Baptists for Lent

“Search me, O God, and know my heart.” Psalm 139:23

Early morning racquetball was a staple of my daily routine for the six years I was in Houma, La. Every day, 6-8 of us would gather, play the game, review news of the day, and generally celebrate the grandeur of the y-chromosome. Occasionally the topics would veer into theology, and as that area of the country was well-represented by Catholics these conversations proved to be a time of mutual enlightenment and occasional ribbing.

One such occasion was at the beginning of Lent. A close friend of mine, a deacon in the church I served, was asked by a Catholic friend, nicknamed “Mouse,” why we did not observe Lent in the Baptist church. Mouse had already made the point that Lent was a necessary time to observe a holy life in a special way. Don’t we need that also in the Baptist church? My deacon friend replied we believe if there is something you need to turn from then you should not wait for a particular season of the year or only observe the abstinence for a few weeks. Mouse thought about it for a moment, snorted, and said, “yeah, right.”

Now my Baptist friend made a good point, of course. If sin is sin then it is sin no matter what the calendar says. We should not wait until Lent to repent! As soon as we discover the presence of something that dishonors God then we should turn from it, change the habit or develop the needed spiritual discipline. The Baptist point of view was fairly represented.

On the other hand, Mouse had a good point, his suspicions of Baptist perseverance notwithstanding. He realized the value of a special time of year to reflect on ways in which we can honor God more deeply. Committing to a new expression of holiness by summoning the necessary discipline to turn from a particular sin may well develop into a lifestyle. The repentance need not be temporary.

David points the way in his Psalms to the appropriate observance of Lent. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts, And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (139:23-24) These verses represent the prayer of any Christian at the beginning of Lent or whenever we sense something in us that does not honor God.

Psalms 51 and 32 are also revealing. Psalm 51 was written after Nathan confronted David with his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah. His sin gnawed at him, and he pleaded for mercy. Psalm 32 reads like a post-forgiveness experience as David celebrated God’s forgiveness of his terrible spiritual burden.

Mouse did not quote these verses, but they reflect his views. The hour was early, after all. He did wonder about whether or not we Baptists could commit to such a straight and narrow path. I wonder also. But without a starting point, without a call to repentance, annually, semi-annually, weekly or daily I doubt we will make much progress.

We are created with a need for both place and rhythm. Sacred places evoke the best in us, so we will always have the need for buildings. The man who claims to be able to “worship just as well on the lake as in a church” is simply making an excuse.

Likewise, we need rhythm. One day out of seven is different from all the others. It’s in our genes. For that reason, I am all for an annual rhythm of repentance in the same way I favor an annual rhythm of Advent, for example.

So repentance does not need to wait for a season, but a season does serve to focus our reflection and prayers. Let us bow, and let us kneel (posture is especially important in prayers of contrition) and say to God, “Search me, and know my heart.”


Dr. Terry Ellis

February 20, 2012