Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Looking neither back nor forward

Christians come to Lent from one of two directions. Some of us approach from the past. We look to the season as a time for penitence. We reflect and repent from previous sin. We acknowledge our individual and corporate failings. We give up, even if only for a few weeks, things that have distracted us from our holiness, or have become idols. Some of us approach from the future. Lent is a time of preparation for Easter. We form spiritual disciplines which we hope might be landmarks on the lifelong journey we call sanctification. We commit ourselves to charitable works that might in time become habitual. We abstain from good things in order to appreciate them more richly later. Maybe, if we are experienced and sophisticated in our approach, we try to do a bit of each; to focus on both past and future.

These two approaches broadly reflect two metanarratives with which we approach life and faith: the myths of regress and of progress. To the regressive Christian, “Change and decay”, linked forever in the Hymn Abide with me, act as synonyms. The constant shortening of human lifespan recounted in the Book of Genesis is clear evidence that things only get worse. The first few chapters of Paul’s letter to Rome depict a process of degradation against which the Church of God must stand, rescuing whom it can, while it may. By contrast, to the progressive Christian, decay is the consequence of not changing enough, or not sufficiently quickly. Luke’s account in Acts of the gospel reaching out to begin its conquest of empire, offers a view of an ever advancing Kingdom. It’s a destiny towards which, like Paul’s athlete, we must run, and run at our fastest. If a traditional hymn is needed, let it be From Glory to Glory advancing.

Of course, these characterisations hugely simplify reality. We are all a mix of progressive and regressive. But the balance between the two can be very different in each of us. So here’s a challenge for Lent. Try to live it in the opposite myth to your natural preference. If you are a progressive, then let a backwards facing Lent be a way of broadening your sympathies, deepening your understanding of others, so as to grow in holiness. If you are naturally regressive then face forwards. Find something in the world to embrace and enjoy. Maybe force yourself to eat at least one piece of chocolate very day.

That’s a hard ask; for most of us hard enough if not too hard. But, for a minority who have the motivation and the strength, maybe there is, to quote St Paul again, a better way still. Live this Lent neither looking to the past or future. Live it deeply in the present moment. Fast not to improve yourself, nor to express regret; fast simply because Jesus did. Take up or give up such practices as you choose, not because they will help you to achieve some goal, but simply to mark out this season as distinct, as a time set apart. A time for God to use in whatever way God wants.

David Walker is Bishop of Manchester

Posted by David Walker on Wednesday, 5 March 2014 at 6:00am GMT | TrackBack
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Categorised as: just thinking

Isn't St Paul's image about running to finish? Not everyone can run fast, but as the tortoise and the hare fable tells us it's not always the fastest that gets there in the end. The key thing is to keep moving and be prepared to let God change the direction - forwards, backwards or sideways.
A helpful post - thank you. I might force myself to eat a piece of chocolate today!

Posted by: Nancy Wallace on Wednesday, 5 March 2014 at 10:13am GMT

When hope trembles, it sometimes seems like we're on 'The Road to Nowhere'. But for a Christian on a journey, it's salutary to remember we are also on 'The Road to Now Here'. The presence of God, and the destination of our lives, is not far off. It is now and it is here.

Posted by: Susannah Clark on Wednesday, 5 March 2014 at 10:56am GMT

This Lent I'm going to reflect on the gift of my life. And the gift of someone's life I thought I might lose. I'll be asking questions of myself. Quite enough to keep me going I think. I like this post's categorisation: just thinking!

Posted by: Pam on Wednesday, 5 March 2014 at 10:03pm GMT

"We're on the road to nowhere"
Do it just because, as a religious acte gratuit?

Posted by: George Waite on Thursday, 6 March 2014 at 2:56pm GMT

Re David Walker, Looking Neither Back Nor Forward, I'm wondering if one may anticipate the end of Lent just as it is beginning for another year. I'm reminded of the comment of Charlie Brown to Linus at the conclusion of The Great Pumpkin, "Another Halloween has come and gone". Each year after the forty days are over, one is tempted to say, another lent has come and gone. Into the past fades trivial acts of self denial, the ubiquitous mandatory lenten program often just more ecclesiastical busy work, the dreary Augustinian guilt hangover remedied by the soothing balm of familiar, indeed predictable, Easter hymns.

The temptation myth, which will be read the coming Sunday, speaks of solitude, of an effort to empty the mind of ego and daily life from the distraction of political dysfunction. Perhaps the church should be encouraging its members to engage in less, not more, organized religious activity during lent. Let's have less group mea culpa and more Christ like zen moments. Perhaps the reason I have long felt the "season" of lent to be overly long is because it seems so perfunctory when its finally over.

Posted by: Rod Gillis on Thursday, 6 March 2014 at 3:29pm GMT

Thank you, Bishop David, missed in the midlands. Reminded me to tell my congregation - and remind my rather 'regressive' self - that they are loveable, and loved, and that learning what that means might be part of a good Lent. Leaving time and space for whatever God might do with it and living in the present moment sounds like something the Church has sometimes forgotten as much as the society around it.

Posted by: fr.rob on Thursday, 6 March 2014 at 10:29pm GMT

I read today Giles Fraser's "Secular Lent is a pale imitation of the real thing" today, but I'm still not sure what he said, I got lost a bit before the Somalian pirates boarded his column.

We did a Lenten compline at St Matthews Church in Second Life, it was very nice, with a partly sung service.

Posted by: Randal Oulton on Friday, 7 March 2014 at 8:07pm GMT

@ Randal Oulton "I got lost a bit before the Somalian pirates boarded his column. "

Trés drole. ( : Who says talk of lent is always dreary! As much as I dig Giles' work, tks for the smile.

Posted by: Rod Gillis on Friday, 7 March 2014 at 11:27pm GMT
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