For Christians in the Western liturgical traditions, Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent, the 40-day season of preparation leading up to Easter. For centuries, in order to purify themselves and to sharpen their focus, Christians have practiced three essential disciplines during Lent – prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Although the majority of Christians in Mississippi don’t officially observe Lent, according to two national studies Mississippians embody the season’s ideas more than anyone else, and that bodes well in hard economic times.
Lent has traditionally been observed by liturgical churches, such as Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran churches, as well as by some Presbyterian and Methodist churches. Baptist, non-denominational and Pentecostal churches, which together make up a majority in Mississippi, typically do not observe Lent, although they sometimes recognize the season informally as a time of preparation and prayer.
The 40 days of Lent recall similar episodes in the Bible where people undertook extended periods of prayer. Perhaps the best example is Jesus’ sojourn in the desert, recounted in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, when he prepared for his public ministry.
Mary Thurlkill, who teaches a class on religion and renunciation at the University of Mississippi, said the biblical story demonstrates the emphasis on the human condition in Christianity.
“It’s interesting that even Jesus, who is divine, has to step away from life and concentrate,” said Thurlkill. “The idea is that you’re stripping away the ego and communicating more clearly with the divine.”
Thurlkill said the story makes a strong connection between faith and practice and provides Christians an example with which they can easily identify in their everyday struggles.
“Jesus is pursuing a greater intimacy with God, and, we might say, with himself,” said Thurlkill. “He’s quieting himself, removing the distractions, in order to listen more closely.”
A recent Galluap Poll suggests Mississippians, on some level, are already attuned to the religious mindset of which Thrulkill spoke.
When asked if religion played “an important role” in their lives, 85 percent of Mississippians answered yes. That’s tops in the country.
Other Bible Belt states like Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee rounded out the top 10. In short, Mississippi is the most religious state, in the most religious area of the country.
The Rev. Bob Daulton, pastor-in-residence at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Houston, said he sees evidence of that religious conviction every day, and Lent offers an opportunity to focus it even further. He said he often uses Isaiah 55 as a focal point for talking about prayer during Lent.
“It says ‘All who are thirsty, come to the water,'” said Daulton. “We don’t even recognize that we’re thirsty, that our hearts are hungry, until we slow down. Lent invites us to move in a different way, to listen in a different way, to recognize that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts.”
Daulton added, “When we break our routine and really listen to God, we’re approaching the essence of prayer.”
Daulton said the focus that comes with Lent is needed more than ever since the economy started dominating people’s thinking. He said the consumerism and corporate greed that contributed to the recession reflect a spiritual wound.
“It’s as much a spiritual crisis as a financial crisis,” said Daulton. “We’ve lost our idea of what is enough and we’ve been reaching too far.” He said Mississippians’ religious faith is an effective balm.
Thurlkill said because Mississippi has long ranked among the poorest states, people’s religious sensitivities are attuned to helping others, sensitivities that are heightened during special seasons of religious observation, like Lent.
“Christians see it as an ethical imperative,” said Thurlkill. “Jesus’ death is seen as the ultimate charitable deed and Christians, in imitation of Jesus, are compelled to relieve the suffering of others as much as possible.”
Ron Hiltunen, a Lutheran and chair of the school of business at Blue Mountain College, said Christians bring a unique set of values to bear on the financial crisis, most of them centering on uplifting the less fortunate. That differs radically, Hiltunen said, from the impersonal, profit-driven nature of the marketplace.
“If we can get past material accumulation, money and power, and turn our hearts toward giving, there’s a superior quality of life and happiness there,” said Hiltunen. “As a transplant to this area, I see a lot of Mississippians enjoying that happiness.”
Mississippi has consistently ranked at or near the top in the Generosity Index, a study compiled by The Catalogue for Philanthropy, a Boston-based non-profit that charts charitable giving. Since 1997 the catalogue has been comparing itemized charitable deductions to average state-wide income. In the most recent numbers available, from 2004, Mississippi ranked first.
According to the catalogue’s president, George McCully, there’s a clear correlation between the Magnolia State’s religious devotion and its generosity.
“It appears certain that the ethic of charitable giving is promoted by religion,” said McCully. “It’s good for the commonweal. People who go to church are more likely to support not only their own church but other charities as well.”
Following Jesus’ instructions in Matt. 6: 3, Christians have traditionally kept their Lenten devotions private. As Daulton put it, “People are not eager to be considered Pharisees.”
However, since the economy began to worsen those observances are increasingly taking on a public, philanthropic character.
According to the Rev. Mark Howard, president of the Lee County Baptist Association, demand at area food banks is rising. The good news is that Christians are responding.
“Many smaller churches, unfortunately, are suffering, but larger churches, like Harrisburg and Calvary, are seeing record numbers for giving,” said Howard. He said although Southern Baptists don’t observe Lent, he expects the focus on almsgiving and self-denial to have a cross-denominational effect.
“In this economy, all Christians are becoming more aware of the poor, and it’s causing us to prioritize ministry,” said Howard. “Our first response has to be to those around us.”
Jim Westbrook is one of hundreds who volunteer at Helping Hands, a joint effort of five churches in the Tupelo area that provides clothing and food to the poor.
Helping Hands serves about 150 families each Saturday. Westbrook, a member of Tupelo First United Methodist Church, said Lent is an important part of his spiritual life. However, he works alongside Christians who don’t observe it, and he said they embody its principles as well as anybody.
“The whole purpose is to help the needy,” said Westbrook. “We help the undereducated, the unemployed, the alcoholic. Some of us observe Lent, some don’t, but we’re united in our purpose to change the focus from our own needs to those of others.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org