Some Baptists seek preparation for Easter Sunday
    March 8 2011 by Robert Dilday & Ken Camp, Associated Baptist Press

    Easter Sunday — the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ — is for Christians the culmination of their community life, expressing the heart of their faith. But among Baptists and other evangelicals, an intentional period of preparation for their holiest day is often understated or absent — in contrast to Christmas, the other great Christian observance, typically the focus of elaborate church festivities for weeks prior to Dec. 25.

    Many Baptists are seeking to reclaim that pre-Easter focus — historically called Lent — which has been an integral part of many Christians’ experience since the earliest years of the church.

    “It’s a biblical thing, not a made-up Catholic thing,” says Kyle Henderson, pastor of First Baptist Church in Athens, Texas, acknowledging a robust Baptist suspicion of spiritual practices seen as too closely associated with the Roman Catholic Church or its distant cousins, the Anglicans.  

    Lost treasure
    Some Baptists say they sense those suspicions — in part a legacy of the Protestant Reformation — have left them with a diminished spiritual vocabulary.

    “There is an uneasy sense that something got lost,” says Phyllis Tickle, whose 2008 book, The Great Emergence, chronicles the blurring of denominational distinctions in late 20th- and early 21st-century American Christianity.

    Every 500 years or so, says Tickle, the church metaphorically holds a great rummage sale, “getting rid of the junk that we believe no longer has value and finding treasures stuck in the attic because we didn’t want them or were too naïve to know their true worth.”

    The Reformation was one of those rummage sales and the current “great convergence” is another, she maintains. For evangelicals, the long-forgotten treasures in the attic include a wide array of spiritual disciplines — including Lent — with roots in the church’s first centuries.

    For Sterling Severns, discovering Lent and other seasons of the Christian year was “an eye-opening experience,” which he encountered at the first church he served after graduating from seminary.

    “It tapped into something in me that surprised me,” says Severns, now pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Richmond, Va. “I remember I almost felt as if I’d been let in on a great secret.”  

    Lenten practice
    Lent — a 40-day period of fasting and self-sacrifice preceding Resurrection Sunday — began as early as the second century, probably as a period of preparation for new Christians who were to be baptized on Easter. Eventually the entire Christian community, not just baptismal candidates, observed the fast.

    Among Christians in Western Europe it universally began on Ash Wednesday and culminated in Holy Week — the days just before Easter that include Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

    After more than a millennium as an essential element of spiritual formation, Lent and other spiritual practices were reduced in importance as unbiblical innovations by the Protestant Reformers and eliminated entirely by the Baptists who emerged from their influence. Today some Baptists who are recovering disciplines like Lent say they’re struck by their spiritual richness. First Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., inaugurates Lent with an Ash Wednesday service — in which the ash of burnt palm branches are imposed on worshipers foreheads — and in the last week includes a contemplative service.  

    Touching the emotions
    Baptists involved in intentional preparation for Easter — whether referred to as Lent or some other name — view it as an effective tool for teaching and spiritual formation.

    Lenten practices can help Baptists get in touch with an often-neglected side of worship — the emotional dimension, said Bill Tillman, who holds the T.B. Maston Chair of Christian Ethics and teaches spiritual formation at Hardin Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary in Abilene, Texas.

    “It’s appropriate to grieve over one’s sins and to grieve the death of Jesus. At the same time, Easter should be the ultimate celebration for Christians,” he said. “Spiritual disciplines are things that can help people get into the emotional side of their faith practice, experiencing grief and delight.”  

    Teaching time
    Severns called Ash Wednesday “a teaching day.”

    “Our service is a way of teaching people what it means” — a key consideration in a church which had never observed Lent before Severns was called as pastor.

    Community is essential to spiritual formation at Mosaic, a congregation in Austin, Texas, with Baptist ties and roots in the city’s lively artistic scene. In recent conversations held between Mosaic’s leadership and its worshippers to determine how the church had contributed to spiritual development, one theme emerged repeatedly, said pastor Don Vanderslice.

    “It was how important observing the Christian year — including Lent — had been in their spiritual formation,” he said. “Focusing on the seasons of the church year reminds us that the spiritual life is a journey. … The idea behind journey or pilgrimage is that we’re going somewhere, and not just landing on a holiday here and there.”

    For Henderson, Ash Wednesday is a two-fold teaching experience. First, he emphasizes the Old Testament meaning of bearing a mark and using ashes as a sign of repentance. At the same time, he explains the meaning of terms such as Lent so members who did not grow up in churches that follow liturgical practices will understand what fellow Christians do during the weeks leading to Easter.

    “It’s a way to connect to the broader Christian world,” he said.

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    3/8/2011 1:33:00 PM by Robert Dilday & Ken Camp, Associated Baptist Press | with 0 comments

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