Introduction

Read the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday

            There is a statistic thrown around today that the average person’s attention span has gone from twelve seconds in 2000 to about eight seconds today. They say this gives us a shorter attention span than a goldfish (though I have no idea how they determined that). There is debate about whether attention spans are getting shorter or just changing, but whatever we might conclude, it is obvious that our attention is more divided than ever. Constant internet connection via smart phones has given us access to more information than we could possibly consume – information constantly changing and endlessly being created – and all of it is always, literally, right at our fingertips. We have learned to casually and continuously navigate back-and-forth between sending messages, listening to music, watching videos, checking bank accounts, buying tickets, reading articles, sharing on social media, taking pictures, looking at other people’s pictures, booking hotel rooms, and checking the weather.

            Maybe it’s not so much that our attention spans are getting shorter, but our brains are filled with so much constant information that it is difficult to focus on any one thing for very long. At any given moment, I may be equally aware of a shooting across town, a lockdown at my children’s school, a rockslide on the other side of the country, an overdue credit card payment, a raging fire on one side of the globe, a melting glacier on the other side, a prayer request from my church, and some impending asteroid threat from space. As I am writing this introduction, I am fighting a losing battle against the urge to bounce back and forth between checking my phone, my email and social media all while trying to finish this introduction. Distracted driving, and even distracted walking, has become “a thing” almost overnight. The challenges of this rapidly evolving world have helped create a church full of distracted disciples. 

            This devotional is intended to help un-distract us through the next six and a half weeks of the Christian observance known as Lent. According to Wikipedia, Lent is “the preparation of the believer for Easter through prayer, doing penance, mortifying the flesh, repentance of sins, almsgiving, and the denial of ego.” For many people, Lent conjures images of Friday fish fries, avoiding red meat, and giving up sweets. You may be surprised to learn that the origins of Lent date back to the earliest days of the church (though its exact initiation is rather unclear).

            We do know that in the second century, Christians fasted for forty hours in preparation of Easter (the length of time they believed Jesus was in the tomb between Good Friday and Easter Sunday). It wasn’t until after the Council of Nicea in 325 that Lent expanded to forty days though the expansion took many years.[1] Like any religious ritual or church tradition, observing Lent can become an empty routine, and, when added to an already overloaded calendar, Lent can become as oppressive as the Sabbath commandments were to the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. 

            At the same time, Lent provides Christians with space for an intentional break from the monotony of daily routines and can reveal mindless shortcomings, missed opportunities, and a general neglect of our calling in Christ. Paul makes clear in Romans that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 NIV), and while we often quote this verse, Lent provides us an extended opportunity to reflect on the implications of our sinfulness. We may be quick to proclaim, “I am forgiven!” which is of course true, but that forgiveness has come with a price, and that deserves some reflection.

            This forty-day Lenten guide is inspired by Paul’s proclamation to the Corinthians, “For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (2 Corinthians 2:2 KJV). This statement comes early in his first letter to the Corinthian church. “Paul insists they remember that salvation is accomplished by nothing less – and nothing more – than Jesus’ death on the cross, a defeat according to worldly standards. From this seeming defeat comes the complete transformation of reality and history.”[2] With the constant bombardment of information, noise, and distractions we face, it is more important than ever to emphasize times of intentional and guided spiritual reflection.

            In the opening lines of his famous 15th century book The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a’ Kempis writes, “Let the life of Jesus Christ, then, be our first consideration.” Over the next forty days, we will explore ways we can make Jesus our first consideration. We will confront areas in our lives where we have allowed sin to have a foothold and confess those shortcomings to God. We will awaken ourselves to the presence of God every moment and experiment with new practices that will help us be more like Jesus. We will work to rid ourselves of poor and/or vapid habits that do not glorify God or waste our precious time, and we will strive to replace them by developing new practices that reveal God’s presence to those around us.

            Jesus of Nazareth has captivated people since he walked the dusty roads of first century Palestine. Distinguished Yale professor Jaroslav Pelikan writes, “Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western civilization for almost twenty centuries.”[3] We are struck at once by this ubiquitous notoriety (who doesn’t know Jesus?) as well as the elusiveness of knowing him (who really does know Jesus?). Over the next forty days our quest is the same as Paul’s: “I want to know Christ and experience the power that raised him from the dead” (Philippians 3:10 NLT).

            Over the next forty days, we will strive to make the life of Jesus Christ our first consideration. With the Gospels as our guide, this devotional booklet takes us on a forty-day journey toward knowing Christ. Jesus is everywhere, and in this all-important task, we will use all the resources at our disposal to know him. Pelikan asks, “If it were possible, with some sort of super-magnet, to pull up out of history every scrap of metal bearing at least a trace of his name, how much would be left?”[4] W. Barnes Tatum says of Jesus in the movies, “virtually from the beginning of the commercial use moving pictures, filmmakers turned to the Jesus story as a source of subject matter and profit.”[5] Statistical evidence seems unnecessary to prove more songs likely have been written about Jesus than anyone else who has ever lived. In wanting to know Christ, we have endless resources at our fingertips; our desire through Lent is to use them to help us know Christ.

            Beginning tomorrow, you will find a daily devotional reflection accompanied by readings from the Bible. The first four days are a kind of preparation for the following six weeks of Lent. Sundays are a day for communal worship, so there are no readings on the six Sundays preceding Easter. Each Monday, you will learn about a different movie that was created to tell the story of Jesus. Clips from the movie each week will connect to the daily devotional reflections. Most of these movies are available free online and will be linked correspondingly for smooth navigation. Also each day, you will find a variety of exercises aimed at deepening the awareness of Christ in your daily life. Furthermore, songs are suggested each day for you to listen to or sing yourself. The weekends are Netflix weekends where you are invited to watch the new series Messiah.[6]  The new series is provocative and offers a modern day perspective of Jesus that helps us ask new questions and consider a new picture of Jesus than you may be accustomed.

            This guide is intended to be just that – a guide. While watching the movie clips can be a powerful reinforcement to the daily devotions, if you prefer not to watch them or don’t have the time to watch them, there is still plenty of value in the readings themselves. Use this booklet in such a way that it will best direct your quest to know nothing but Christ and him crucified. If you watch every video, listen to every song, read every Bible verse referenced, and read the journal entry, you may be overwhelmed pretty quickly. The idea behind this journal is to provide you with more resources than you need, so that you can find the ones that can most benefit your spiritual journey.

            It may seem strange to combine a devotional journal with movies, but the premise of these exercises is actually based on The Spiritual Practices by Ignatius of Loyola written between 1522 and 1524. We will be concerned, particularly, with Ignatius’ use of “imaginary prayer” that he makes use of in the practice of contemplation. In this type of prayer, we try to visualize ourselves in the Jesus story, and using scenes from famous movies about Jesus can be very effective in helping facilitate this experience. While this may be an unfamiliar idea to you, I hope you will spend some time experimenting with it in the coming weeks as spiritual pilgrims have found it a great blessing for hundreds of years.  

            Please know that your Lenten experience already has been bathed in much prayer. My hope is that you will celebrate Easter more fully having immersed yourself in Christ more than you ever have in your life. It won’t be easy – forty days is a long time, and our distractions are ever before us. There are powers that are working against your best intentions. There will be moments when you will be tempted to throw in the towel, when busyness seems sure to overtake you – but stand firm! May John’s reminder sustain us: “the Spirit who lives in you is greater than the spirit who lives in the world” (1 John 4:4 NLT).

            May this prayer from Richard Foster set us off on the right foot, and may God bless you this Lenten season.

            Spirit of the living God, be the Gardener of my soul. For so long I have been waiting, silent and still – experiencing a winter of the soul. But now, in the strong name of Jesus Christ, I dare to ask:

            Clear away the dead growth of the past,

            Break up the hard clods of custom and routine,

            Stir in the rich compost of vision and challenge,

            Bury deep in my soul the implanted Word,

            Cultivate and water and tend my heart,

            Until new life buds and opens and flowers.

            Amen.[7]


[1] For a good, concise history of Lent see Nicholas Russo’s article “The Early History of Lent,” available here.

[2] Catherine Taylor, notes on 1 Corinthians 2:2 in Life with God Bible NRSV, Harper Bibles, 2005.

[3] Yaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985, 1999), 1.

[4] Ibid.

[5] W. Barnes Tatum, Jesus at the Movies, 3rd ed. (Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2013), 2.

[6] The series has a TV-MA rating. There are several instances of coarse language throughout the series (though it is far from profuse), and two instances of rear male nudity (in episode 6), and a non-graphic sex scene in episode 9. If you feel this will inhibit spiritual benefit from this experience, please refrain from watching. 

[7] Richard J. Foster, Prayers from the Heart, (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1994), 3.

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