By Ben Disney
First, an explanation of the journey: Lent is the 40-day period before Easter when Christians prepare to witness and celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the early church, the 40 days before Easter were devoted to study of the essential elements of Christian teaching so that new converts could make their confessions of faith on the day of their baptism. Later, Lent became a time of contemplation of Jesus’ suffering and the significance of the Christian faith for daily life. Christians throughout the centuries have marked the season with prayer, study, and fasting; or, more recently, by sacrificially “giving something up for Lent” as a way of identifying with Jesus (who fasted in the wilderness for 40 days) and by focusing on the importance of faith. Lent starts on Ash Wednesday and runs to Maundy Thursday, which covers a period of 40 days, not including Sundays.
As I write this, I’m acutely aware of how archaic and foreign the language must seem to people in our culture. Look at the words: witness, converts, fasted, confession, Lent, sacrificially, contemplation, Maundy Thursday, and Ash Wednesday. I mean, who still talks like that?
I’ll apologize in advance. Remember, I didn’t say it; I’m only repeating it. Years ago in one of my earliest churches, I became friends with an old rancher who raised horses. He was highly knowledgeable and well respected. He was also extremely shy and quiet, preferring for the most part to be alone in a pasture rather than being in a crowd of people. His biggest fear was speaking in public, which explains his genuine fear and anxiety in being asked to speak to a large gathering at a convention of horse breeders. He reluctantly agreed but agonized over the thought of having to deliver a speech. He asked for my prayers and advice, both of which I offered. The following week he returned from the gathering and immediately called to tell me all about the event. I asked how the speech went. He replied, “It was great! They even gave me a standing ovulation.” While I’m not sure that was even a medical possibility, I think I understood his point.
The point is words matter. Language is used to convey a particular meaning or a message. The church often struggles with the balancing act of trying to stay relevant in a changing culture while holding fast to the core convictions of its faith. In our quest to speak in the language of the culture we often discard ancient words because we suspect few people really understand their meaning or appreciate their value. Besides, everyone knows if you want to grow a church in this day and age, you better be using words that sell; like self esteem, happiness, empowerment, and success.
Every once in a while, the church has to decide what language it will use. Either the church becomes more like the world or the church really believes it has something invaluable to teach and offer the world. Will the rest of the world listen if we keep using ancient, archaic words like confession, repentance, witness, and sacrifice? I don’t know. But I do know the moment we stop using those kinds of particular words, the church will no longer be the church.
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