  So, I dug into the history of Lent. (It’s what I do.) It arose AFTER the church was no longer an outlaw religion in the Roman empire. After Constantine’s shotgun wedding of church and empire, a process completed when Theodosius made the formerly illegal sect loved by women and slaves into the official Roman Imperial religion.  Suddenly the church had huge numbers of “Christians” who were so for appearance only.  Gone were the days of preparatory instruction (sometimes as much as 3 years!) before baptism (usually on Easter) into the church.  Gone was the costliness of Christianity and the apparent difference between church and world.  So, Lent arose out of the same process that created monasticism– a desire to help true Christians to reflect on the costliness of discipleship and to remind each other and ourselves that we are not the world, but strangers in an alien land (no matter how “Christian” our land claims to be) while the Lord tarries.

So, “dust to dust,” we are smudged with ash on a certain Wednesday to remind us of our mortality, both as frail creatures of dust, and as followers of the One who told us that following Him would lead to death. With Jesus our brother, author and pioneer of our faith, we “set our face(s) to Jerusalem,” toward rejection, betrayal, abandonment, persecution by the Powerful, and unjust death.  Oh, there is triumph and joy coming, friends, but no one gets there without going through a certain Place of the Skull. We are living out a story in which none of us gets out alive–as even our baptisms proclaim.  We are smudged on a Wednesday and then, helping us to set our faces to Jerusalem with Jesus, we practice the ancient discipline of fasting, we give up something, deprive ourselves–of meat or sweets or alcohol or all of the above. We embrace an extra practice, spending more time in prayer or visiting the sick, or any combination of the above.  We do this not out of some dreadful masochism, as I once thought, but because discipline and privation provide FOCUS–for our minds, hearts, souls.  “Purity of heart,” said Kierkegaard, “is to will ONE thing,” namely that which GOD wills. That takes focus, clarity. But the pure in heart, a Higher Authority than Kierkegaard even, assured us, will SEE GOD.

Thus, I, a Baptist, observe Lent.  Not because I think ritual saves me–grace does that. Nor because Lent is the only way to remember we are NOT the world–the Amish remember without Lent quite nicely.  But because this is one way that we can remember who we are and Whose we are ALONG WITH all our sisters and brothers in Christ.  Lent not only purifies us as the Church, but, helps this Body of Christ be, for 40 days, a little over a month, somewhat less shattered and scattered and broken into fragments.  Jesus prayed that we would all be one. I do not believe that takes a necessarily INSTITUTIONAL unity–but it will need to be a visible unity–and what could be more visible than the Body of Christ, Protestant and Catholic and Anglican (and, this year, the Eastern Orthodox on the same calendar) and Pentecostal and Free Church all being smudged with ash and practicing some form of fasting for 40 days?

Let us, with Jesus, set our faces toward Jerusalem tonight. “Remember, O Mortal, that Thou art Dust. From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” Amen.

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February 17, 2010 - Posted by | Baptists, ecumenism, Lent, liturgy, worship

25 Comments »

  1. […] Ashes to Ashes: One Baptist’s Reason for Observing Lent by Michael Westmoreland-White does the same thing from a Baptist perspective. […]

    Pingback by Dr. Platypus » Blog Archive » Ash Wednesday Links | February 17, 2010 | Reply

  2. […] Just follow Micheal’s advice. […]

    Pingback by How to be reflective and thoughtful about Lent – Inhabitatio Dei | February 17, 2010 | Reply

  3. Glad to see this grappling with the general tradition of the Church. Just a minor note, Orthodox do not have a “Ash Wednesday”.

    “the Eastern and Western churches both celebrate Easter on 04 April–which means we’ll also have the same Ash Wednesdays, Lents, Holy Weeks!)”

    Have a blessed Lent!

    Comment by maximus daniel greeson | February 17, 2010 | Reply

    • Thanks, Mr. Greeson. I’m going to assume you are of the Orthodox faith, so I appreciate the correction.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | February 18, 2010 | Reply

  4. Thanks Michael, very helpful. I have had a similar journey from a Baptist Christmas+Easter calender to an appreciation of the wisdom contained in a fuller liturgical year.

    Comment by Byron Smith | February 18, 2010 | Reply

    • Byron, I had no idea. In your case, it seems to have set you on the Canterbury Trail and led you to become an Anglican, no? BTW, I look forward to your doctoral dissertation.
      With your permission, in a day or so, I would like to link to your several great series on theological reflections on ecological matters–since they are some of the best on the web. More people need to read them.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | February 18, 2010 | Reply

  5. Enjoyed your post Michael. We can celebrate our Baptist heritage along with placing it in the context of the larger Body of Christ. I believe Father is calling us all to celebrate our unity in the Son of His love.

    John Paul Todd
    e4unity.wordpress.com

    Comment by e4unity | February 18, 2010 | Reply

    • That’s generally been my approach, Mr. Todd. Thanks for visiting and for your kind words.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | February 18, 2010 | Reply

  6. Thanks a ton for this, Michael. Christmas, Easter, Lent, all of these have been a struggle for me for a long time.

    Comment by Zack Allen | February 18, 2010 | Reply

    • Care to elaborate, Zack?

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | February 18, 2010 | Reply

      • I was one of those guys that viewed them just like any other day (like the Baptist minister you mentioned). I’ve tended to reject all of these days and/or observances as legalism, Catholic dogma, and compromise with pagan observances. I’ve viewed them as completely and totally irrelevant, if not detrimental to our faith. I haven’t celebrated Christmas or Easter as Christian holidays in years. And obviously, without Easter, what’s the point of Lent?

        Anyway, I don’t know many people of my heritage that think this way, but that has been my interpretation of the uber-conservitivism (and hostility towards all things Catholic) in which I was brought up. To me, the two simply didn’t match up so I abandoned them. To me, churches celebrated these days just to appeal those CEO (Christmas-Easter-Only) believers that just showed up to church twice a year. I also didn’t like the way this turned what should be Sunday worship and teaching into an “evangelistic” endeavor meant to entertain with plays and song.

        Problem was, I even got legalistic (if not prideful) about that as well (this tends to be my shortcoming time and time again). But ever since my departure from uber-conservitivism (which began with wonderful books like Greg Boyd’s “The Myth of a Christian Nation” and “God of the Possible”, websites like theJesusManifesto), and, of course, Yoder) I’ve developed more openness to the “spiritual disciplines” (as elaborated by Foster and Willard) and other things I was at one time hostile towards.

        Honestly, it’s almost like I’ve been looking for an excuse (a reason) to celebrate these things within the rich heritage and purpose from which they came. I just haven’t really been able to find much that is very convincing. I think alot of this is due to that simple fact that the original purpose of such things was not really taught in my heritage (it is, at times, given lip service), and the few times it may have been my heart had already been so hardened toward them that I was unresponsive if not disgusted.

        So anyway, I’m still on this journey. Anything else you can throw my way that is easily accessible (preferably something on-line) would be much appreciated.

        stay salty,
        >>zack

        Comment by Zack Allen | February 19, 2010

      • Which reminds me…

        If someone wanted to hop into observing Lent a few days late (like this guy, and today) what would you recommend?

        Comment by Zack Allen | February 19, 2010

  7. exelLent post!!

    Comment by BjartTheBaptist | February 18, 2010 | Reply

    • Thanks, Bjart. I try.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | February 19, 2010 | Reply

  8. […] Why Protestants should observe lent. […]

    Pingback by Sausage « City of God | February 19, 2010 | Reply

  9. Zack, I’d recommend that you either pick something to give up for the next 38 days (meat, sweets, beer, Facebook, whatever) and/or take on an extra spiritual discipline (more hospital visitation or journaling or whatever). Lots of places have good Lenten Meditations to help. I’m going with a set found online by Churches for Middle East Peace and using them to focus my Lenten prayers (and actions) for peace between Israel and Palestine.

    The thing that’s great about Lent is, unlike Christmas and Easter, it is VERY unlikely to be coopted by corporate capitalism. What’s to sell? So, whereas many of us have to find alternative, less pagan/more gospel, ways to reclaim and celebrate Christmas and Easter, we don’t have to work so hard with Lent. It’s already countercultural! What’s Madison Avenue going to do to commercialize it?

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | February 19, 2010 | Reply

  10. Ezekiel 8:14 “Then he brought me to the door of the gate of Yahweh’s house which was toward the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz.”

    If the ancient Israelites that Yahweh was displeased with did it, then maybe we should too? That’s the only logic I could ever see to justify the 40 days of weeping for Tammuz, I mean Lent. And that’s not really all that logical.

    Comment by rey | February 20, 2010 | Reply

    • No, Lent is 40 days of reflection/repentence/privation as we pray and meditate on on what it means to follow Jesus–to take up our crosses and follow him.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | February 20, 2010 | Reply

      • Perhaps, put its based on the weeping of Tammuz that occurred for 40 days around the same time of the year, just as Christmas is based on Saturnalia. It is a converted Pagan holiday.

        Comment by rey | February 20, 2010

      • And I might add when the Galatians begin observing days and times and seasons Paul says “I am afraid lest I bestowed labor on you in vain.” He also urges the Colossians in chapter 2 not to observe such things, for that will place them in bondage to principalities and powers (see also Ephesians 6:12) and “elemental spirits of the universe” (Col 2:20)

        Comment by rey | February 20, 2010

  11. Paul was referring to PAGAN holidays. Paul himself observed the Jewish calendar.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | February 20, 2010 | Reply

    • Please read Colossians 2 my friend.

      Colossians 2:14-16

      “Jesus nailed the ceremonial law to the cross, thus spoiling the principalities and powers and making a public spectacle of them by the cross, THEREFORE don’t let anyone let anyone condemn you for not observing kosher rules and festivals, new moons, and sabbaths.”

      In verse 18 he calls the continuance of the ceremonial law “worship of angels,” and in verse 20 he says:

      “Therefore if you really did die with Christ to the elemental spirits of the world, why do you still submit to their ordinances, as if you still belonged to the world?”

      He is clearly referring to the Jewish ceremonial law and claims that it comes from wicked angels, from the principalities and powers concerning whom he says in Ephesians 6:12 “our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against the world-rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

      Comment by rey | February 20, 2010 | Reply

    • Yeah, I just don’t see how there is any way to see this as a reference to pagan holidays. Paul was teaching in contrast to the Judaizers and clearly in reference to Jewish days. He goes so far as to refer to sabbaths, new moon celebrations, and feasts running the entire gamut of weekly, monthly, and annual celebrations/observances.

      Anyway, I don’t think this has much to do with Christmas, Lent, or Easter, but my reasons for not celebrating these times as they have been historically are similar.

      Comment by Zack Allen | February 21, 2010 | Reply

      • OK, that’s what I get for relyin on memory instead of looking back up the verses. But Paul voluntarily observed many Jewish customs. The stress in these passages is against legalistic observance. I am not urging legalism. I am urging that the adoption of a neglected practice can help the church recover part of its identity under attack today.

        Because, as I said, the question is not whether or not a calendar will be observed in churches, but which one? If we abolish observing Lent, then let’s abolish the observance of Mother’s Day (worshipping fertility), Veteran’ Day & Memorial Day(honoring war instead of peacemaking), Independence Day (worshipping the nation), etc. Calendars–holidays & observances–are shorthand for identity narratives. So, if the churches abandon a common liturgical calendar, I think they then bind themselves ever more closely with national/cultural calendars. Are we primarily consumers or Americans or patriots or what? The liturgical calendar says that we are primarily CHRISTIANS patterning our lives on the Great Story.

        Lent is the Christian holiday that is most resistant to the secularizing of Madison Avenue–because there is nothing to sell.
        As for Mardi Gras/Carnival on Fat Tuesday prior to Lent–that is lamentable and cause for reform.

        Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | February 21, 2010

      • “But Paul voluntarily observed many Jewish customs.”

        Again, not that I think this is really relevant to the topic at hand, but I think Paul had pretty specific reasons for doing so.

        “I am not urging legalism. I am urging that the adoption of a neglected practice can help the church recover part of its identity under attack today.”

        And I completely get and admire this.

        “Because, as I said, the question is not whether or not a calendar will be observed in churches, but which one?…So, if the churches abandon a common liturgical calendar, I think they then bind themselves ever more closely with national/cultural calendars.”

        And so you’ve made it an either/or. What I say IS whether or not we will/should observe a calendar. The issue of “which one” is moot to me. Whereas you seem to think that we cannot escape observing one, so why not observe a ‘Christian’ one.

        And my problem with that is that I don’t there is a such thing as an inherently “Christian” calendar. Understand that I don’t observe any of the other holidays you mentioned either. I just don’t see the point in them (except for maybe having a special day for mom’s because mom’s are just that great).

        In Romans 14 Paul talks about those that observe days and those that don’t. Both are great so long as it is done unto the Lord. I’ve been the latter person because I never understood why we should bother with suchcelebrations and observances. The kinds of things emphasized during these times are the things I am constantly doing, thinking, and praying about anyway. Setting aside another day (or 40) just seems useless to me when I do it every day anyway.

        So while I can appreciate the extra and intense focus the incarnation, resurrection, and disciplines are given in these times, I would rather pattern my every day life after these things. It just seems to me that if such a thing as a common liturgical calendar was very important, then Jesus, the Apostles, or at the very least the earliest church would have said at least *something* about it.

        So again, I’m all for it if I can be convinced of it’s legitimacy and relevance (and for some reason I almost wish I was–I’m almost begging for it here, which really causes me concern), but so far that hasn’t been the case.

        stay salty,
        >>zack

        Comment by Zack Allen | February 21, 2010


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