New ways to experience Lent

By Lindsay Peyton

In the midst of the pandemic, churches of the Texas Annual Conference demonstrated their creativity and resiliency, time and time again. Congregations found new ways to continue their work for the transformation of the world. That same innovative spirit can be a force for Lent this year, helping bring people closer to Christ during the season.

Lent is a 40-day time to reflect and pray, to remember Jesus’ trials in the wilderness before starting his ministry. Many give up something for Lent in honor of His sacrifice. Some add a new devotion or prayer practice during the season.

Lent is also one of Rev. Dr. Laceye Warner’s favorite seasons. The Duke professor looks forward to Ash Wednesday, a time when we are reminded of our mortality, of our humanity and God’s grace.

“It’s so authentic and so real,” she said. “It’s about how out of nothing, God creates. Out of ashes, we become. What beauty and grace God bestows so freely on us.”

She went on to say that with Lent, there’s a danger of it all becoming a routine. “But missional innovation can grow out of familiar seasons,” Warner said.

Instead of getting stuck in a rut of expectations this Lent, we can set new goals and reach new heights as we examine both ourselves and our community, our shortcomings and the ways we can surpass them to reach a higher purpose.

Warner suggests asking, “How do I engage in Lent this year?”

“It’s an opportunity to start again,” she said.

Rev. Dr. Warner shared her thoughts recently with Cross Connection, discussing how to expand faith and stay innovative during Lent.

Start with scripture. By digging deep into the Bible, its messages and meanings become clearer. People can identify with different characters or situations at various times in their lives, Warner explained.

And that’s why it is important to make a practice of reading, discussing and sharing scripture. Try looking at the stories in new ways.

For instance, try Lectio Divina, a monastic practice of reading the Bible, which was created to help God’s words come alive. There are four steps: reading a short segment of scripture, meditating on its meaning, prayer and contemplation.

Warner explained that Lectio Divina can be practiced by a group or as an individual. “Someone reads the text slowly and repeats it over and over,” she said. “Between each time, there is prayerful contemplation.”

Participants ask, “What did you hear? What phrase or words stuck out? What is the Holy Spirit saying to you?”

Find what resonates and let innovation take root. “A simple verse can inspire,” Warner said. “It creates a venue and a space for conversation. And then, all sorts of things can happen.”

Begin building conversations. The Holy Spirit can inspire through Bible texts – and discussion is key to allowing that movement. Bible studies, worship services and Sunday schools can become fertile ground for innovation, as can broader community groups and even chatting with a neighbor.

“The Holy Spirit speaks through each of us, regardless of our roles,” Warner said.

Recently, she became part of a community Bible study. The group formed organically, with participants of all backgrounds, many without a church home. Some even had negative prior experiences with religion.

“God had to do this, because we would have never met and started to talk otherwise,” Warner said.

Openness to all people, especially those with different perspectives, is essential to moving the conversation forward, she added.

Moving with the Holy Spirit. Warner explained that in the book “Callings,” author William Placher explains that there are in fact two callings. First, people are called to faith in Jesus. Second, they are called to a specific task to perform on behalf of God.

“It’s listening to the Holy Spirit and how we can proceed with the Holy Spirit moving through us,” Warner said. “So much innovation comes from listening and being willing to respond.”

And those actions might take a while to define, she said. “There’s reevaluation and considering the recipient involved,” she said. “There have been so many adjustments churches have been making lately.”

Warner gave an example from when she served in Great Britain with her husband, assigned to a circuit of Methodist churches. One congregation was in danger of closing, its attempts to attract younger families all failed. Then, when visiting their matriarch who fell ill in a nursing home, members found a population welcoming their services – older adults.

“We may have certain expectations, but continue to be open to God, clarifying that calling,” Warner said. “God has all kinds of plans.”

Look for where there is need. Lent is a time of focus and prayer. That includes listening to where there is need in the community and finding ways as a church family to respond. “As we participate, our faith is deepened,” Warner said. “And others are introduced to Christ.”

The pandemic caused several congregations to reassess how to best serve their neighbors. That can mean modifying or completely changing existing ministries.

Warner said that sometimes the five or 10-year plan no longer makes sense in the current environment. “Things are moving so fast, that it might not be the best use of time anymore,” she explained. “Set your priorities and take inventory of your resources.”

As we reflect on our mortality during Lent, Warner said to ask, what’s the immortality of that moment? What is the resurrection saying to us?

“It’s a different worldview, a different mindset,” she said. “It reinforces the power of prayer and the need to serve.”

Remember God’s grace. Warner focused on Psalm 51, which shows God’s love for David despite his wrongdoings. “Look how tremendous God’s grace is,” she said.

That is important to remember during Lent. “Even on Good Friday, we see that we are in utter darkness and yet we are not alone,” Warner said. “God is present, just like God is present with Christ on the cross. Sunday morning comes – and Jesus conquers sin and death.”

During Lent, she continued, we are invited to participate in the process, to remember our sins and our mortality and to look forward to Easter.

Cultivating faith is a practice – and one that invites constant attention. Warner compared the process to gardening. “There’s a lot of work, and we don’t make the fruit or the blooms, that’s God,” she said. “God bears fruit in us. By participating in grace, we do it together. And that’s even more impactful in the world.”

Warner is an ordained minister and is serving as an elected delegate in the Texas General and Jurisdictional Conference. She also is the Royce and Jane Reynolds Associate Professor of the Practice of Evangelism and Methodist Studies at Duke University Divinity School. In addition, she is the school’s associate dean of Wesleyan engagement and hybrid learning. She teaches courses in United Methodist studies, mission, evangelism, and women’s ministry, stretching back into the 18th century, examining the present and pushing forward into the future. Her research examines contemporary church practices within the larger Christian narrative.