Tag Archives: Lent

Yesbuttery

Recently our elder son commented on Facebook: ‘I wonder what would happen if we all gave up ‪#‎breakingnews for Lent? For me, ‪#‎slownews epitomizes the season of pause and reflection’.

This struck a chord with me, for there is so much pressure in our preaching during Lent constantly to emphasise discipline and austerity, something which, if you are an Anglican, our printed liturgies and prayers reinforce. Nothing wrong with discipline, so long as we recognise that it is needed all year round, not just in Lent. So long as we realise, too, that it can turn into a kind of reverse arrogance: ‘If only I could make myself a better person, I would be in better standing with God.’ Do we really suppose that we would ever reach perfection? If we persuaded ourselves that we had, would this not constitute pride, which can be guaranteed to lead us away from God towards our own self-preoccupation?

I was reflecting on these issues when I came across a passage from Martin Smith’s A Season for the Spirit (a title which is as good a description of the essence of Lent as one might wish). He says that hat we should give up is

‘resistance to the One who loves me infinitely more than I can guess, the One who is more on my side than I am myself. Dwelling on this thought of letting go, and handing myself over to the Spirit will bring me much closer to the experience of Jesus than the word “discipline” which so many of us have been trained to invoke at the beginning of Lent. It should help us smile at our anxious attempts to bring our life under control, the belt-tightening resolutions about giving up this or taking on that. What we are called to give up in Lent is control itself! Deliberate attempts to impose discipline on our lives often serve only to lead us further away from the freedom which Jesus attained through surrender to the Spirit, and promised to give’.

The hardest thing about Lent, and about the life of faith in general, is to accept the depth and breadth of God’s love for each one of us, to avoid what I would call ‘Yesbuttery’ You know the sort of thing: ‘God loves you’; ‘Yes, but… – I’m not a very charitable person / I don’t love God enough / I’m not grateful enough’. It’s as if we want to arrive at Easter entitled to give ourselves a pat on the back for what we have achieved on the way to self-perfection. Our lives will not be transformed by deliberate self-focused discipline, but by accepting that however much resistance we put up, nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Every day is Lent

I’ve never been able to empathise with churches which don’t have a strong sense of the liturgical seasons. However, the price we Episcopalians (and all Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Orthodox) pay for having seasons is that, as they come round each year, it gets harder to find anything new to say. So on Wednesday I found myself preaching on the usual things: repentance, intimations of mortality, self-discipline, prayer, reflective reading of Scripture.

Then, as I spoke, it suddenly occurred to me that if we made a list of these activities and left it lying around, someone picking it up, who knew something about Christianity, might well say: ‘Why, these are what we expect from Christians day by day!’

So do the seasons have a value? Yes, because each time they come round we have to face new issues and new challenges. Since last Lent, the world financial structure has collapsed, leading us to reflect on the apparent absence of limits to greed, and on the consequences for the less well-off, who have seen their savings eroded because of reckless behaviour by financial institutions. In the Middle East, there has been a surge in violence and suffering in the last few months, followed by the emergence of a probable right-wing government in Israel. And the Congo and Darfur are still with us. Not to mention the fact that the danger to our civil liberties in the UK is more acute than this time last year.

I must admit to struggling, every Ash Wednesday, with the apparent contradiction between be-smudging our foreheads and the gospel injunction not to make a public show of penitence. But if Christians are to contribute to the world’s  healing, our day-to-day living has to be seen, and seen publicly, to be Lenten – all year round.