Here is a photo from last week of a young friend from Austria standing beside a road sign in Liverpool last week.

Penny Lane is famous the world over because the Beatles sang about it. But, when I was a kid, it was the place we went to the barber’s or the shops. The ordinary became the extraordinary. And, despite the Beatles tours, it still is a place ordinary people go to the bank, the barber’s, the shops… and engage in the stuff of ordinary life.

Why start with this? Partly because it formed the starting point for my book Finding Faith: Stories of music and life – in which I try to write about life and God and the world in ways ordinary people can understand. In other words, I am not writing for academics or people familiar with church. Secondly, however, is the reminder that there are two ways of addressing human questions: one is to start with God or the Bible or texts and go from them to our experience, the other is to start with human experience and then relate it to the other things. The former is OK for people already ‘in the club’, or who ‘speak the language’; the latter is where most people naturally start – with the experience they have, the questions they face, the life they live.

(In writing this I am reminded of my initial attempts as a vicar to write baptism preparation materials for our baptism preparation teams to use with the parents of those wanting their children baptised. The first materials failed – they began with biblical texts and were largely alien to those unfamiliar with them. I re-wrote them, with each session beginning with the experience of the parents, and then finding a biblical story or analogy that provided a vocabulary to express – or a framework in which to play around with – God, the world and us.)

Having watched the remarkable, soulful, poignant, funny, colourful, magnificent triumph that was last night’s Olympic Games Opening Ceremony (our Austrian friend was there), I turned to a book by Rosemary Lain-Priestley which she had kindly sent me, and which is called Does My Soul Look Big in This? I have a problem with books that look as if they will indulge in introspective narcissism and the title and cover didn’t encourage me. The reality was different.

Rosemary Lain-Priestley is a well-known broadcaster and writer, and I know her as a trustee of the Sandford St Martin Trust which I currently chair. She begins where people are, uses her own experience as a springboard for ruminations on spiritual development that is rooted in the real stuff of life, relationships and society. Taking the whole person seriously, she muses around the things of life that make or break us, that build or demolish us. She starts with real human experiences, real questions, then digs down a bit and rummages around what is thrown up. She draws on biblical (and other) stories to illustrate or amplify, often bringing to life images that had become over-familiar.

En route she quotes from people like Richard Rohr, Andrew Rumsey, Purple Ronnie and others. She considers what feeds the soul when we endure or enjoy experiences such as change, loneliness, depression, pilgrimage, joy, connectedness and gift. It brought to my mind people such as Mike Riddell and evoked Leonard Cohen’s “there is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in”. Like Danny Boyle’s Olympic representation of Britain, it is self-deprecating and humane throughout.

Written by a woman, most illustrations are self-consciously female. But, as a bloke, it is always vital to be compelled (or invited) to look through the lens of someone ‘not like me’. The Church of England gets a kicking I would want to argue with, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I would commend the book to anyone – it offers a recognition of common experience and invitingly suggests a way of living in and from that experience.

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.