Sunday, 14 February 2016

on the first sunday in lent

Each Sunday in Lent, at St Anne and All Saints Church, we are looking at a different poem to help us think about how we observe Lent together, and practise the traditional disciplines of prayer, fasting and acts of service.

This week's poem is simply titled 'Lent' and was written by Jean M Watt:

Lent is a tree without blossom, without leaf,
Barer than black in its winter sleep,
All unadorned. Unlike Christmas which decrees
The setting-up, the dressing-up of trees,
Lent is a taking down, a stripping bare,
A starkness after all has been withdrawn
Of surplus and superfluous,
Leaving no hiding-place, only an emptiness
Between black branches, a most precious space
Before the leaf, before the time of flowers;
Lest we should see only the leaf, the flower,
Lest we should miss the stars.

The desk in my study is on the top floor of the Vicarage, from where I can look out across Vauxhall Park. I have a view over the tennis court to the open, green space beyond. As I wrestle with deep theological thought (ahem), my eyes very occasionally drift out over the park to watch the dog-walkers, the joggers, folks just out for a stroll, and those sitting on a park bench sharing a can of Tennents Extra and shouting at the pigeons. All of life can be seen here, and if you are a regular visitor to this park you might want to bear in mind that I may have my eye on you...

But only for now. In a few short weeks the trees will have burst into leaf and my view of the park will be obscured by a curtain of green, drawn across the vista that occupies my most pensive moments. Soon, all I will be able to see is the other side of our street, and the park railings.

I enjoy being able to see the seasons change outside the study window, and the way my long-sighted view will become short-sighted for a while, before returning to long-sightedness in due season.

Watt's poem compares Lent to a tree that has lost all blossom and foliage. It's a time when we can clear out the clutter and noise in our lives, and draw our attention away from the things in life that are surplus to requirement. There is something stark about a bare tree in winter. Perhaps you prefer to see the blossom in spring, the greenery of summer or the golden foliage of autumn. Yet when you take all that away, you get a different view, an emptiness, that we should cherish because it allows us to see the bigger picture, perhaps even the possibility of seeing the stars.

Lent is a time when we can choose to see what is beyond those things with which we surround ourselves for comfort, reassurance or pleasure, but may also obscure the deeper richness of life. Here is a chance to strip our lives back to the basics; to enjoy simplicity; to focus on what really matters in life - rather than risk suffocating our souls with the junk we accumulate along the way.

Fasting, where we might give up luxuries like meat, chocolate or alcohol, is one way this is done. But a Lenten fast might also seek out simplicity in other ways: switching off the background chatter of TV and radio for a time each day to sit quietly in silence or in prayer; or taking a break from our electronic devices to take more notice of what is going on around us, or make more of the company of those with whom we share our homes. We may want to find ways of entering slow time, writing a letter by hand to a friend instead of pinging them a text or email; cooking a meal from scratch without popping anything into the microwave; putting a record on and sitting quietly to listen to it all the way through. You might even, dare I say it, get your Bible out and slowly read, then re-read, a favourite passage - the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5 perhaps, or the letter of James or a penitential psalm such as Ps 51.

There can be something wonderfully liberating about slowing life down, taking it back to its bare essentials, and rediscovering simple pleasures, making time to open up our horizons.

Noticing the needs of others is also a traditional Lenten discipline, giving money or time to respond to those in need with acts of loving service. We might also use this season to reflect on how our lifestyle - and the levels of consumption we so easily get caught up in - impact on the environment, or the lives of those who are paid a pittance to produce our cheap goods and clothing.

In the midst of this time of stripping life down to its basics, we are offered a gift, a chance to be in a place that is more receptive to God and take on for ourselves the divine qualities of love, generosity and grace. As Christians we journey through Lent with Jesus, inspired by his 40 days in the wilderness, a time that saw him living with only the very basics necessary for survival. Yet it was the proving ground for his mission and ministry. Time alone with God in an uncluttered way was the launching pad for all his teaching, healing and self-giving to come.

Lent can do the same for us, giving us time to touch base with the ground of our being, to reorder our priorities, so that in the claustrophobia of hectic modern life our outlook does not become so obscured by our busyness, possessions or preoccupations that we miss out on seeing the stars.

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