Giving Up…….

March 3, 2013

Lent 3 Yr C. (Isaiah 55, 1-9; Psalm 63, 1-8; 1 Cor. 10, 1-13; Luke 13, 1-9)

fig tree

How’s Lent going for you? Have you managed to avoid all the things you resolved to give up? Have you done that extra praying or Bible reading, or attended the Lent groups you promised to take up? Now we’re nearly at the mid point of Lent, it may be good time to review.

There’s an ongoing discussion about what Lent is for. Most of us know that it began in the early church as a period of preparation for Easter, when new members were admitted to the Church in baptism, and those who had been excommunicated for serious sin were allowed back into  communion. It was then extended to be a period of discipline for everyone, to prepare them for the greatest feast of the Christian year, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection at Easter.

Alongside the idea of disciplined preparation, there was also the idea that Christians should attempt to walk alongside Christ, and try to identify with his sacrifice, in imitation of the 40 days in the wilderness.

The ‘giving up’ part of the discipline was based on the concept that what got in the way of identifying with Christ were ‘sins of the flesh’ particularly sex, eating and drinking. It reflected a very gloomy idea of God, as one who disapproved of everything that made life enjoyable, and whose reaction to human wrongdoing was to come down strongly with devastating punishment. The message was that you could only please that sort of divinity, or try to avoid the punishment that was coming to you, if you made yourself thoroughly uncomfortable and miserable.

We can see hints of that idea of God in the reading from 1 Corinthians. Paul sees the disasters that fell on the Israelites in the wilderness as punishments sent by God for their idolatry and sexual immorality, complaining and pleasure seeking, and highlights them as a warning to the followers of Jesus who might be tempted to do the same.

The same idea of God is found in the first part of the Gospel reading from Luke.  The idea was frequently expressed that illness or disaster was a sign of punishment for wrongdoing, or just of God’s disfavour. Other people’s misfortune, says this bit of Luke, is a warning to mend our ways. It’s almost as if we believe God trying to frighten us into being good, and if we make ourselves thoroughly miserable, along with saying sorry, he won’t be so hard on us.

But parts of the readings give us another, rather different picture of God. The passage from 3rd Isaiah, pictures a God who is eager to give people the richest food, wine and the best of meals at absolutely no cost to themselves. It pictures a God who is eager to reward his people, in keeping with the covenant made with them, and is ready to forgive them their wrongdoing the moment they turn back to follow him. It makes the point that God ‘s ways are very different from human ways; he doesn’t automatically strike out at those who disobey, as a human ruler would. God is love, not power. God builds up, rather than destroys. Psalm 63 also reflects the picture of a God who fills those who follow him with good things, and offers protection to them, rather than punishment.

And the second part of the Luke passage again challenges the idea of a divinity whose first instinct is to punish and destroy those who don’t live up to the divine standard. The fig tree and the vineyard are both Biblical images for the people of God. The master is all for giving up on those who fail, and destroying them. The gardener, however, the person who truly cares for what is growing, however, is willing to give them another chance.

Lent gives us ‘another chance’ each year to repent in the proper meaning of the word, to turn our minds and our lives round, and to live more authentically the lives that Jesus showed us how to live, under the sovereignty of God.

There’s been a lot of rethinking recently about how we can best use the season to do that.

Giving up things, like chocolate, cake, alcohol, TV or cigarettes has tended to go out of fashion, in Christian circles at any rate. There’s come to be a feeling that it has more to do with a desire for the body beautiful than spiritual discipline. I read a remark recently that giving things up for Lent is sometimes just having another go at keeping the New Year’s resolutions you’re failing to keep by the time February comes round.

There is also the tendency for humans to turn even good exercises into competitions, which means they end up being about ourselves, and our own pride, rather than bringing us closer to God.

Mark Sandlin, a minister in the Episcopal church in America, wrote recently how he got caught up in this ‘devotional one-upmanship’ one Lent. Sacrificing just one pleasure seemed too little a sacrifice – so each year he added something else, till one year he gave up all beverages except water, all meat, all TV and all sweets except his birthday cake, as well as adding extra exercise, daily devotions and charitable giving. And he admits that part of the reason was that when people asked (as he knew they would) what he was doing for Lent, he’d come out looking really holy and righteous.

So, one year, he gave up Lent for Lent. He took a careful look at the things that most people give up for Lent, and concluded that they weren’t actually the things that really get in the way of our right relationship with God. Such obstacles are very unlikely to be alcohol, or chocolate, or television, unless we are really addicted to them. It is much more likely to be our desire to come first, to keep up with the Joneses, and our inability to treat those who are different from us a fellow children of God. It’s a lot harder to give up that sort of socially reinforced behaviour than to give up biscuits, so if you resolve to try during Lent, you are bound to fail, over and over again. So, when Mark did try, and inevitably failed, he just kept on trying, through Easter and the rest of the church year, and he was still trying when the next Lent came round. So, he didn’t need a special season of Lenten discipline any more – he was living in it all the time.

Giving things up has been replaced by a trend for taking things up – using Lent to improve your knowledge of the faith by reading, or joining a Lent discussion group; or by setting aside time to pray or just be silent. Some think it would be a good thing to encourage people to attend extra mid-week worship, or to make a specific commitment to give more to charity during the Lenten season. But many of us lead very busy lives anyway. Trying and failing to do extra reading, or attend more worship or discussion groups, can just leave us feeling guilty, rather than helping us to grow spiritually.

A new initiative this Lent has been the ‘I’m not busy’ challenge, which asks people to spend a limited amount of time each day – between 10 and 30 minutes – just doing nothing. The challenge has been issued because the instigator, Stephen Cherry, sees busyness as a disease of the developed world, one which is ruling our lives and eating away at our souls. He feels it is bad because it distorts our perceptions, makes us feel self-important, makes us rude and impatient, burns us out, and prevents us from considering what is really important in our lives.

Church people are not immune -indeed some of them constantly complain of how busy they are. Busyness is seen as a virtue in our society – but in fact is a corrosive vice. Doing nothing for 10 – 30 minutes each day is just the start: it should lead on to a re-evaluation of what is really important, and implementing some ‘time wisdom’ to make better use of God’s gift of time. Again, this is a Lenten discipline that is designed to continue even after Lent has finished.

Even this Lent discipline, though, can be turned into something that is about us, and what is good for us (for busyness is very bad for our mental and physical health) rather than being undertaken because it brings us closer to God. An obsession with our work, even our work for the church, can  get in the way of listening and understanding what God wants of us.  But as John Van de Laar writes: “Worship can easily be a good way to hide from ourselves and from God. It’s easy to sing and dance in order to silence the still small voice”. Being an active church member can also get in the way of our openness to God.

Brandon Ambrosino, another US Christian, wrote recently about an even more radical form of ‘giving up for Lent.’ He gave up God!

This is not as strange as it sounds. He explained that, when he was at college, his philosophy lecturer explained to him the difference between God as an ‘eikon’ and God as an ‘eidos’. The first is the Greek word for image or icon and refers to God as something wholly other, as our OT reading says – one whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are not our ways. The second ‘eidos’ is the Greek word for ‘idol’ and refers to the God many religious people believe in – a God who we think we can fully explain, using human categories, a God who we’ve created in our own image, who thinks as we think, and whose ways are our ways.

It is the ‘eidos’ God that Ambrosino resolved to give up during Lent: the God of rigid ideologies, who silences questions with threats of Hell, who separates the world into manageable divisions of the approved and disapproved, whose ethical decisions were fixed by age-old writings which cannot be discussed, who gave human beings brains, and then punishes them for using them.

He gives this up in order  “to reflect not on the God who rules by power, but a god who leads by love; who identifies with the weak; whose foolishness upsets omniscience; a God who reveals Himself in many ways, who reveals Himself in a first century peasant named Jesus; a God who empties Himself of God, and offers Himself to his enemies in submission and servitude; who is concerned with the plight of widows and orphans, the least among us, and the disadvantaged; who sends Jesus to go after the marginalized and the misunderstood, and to bring back home again those who have been ostracized and forgotten.

I am giving up God for Lent to make room for God. I am prying open my fingers, and letting all of my theological idols crash to the ground. And I am lifting up my empty hands to Heaven in anticipation of God’s arrival, and quietly echoing the unsettling words of Meister Eckhart: “I pray God to rid me of God.”

This is another ‘giving up’ that will continue after Lent is over, in order that we may be open to receive the God who is always arriving unexpectedly, always being born in obscurity, always being raised from the dead. It is  a challenge to be a pilgrim follower, always searching for God revealed in new situations, always checking that we haven’t settled for an idol instead of struggling with the amazing, mysterious reality of the divine icon. It’s a giving up that would be a real challenge for many of us. Is it something that feels right to you – or not?

So, take a moment this week to consider: what are you ‘giving up for Lent’ and why?

Cornucopia

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Refresh and Renew

February 19, 2012

(Isaiah 40, 21-31; Mark 1, 29-39)

If you type the words ‘refresh’ and renew’ into a computer search engine you will get a wide range of results, from instructions how to refresh your various computer sites, to advertisements for health spas, face cream, and exercise sessions, to a conference about developing worship at a Christian University in the USA.

Isaiah 40, from which our first reading came, begins with a hymn of praise to the majesty of God, who created the universe, stretched out the heavens, governs the seasons, and knows everything that goes on in human society. Yet it ends with an assurance that this almighty deity is not detached from human need, but involved and supportive: “He gives power to the faint and strength to the powerless.” His strength is available to human beings, if they need it, to renew and refresh them: “They that wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” 

That’s a great affirmation to those of us who are getting older, who do often feel weary and faint, and as if our strength gives out too quickly. If we rely on God, we can (metaphorically!) fly! We can run marathons! We can go where we need to and not be worn out when we get there!

There is also encouragement for those of us who feel worn out in the gospel reading. Mark tells us of the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in law. At the touch of Jesus, she is renewed and able to get up and carry out the work she wants to do. Many others come to Jesus that evening for healing of whatever restricts their enjoyment of the fullness of life. And, most encouraging of all, we read that even Jesus needed to take time out after a demanding day to renew his strength.

On this occasion, Jesus sought renewal and refreshment by getting up before everyone else, going out to a deserted place and being alone with God to pray and reflect for a while. It didn’t last long. His disciples hunted for him, found him, and through them the demands on him were renewed. He took up his tasks again, moving out from the towns where he was already known, to serve and teach the whole of the rest of Galilee.

We have a much smaller area to serve and to reach out to in mission – our parish, our families, our personal networks of friends and workmates. It can still demand much of us, though, and leave us feeling weary and exhausted. The lectionary passages challenge us this morning to consider, how and when do we meet God, feel the touch of Jesus and so ‘renew our strength’?

Like Jesus, the most obvious way of renewing our strength is to wait on God regularly in prayer. As with any relationship, if you don’t maintain communication, the relationship will wither and die. Once a week for an hour in church really is not enough to build up our relationship with God to the point where we can  be renewed and refreshed and strengthened whenever we need to be.

Of course it is difficult! Of course we all have times when we appear to be talking to ourselves, and feel we are getting nothing out of it. But we do need to persevere through those barren times. We will all have different ways of praying. Some people use a prayer book with set prayers, or resources on the internet; others find it easier to be spontaneous, and to share their concerns, weaknesses, doubts and questions as if they are having a conversation with a good friend. Some use Bible passages to prompt prayers; other use music, or visual stimuli like pictures, candles or stones. Others simply sit in silence and try to empty their minds and allow God to enter.

Some are able to set aside a regular time of prayer every day; others find they need to snatch odd moments out of a busy routine to rest in God. It doesn’t matter how you do it, so long as you do it! And if you find it difficult to find enough time during the working week to pray as often and as deeply as you would like, then setting leisure time aside to go on quiet days or retreats can give you the chance to experience God’s refreshment and renewal,

to read and to pray.

Even an ordinary holiday can be a source of R & R from God, if you set out with the intention of being renewed in spirit as well as in body and mind.

Lent, which begins in a couple of week’s time, is a period in which Christians are traditionally encouraged to renew the spiritual discipline of prayer. Our diocese is once again providing resources to help us pray more effectively and regularly, and is calling it ‘Live the Challenge’. If you are into social media, then you can sign up to receive a daily text or email or Tweet with a text to meditate on and respond to with comments or pictures or music if you want.  Or if you don’t live that way, then your church can download the texts and print them out for you to follow. If you think you would find that helpful in encouraging you to meet God in prayer, then have a look at the publicity material available online http://www.livethechallenge.co.uk/home/ or in church.

A second place where we should expect to meet God and find refreshment, renewal and strength is in worship. Live the Challenge  also provides material for a weekly act of worship with a short liturgy to pray together, recipes for  a meal to eat together (from our partner diocese in Belize), and a reflection to think through together. Then, having been refreshed there is a challenge to act together.

But we already have an opportunity for that refreshment and renewal as we worship together here week by week, and particularly when we meet together as a community round the Lord’s Table each Sunday.  The physical strengthening we get from eating and drinking reflects the spiritual strengthening we get from worship, word and sacrament.  After worship, we should, as one of the final prayers of the Eucharist reminds us, feel renewed to go out in the power of the Spirit to live and work to God’s power and glory.

And if you don’t feel that on a regular basis, then Lent, and particularly this Lent as we finalise our parish Mission Action Plan, is a good time for you to spend time considering why, and play your part in planning what we as a church can do differently to help more people go deeper into God through worship, and find renewal and refreshment there.

The traditional Protestant way of encountering God and finding refreshment and strength is through reading the Bible. There are Lent schemes and courses to assist you in doing this, including the diocesan Lent Course which takes you through the Old Testament readings for the Sundays in Lent and relates them to the Living God’s Love theme of Transforming Communities.

If you do choose to find refreshment in the Scriptures, I would encourage you to go beyond reading them devotionally, and take time to study them with the aid of a good modern commentary. Otherwise, the difference between the language and culture in which the Bible was originally written, and our language and culture will mean you will have difficulty in understanding what God is really saying to you through the scriptures.

Some people , like Jesus, find they need to be alone to drink deeply from the well of God’s strengthening and renewal. Others don’t find solitude helpful, and feel closer to God, and experience divine encouragement more, when they meet with other Christians to study and discuss. If that’s your preference, then you may find yourself strengthened and renewed this Lent through taking part in the Ecumenical Lent Course ‘Handing on the Torch’ which will be running in this church, and in other places in Watford at different times during Lent. There is publicity for that at the back of church too.

Whichever path you choose for renewal and refreshment, take courage from the promise of Isaiah and the Gospel, that if you wait on the Lord, you will find strength for the tasks you have been given, and will be ready once again for service and mission to the world.

We finish with the Living God’s Love prayer.

Living God, draw us deeper into your love; 

Jesus our Lord, send us to care and serve; 

Holy Spirit, make us heralds of good news. 

Stir us, strengthen us, teach and inspire us to live your love with generosity and joy, imagination and courage; 

for the sake of your world and in the name of Jesus. Amen.