A ‘Self Affirming’ Lent…

Posted: March 3, 2022 in Uncategorized

Luke 4: 1-13

A ‘Self Affirming’ Lent…

Wednesday 6th February 2022. The date Lent began this year. Did you eat pancakes on Tuesday as the last day of plenty? And did you note Ash Wednesday on the 6th? Its perhaps significant given the that it was the day the police chose to clear and disperse the so-called protesters in front of parliament in Wellington City. There is ash about as a result of what can only be termed as destructive fires. Destructive in the fact that they have destroyed the utopian idea of regenerative protest. Again it seems that a clear and sure understanding of Lent is required when we face the despair and loss and grief that has been raised by such Ash and the understanding must address the regenerative nature of the production of ash or in this case the regenerative ideal of genuine protest.

At our Ash Wednesday services, we produce ash from burnt palm leaves and other flammable branches and that ash is a symbolic invitation to come down to earth. And to wonder at the gift of life, our life with the earth, the shared body of our existence.
And which reminds us of our humanity. Today is the first Sunday in Lent when we reflect on the wilderness experience of the one, we call Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed, this story of Jesus’ testing ordeal in the desert, is legendary. However, scholars – at least the ones who influence me – claim this story comes from one of the early traditions of the Jesus movement, which the storytellers, including Luke, adopts. They are not considered to be an eyewitness, historical account.

Traditionally, Lent and in the recent 800 to 1000 years has been the season of abstinence or self-denial. A time of doing without. A time of fasting. Or heaven forbid a time of sacrifice. That unfortunately has been the way according to much of our broad, church tradition. And it appears to have been a strong motivation over the centuries. But I and many others are not so sure about that any more. The regenerative aspect of fire and the production of ash needs to be considered a priori in liturgies and understandings of Lent. We need to rekindle our faith and be blessed, acknowledge our abundance and our blessedness during this period of Lent… Otherwise it remains a ritual or a practice without credibility. Despite the actions of the recent protest, actions many question as protest action we no longer see the nature of natural fire as only destructive because we know its warmth, we know its comfort and we know its regenerative power. How many of us actually believe that ‘abstinence’ or ‘self-denial’ is anything other than a self-inflicted attempt to satisfy or assuage guilt and inadequacy. Surely our hope is that Lent might become a time of doing with, a doing more, rather than a doing without. Surely it is a time of self-discovery and self-affirmation, as well as a time to claim our connectedness with the whole of the cosmos, rather than a time of self-denial.

A colleague’s personal observation asks; If you have ever gone on a walk with a bird watcher, perhaps you will know what is being suggested here. The bird watcher’s sense of sight and of hearing seems so acute that nothing is missed. Ian McGilchrist speaks of the brain hemispheres functions as no longer reducible by allocation to one or the other but rather integrated across and within both hemispheres The left providing the detailed functional how and what questions and the right the why but both being required to provide the whole picture and or action. For the bird watcher the sight and hearing are acute amid the very ordinary… the sticks, shrubs, grass, trees. What appears to be a jumble of sticks and noises and flashes of colour, to a trained bird watcher can be a small bird, a blending in parrot or a darting fantail. Walking with a bird watcher one discovers how much there is to be noticed. Both hemispheres are required in birdwatching as they are for life that is both functional and has meaning. And when they are in sync one’s walks in the park or paddock becomes so much richer. The ordinary is seen in a new light. What was there all along, is noticed for the first time. Just because something is there does not mean we automatically see it and understand it. Sometimes perception takes practice. So, the suggestion is for Lent to become ‘forty days’ when we can uncover and discover once again our own worth-fulness, our own potential our own connectedness to the earth and the universe. The task of Lent is Self-discovery and connectedness rather than self-denial and isolation. Lent, is to be seen as a life affirming discovery rather than life denying, and this says we are not judged by our past, but by the way in which we relate to our past.

This is not a let off nor and easy option because even a gentle review of our own lives will uncover moments when we have been faced with decision making. Decisions which have shown our neglect of an inner life. Decisions which have required us to shed emotional garbage. And sometimes these decisions can be called a ‘crisis’. Other times the word used may be ‘testing’. All of them are about how we respond, or our ‘being’ in the world. What is the function and meaning of the protest we engage in perhaps? And in Jesus’ case it was to break the culture of violence characterized by a ‘tit-for-tat’ them and us mentality. So, this Lent, let us dare to accept the invitation of a self-affirming ‘forty days’.

To help do this I want to suggest we take a leaf out of the of the ancient Celts. Last week I spoke of the idea of the thick and thin places as an incarnational example, spirituality found in the thin places and I proposed that these thin places might be discovered amongst the thick places or about seeing God in the ordinary. Every aspect of Celtic life accepted that the mundane is filled with divine presence. The Celts sensed Spirit’s permeating embrace throughout their daily activities, no matter how ordinary. The Book of Kells and other documents are evidence of the vast collection of prayers, hymns, blessings, and folklore infusing Celtic culture with praises of the regular human experience. They sang and prayed while working, fishing, kneading bread, weaving cloth, milking cows, and kindling the hearth. Dawn ‘til dusk, birth ‘til death, they blessed their existence. We can do this too! Just like them we are immersed in mundane daily routines, and our God is in our midst. Our prayers today can revolve around activities like sitting at computers, driving the car, helping the children with homework, preparing dinner, or watching sports.

Our practice might be to do one ordinary thing each day for six weeks be it rising from our bed, brushing our teeth or turning on the computer if we do this with a liturgical intent, a practice of connection will happen. When we do this action our intent will tune us into some questions like what does my body feel right now? How do I let go of that feeling? How do I acknowledge and move on? How do I note the aches and pains and turn to love?

The next practice might be to observe the unfolding of the particular season we are entering next. The Celts were madly in love with the natural world. Love poems were written to the moon, songs to the seals, prayer rituals performed in rivers. They experienced unity with God in green hills, dark caves, deep wells, cheerful birdsong, and countless other parts of creation. Similar to the Hebrew psalms, cosmic images such as stars, the sun, and planets are woven throughout Celtic literature. They celebrate the “musician of bird call”; they wonder at the “awakener of soil,” and they call out to “the hope-bringer in the night.” Most of us today live inside buildings, rarely venturing into nature unless on a special occasion of hiking, beach walk or park. Even people who work outdoors rarely take the time to recognize the sacredness that surrounds us. It takes a deliberate softening of the heart and a desire to notice the wonder intrinsic in creation.

Our practice might be to intentionally spend one moment each day listening to nature. Be attentive to the buds on a branch in Spring, the leaf fall in Autumn the colour change of the leaves. Watch a cloud drifting by or listen to the wind. Nature is always speaking and we might be open to receive the hidden messages. As we note our senses growing in sensitivity, we will know a deeper experience of being safe and at home.

The next practice might be to explore your love of learning. This is rooted in the understanding that life has as its root the desire to know and thus to learn. The practice will seek to express a love of learning based in the idea that Celtic culture was essentially non-cloistered monasticism. Common folk, pagans and Christian alike were absorbed in a regular schedule of spiritual growth. In pre-Christian times the Druids were the first to foster studying by learning about morality through myths and developing wisdom through prayerful daily routines.

What this suggests is that continual learning and open-minded curiosity fuels spiritual growth. It is too easy to neglect feeding our spirits the nourishing soul food it needs to thrive. Many of us abandon poetry, song and storytelling in the face of hectic schedules and deadlines. Many of us don’t understand what music or poetry do for our wellbeing because we get swept up in the temporal, work as the whole of life’s experience. It is easy to starve our souls when life feels full. The Celts’ love of learning reminds us of our inquisitive heart, and welcomes a yearning to grow wiser.

Our practice might be to actively seek to become more tolerant and more loving, it might also be to establish a process whereby we commit to ongoing self-inquiry. In the next six weeks we might read a book about spirituality or find a workshop where we can attend and experience the search for spirituality. If we do this with all the above intent it will not matter what spiritual bent you participate in because you will be critiquing it for yourself. Even your favourite mindfulness practices can contribute when you see lent as an opportunity to make these alternative explorations of yourself.

Many beautiful people gather for hope, inspiration and self-care. When you share your story, other people get great ideas. The message is that we can all thrive together! Share our story and cultivate a supportive community together. We can see lent as a time and place to love.

Rex Hunt tells of a book he read that said “We are human beings with all the strengths and weaknesses of our species.  Occasionally we reach the heights of heroic self-sacrifice and at other times we sink down into villainous self-serving.  Being aware of the extremes to which we can be drawn is, one of the most important pieces of self-knowledge we will ever possess” (Alsford 2006:140).

As Luke’s Jesus of Nazareth gained an important piece of self-knowledge, we too can face the wilderness experiences of life, often not in any special or heroic way, but simply as we choose to get up in the morning “and go out into the world to encounter what it has to offer” (Alsford 2006:138). And in the process, notice the present-ness of the divine or God if you like, right here. In the ordinary. In the everyday. Amen.

Notes:

Alsford, M. 2006.  Heroes and Villains. London: Darton, Longman & Todd.

rexae74@gmail.com

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