Lent, the Wilderness, and a Global Pandemic

In 2020, I participated in Lent for what I remember to be the first time in my life. I always thought Lent was a Catholic holiday and since I’m not Catholic, I didn’t care about it. When I learned it wasn’t exclusive to Catholics, I thought it was about giving things up and I didn’t want to do that. Last year, on Annie F. Downs‘ podcast, That Sounds Fun, the She Reads Truth (and He Reads Truth) ladies taught me what Lent is and isn’t. Lent is a liturgical (sort of a fancy word for religious or Christian) holiday. It is not a Biblically mandated holiday. Lent is about focusing on Jesus and what He did for us on the cross. It is not about giving something up for the sake of giving something up. Lent is a private and personal humbling of self and the acknowledgment that we are sinful and broken without God. Lent is not a public statement to show how great we are for “humbly” giving something up for Christs’ sake. Lent is an acknowledgment that Christ’s death made us pure, holy, and forgiven. That in dying for us He gave us grace and mercy, saving us from an eternal death that we all deserve. It is not an act of earning salvation. We can’t earn salvation. Salvation is a gift, with no strings attached, given to us by God and God alone and that is what Lent is observing. It is a remembrance that we are fallen, broken, and in desperate need of a Savior. My pastor’s brother is also a pastor. His church regularly acknowledges that we are “badly broken and deeply loved.” In turn, my pastor reminds us of that specific phrasing pretty often too. In essence, that is what we are observing in the days of Lent. We’re remembering Romans 5:8, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and goes 46 days until Easter/Resurrection Sunday. We model it from the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness after His baptism and before He was tempted. I could go into the ins and outs of the traditional observance of Lent, but I’m not going to. Partly, because I’m new to Lent. Mostly, because I believe Lent is personal and private. Instead, I’ll remind you of what Jesus did in the wilderness. Jesus fasted. He abstained from all the luxuries of life. I’m not sure what luxuries looked like during His lifetime, but I know He gave them up for forty days in the wilderness. Why? To grow closer to the Father. In His physical weakness, He became spiritually strong through prayer and Bible study. Then, when Satan attacked with fiery arrows of temptation, Jesus was ready with a shield of faith and the sword of the Spirit. And that is what Lent is all about. It’s prayer, Bible study, and becoming more like Jesus, because our battle is not physical, it is spiritual, mental, and emotional.

When I decided to observe Lent for the first time in 2020, it was February 26 and life was still normal. I had no idea what the year would be like. All I knew was that I needed to be closer to God. So, I gave up a few things, including secular music, movies, and TV shows. For as long as I can remember, music, movies, and TV have brought me comfort. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, because we all have things we enjoy. I do think there’s something wrong with giving all your free time to such things. And that’s what I had been starting to do again. It wasn’t the first time I’d abstained from secular entertainment and it probably won’t be the last. This time it was different though. This time we had about two weeks left before facing a national and global shutdown. This time I was about to go into three consecutive months of not having much to do and rarely leaving my room.

Normally, I would’ve been thrilled to stay home for 3 months. I’m an introvert with social anxiety. I thrive when I get to be alone all the time. And, in the end, I did thrive on personal level in 2020, but not in the beginning. In the beginning, I was so not thrilled. I was only 2 weeks into a 6 week “fast” from secular music, movies, and TV. What was I supposed to do with myself if I couldn’t be entertained in ways I usually would be? If I’m being honest, I was a little mad at God. Mostly I was annoyed, but I was a little mad too. How was I supposed to survive a global pandemic without my usual means of escape? And therein lay my problem. Instead of running to God in a global emergency, I was complaining about giving something up. I even said or thought many times, “If I had known this, I wouldn’t have given that up.” Yikes. That is a sure sign that I had given the right things up for Lent. I was mourning the loss of something I wanted to run to instead of running to Whom I should’ve run to. God was the only One who was prepared for the pandemic and I was still struggling to run to Him. Though it was hard in the beginning, I am now thrilled I gave up secular entertainment right before I’d “need” it most.

There isn’t anything wrong with secular entertainment in and of itself. In fact, God teaches me more often through my favorite shows, movies, and music than anything else. I believe if I had said, “You know what? I’ll do Lent next year. This year I need to be entertained,” then I would’ve been okay. As earlier stated, Lent is not a God-ordained holiday. It is a manmade holiday that observes God’s goodness and our sin. However, I do believe we are most healthy when we take times to abstain from things that aren’t inherently Christian. I also believe had I changed my mind about Lent, then I would’ve missed out on some major blessings. I might’ve even suffered through the year.

I had been watching The Vampire Diaries when I started Lent. If I had been watching that at the beginning of the pandemic instead of abstaining, I don’t think I would have started my own daily journaling habits. If I had been listening to secular music when it all started, I don’t think I would’ve built the habit of starting and ending each day with Scripture and worship music. If I had been binging anything at the beginning of the pandemic, I don’t think I would’ve started a study of the Gospels and Acts which I’m still doing almost a year later. And if I hadn’t started daily journaling, morning and evening worship time, and my study of the Gospels and Acts, I think 2020 would’ve crushed me. I do think part of what prepared me for 2020 was the practice of Sabbath and pausing (literal quiet time throughout the day) that I started in 2019. But more than anything, I think what prepared me for giving up so much in 2020 was that I’d already told God I was willing to give and get my comfort to and from Him. Otherwise, I genuinely believe I would’ve gone down a dark path in 2020 and I’m not sure I would’ve been able to get out of it. Because I’ve faced hard times in the past and I didn’t handle them well until I learned to humble myself before God and draw closer to Him.

So, in 2021, I highly suggest you consider observing Lent if you don’t already plan to do so. If you choose not to observe Lent, I still highly recommend you evaluate your life and figure out what’s out of alignment. You’re human and therefore imperfect which pretty much means there’s always something in your life that’s out of alignment with God. So, what is it for you? What can you give up for Lent? What can you take in for Lent? What can you give to the Lord as a gesture of saying, “All I need is You, God.” What is causing you to stumble? What are you placing a little or a lot too close to God’s presence in your life? The commandment to “have no other gods before Me” means your love for anything other than God should look like hatred in comparison. Are you running to something other than God for comfort? It might be time to let that thing go, maybe forever or maybe temporarily.

At the end of the lockdown in Texas, when we started to open back up again, I opted not to go back to church right away. Part of it was because wearing a mask for longer than a few minutes gave me anxiety (I’ve gotten used to it now). Mostly, I knew I let the building and body of church–what feels most like home and family to me–get a little too close to God in my life. I had to get right with God and say, “I’m grateful for the gift you’ve given me by way of my church building and church family. I am more grateful for you, the Giver. You are God and You are my comfort, strength, and treasure. Nothing in my life matters compared to You. Not my people. Not my home. Not my comfort.” When I knew God was in the right place in my life, I was able to go back to church–a month after physical services started–and it was all the more special. And that’s what Lent is all about. We give something up, sometimes even things that are mostly or fully good for us, and we draw closer to God. When we give things up for God, whether temporarily or permanently–He’s going to give us something so much better. I fully and completely believe that, even if we don’t always feel or see it.

Remember, Lent isn’t about rules and it isn’t a Biblical ordinance. You don’t have to observe it and there are no rules. You don’t necessarily have to give anything up. You might need to start something. I believe Lent is personal and private, especially before and during the observance. So, I won’t tell you what I’m doing this year, at least not now. I will say for me Lent 2021 is more about adding spiritual practices to my life than taking other practices out. We gave up a lot in 2020 and a lot of us picked up a lot of healthy practices. Maybe you can’t think of something to give up. Or maybe you can’t do it with a willing heart. That’s okay. Listen to the Holy Spirit and He will guide you. There are many ways to observe Lent, but the core purpose remains the same. We remember that we are sinful and broken and that without Jesus’ perfect life and brutal death we would be hopeless. For more encouragement from someone far more experienced in Lent than I am check out this year’s episode of That Sounds Fun with the She Reads Truth ladies.

A final note: The purpose of Lent is to remember and prepare for the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. Fridays can be seen as weekly observations of Good Friday. Sundays can be seen as weekly celebrations of the resurrection. Some people choose to fast or abstain Monday through Saturday and feast/break their fast or abstinence on Sundays. Remember, this is a manmade holiday. Let the Spirit guide you in how you should or shouldn’t observe Lent.

Disclaimer: I’m new to Lent and I’m not catholic or orthodox. Actually, I’m nondenominational. So, I’m not necessarily writing to those who observe Lent in a traditional sense. Instead, I am talking to all Christians of any denomination who want to find new ways to strengthen their faith. And I believe observing Lent is great way to do that.

Thanks for reading! Let me know if you need anything! Like seriously. I’m here for you!

Find me on Twitter and Instagram – @ogbrittanyalex

Find my podcasts “The Mask; Her Aid” and “Obsessive Girl Podcast.”

You can also buy my book “The Mask; Her Aid” by Brittany Alexandria on Amazon for Kindle.

Serve & Be Served–The Truth about Volunteering at Church

There seems to be a weird stigma around volunteering at church. For some reason, few people seem to want to do it. Every church I’ve ever been to–all two of them–are constantly short-handed when it comes to volunteers. Why is that? We all have spiritual gifts, Paul tells us that very clearly in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4 and a few miscellaneous verses throughout the New Testament. It’s also taught indirectly through several other passages as God uses people and their natural abilities to serve Him and grow the Kingdom So, why is there such a stigma around serving in the church? We could point fingers and say people are selfish with their time. For some that may be true, but I don’t think that’s the root cause. It could be that it’s not clear to everyone what is or isn’t volunteer work, but that’s not it. Churchs are constantly asking members to serve here or there or wherever help is needed. So, what’s the problem then? I think it’s a few things: a) People don’t know their spiritual or personal gifts. b) People don’t see how their talents could possibly be useful in the church. c) People don’t understand how exhausting it is for the ministry leaders and servers when no one else volunteers. d) People don’t understand how much of a gift serving can be to both those who are served and those who do serve. e) Some other reason I haven’t thought of.

a) People don’t know their spiritual or personal gifts. It’s easy to understand why a lot of people don’t know what their spiritual gifts are. I grew up in the church and went to a Christian school. Even I didn’t know anything about spiritual gifts until I was senior in high school. There are over a dozen spiritual gifts. Mine are mercy, discernment, and encouragement. Basically, that means I’m really good with people. I feel with them, I’m a good judge of character, and I’m good at encouraging them. If you’d like to find out your spiritual gift(s) then I highly recommend you google “spiritual gifts test” and take a couple assessments. It’s always helpful to get a “second or third opinion” because they are man-made tests so they could be wrong. I like to take several personality and type tests, so I always take at least a few to get a more accurate understanding of where I fit. And keep in mind, we can grow our spiritual gifts. It’s not like your born with one it’s the only one you’re stuck with for the rest of your life. God wants us to become as gifted as we can be.

b) People don’t see how their talents could possibly be useful in the church. Even before I knew anything about my spiritual gifts, I knew I loved kids. I’ve always wanted to be a mommy and I have a bunch of younger siblings. Where better could there be for a girl like me to serve than in Children’s Ministry and or Youth? What about you? What are your passions? What are you good at? Are you good at singing or playing instruments? Join the worship team! Do you love kids? Join children’s ministry! Are you a talker? Do you like people? Join the welcoming team/guest services! Are you interested in computers and other gadgets? Join the tech team! Can you build things? Organize? Work behind the scenes by helping set up and take down for various events. Have other talents or interests? Talk to your pastor, the elders, your mentor, or people you’re close to. I’m sure anyone who knows you could help you find somewhere to serve. A lot of spiritual gifts quizzes also give suggestions on where you can serve.

c) People don’t understand how exhausting it is for the ministry leaders and servers when no one else volunteers. It’s possible some (or a lot) of people don’t serve because they think the leaders and regular servers have everything under control. Some may even think it’s not their job, because “I don’t have kids” or “I’m too young” or something else. Maybe they’re insecure for one reason or another. Here’s the thing though, serving on a regular basis can be exhausting, especially if it prevents you from hearing the weekly sermons. I served every two to three weeks in children’s ministry from twelve to fifteen years old. Then, I started serving every week as one of the children’s ministry leaders until I was eighteen. Then, I changed it to every other week for a few months. Took a short break when I started going to a new church and quickly started serving every week again at this new church. I did that for three or so more years until I eventually burnt myself out from serving almost every week for a decade. I wasn’t even the leader of children’s ministry. Can you imagine how exhausted Pastors, Worship Leaders, Children’s Ministry Leaders, Youth Leaders, other ministry leaders and all their family must feel? Leading and serving can be thankless jobs, but they continue to do it, especially when they’re short on volunteers. Maybe you can help relieve some of the stress and exhaustion your leaders and regular volunteers may be feeling by joining one or more of the ministry teams! Whether you do or don’t, try to remember to encourage and thank those who do serve, especially the leaders; they probably need to hear it!

d) People don’t understand how much of a gift serving can be to both those who are served and those who do serve. I don’t have any regrets about taking time off from serving for a while. If I hadn’t, then I would have ended up serving with a bitter heart and that’s worse than not serving at all. God is very clear about how He cares far more about our heart than our sacrifices and service. If we aren’t doing it out of love, then He doesn’t want it. He wants us to want to serve Him and others. That said, a couple weeks ago, my best friend let me know our Children’s Ministry had been looking for more volunteers. She didn’t know this until I told her afterward, but God had been nudging my heart for a couple months at that point that it was almost time to get back into serving with children’s ministry. So, I took that as my cue. I offered to help once a month as a means of dipping my toes in the water before jumping all in. As my life would have it though–because I’m an all or nothing kind of girl–I was asked at the same time to serve, at least for a few weeks, with the youth. Little did anyone know, God had also been urging me to see about serving in Youth with the same kids I had served in children’s ministry two years prior.

Last week, I served in Youth for the first time in years. Today, I served in the nursery with the babies and toddlers also for the first time in years. I knew I had missed it, but I didn’t know how much! I was nervous about getting burnt out again. But both last week and this week, God quickly assured me that He is calling me to serve again. He wants me to help the kids and babies and He’ll be with me at every step. The second I walked through the doors of the youth room and then through the door to the nursery, my heart immediately filled with joy and contentment. I belong with kids and youth. I belong somewhere where I can serve and encourage others. Where people in need and young Church kid hearts are, that is where I belong! I grew up as a church kid, so I know what it’s like and what is needed in these areas. God seems to agree (aka, it’s His plan and He just nudged my heart with it) because that’s where He has me serving.

I can assure you that if you serve and you do it with a heart that wants to serve God and others, then you won’t regret it! Even after I got burnt out on serving for a decade, I never regretted it. I just needed a break. If you can’t serve with the right heart, then I urge you to pray for God to humble and encourage you to have a servant’s spirit. Afterall, Matthew 20:28 says, “…the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve…” If that’s not encouragement enough for you, then surely, praying for God to guide you will be! 🙂

(also, I totally recommend you go read that whole passage! It’s a good one!)

*Helpful Tip* If you want to serve where you can be a big help, but want to take on a little “less responsibility” at first, then here are two suggestions. If you’re an extrovert, then try the welcoming team/guest services! 🙂 You can chat with people as they come in and be the first smiling face newcomers see! If you’re an introvert, then try the tech team! I’ve filled in a few times when needed and as intimidating as it seems, it’s not too difficult, at least not if you’re just clicking arrows for the slides. Maybe you can volunteer for that and then learn the more complicated stuff?

e) Some other reason I haven’t thought of. Can you think of other reasons people might not serve in the church? Feel free to share them with me! 🙂