An Ash Wednesday Conversation: Why Lent is a lot like Surfing
The surfer doesn’t create the waves, but her board puts her in a position to catch their energy. In the same way, spiritual disciplines don’t create the transforming power of God, but they do put us in a position to catch it.
by Gary David Stratton
This morning over breakfast, a brilliant young writer confronted my wife and I with a disturbing question. After an intense conversation covering Ash Wednesday, Lent, fasting, and dieting (there is a difference, right?), she wrinkled her brow and exclaimed:
“Don’t you think it’s a little odd to give up something for Lent in order to worship a Savior who told us to remember him by eating carbs and drinking alcohol?”
Uh…? Good question.
At first glance fasting makes about as much sense as the head-bonking monks in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Their unspoken motto appears to be: “Painfulness is next to godliness.” (Which, I think is why we find them so funny. Somehow we know that the extreme asceticism of the Middle ages, no matter how sincere, was profoundly flawed.)
But after talking it through for nearly an hour, I finally gave here the best answer I could: Fasting is a lot like surfing. Let me explain…
A Brief History of Lent
Fasting for 40 days before Easter was originally established as a time of spiritual preparation for new converts to Christianity before they were baptized together each Easter. However, in 325 AD, The Council of Nicea made Lent an official season of fasting for the entire church to prepare to receive the new members. This was normally practiced as eating only one meal per day for the entire 40 days. (Note: While many modern Catholics give up something for Lent, the Vatican only prescribes Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as official fast days.)
In the ensuing centuries many Christ followers found Lent a helpful practice in their walk with God. Fasting is often connected with repentance in Scripture. Using fasting and repentance to help “Prepare the way” for the Lord” in one’s heart for the celebration of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection can be a very helpful and instructive practice. Entering this season of repentance through impartation of ashes on one’s forehead on “Ash Wednesday” can create a strong connection to the Biblical practice of repenting in sackcloth and ashes. Skipping a meal, a favorite food, or favorite activity can help underscore our words of repentance with our bodies.
However, the practice of Lent also has a dark side in church history. As the human tendency toward hyper-control began to infiltrate the church, the practice of Lent became more and more prescribed and restrictive with each passing year. By the Middle Ages the compulsory practice of Lent had become so oppressive Protestant leaders began to reject it altogether. Martin Luther saw nothing wrong with Lent in theory, but feared that most Lenten fasting had become dead compulsory religious ritual aimed at earning God’s favor that amounted to “fasting to Satan instead of a fasting unto holiness.” Ulrich Zingli and later John Calvin were just as rough. They all but outlawed what they called the “gross delusion” of the “superstitious observance of Lent.”
Soon, Lent-keeping became a shibboleth defining which side of the Reformation you were on. Take ashes and the “Anti-Lent” crowd called you an enemy of the gospel. Refuse them, and the “Pro-Lent” gang condemned you to hell.
John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church, was perhaps the first Protestant to swing the pendulum back toward a sane balance. Wesley broke with the Church of England’s ban on Lent by listing it among his approved fast days of the Church. In fact, he thought it was “deplorable” that many Methodists neglected such fasting. Wesleyan Methodist churches eventually reinstated Lent as an official church practice. Anglicans, Lutherans, and later Presbyterians also eventually reinstated Lent, which may have caused Luther and Calvin to roll over their graves.
Dallas Willard and the Spiritual Formation Movement
In recent years, Lent has enjoyed something of a revival among younger Christians, especially by those influenced by the contemporary spiritual formation movement. Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, James Houston, and a growing chorus of “Willard for Dummies” advocates help contemporary Christians recapture the positive elements of all “spiritual discipline,” and Lent in particular.
We indirectly participate in our own transformation through the spiritual disciplines.
Willard warns that Protestantism’s emphasis upon grace all too often draws believers into the heresy of passivism. Grace rightly emphasizes our inability to “earn” our own salvation. However, passivism mistakenly emphasizes our inability to take part in our own transformation at all (The Renovation of the Heart, p. 82). Fasting in general, and Lenten fasting in particular can help counteract this passive “I’ll wait around for God to change me” approach to faith.
While we are “saved” through faith by grace alone, we are transformed by the “interactive presence” of the Holy Spirit in our lives (p. 23). God could transform us instantly and unilaterally, but he has chosen to transform us largely by working with us (p. 10). We participate in our own transformation indirectly by shaping of our thoughts and feelings through the rigorous and skillful application of spiritual discipline (p. 248). In other words, while we cannot be instantly or immediately transformed by sheer force of will, we can will to practice the disciplines that put us in a place where God’s grace can transform us into the image of Christ.
This is why Lent can be both used and abused. To practice Lent out of sense of compulsion—fearing that God will smite me if I eat chocolate–or in hopes of earning brownie points with God for good behavior, are both anathema to the true spirit of the disciplines. However, to give up something for Lent in hopes of using your body (your whole being) to express your prayer of repentance can be very powerful. It can put you in a position to better cooperate with the movements of the Spirit in your own soul.
Catch the Wave
Just as a board helps a surfer catch the power of a wave, Lent can help someone ‘catch’ the grace of God.
This brought me to the realization that spiritual disciplines are a lot like surfboards. The surfer doesn’t create the wave, but her board helps her to catch the energy provided by the ocean. In the same way, a spiritual discipline (such as a Lenten fast) doesn’t create the transforming power of God, but it does help us to catch it. The spiritual discipline of fasting creates a space of faith that God is only to glad to fill. The spiritual discipline of Lent helps many people to “catch the wave” of God’s ever-available power.
That’s the way it has worked for me. I didn’t grow up in a tradition that emphasized Lent. Yet for some reason, As a young Christ follower, Lent just seemed like a good idea to prepare my heart for Easter by following Christ into a 40-day fast. Since I wanted my fast to be ‘to’ Christ and not just ‘from’ something, I decided to give up television and use the time I freed for prayer and bible reading.
It turned out to be a profound spiritual experience. I discovered that God’s power and presence had been fully available to me, but night-after-night I had not been available to him. Once I began using the time previously devoted to mindless entertainment to seek him, I began to catch the supernatural resources that had always been at my disposal.  The spiritual discipline of Lent became a surfboard God used to propel me forward in my faith.
Alcohol, Carbs, and the Presence of God
So, Ashley, there’s my answer. Enjoy the blessings of God found in food, drink, carbs, and the arts. “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1Cor 10:31). But sometimes an intense season of spiritual discipline such as Lent is just what we need to re-examine our heart and catch the wave of Christ’s ever-present help.
 Okay, actually Lent is actually 46 days. Why? Medieval church leaders decided that fasting on the feast day of Sunday was a hypocrisy and deducted the six Sunday’s of Lent from the season of repentance, making Lent 46 days long. This has always seemed more like a loophole than an actual spiritual discipline to me. I normally just fast the whole 46 days.
 John Ortberg’s self-professed job description.
 Don’t take this as a slam on TV viewing in general. I still love television and many of my friends and students work in the TV industry. I think moderate viewing of excellent shows can be a very helpful spiritual discipline. In fact, Tivo and Hulu have helped me nearly eliminate the kind of mindless channel surfing that so thwarted my early spiritual development.