Lent


Among all the work stuff I have to read (like the report issued yesterday – funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – on the 2012 Bradford West by-election) I have just read Professor Ben Quash's excellent new book Abiding. The Archbishop of Canterbury's Lent Book, it addresses the urgent need of Christian people to commit to place and stay there.

With reference to film, art and literature, Quash writes beautifully about how to live generously and contentedly with life lived in community. Rooted in the Benedictine experience, he draws on Scripture to encourage openness, attentiveness, reflectiveness, looking reality in the eye and living an authentic life. In so doing, he eschews the escapism of fantasy – religious or otherwise – whilst encouraging a habit of 'abiding' in body, mind, relationships, exile, woundedness and peace.

Perhaps it isn't coincidental that today I visited a church in Bradford where a simple community has arisen around the making of bread. Bread Church draws people from the local community into what I want to call an 'abiding presence' – where people bake bread together, share time together, talk together, break loneliness together, eat together, pray together, care for one another. It can only happen where one or two people commit themselves to a particular place – to abiding and not running away. It is impressive and rooted in the soil of Christian love and mercy.

Bread Church embodies what Ben Quash describes.

This is a book for slow reading and one I will be commending strongly – and not only because Ben is soon to be installed as Canon Theologian of Bradford Cathedral.

 

Here is the text of the Lent Lecture I was asked to do on BBC Radio 4. It was broadcast on Wednesday 29 February and repeated on Sunday 4 March (twice).

Nearly three thousand years ago a wise man put into words what should be blindingly obvious: “Without a vision the people perish.” Of course, he didn’t know that this would be quoted for the next few millennia in worlds and contexts he couldn’t possibly have imagined. “Without a vision the people perish.” It encapsulates what many commentators and ordinary people have been trying to articulate in a world that has changed radically in the last three or four years.

First of all, the financial crisis in the capitalist world has led to radical questioning of what really matters to human society – and on what values such a society should be built. And while much anger and blame have been heaped onto the heads of bankers, their gambling acumen and their extravagant bonuses, the cost is increasingly being borne by the poor and the vulnerable. Ask anyone involved on the ground with homeless people, people being made homeless or those who live in fear of losing the little they have. It is a colder world today.

Whatever the causes of the crisis, however, many commentators think it has exposed the lack of a thought-through and commonly-owned consensus about what we want our society to look like. Questions of justice, equity and value have been raised and, as the Occupy movement has made inescapably clear, there is now a cohort of people who refuse to let business continue as normal without challenge and debate. People and institutions that would have ignored such challenges only a couple of years ago are now openly accepting the need for a recalibration of the relationship between labour and reward. So, the world has changed… for the time-being, at least.

So, who and what are we for? That’s the question that keeps raising its head behind all the practical debates. It’s not a new question, but it has often been submerged under an acceptance of the status quo when all seems to be going well and we don’t want to upset what is weirdly called ‘normality’. However, ‘normality’ was further disrupted during the summer of 2011.

At the beginning of August my wife and I flew out of London for a holiday with friends in the United States. Not long after we arrived there I got a phone call to say that there were riots in Croydon – the place where I had lived and been bishop until recently – and that our youngest son was holed up in his flat while the violence went on outside. Inevitably, then, we followed the news as, for many people in London, law broke down and the commentariat offered instant analyses of the causes.

Interpretation and judgement were instant – particularly in the media and from the mouths of those who can’t resist the seduction of a microphone. One of the characteristics of the ensuing analysis was the charge that English society has lost any sense of a collective narrative. And what does that mean? Quite simply, that we no longer know who we are, why we are here or what we are trying to become.

Now, that might sound a little philosophical and vague, but it actually poses a serious challenge to the way we live – and the way we understand our common life. “Without a vision the people perish” – or, as we might rephrase it, if we don’t know who we are, we can’t know where we are going.

Go back to the Old Testament and we find there a good illustration of this contemporary predicament. The Israelites had been liberated from oppressive exile in Egypt. They then wandered through the desert for forty years while a generation of nostalgia-merchants and moaners died off. Then, just before they entered into the land they believed they had been promised, they were given some stark and uncompromising warnings: when you settle and things begin to go well for you, you will forget that once you were slaves… and when you forget your story – your ‘narrative’ – you will begin to assume that all your wealth is down to your own efforts… and you will start treating other people as your slaves. If you lose the plot – literally – you will lose all that speaks to you of your identity. Life is not a game and people are not to be treated as pawns in the hands of those who assume the right to a personally comfortable life at the expense of others.

In fact, in order to ensure that the people didn’t lose touch with their founding narrative, they were to instigate annual festivals – rituals designed to remind them (in body, mind and spirit) of the story that was to drive them as they shaped their society. Some of these rituals involved, for example, leaving the crops at the edges of your field so that asylum-seekers and the dispossessed could have something to eat. Or, bringing the first (and best) 10% of your crop to the priest to whom you would then address a creed – not a simple statement of doctrine, but a story that roots you and your community. This creed would begin with the statement: “My father was a wandering Aramaean…”. In other words, the starting point of the story that defines us – that tells us who we are – is that we are transient, that we belong together, that we journey together with responsibility for one another. Or, to answer a different biblical question: yes, I am my brother’s keeper… and he is mine.

Now, what shocked many observers about the summer rioters’ 24 hour holiday from civilisation was the sense of disconnection from society – a rejection of any identification with what we might call ‘the rest of us’. No investment in belonging to or shaping or taking responsibility for the community in which they live. No sense of obligation towards anyone else – and no concept of belonging to a community of accountability.

Now, what would we say was the narrative that unconsciously drove these people? Every man for himself? The survival of the fittest? ‘Me first’ individualism? Or have they drunk too deeply of the wells of Hollywood in which the so-called ‘myth of redemptive violence’ is portrayed as self-evidently true and the only effective way of making sure no one gets one over on you?

I guess this brings us back to that question of narratives and vision. Just what sort of a society do we think we are creating? What sort of a community do we wish to become? What does our vision look like – or don’t we have a common vision towards which we are working?

Well, that’s where the debate begins for us. After all, we have to take responsibility for how we collectively and individually shape our vision and begin to earth it in the structures and stuff of social priorities. But, the need to question and challenge our world view is unavoidable if we take the biblical narrative with any degree of seriousness. God, we learn, is rather concerned about justice and whether or not the poor are fed.

Which is where Lent comes in. Lent offers the space for reflection on what really motivates and drives us – what are the values and core beliefs that shape how we see and how we live with ourselves and one another… how we love and hate… who we love and hate. In other words, we are invited to take the trouble to work out which (or whose) narrative we locate ourselves within.

One of the problems for many of us is our assumed familiarity with the gospels. But, rather than being comforted by them, if we read them properly, we find ourselves deeply challenged – especially by the habit of God’s people to lose the plot… forgetting their vocation to live and give their life in order that the world should see who God is and what he is about.

At the beginning of Mark’s Gospel we find Jesus returning from his baptism and testing in the desert and “proclaiming the good news of God” in the hill country of the north where he was from originally. This is summed up in four phrases: ” The time is now; God is present among you again; change the way you look at God, the world and us; now live differently in that world.” OK, that’s a paraphrase, but it illustrates the dynamic of what Jesus was trying to do and say. We could put it like this: “You have been praying for generations that God would be among you again – which you think he can’t be while the ‘unclean’ Roman occupying forces remain in your land. But, dare to think differently: what if the holy God broke his own rules and came into the contaminated space and contaminated it with hope and generosity and goodness? Just imagine. Can you dare to look differently at God, the world and us – even to seeing God being present in surprising, healing – even shocking ways? Or can you only spot God’s presence when everything is going well for you and all your problems have been resolved?

In fact, in the gospels we see this time and again. Before he launches out on his fatal mission of challenge, Jesus goes into the desert for forty days and nights to face hard questions: are you really willing to do this God’s way – even if it ends on a cross? Are you going to be driven by the desire for quick glory – or can you really defy the god of self-preservation and lay down your life for the sake of the world?

This was real, hard, deep soul-searching – drilling down to what really motivated Jesus… to what was the fertile soil from which the rest of his behaviour would grow.

Go to the end of Luke’s Gospel and we find the risen Jesus walking alongside a couple of bewildered and frightened disciples who couldn’t make any sense of Jesus having died – the Messiah wasn’t supposed to do that. Having told their version of the story – that didn’t add up – Jesus then re-tells it… enabling them to see God, the world and themselves differently – through a re-shaped lens, as it were.

And that’s the challenge for anyone or any community that thinks it takes God and his invitation seriously. Not only am I as an individual required to reflect the Christ whose name I bear, but also to help shape my community or society accordingly. The rest of the gospel narratives simply identify those who could or could not dare to change the way they looked at, saw, thought about and lived in God’s world.

So, the gospels drop on us the challenge faced by the first disciples of Jesus: to be changed and challenged as we walk with him from the shores of Galilee to a cross planted in the rubbish tip outside the city, through a grave and into a surprising future.

I guess Lent offers us the opportunity to question again the vision that fires us and to measure it against one that we think we know – that of Jesus. This is the vision that captivated me as a teenager in Liverpool and has never let me go. As a young man I saw it in purely individual terms – a personal discipleship aimed at spiritual growth and personal holiness. The problem was that I then read the rest of the Bible and couldn’t escape the insistent call to anyone who agrees to reflect the character of the God revealed there – that is, the call to give up one’s life for the sake of others.

The irony, of course, is that this was always the call of God’s people… but the temptation is always to get distracted by more comfortable – or less demanding narratives – and to lose the plot.

The great Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn wrote a beautiful song way back in 1976 called Lord of the Starfields in which he sets the ‘now’ against the larger backdrop of the whole created order of the universe. The refrain comes as a simple prayer,  encapsulating a vision for the here and now that is derived from a perception of eternity that shapes how we can be into the future: “Love that fires the sun keep me burning.”

It’s not a bad prayer for Lent, recalling us to a vision of generosity, self-giving and confident humility. Maybe even a vision that calls a broken society back from its immediate practical questions and poses a more fundamental challenge: for whom and for what are we here? And, if our society seems too complicated to begin to think about such a conversion, then I recall, that Jesus, in three short years, spent time with twelve people who never quite got it, and yet through them changed the world.

I have just done this morning’s Pause for Thought on the BBC Radio 2 Chris Evans Show. I probably should have done something on ‘leap year’, but I did it on ‘stories’ instead.

Having been reading the Bible for a very long time now, I often wondered why Jesus chose to talk in images and with stories, rather than making points and telling people to agree with them. I used to think it was just a local cultural preference of his time, but I there’s actually something deeper going on – something that nagged away at me during the last week as we heard about Nelson Mandela and Marie Colvin.

Mandela went into hospital and the world waited to see what would happen. Clearly, there’s nothing unusual about an old man whose health is failing. But this isn’t just any old man. This one has become a global icon of selfless reconciliation – a man who suffered for three decades, but emerged as one of the strongest men in the world, enabling South Africa and other countries to look for radically new ways of behaving. Behind the name of the man is a story that moves us deeply in our hearts and our imaginations.

Then the Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin was killed in Syria whilst trying to tell a story – not of dry political arguments or power struggles, but illustrating these with stories of real women and children, real people being brutalised, defenceless people in an ordinary place being subjected to the merciless power of heavy weaponry… and those who control it.

As I have observed elsewhere, she is a fantastic example of good journalism. Marie Colvin put herself in danger in order that the wider world might see and hear how the decisions of others – the powermongers of this world – impact the lives of people like us. And it is that power of storytelling that gets into our heads and scratches away at our imagination.

Which is why, I think, Jesus taught with stories and parables and pictures. Words and statements just go in and get accepted or rejected. Stories scratch away and tease us until we grapple with what they are all about.

He once told a story about a man wanting to build a tower and asked if he would begin without first counting the cost. Mandela and Colvin certainly counted the cost of their commitment. And their stories just won’t let us go.

So, nothing too deep there. Something that will no doubt be appreciated by the Sunday Times which, pleasingly but surprisingly, highlighted my Lent address on BBC Radio 4 tonight as their ‘Pick of the Day’ for today. The caption praised me with faint damnation – something about the Lent talk showing more theological depth than is evident in my ‘inveterate blogging’. Interesting, then, that nothing in the Lent address has not appeared at some point in blog posts here. Maybe I should start using longer words…

I was doing Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2′s Chris Evans Show this morning and arrived while some fun was being had at the expense of ITV. I caught the last half an hour or so of the Brits last night and was astonished when Queen Adele was interrupted so James Corden could introduce Blur for their epic finale.

 

When a sports event over-runs, or the Eurovision Song Contest drags on a while, they simply re-align the schedule and cope with it. So, what was the thinking behind cutting Adele (who deserves every second of her glory) and not just adding a few minutes to the programme? I am not a media expert, but my jaw dropped at that disaster.

Anyway, that wasn’t my business – I just came into the studio on the back of it. I was there to talk about Lent. Just before I went in I was asked whether Lent actually includes the Sundays, or if we can have Sundays off and still do the forty days. The good Christian answer is that we can choose. Forty consecutive days from Ash Wednesday (today, of course) takes us to Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week which runs up to Easter. If you take out the Sundays, you can count Holy Week in. Wonderful flexibility. But, I did remark to Chris that taking Sundays for celebration is a recourse for wimps – and that his intention to start next Monday is a bit sad. (At least he’s starting, though!)

I began my script with a reference to my eighteen-month old grandson, Ben, who vomited all over me a couple of weeks ago. He was with us again last weekend. We live in a big house in Bradford and he loves to charge around the space that was just made for little kids to charge around. He is learning how to be naughty – a natural reflex – and has that look in his eye that says: “You’re not going to like this, but I’ll do it anyway and see how far I can push you.” I think it’s written into his job description. He is pushing the boundaries and unwittingly working out what he is about and how far he can go. (It should end when he is about 30…)

And this is where Lent comes in. The forty days of mirrors follow Jesus mirroring Israel centuries before and spending forty days and nights in the desert wondering what life was all about really. What happened to Jesus was that, stripped of all the distractions that even an Internet-free first century Palestine offered, he had to face himself, what really drove him, how far he would really go in taking seriously the vocation he believed was his. OK, he’s tired, cold and hungry. Then the voice in his head says: “So, you’re really not interested in the short cut to glory and fame? Really? Why go through all the suffering when you don’t need to?” It actually is really hard: “You – of all people – don’t need to go hungry! Just turn this stone into bread and get fed. Put your own material needs first. Come on – don’t be so hard on yourself!

I think Jesus knew this wasn’t the sort of stuff to prepare him for a cross.

But the connection here between him and us and Lent is simply that if we take the time and make the space to drill down deep into our own choices and motivations, we might find it both uncomfortably challenging… and extremely profitable.

Lent isn’t magic and it isn’t primarily about giving up chocolate as some form of narcissistic aecetism. It simply offers the space in which we can take the time to reflect more seriously and deeply on what is really going on deep within us – especially those bits that we are usually too busy to examine.

Which is a theme I treat from a different angle in the BBC Radio 4 Lent address going out at 2045 on Wednesday 29 February and at 0545 and 1445 on Sunday 4 March.

 

During my recent visit to Jerusalem I had a conversation with a young man on the desk of our guesthouse. We were talking about the diminishing numbers of Christians in the so-called ‘Holy’ Land when I referred to the ‘Church of the Holy Sepulchre’. He seemed puzzled until he realised I meant the ‘Church of the Resurrection’. The western churches focus on the cross/death and the eastern churches focus on the resurrection/new life.

Today is Ash Wednesday and there will be much focus on sin and misery and giving up and ‘death’ to things you enjoy. The fasting element of Lent has really given way in popular practice to trivia such as gaining added impetus to a narcissisticly-fed diet by giving up alcohol or foods that make you fat.

But all of this seems to miss the point. We focus on sin in order to move on to the forgiveness that can be received but never bought (unlike everything else in our society). Reminded of the sheer generosity of God’s freedom (‘Let there be’ – rather than ‘Close it down’), we re-engage with the world, free to live and love because we know we are all in it together.

I am reading Andrew Rumsey’s book Strangely Warmed and find myself challenged not to give up for the sake of giving up, but to give up for the sake of taking on. Rumsey makes the following observation:

The season of abstinence is … bookended by banquets, which is highly symbolic. For only the worldly can become godly. It is mortals who sport the ash-smudge of Lent and sinners that are summoned to repentance. Just as those who properly adore chocolate are the only ones who may truly, if grudgingly, let it go, you cannot die to the world when you have never really lived to it, for the simple reason that it is impossible to relinquish something you don’t possess.

He then goes on (provocatively) to observe:

Those who don’t love the world – and there are many Christians who appear not to – really needn’t worry about sacrificing it, for it is not theirs to give. They would do better to start at the beginning and receive the world on a plate.

It is here, surely, that Lent bites. Not in the trivial and self-regarding games we play with ourselves in the name of ‘fasting’, but in struggling between loving the world and all that is in it and not letting that love tear us from God and truth and light. World-haters can spend their Lent looking for extra reasons to hate the world (and themselves?) – after all, there’s plenty of resource material – and confirm themselves in their ‘bury my talent and await the return of the king’ passivism. God-lovers must be world-lovers who so love the world that giving up even a bit of it is painful.

World-hating is common. It is easier to condemn and moan (which is the cultural pool in which we swim) than to get stuck in and bring about change for the better. A quick scan of the front pages of our newspapers and magazines tells us that everything is bad, all people are suspect, no one can be trusted, everywhere is dangerous. There is little celebration of ‘resurrection’, but an overwhelming celebration of what is deadly and threatening.

Andrew Rumsey puts the self-denying call to Christian discipleship in its proper context, recognising that ‘giving up’ does not mean loving the world less:

…if we seek first the Kingdom of God, then, by their demotion, the other things added unto us gain their true status as gifts.

And there, it seems to me, lies the key to Lent. It gives us the space to be grasped again by the overwhelming generosity of world as gift, of life as gift, of time as gift, of gifts as gift. Lent should make us more generous in and to the world, gracious for the world and committed in and to the world.

Here in deepest Surrey, Ash Wednesday begins in murky, misty greyness. It seems peculiarly apt for the beginning of Lent with its associations of privation, discipline, funlessness and restriction.

But Lent is not just about these things for the sake of being miserable or holy. The ‘end’ of Lent is greater holiness and a greater engagement with the reality of God, the world, of life and oneself in relation to God. It is a hard time of self-examination, an escape from fantasy and a stripping away of the illusions that get in the way.

c-of-e-lentThe Church of England is offering two innovative ways of engaging with this – not as a quick fix, but as an aid to using Lent properly and helpfully -  especially for a generation brought up on a diet of self-fulfilment.

Love Life Live Lent (via Facebook or website) offers simple, but creative ways of living positively through Lent. You can also use Twitter. Apparently.

It is almost Lent and, as always, there are some imaginative ways to spend the season reflecting on God, the world and us.

christianaid_onlinepilgrimage_1The Church of England is flagging up several initiatives including TEAR Fund’s Carbon Fast. Christian Aid have launched an online pilgrimage to the Holy Land: you can hike with just your fingers on the keyboard. But you’ll find that even if your soles don’t get worn, your soul will get torn. Lent does this to you when all the ‘stuff’ gets stripped away and we are left with just ourselves and God.

I am off for a two-day retreat with the bishops, archdeacons and staff of the Diocese of Southwark to a place where there is no internet access and no mobile phone reception. It will probably be good for me…

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