The Inconvenience of Lent

[This post was originally published on Relief Journal’s blog, and I’m happy to say our church now incorporates communion into the service]

In our American culture of drive-through coffee, instant Twitter feeds, and video on demand, we prize immediacy. We like to check our email on our touchscreen phone as soon as it hits our inbox, grab lunch to-go, and download live-streaming news. We are a nation of busy professionals, parents, and students living under the banner of “carpe diem,” driven by the idea that there’s no time like the present.

This “now” syndrome certainly has advantages, motivating us to work hard and invest fully in whatever we’re doing, but what happens when we apply our instant-culture values to spirituality?

I once had a bizarre experience with communion that made me consider this question. After months of exhausting church-searching, my husband and I finally found a church where we wanted to stay. It’s a contemporary kind of church, the kind that has a graphic designer on staff and a coffee bar out in the hall, and we came because we like the teaching and the small groups. But you have to understand, the church we went to before we moved was a liturgical church, the kind with Kierkegaard quotes in every other sermon and weekly communion. So we knew we’d have to make some adjustments at our new church.

But this is what I did not expect: communion that is served before the service, an addendum tacked onto and separate from the worship service. So we set our alarms a little earlier, entered the sanctuary, and found only a fraction of the congregation had shown up. The pastor said a prayer for this handful of early-risers, and at his invitation we filed up front and received the elements, and then it was over. The whole ordeal took literally five minutes. There was no time of confession before receiving the sacrament. There was no benediction afterwards, charging us to go forth bearing Christ into the world. There was no community, only a yawning faithful few. There was no ritual, no careful unfolding of holiness.

It was like grabbing Christ’s blood of the covenant, His outpouring for the world, in a Styrofoam to-go cup. It was a sacrament dictated by convenience, quickly squeezed in between other items on the agenda, and left out of the greater context of cosmic redemption.

The problem with an instant culture, and an instant church, is that a preoccupation with the present diminishes our ability to see seasons, to see story, to observe the unfolding of time. This is the pivotal idea of the sacrament of communion: Christ asks us to remember Him by taking the bread and wine (Luke 22:19), and to anticipate the future when we will eat and drink with Him face to face (Matt. 26:29).

As we now enter the season of Lent, we enter a time of waiting. There is no immediacy or convenience here. But there is a story of cosmic proportions unfolding, as we take the forty days of Lent to remember, to walk through the events of the life of Christ: the temptation in the desert, the agony of Good Friday, the silence and sorrow of Holy Saturday, and the joyful victory of Sunday morning.

It is often difficult for us to lay down our gadgets and agendas to just sit for a while, quiet our souls, and dwell with God. And yet, He laid down everything for us, making Himself “nothing” and emptying Himself to the point of death (Phil. 2:7-98).

In his beautiful poem“Seven Stanzas at Easter,” John Updike writes of the agony of the cross, “Let us not seek to make it less monstrous, for our own convenience…” As we cross the threshold of Ash Wednesday, let us reflect sincerely and sorrowfully on Christ’s suffering for us, so that on Easter morning, our hearts will grasp the incredible joy in His resurrection.

How do you find preparing yourself for Easter through Lent an inconvenience? How do you find it a blessing?

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  • ed cyzewski

    I just read a story about a church that did a drive through ash Wednesday service… well, at least gave out ashes that way. There is something about attending church that I really need. I forces me to sit and wait, even if I know what’s going to happen, even if I could find more efficient ways to get worship music, receive teaching, or take communion. Efficiency is not the goal. One thing I’m writing about this Lent is “engineering inefficiency” into our lives.

    My plan this Lent is to go to bed at 9 pm. Not flashy, but it totally changes how I approach each day! Prioritizing rest has forced me to cut out the ways I waste time each day.

  • Addie Zierman

    Very cool post. It does seem like in the effort to be “relevant” to culture, churches are getting a little more instant-gratifactiony (I think that should be a word.) I agree–that there is something very important about taking TIME to sit and remember and wait.

  • Natasha

    Great thoughts – I totally agree. I’ve only been to a few liturgical services in my life, having grown up in evangelical non-denominational churches for the most part, and I was really struck by communion as a much more central focal point in the service. Even though our communion isn’t outside of the service, it does often feel tacked on or squeezed in, instead of a central part of worship.

    I like what Ed said above – efficiency is not the goal! And what a great quote from John Updike. Thanks for sharing.

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  • Allie Spencer

    my real beef with church the past few months has been making it “comfortable”. i really think “comfortable” contradicts everything Jesus was. i mean, the Man didn’t even have a home, how “comfortable” could He be!? i’m very thankful, in reading this, that i am surrounded by Christian communities and church leaders who are trying to follow the Biblical principles, even if that sometimes mean they are comfortable… i don’t want a convenient, comfortable faith; i want an outrageous, extraordinary faith that forces me to trust God and His faithfulness! thank you for posting this steph!