Eric Phillips really likes soup at lunch.
One of his favorites is baked-potato soup, a filling option that, at first glance, appears to be meat-free. That's important because Phillips isn't eating meat during the 40 days of Lent preceding Easter. Alas, baked-potato soup almost always contains chicken fat, as do many vegetable or pasta soups.
"I gave up meat for Lent last year, which was a pain in the neck," said Phillips, who has a Catholic University of America doctorate in Patristics, the study of the early Church Fathers' writings.
"I decided that I didn't want to go through all of that this year, but then I realized this was actually a pretty good reason to try to do it again. ... The whole reason we fast is to do something that gets our attention, something that reminds us that we're sinners in need of redemption."
While all this Lent talk may sound Catholic, Phillips is a convert into the conservative Missouri-Synod Lutheran Church. He grew up "low church" evangelical and is still adapting to a denomination that includes both modern multimedia megachurches and congregations that embrace old hymns, "high church" liturgy and some ancient traditions.
Phillips attends Immanuel Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Alexandria, Va., a small church near Washington, D.C., that includes many who are striving to embrace fasting, almsgiving, Vespers services and other Lenten disciplines. Some are avoiding meat, while others are surrendering one cherished pleasure -- such as desserts, soft drinks, pizza or candy. Phillips said a friend is "trying to give up sarcasm for Lent."
But Lutherans are Lutherans and these believers are not following a specific set of Lenten rules. They are not Roman Catholics or Orthodox Christians who, to one degree or another, follow ancient traditions that ask them to fast from meat or even from meat and all dairy products.
For traditional Lutherans the words of Augsburg Confession, article XXVI, are clear: "In former times men taught, preached, and wrote that distinctions among foods and similar traditions which had been instituted by men serve to earn grace and make satisfaction for sin. For this reason new fasts, new ceremonies, new orders, and the like were invented daily, and were ardently and urgently promoted, as if these were a necessary service of God by means of which grace would be earned if they were observed and a great sin committed if they were omitted."
The writings of Martin Luther make it clear that he was rebelling against practices common in the medieval Catholic churches and monasteries of his day, said Immanuel Pastor C.S. Esget.
Thus, it's easy to conclude that Luther rejected fasting and similar disciplines altogether, when what he rejected were mandatory rules. Instead, the Protestant reformer embraced voluntary fasting and almsgiving and argued that these disciplines were like weight lifting and running -- part of a spiritual exercise regime.
"The key is that anything that smacks of legalism will raise all kinds of red flags for Lutherans," stressed Esget, who has promoted Lenten disciplines in his own kitchen as well as his pulpit. "We want to be able to say that fasting, for example, is a good thing. But the minute it becomes a requirement, then there's going to be trouble."
For centuries, Lutherans in Europe chose to follow many fasting traditions found in Catholicism and other Western churches, such as the Church of England. But this gradually evolved into a minimalist tradition that Esget said he has never been able to find in Luther or any other church traditions -- the popular modern practice of giving up "one thing" during Lent.
"What has happened over the centuries is that many Lutherans -- especially after the move to America -- have tried to blend in with all of the Protestants that surround us in this culture," he said. "So most of our traditions have faded over time into a kind of vague idea that it's Lent, but we're not really sure what that is supposed to mean."
The pastor paused, struggling to define the safe middle ground between laziness and legalism, between apathy and dead ritualism.
"I wouldn't want to see my people doing all of these things during Lent just because I laid down the law," said Esget. "Yet, I have to admit that really wish they would do them. Does that make sense?"