A Positive Lent

Why do so many people think that being a Christian is a negative thing? They think we’re against everything – especially things that are fun. Always saying ‘thou shalt not’. And that Lent is just for giving things up.

It’s probably the Church’s fault, because for centuries it seems to have concentrated on making everyone feel terrible about themselves as one of the conditions for joining the club. We’re told that we’re the most awful sinners and it sometimes seems that we’re being made to take the blame for everything that’s wrong in the world.

A Scottish Minister, the Rev’d Johnston McKay was doing Radio 4’s ‘Prayer for the Day on Ash Wednesday and he picked up on this. ‘It just doesn’t work.’ he said. ‘Most of us don’t go through life imagining that we are sinners bound for hell, and attempts to make us feel like that are very easily shrugged off.’

He then went on to tell us about Martin Luther – the great German reformer of the 16th century. In his younger days Luther was obsessed by his sinfulness. Later in life he realised how wrong he had been and there’s an English translation of a little verse he wrote to make the point:
Once in saintly passion I cried with bitter grief,
I am full of wretchedness – of sinners I am chief.
And God in Heaven spoke to me – weary and resigned:
“Don’t be so silly, little man, you’re nothing of the kind!”

Luther had discovered what modern psychologists have been telling us for years – that an over-negative emphasis on sinfulness is unhealthy and it certainly doesn’t tie in with the Jesus we read about in the Bible. His message was much more positive. Yes I know he said: ‘repent – for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’. But he didn’t expect us to grovel in our sinfulness. The word ‘repent’ simple means turning round and facing in a different direction.

So what does all this have to say about a positive Lent rather than one which will make us even more depressed and miserable? OK – the traditional Bible readings and services for Lent do emphasise our sinfulness and need for forgiveness – like this from the Psalms: ‘I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me.’

But, as Lucy Winkett from St Paul’s Cathedral reminded us in her Ash Wednesday ‘Thought for the Day’ on the radio, Lent is an ancient word for Spring – the season of new life. And Lent is a time for renewing ourselves – our inner, spiritual selves ‘so that we can live more fully and act more justly.’

For many Christians this means things like going to a study group, spending more time in prayer and – for some – fasting. Eating less meat, giving up alcohol or chocolate – these are all probably sensible things for healthy living.

Lucy Winkett went on to say that this is what Lent is really about in a spiritual sense – healthy living on the inside as well as the outside. She spoke about the monks and nuns who went to live in the Egyptian desert in early Christian times. They knew the importance of fasting – but what they found even more important in the desert was silence. I was in the Egyptian desert myself a few months ago and I know exactly what they mean – it’s a very, very quiet place.

We live in a noisy world. The background noise never stops for many people. And Lucy suggested that another positive way of using Lent was to have a ‘sound fast’ – cutting down on the use of iPods, mobile phones, computers, television and radio – and introducing a little more silence into their lives.

But silence can be scary – you don’t know what to do with it. I have to say that most churches don’t do silence very much. Yet it can be so valuable.

In January I took a party of pilgrims to the Holy Land. On the last day we had a communion service right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. After the Bible readings I said: ‘We’re not going to have a sermon this morning. We’ll just have five minutes of silence.’ It was so good to just sit there and let God get a word in edgeways after a busy week travelling around, listening to our guide and chatting to one another.

So I’m trying a bit more silence this Lent. I can’t say I find it easy. But the Quakers have known the value of it for a long time. In their worship they keep silence, ‘centre down’ as they call it, and wait upon God. If someone feels moved to speak, then they do. But mainly it’s giving God the chance to speak in the silence.

That’s why Jesus went off on his own at the start of his ministry – and on other occasions. To be close to God. To listen and to grow spiritually. He didn’t do it for negative reasons – just to get away from the noisy crowds and demanding disciples. He knew it was the best way to tune in to God. Today we’d call it making space.

So let’s go for a positive Lent. Making space for silence and for God. Doing things that will make us healthier both inside and out. If study groups work for you, then that’s great. If not – find time for some reading – another way in which God can get through to us.

And one more thing – find time for other people – family, friends, neighbours. What’s sometimes called ‘quality time’. Even in a busy life we manage to find time for anything we think is really important. Well – our relationships are important, and we should make sure they’re at the top of our priorities.

Lent is actually a good time to sort out our priorities. I think that’s what a lot of the teaching of Jesus was about. Well summed up in his words: ‘Love God, and love your neighbour as you love yourself.’ And don’t forget that last bit – loving yourself, liking yourself. God loves you – wants you to be a full and complete human being. You’re not perfect – none of us are. But neither are you a worthless creature. You have God’s potential within you – and God can help you to make that real – to be healthy in body, mind and spirit, and in your relationships with everyone around you. I hope you have a holy, happy and positive Lent.

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