Written By Ben Kampmeier, USA
Ben has been in vocational ministry since 2008, and desires to see God use his pastoral ministry to help people follow Jesus with their whole hearts (Psalm 86:11). He serves now as the Lead Pastor of the 125-year-old Corinth Reformed Church in Byron Center, MI. Ben’s married to his wonderful wife, Ann, and they have two young children, Reuben & Abigail (along with their Chihuahua, Boston). Ben enjoys trying new restaurants, taking in great art and music and exploring Grand Rapids, MI.
I didn’t think a lot about the liturgical calendar until a few years ago. In fact, I’m not sure I would have known to even call it that. Other than noticing special occasions like Christmas or Easter, this idea of moving through the year and attaching different elements of the Christian faith to specific units of time seemed foreign and rigid to me.
Take the season of Lent, for example. From a distance, Lent appeared to be a time of forced obedience when people tried to “clean themselves up” by fasting or going for extra church services. It felt less like a special season of the Christian life and more like an attempt to “schedule time with God.” But would it be such a bad thing if the season of Lent prompted us to be more intentional in our relationship with God?
Can Calendars Serve Our Most Important Relationships?
Calendars are subversive. If someone got a hold of my iCal password and put an event in the middle of my day on the other side of town just to be funny, and I went to it, it would probably ruin my week. Think about it, we can be controlled by ever-growing demands of school schedules, work events, and if we have kids—travel sports. Calendars will either control us, or we will control them. There’s no third option.
But calendars can help, too. As I’ve grown older, gotten married, had children, and taken on new responsibilities, a personal calendar has become absolutely necessary. Every time my phone buzzes, I know it’s time to move on to what’s next—another meeting or a family event. Despite my own illusions, I do “schedule relationship”, like special times that get blocked out so I can spend time with friends or my family. I have found that it keeps the demands of life from edging out the things that truly matter—relationships with my loved ones.
If it’s true that calendars can serve our closest human relationships, what about our relationship with God? That’s what caused me to reconsider the liturgical calendar. Maybe you could, too. For hundreds of years, the Church everywhere, across every major stream of Christianity has embraced it. Why is that? Part of the answer lies in understanding its intent.
The Message of Lent Isn’t “Clean Yourself Up”
Right now, the liturgical calendar points us to the season of Lent—a time of preparation to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus at Easter.
As I mentioned, I used to think the purpose of Lent was to signal that it was time to “get right with God.” A time to enter into a season of renewed self-discipline, not totally unlike the smartwatch that buzzes when you’ve been sitting too long, reminding you if you don’t get moving, you might get unhealthy.
I’ve seen friends use Lent as motivation to focus on self-improvement, start new exercise routines, or practice some new form of self-care. None of these things are necessarily bad on their own. In fact, a lot of them are good! Part of Lent can mean taking stock of our own lives and adjusting them appropriately.
But we need to see the temptation that can hide in the tendency to make Lent about self-improvement. Our culture prizes achievement. It doesn’t matter what it is—grades, awards, work opportunities, the people around us, or the nice things they say to us—we can easily believe that our value is directly connected to our success in these things. There’s an inner drive that says that if we achieve enough, someone might applaud our success, preferably with “likes,” “loves,” or “shares.” Personally, this is what drives me to fill my calendars way too full and sleep too little, even in trying to accomplish good things. It’s dangerous.
Naturally, the problem in approaching Lent this way is that deep down, it resonates with our sinful desire to have a hand in our own self-improvement. It’s a seductive idea: that we might be able to play a role in our own spiritual success.
The True Heart of Lent
Thankfully, the true heartbeat of Lent isn’t about any of that. It’s not about “cleaning yourself up,” or presenting yourself as some self-willed success to God so that He can approve of you while others watch on. In fact, it’s the opposite.
The message of Lent is to bring your imperfect self to God for the kind of work that only He can do. Lent is about grace. We experience that grace when we are reminded to reflect, to drop down into our own souls for a long look at the real status of our own lives.
Like most people, if we do this honestly, we might start feeling disappointed or discouraged. When I do that, I find that I’m not the kind of Christian, husband, father, or friend that I know I want to be. It’s just the truth. That doesn’t sound like grace, but that’s the irony of what Lent is all about: When we take time to see ourselves truly, we also see the truth God already knows. And Lent invites us to bring that honest perspective of ourselves to God, to acknowledge that there’s a lot that needs changing, and to ask Him to do the very thing that we cannot on our own: to help us to change, because what Jesus has done for us makes that possible in us (2 Corinthians 5:21).
So, What Next?
Let’s make it practical. How do we “do Lent” with this new perspective in mind? Well, let’s consider fasting, a practice central to the season (remember people giving up chocolates and meat?). Biblically, at its heart, fasting is not about appearing to be holy to others (see Matthew 6:16-18). Even more importantly, fasting is not about appearing holy to God (see Isaiah 58). Rather, it’s about acknowledging the only real source of fulfillment in this life: God Himself.
Fasting during Lent reminds us of the season’s purpose . . . that we’re not meant to try to make ourselves holy by our own ability, but rather acknowledging something else—that God has designed us to be spiritually hungry for Him.
This season of Lent concludes at Easter, which means it’s almost over. Maybe you feel like you missed out, but don’t worry! It’ll come again next year, giving us the gift of a reminder to reflect, fast, and experience his renewing grace.
More importantly, the liturgical calendar provides many other opportunities to intentionally be reminded of our relationship with God throughout the year. After Easter comes what’s known as the season of Eastertide—50 days to celebrate the promise of the Resurrection. Why not devote that time to living in light of the New Life granted to us by Jesus? What would that look like for you?