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As part of Lent, my congregation always studies a particular topic that touches on Lenten themes, such as suffering, spiritual disciplines, and repentance. And as the pastor, I can present to the parish whatever I think is best, so if I’m smart, I’ll teach on something I already know a lot about—less preparation makes life easier. But last year, I did something stupid: I told everyone I would teach on the Desert Fathers.
As it turns out, I didn’t know as much about the Desert Fathers as I thought. You may not be familiar with them, either; most Christians aren’t. A thousand years ago they were the rock stars of the Church, but unfortunately, they’ve largely disappeared from our thoughts today. The Desert Fathers lived in the 2nd—4th centuries A.D. They first dwelt in the deserts of Egypt, but later they could be found in modern-day Israel, Jordan, and Syria. Essentially, they were men and women who wanted to know God more fully, and they were willing to do anything for that to happen. So they left everything behind and moved, alone or in small groups, into the desert.
In preparation to teach, I read many stories of their lives and adventures. Some narratives were truly inspiring, others totally bizarre, and still others were both. Besides these stories, they also left us a great deposit of wisdom teachings found in the form of short sayings or anecdotes called “words.” Reading these stories and words, I was amazed by the Fathers’ simplicity, insight, and passion. I found them to be far more helpful to my Christian walk than 95% of the stuff I typically read for my job.
I ended up getting a great deal out of these teachings and immediately wanted to find a way to share some of this with others. I considered a number of projects, but ended up writing a Lenten devotional guide based on forty-seven of the Fathers’ words. Each day of Lent includes a word, then my reflection on that word. I think the book is quite simple, though spiritually challenging.
Lent is best kept with some kind of devotional guide. It certainly doesn’t need to be the one I wrote. I’m quite sure there are many better books. But I do suggest that everyone uses something. Otherwise, Lent kind of boils down to not eating chocolate, plus whatever happens at your church. And, if your church doesn’t practice Lent, then all you’re left with is chocolate cravings until Easter. Who wants that?
Seriously, Lent is awesome. It’s a wonderful way to make space for the Holy Spirit’s work in your life. Especially if Lent is new to you, get yourself a guide. Prayerfully commit to a spiritual practice and do your part to follow through.
Will Lent get you more points with God? No. Do you need to practice Lent to pay for your sins? Not at all; that’s what the Cross is for. Lent is a gift from the Church to you. I encourage you to make use of it.
Lent begins this year on Ash Wednesday, March 5th. It ends early in the morning, just as the sun is coming up, on Easter Sunday, April 21st.
Thomas McKenzie is the author of The Anglican Way, a book he describes as a traveler’s guide to the Anglican tradition, as well as The Harpooner, an Advent reader featuring harpoons—how awesome is that. He graduated from the University of Texas and attended seminary at the Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1998 and planted the Church of the Redeemer in Nashville in 2004, where he is the still pastor. He’s also keeps samurai swords in his office, and wears a skull ring.