As managing editor of a national Christian magazine, I’m certain I am not supposed to say this out loud. But since it is Ash Wednesday—a day when millions of believers the world over will confess their sins—it is perhaps good and right that I confess mine here: For years I haven’t in any sustained way done daily devotions.
This neglect started in my mid-20s, around the time that said magazine began demanding more time and energy and mental space. Many days I would come home utterly spent from meetings and emails and editing, and a weariness seemed to drag me to the couch and to Netflix (or back to emails). The NIV Study Bible I have used since age 13 was displayed on my coffee table, a badge of good intentions, but mostly only that. Prayers of a weak mind planted on the pillow would go something like, “Lord, you know I really want to connect with you. I’m sorry. Please heal Lauren of her cold, and also bring me a husband. Night.”
There was a brief season in 2013 when, frustrated I could not attain what I wanted—to worship and listen to the Lord—I began a Bible-in-a-year reading plan. It was a “literary” plan, so each day comprised an Old Testament passage, a psalm, a Gospel reading, and a New Testament passage. Surely this plan would keep me from getting mired in Leviticus.
I never got past Day 43.
There’s a reason why spiritual exercises—personal practices meant to foster growth in Christ, including prayer, fasting, Bible study, confession, and meditation—are likened to physical exercises. So to speak, many of us are members at the Lord’s Gym, but we go twice a year. We have spent money on fancy equipment or workout clothing, only to stash them away in our basements and closets. We sign up for a 5K mainly for the donuts afterward. And then when we have the chance to go with friends on a weekend hike through the mountains, we are bummed to find that we are winded and miserable after a few miles of walking. We desire to be healthy, but we don’t have the life rhythms—the habits and disciplines—needed to realize that desire.
When we are desperate to be healthy and whole, yet know we don’t have the discipline to make it happen, sometimes we have to sign up for boot camp, for an intensive and structured routine that turns our good intentions into concrete action. Welcome to Lent.
A Gift of Grace
Starting today, a majority of Christians worldwide—including Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and some Protestant/evangelical Christians—will corporately start a 40-day boot camp. The word Lent means “lengthen” or “long days,” and it’s one of the oldest church observances, dating back in some form to the Council of Nicea (325 AD). As the 40 days leading up to Easter recalls Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, Lent is a time of sobriety and self-denial. As such, it typically involves abstaining from certain foods or incorporating disciplines of prayer and giving.
Which sounds great, right?
Actually, if you are a quiet-time delinquent like me, it is.
Last summer, after years of said quiet-time delinquency, I realized my spirit was parched. And that no amount of individual willpower was leading me to pray or read the Bible more.
So I tried really, really hard to get up early in the mornings.
And that lasted for three days.
So I signed up for an 8-month course on Ignatian spirituality at the church I attend. The course takes us through teachings of Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556), a wealthy Spanish knight who came to Christ while recovering from the wounds of battle. The course asks that students spend 45 minutes in prayer and Bible study each day, and meet with a small group for 2 hours every week, missing no more than 4 meetings throughout the 8 months. Ignatius told Christians to think of themselves as soldiers for Christ, so it makes sense that this course is often described as boot camp.