Archive for the ‘Lent’ Category

A sermon for Ash Wedensday delivered at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.

One of the first puzzles that often faces a person who believes that there is a good God who loves us and desires our love in return is this: how do I live with myself? A sense of spiritual inadequacy is one of the most common responses to the presence of God. Faced with the purity, holiness and perfect loving-kindness of God we realize how very different we are and we feel guilty – if there is something specific on our mind. Or, just as often, we feel ashamed that we are – well, such a disappointing human being.

The guilt response is what we heard illustrated in the Psalm that was the Introit to this service. Allegri’s Miserere is David’s long song of lament when he realized just how bad and sad a person he was by misusing his power as King.

And that is rightly where our Ash Wednesday service, and therefore our Lenten journey, begins – with the sense that we are in the wrong. Although some people may have to work hard to generate a sense of penitence or compunction or sorrow, for many it is not far below the surface of smiling happiness or earnest seriousness. It’s one of those things that people think about but don’t talk about; that feeling of not being right with yourself, not being right with God.

But although feeling that sort of feeling is the beginning of the Lenten journey, it is certainly not the end. Lent is not an invitation to wallow in guilt or sink in shame, but to acknowledge it in some way and then to move forward in our relationship with God and our neighbours.

So – what to do for Lent? What to give up? What to take up? Most of us could afford to be rather more adventurous and self-challenging in our Lenten disciplines. There are, after all, no rules that we must obey. We are free to do what we like. My most memorable Lenten exercise was to try to give up grumbling.

I have since persuaded quite a lot of people to try it. No one has found it easy. One person told me it almost ruined her social life. And yet the pleasure of complaining is indeed a sinful pleasure. It does nothing to reflect the glory or grace of God. Sometimes we must protest, sometimes we need to critique, but much of our grumbling and complaining is unworthy of us.

But if giving up grumbling is a new idea, our service this evening will end with an invitation to you to connect with a very ancient idea. Before the congregation is dismissed, a bowl of ashes will be blessed, and those who remain for a minute or two will have an ashen cross smeared on their forehead while the minister says, ‘remember that you are dust and to dust you will return’. This ancient ritual points to the truth that while people imagine the spiritual quest as a struggle upwards, against gravity, as it were, in truth Christian spirituality is mostly about the journey downwards, based as it is on the belief that God can cope with anything other than dishonesty, hypocrisy and pretense.

It’s the real you that God loves, even if you find yourself disappointing.

The journey of Lent is not one of self-improvement, or one in which you discover how to be a perfect, good or impressive person; nor is it a journey that teaches you calm and serenity. It’s a journey that teaches you that God is love, and that God loves you.

To do justice to Lent we need to remember that at the heart of Christian spirituality we do not find the quest to be good, but the struggle to allow yourself to be loved by God as the mortal and the sinner that you undoubtedly are.

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Here are six ideas for Lent for anyone who feels too busy, or rushed, or hassled or stressed out by the pressure of things to do.

Don’t think ‘rush’, think ‘slow’.

Chill, take your time. Things have a habit of working themselves out unless your are in the middle of a full-blown crisis. If you are then you had better do what it takes to get the crisis sorted out and your life calmed down.  Life is not a crisis, it’s an opportunity.

Don’t think ‘busy’, think ‘involved’.

‘Busy’ is one of the more pernicious four-letter words in our vocabulary. Often, it’s a boast disguised as a complaint.  There are plenty of people who would love to have more to do, to feel more valued, and to be more fully involved. If you are too busy it may mean that you haven’t bothered to involve others.

Don’t think ‘me time’, think ‘soul time’.

It’s easy to persuade people to try to have more ‘me-anything’ these days. However, the point about Lent is not to think about your ego-needs but to make time for your soul-needs. Soul time can take many forms – but it’s never ‘all about me’.

Don’t think ‘give up’, think ‘appreciate’.

If we take time to savour and enjoy those petty vices that so often occupy our consciences and dominate our spirituality their power over us may begin to wane a bit and we might turn our attention to higher things. If you love chocolate don’t give it up this year but become a discerning and appreciative chocolate connoisseur – and see what comes of that.

Don’t think ‘work-life balance’, think ‘wholesome living’.

Of course your life can start to go wrong if your work is too important to you, or too all-consuming, or if it’s relentlessly stressful.  But this can be true of any activity – not just work. Life isn’t something that starts when work stops.

Don’t think ‘Lent is long’, think ‘Lent is short’.

Because it is. Just as life is short. Just as every day is short. Don’t miss out on life or Lent by rushing around as a lonely busybody, feeling guilty about petty things and starving your soul of the time it needs to breath.

Have a time wise Lent.

For more ideas about how to give up busyness check out this website Give up busyness for Lent

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From a sermon preached at Durham Cathedral 16.3.14

Christianity is fundamentally a religion of grace and freedom, which makes for certain problems. In particular it makes us both anxious and confused – and sadly Lent can aggravate all this for us.

If we were Muslims and this was Ramadan we wouldn’t need to rack our brains wondering what we are going to give up, and then further wondering whether it counts, and whether or not we can have a bit of it on a Sunday.

There are plenty who would seek to turn Christianity into a religion of simple rules, plainly described and bluntly policed.  Lent can sometimes kindle in us a nostalgia for the rigorous ways of simple days, and not all of that nostalgia is wrongly placed.

There is something to be said for simplicity and obedience. It’s just that it isn’t very nice and it’s not very practical. If you want simplicity and obedience get yourself to a nunnery.  Once you get there you will realise how very difficult it is, and it won’t be long before you are complaining about the conditions.

As our culture has become distant from the Christian calendar so aspects of that very calendar have an attraction which is both exotic and nostalgic. People beyond the faith feel the spiritual pull of Lent, just as contemporary Christians feel the spiritual pull of the idealised monastery or wilderness.

But the ideal is itself a snare.

In my own ideal wilderness, for instance, there are always lovely sunsets, and dry enough hollows to sleep in and pure springs conveniently placed to provide lovely mineral water.

I have an idealised monastery too.  My cell has a wonderful mountain view, the temperature is moderate all year round, there is a well-stocked library and working in the garden is a sheer delight.

In these ideal places I am never bored, tired, overwhelmed, worried, cross, confused or irritated. I am never let down by others and never let myself down. Desire and provision are perfectly matched and when in the monastery we are not keeping silence or in worship (the singing by the way is superb) the conversation is warm, informative and invigorating.

Such is my fantasy. And I know it’s laughable.

But perhaps our fantasy Lents are much the same. We imagine ourselves  serenely engaging in spiritual disciplines for the good of our mind, body and spirit, and we further imagine our divine parent smiling beatifically on us, well-pleased that we are making such a good job of it.

The reality, on the other hand is a good deal less smug and good deal more anxious:

  • Have I given up the right thing?
  • Wouldn’t it be better to take something up rather than give something up?
  • Maybe I am being too hard on myself?
  • Wouldn’t it be better if I were to read a Lent book rather than drive myself crazy because all can think about is the sweets or wine that I am depriving myself of for no reason other than that it seems that you should give something up in Lent?
  • Am I being too easy on myself?
  • Am I thinking too much of myself?
  • Am I too distracted from serious spirituality?

Our capacity for anxiety is endless; as is our capacity for spiritual invention. These are part and parcel of the spirituality of our religion of grace and freedom.

This means that the anxiety is part of the journey.  You have to go through it to get beyond it.  That’s the reality. Everything else is fantasy.

We come to God not though fantasies, or as our ideal selves, but through reality, and as our actual selves.

Lent (like Christianity as a whole) is the invitation not to develop fantasies about ourselves, but to come to terms with the reality.

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From Barefoot Prayers: A Meditation a Day for Lent and Easter, SPCK 2013

‘May this day be blessed.’
I do not know what that means
in advance.

I am asking for happiness,
but not for anything superficial.

‘May this day be blessed.’
I hope it will be indeed.
But how?

I am asking for a visit of grace,
but not for anything disruptive.

‘May this day be blessed.’
If it is, it will not be by my effort,
but by my acceptance.

I am asking for openness,
the capacity to receive.

‘May this day be blessed.’
As was yesterday,
though I am not sure how.

Let my eye see backwards
and notice the blessing that was.

‘May this day be blessed.’
I am confident that it will be.

My prayer is not for anything more,
simply to see and feel and know.

‘May this day be blessed.’
Not in the anticipation but
in the living.

‘May this day be blessed.’
Not by what I give or receive,
but in what I see and feel.

‘May this day be blessed.’
And may I be part of the blessing.

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From Barefoot Prayers: A Meditation a Day for Lent and Easter, SPCK 2013

As the sun climbs above the hill, to show itself in blinding light and warming heat; so you appear in our heart after the long night of darkness.

In darkness I have slept, and in the cold shivered; I know my ignorance and fear, I am alone in the cosmos.

Before the dawn the birds were roused; calling to wake the earth, singing hope, insisting on the coming of day.

I heard them not; I rested long in my fear. I trembled to be alone.

The stars returned to their place, invisible beyond the heavens; driven back by the coming of the sun.

The beasts retired to their lairs; their fear was of the coming day, to be exposed by the coming of the light.

Within plants the sap began to flow; the first light of dawn touching the green to life.

With the full light of sun the green is bright; the air cleaned by the growing.

How happy are they who see the dawn; those for whom night is gone.

How happy are they who feel the warmth of the sun; those who know its strength will sing.

How happy are they who greet the day, with faith and health restored; they will do your will.

Dawning God, dispel all the thoughts and fears of night, and give us, with your creation, refreshment and renewal, that we might this day reflect your light into the lives of others.

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It seems to me that there is an unusual amount of muddle out there about Lent this year, especially the question of giving things up.  So here’s a quick Q and A.

What’s the main point of Lent? 

Lent is a time of preparation for Easter. Without Easter, Lent makes no sense.

Is it necessary to give up chocolate, tea or alcohol for Lent? 

No.  In fact there aren’t any rules. It’s up to you what you do in Lent.

Then why do people give things up for Lent?

There are lots reasons. Habit. Conformity. Fun (well, maybe not fun). Then there’s the thought that giving-up may actually be good for your health and well-being.

What’s the best reason for giving something up?

It’s to take on a kind of ‘fasting’ that you actually feel, and which reminds you that you are person who is alive but maybe not quite aligned at the level of desire, need and want.

Really! I thought it was that Christians have got a nasty negative streak and believe that suffering, anxiety and  guilt are good for you?

No. The point is that recognising the truth about the human condition in general, and yourself in particular, is good for you. Christianity teaches that the truth sets you free. So this is truth not for the sake of constraint, still less for the sake of misery, but truth – even if uncomfortable – for the sake of freedom.

What about giving up ‘abstract things’ – indeed you yourself have suggested giving up ‘busyness’ and ‘grumbling’?

I think that there is a point in using Lent as a time to focus on some aspect of your life that is not so good. But this isn’t like giving up something like chocolate. Giving up busyness or grumbling is not a form of fasting from something that is enjoyable and good.  Rather it is an attempt to change your ways at a practical level.

But what if being busy is a good or necessary part of my life?

Don’t give it up then!  The point of my suggestion is that for some people there is an unnecessary, chronic and somewhat performed ‘busyness’ that can get in the way of more important things. Other people may just have a lot to do to get by. But if you are borderline do have a look at

Wouldn’t it better to do something positive rather than focus on the negatives?

Well it might be. And one traditional Lenten practice is to give more money away.  But I would be wary of taking on more to do unless you are well clear of the ‘busy-zone’.

What’s the obsession with ‘Lent books’?

I know it’s a bit much! It’s as if Jesus went out into the wilderness to read a pile of paperbacks. Reading a specific book in Lent probably goes back to the reading over otherwise silent meals that happens in monasteries.  It’s not essential. But it’s another thread in the rope of Lent – not the main thing.

Okay then, what is the main thing?

The main thing is that there are several things, several threads in the rope.  A bit of fasting, a bit of trying to improve your life, a bit of reflecting on your weaknesses, a bit of recognising that you sometimes fall short of the mark and that sometimes you are aiming at the wrong target because your desires are muddled, a bit more time spent in silent prayer or meditation, perhaps a bit more compassionate concern for others, a bit of being neighbourly and constructive.

Is that the lot?

No, the potential is endless. But there is one point I could have made better. The main thing really is Easter.  And that will come no matter what you do in Lent. It’s all a question of whether and how you want to prepare for it.

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A few years ago I wrote a book called Barefoot Disciple: Walking the Way of Passionate Humility. Because it was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book, 2011, it has been read by quite a lot of people. I received fair bit of feedback at the time and still do. Indeed I am this weekend in a Birmingham parish where a number of people read it just recently. Apparently their discussion really took off when it came to the subject of foot-washing. During the peace on Thursday night someone I had never met before greatly me warmly, saying, ‘I really enjoyed your book’. Such moments are deeply touching, humbling and rewarding. But this blog is about a response to the book which is all of those things – but in a way that is off the scale.

When I was writing Barefoot Disciple, I did, from time to time, take off my shoes and socks and step out into our very large and overgrown former rectory garden and do a kind of walking meditation. You could call it a wincing meditation, as I am not very hardy. But I remain glad for the memory of walking barefoot on frosty grass and damp gravel.

What I never expected, however, was that anyone would pick up the idea and take it one step further. But this is exactly what Hannah Phillips has done these last few years, deciding to go barefoot through Holy Week, come what may. It was always a bold decision – but the weather this year has made it especially challenging.

This is how Hannah explains how the experience has challenged her.

When my feet hurt, I often felt tempted to take the easy path – to walk on the grass rather than on the gravel, so to speak. But I thought this would be missing the point. Many people around the world don’t have the option to take an easy route.

I think our journey of faith is like this. We are often faced with difficult decisions, and we must trust in God to guide us onto the right path.

Hannah’s barefoot experience is one from which I have learnt quite a lot: simply by reflecting on how much I don’t want to do any such thing myself. I mean: so cold, so scratchy, so dirty and so difficult to explain. It is a radical and prophetic gesture, pointing to the reality of the down to earth poverty of so many of God’s people, and the vulnerability that we are all invited to share as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.

On her blog Hannah has written about her own learning too:

Soon after Jesus rode in in his glory, people in the hierarchy saw his difference as a challenge to them. Instead of embracing his humility they fought it. They did not spare the time to understand him, instead they condemned him to death. Every time we walk past the person in the street behaving slightly differently and judge them we are complicit in what happened to Jesus. Just as when we welcome in the stranger to our house, we are welcoming Jesus in too.

Walking barefoot has highlighted for me how judgemental I can be. It is easy to condemn others before you understand them. It is easy to look at me and say I am mad, poor or just plain stupid, when you do not know why I have bare feet. I am vulnerable and I seek to be understood. How many other people feel like that and do I do enough to listen?

There is much to learn by reflecting all this. And, who knows, a reader of this blog might be inspired to a barefoot venture of their own. Hannah’ barefoot days are also raising money for Us.- formerly USPG –

If you wish you can make a supportive donation here:

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