I grew up in a traditional Church of England setting until my parents moved to a charismatic church when I was around 16. Moving to this church felt like taking a massive breathe of fresh air for me. I had friends my own age, there was modern music, faith camps and they only practiced the traditions written in the Bible.
This last one didn’t have a great impact on me until I was a student at Art School, leading the Christian Union while a debate about Christian traditions was raging. There were a few at CU that loved their liturgy, solemn communion practices and faithfully observed things like Lent. My default answer when justifying my stance as a non-traditionalist was: “If it’s not in the bible; and it’s a tradition invented by ‘man’; I’m not going to follow it”. I just didn’t ‘get’ liturgy and considered Lent restrictive and outdated. Admittedly, at the time, I was young and zealous; still working out what I thought and where my convictions lay. To those I was leading at the time, I apologise for my ignorance and unwillingness to listen.
As I’ve matured in my faith, and hopefully my character, an appreciation for elements of traditional practices, like Lent, has grown within me. Up until now I have seen spiritual disciplines as nothing more than outdated ancient pathways towards self-improvement. But today I’m in the process of seeing practices such as celebration, slowing, prayer, servanthood, confession, Holy Spirit guidance, secrecy, reflecting on scripture and even the practice of suffering as ‘the roadmap to true transformation’.
That’s what has been at the heart of Christianity since its birth: transformation. The cross transformed us and nothing can add to its saving work. Yet most of us would admit our daily lives don’t often fully reflect the victories Christ intended us to live in. That’s why man-made traditions developed over time. They were designed to lead us through a process of becoming more like Christ. The liturgy of a traditional C of E service was intended to take the average, uneducated church attendee of ‘olde’ through confession, repentance and forgiveness. The purpose behind Lent was to prepare hearts ahead of the joyous celebration of Easter Day. Through the means of prayer, penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial believers were to arrive at this most glorious festival having been through a time of working on their sin. The tools they used, once practiced over an allotted time, were intended to bring about lasting change.
So I will observe Lent this year. Not as a religious obligation but as a period of allotted time that might bring about lasting change in the areas of my life I am weakest. As I am finding, spiritual disciplines are not outdated religious practices but, in fact, they are practical ways I can become more like Jesus. It seems, after all, they are about training rather than trying.