Finding Beauty in the Desert

By Victoria Andrews

Last month, I sat down with Barry Jones (IBC Teaching Pastor), Jason Elwell (IBC’s Worship Pastor), Crystal Elwell (IBC’s Choir Director), and Jason Stein (IBC’s Spiritual Formation Pastor) to discuss Lent at IBC. We loved getting to hear their thoughts about Lent, why it’s important to them, and how they engage with fasting and celebrating. 

We hope this helps you engage with Lent this season, finding more of God in the midst of the desert.

Barry Jones

Why do we as Christians celebrate Lent?

Barry Jones As the church began to mark time in a distinctly Christian way, you see the emergence of different days as particularly holy. This goes back to a rhythm God started with his people in the Old Testament where they were supposed to remember God’s mighty deeds of salvation. The celebration of Passover, the celebration of Tabernacles, and more made God’s people one shaped by rhythm and repetition. What happens is now in the early church, you get a distinctly Christian version of that formation by rhythm. Lent is one of the early seasons that develops prior to Holy Week, a season of examining one’s own heart before God.

Jason Stein About the second or third century, Lent began to take root across the regions, beginning partly as a two-day fast before the Easter season. And that fast then moves into a feast. So the season of Easter is always longer than the season of Lent, making the feast larger than the fast. 

BJ We think of the experience of wilderness as a negative, something we want to avoid, and yet time and time again we find references of wilderness throughout the Bible as a place where you meet God in a deeper and more profound way. Israel went into this period of wandering in the wilderness, but it was in that wilderness that they met God and they learned how to trust him. For Jesus, the journey in the wilderness was preparation for entering into his three years of ministry. The invitation of Lent is to journey with Jesus into the desert and there meet God in a deeper way and experience that renewal that the wilderness offers. 

Crystal Elwell I heard Kim Walker Smith speaking about Hosea one year at a conference, talking about desert and wilderness; that God doesn’t kick us out into the wilderness, but we are actually wooed out into the wilderness, because those desert places are where that deep intimacy with God happens.

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Jason Elwell The word Lent means spring. I think it’s interesting that we are coming out of this season where everything has died, there are no leaves on the trees, and as we make that procession into Holy Week, remember on Good Friday the death of Christ, and we come back on that Sunday, and now everything is alive. The actual spring happening during this time is a beautiful physical example of the prepatory work that is being done in our hearts.

I know for me, growing up in a tradition that didn’t observe Lent, I didn’t know it was Easter until my mom an I were at the store on Saturday buying a crusty-old wool suit or something I had to wear on Sunday that I hated.

JS ...I had a clip-on tie... 

JE Totally the clip-on tie! I don’t look back fondly, mostly because it was uncomfortable as a kid, right? But, what I loved these past few years, is spending some time thinking, processing, the introspection, has made Easter so much richer, the day and the season. 

At IBC, we bring some rhythms in, such as the rocks, the black cloth, and saying goodbye to the hallelujahs. Why do we incorporate these things into our Lenten season at IBC? 

JE The rocks were one of the first things we implemented years ago when we started celebrating Lent here at IBC. We have the rocks in the front, and we ask people to come and take a rock and put it in a place where it’s a daily reminder that I’m on this journey towards something. Which I think links up to the fast. 

We adopted the tradition with the farewell to the hallelujahs as a way for the IBC body, corporately, to give up something. We give-up saying Hallelujah, we reserve that for Easter, when we meet and bring the hallelujahs back. It’s subtle, but it’s difficult, and that reminds us of the journey. 

CE The black cloth that we have each Lent, starts on Ash Wednesday. People are invited to come up during the response time, to do work with God at the altar. There are black markers on black cloth, you can take time to write the sins you know you are struggling with, or throughout the season, as God reveals things in your heart, you can come up and add them to the cloth. I think it’s so beautiful that on Good Friday the black cloth goes on the cross representing Christ taking on our sin, bearing our shame with his death. 

And then on Easter Sunday with the resurrection that black cloth is removed and replaced with a white cloth symbolizing that through his death and resurrection we are made whole, we are made clean, our stains made white. 

Barry Jones

Ash Wednesday officially kicks off the Lenten Season. Why do we have an Ash Wednesday service? 

JS Ash Wednesday is a physical mark, where we make the mark of the cross on our foreheads with ash, reminding us of our creatureliness, our finiteness, the seriousness of sin, and the gloriousness of grace. 

And one of the things I find so beautiful,  the person marking the foreheads with ash  says, “for the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.” And there is something about looking another human being in the eye and proclaiming that truth over them — the waywardness and the gloriousness of grace — it changes you. You enter into that Lenten season, you feel the weight of it. 

BJ It seems to me that our particular expression of Christianity has tended to be Christianity from the neck up. We think deep thoughts about God, we talk to God in our heads, but we haven’t always had a strong emphasis on the rest of our bodies engaging in our faith. Not realizing that we do with our body’s matters to our souls. That’s what is so powerful about Ash Wednesday. It’s not just, “think or reflect about these things,” but you get up from your seat, you walk down the aisle, you stare someone in the eyes and they put a mark on your forehead and you feel the mark as it’s being applied and then you walk around with this mark on your forehead. 

JE And the idea that it’s this charred, burnt, plant. Something that was meant to be attached to the vine, to live, to grow. We actually have taken it, and burned it and charred it, and used it to put a mark on ourselves. It’s grainy, it’s this uncomfortable moment. 

It’s beautiful, but it’s beautifully uncomfortable. 

I think Ash Wednesday is a moment of gravity for us that moment of embracing our mortality, of embracing our sin, but it’s also a moment where we should say, “this is not how it was supposed to be, not how it was meant to be.” 

In Isaiah 55:12 it says, 

And you will go out in joy, you will be led forth in peace, the mountains will burst forward in song before you and all the trees of the field will clap there hands. Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper. Instead of the briar, the myrtle will grow.

Instead of the palm branches being charred and imposed upon our foreheads, they were meant to flourish. And this is the process by which we find flourishing on this side of heaven. We embrace our brokenness, we embrace our sinful nature that leads us down the wrong way to bringing us life, and it points us the right way, to the way of the cross. The cross is where it ultimately culminates, the darkest point on the church calendar.

JS It’s beautiful. We begin and end with the shape of a cross. 

JE Yeah, yeah, it’s so good. 

CE mmhmm. 

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We give stuff up for Lent, or we take something on. What is the purpose of that? Why are we asking our people, IBCers, to do that during the Lenten season? 

BJ So, I think people oftentimes associate giving something up for Lent with, merely, an act of self-denial. While, there is something to that idea, that I’m intentionally denying myself something that I find delight in, there is something more I think, something deeper. The idea is to give something up that is part of your every day life as a reminder to pay attention, to reflect on the state of your heart, to remind you of the journey, as Jason said earlier. 

The very first time I observed Lent, I made the decision to give up coffee. And that has become a yearly thing for me. And for anybody who loves coffee as much as I do that is an act of self-denial. But, it’s not just about that self-denial. It’s about when I want coffee, when I’d normally drink coffee, when I’m having tea instead of coffee, I’m reminded that we’re in Lent. It is giving something up to say, “Lord, help me remember what it is we are about together in this season. Help me be mindful of the work I’m longing for you to do in me.”

The other thing that was then meaningful to me in the Lenten fast was when I discovered that Sundays aren’t included in the 40 days. The fast doesn’t include Sundays because every Sunday is a little Easter. Every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection. So, you don’t fast on a resurrection day, that’s always a feast day. And I’m telling you, during the season of Lent, when I get my Americano on Sunday morning it is a spiritual experience. [laughter]. There is a joy, a delight, a gratitude in that Americano, that is unlike any Americano the rest of the year. 

CE I think when I’ve given up something it has created space for reflection throughout my day, those are the most rich experiences I’ve had. Like, one year, I gave up sleep. And I LOVE to sleep, like 8-10 hours is what I need for my mental, emotional, soul health. So the fasting for me has created space all throughout my day. For the reflection, for the remembrance. Where in normal times I’d just be “go-go-go.” 

Can we talk about the Lenten Sermon Series for 2017, Rescue From Ruin?

BJ We’re going to be talking about what the church has historically talked about as the Seven Deadly Sins. And, it’s so interesting because that language of “deadly” they took that really seriously. Like, this is the stuff that will kill you or ruin your life. Not long ago, I saw a car commercial that used by name, four of the deadly sins to try and sell a car. The stuff that the monks used to be terrified about, we now use to sell automobiles. 

There really is great wisdom in looking at these patterns that so easily impact our lives, that do have the capacity that, if left alone, if not dealt with, can ruin our lives, can undermine what matters most deeply to us. They can cause relationships to implode. I think about how the author of Hebrews talks about “the sin that so easily entangles us.” These vices are the patterns in our life that so easily entangle us, they trip us up, and they take us out. 

JS I was reading a book recently that talks about the Seven Deadly Sins, but it refers to them as The Glittering Vices. And I think that so beautifully captures what they really are. They are these patterns, these character traits that entangle us, that almost become a part of us in a way. A vice is a perpetual thing that owns you. The season of Lent is an opportunity to recognize those vices we all have, those patterns we all have are in our lives, and ask for God to do his transforming work in us and rescue us from the grip of sin. 

JE In the tradition I grew up in, the way I learned about how sin worked, sin was something you did when you went to the wrong movie or if you sat at the wrong table with someone who was having a beer. They were things you did, choices you made. So, I could go a whole day without sinning, because I made the “right” choices. I isolated sin into these acts that you did or didn’t do. 

And certainly that’s part of it, but I think sin is so much more than that. Eugene Peterson in the Message version of 1 Peter, he talks about, “don’t lazily slip back into those old grooves of evil, doing just what you feel like doing.” I LOVE that verbiage man, “falling back into those lazy old grooves,” you slip back into them, maybe even unbeknownst to you because they are comfortable. I love that we are doing something like that in Lent, to me it really speaks towards the purpose for this preparation for the season of life and resurrection.

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Holy Week. We have multiple services in just a couple days, that’s not the norm, so why are we asking people to join us for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and then again on Easter Sunday? 

JE I think I’ve always struggled with that same question, “why would we bring people out for two more services?” I think there are a lot of churches who don’t even gather for Good Friday anymore, I don’t know that I did growing up. So why? I mean Good Friday could be a stretch for some, but then, we’re going to ask you to come the night before too and do some work as well? 

I think about the Psalms of Assent that David wrote, these songs people sang together while they traveled an extremely long journey up a mountain to worship God.

I see it as an act of worship that we would get in our cars on a Thursday, that we would go back, that we would live into this story. And then we would get back into our cars on a Friday and we would do it again. And each night has a different overtone, has a different pulse to it, just like the Psalms of Assent. And it all culminates in that moment we make it back into that room on Easter Sunday and we bring the hallelujahs back. We re-drape the cross from black to white. I think it presses it deeper into us each year that we do it. 

BJ This really is the climax of the Biblical story, the climax of redemptive history, it’s the climax of the Church’s calendar. And so, we need to really enter into that, to really experience the profound work. Part of what those services do are enabling us to enter into the story. To feel a little bit of what it might have felt like so that we can carry that with us.

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What do you hope IBCers walk away with from the Lenten Season? What are you hoping they get out of it? 

JS My hope and prayer for IBCers is that throughout the Lenten season they would walk away with a deeper trust and dependence on God and an increasing willingness to follow after him. 

CE Experiencing the power that IS in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. And walking out of Lent, into Easter, and into the rest of the year, and walking IN that power in their lives and in their relationships. That transforming work that happens in Lent is what I hope for IBCers. 

BJ Our hearts are so prone to go astray in so many different directions, and Christ in his Kingdom is our heart’s true north. I think that remembering the Cross and the Resurrection of Jesus in Holy Week is this call back to our heart’s true north. 

JE The way I might say that is there is no Resurrection without a Cross. I think that the more we as a people live into this story the more we’re able to embrace the cross to get to the resurrection. I think we want to jump to the third day. We want to emphasize the third day without emphasizing Maundy Thursday, that moment when Jesus offered a meal and washed feet, the feet of his enemies. I think we as a people could learn a great deal from the three days prior to resurrection. Those days, that is how we find resurrection. So, that is my hope for our people, that they find resurrection through the journey of Holy Week. 

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