Dust is a Lenten series of reflections and interviews with Christian thinkers and leaders, probing the psychological and transformative nature of Lent. Today’s reflection comes from Richard Mouw, who served as Fuller Theological Seminary’s president for the past 20 years. Mouw offers honest commentary on the challenges of living into seasons of spiritual life.
The Table: What is the spiritual significance of the Christian tradition of Lent?
Richard Mouw: Like most evangelicals, Lent was not a part of my upbringing. I would go to public school on a Wednesday and see some kids with ash marks on their foreheads, and that brought the realization that Easter was not too far off—but this was only observing from a distance what Catholics did.
In my adult life, I have come to see Lent as an important part of the rhythms of our spiritual year. We need “seasons” of awareness, and it is a good thing to have times when we focus on various aspects of God’s mission in the world. Several years ago at Fuller Seminary we began an Ash Wednesday service, with the marking of our foreheads at the end of the service. This has come to be an important part of our community’s life.
The Table: What has been your personal experience of Lent?
Mouw: I regret that Lent is not a more integral part of my own church life. We attend a Presbyterian congregation that is a 40-minute drive from our home. We also travel much, and I do not have a sense—apart from our campus community—of being a member of a worshiping community that follows a structured “church year.” This is in good part our own fault, but it is also due to a defect in evangelical Presbyterianism—where there is little by way of spiritual disciplines that are structured by a consistent focus on liturgical “seasons.”
What all of this means, then, is that Lent always surprises me—I am not ready for it, with no liturgical preparation for its arrival. Ash Wednesday is a good beginning, but there is little else to keep me “in Lent” until Passion Week when I do try to stay focused on the incarnational suffering of the Savior. Every year I pledge to be more consistently Lent-focused next year, but I seem not to be able to sustain that on a private basis without ecclesial support.
I wish I could report more spiritual maturity from an older “evangelical leader.” But decades of evangelical neglect of the “seasons” has taken its toll on my spiritual life.