The beginning of Christian spirituality is an invitation to a balanced, joyful life in the company of Jesus
Isaiah 58:1-12; John 8:1-11
I expect that most of us are already on the road of a spiritual journey; but have a relatively unbalanced life. This isn’t really a value judgement – or a criticism. It’s probably impossible to keep on top of everything we need or want to do; and distribute our time, money, efforts and desires equally across all aspects of living in our modern world. Work pressures – ‘I’m really tired but have to get this report done by tomorrow’, or ‘both the meetings I need to attend today are essential.’ Money – ‘can I justify spending that amount on a nice meal out’, or ‘I feel guilty that I don’t give more to charity,’ or more selfishly ‘how can I make as much money as possible to have a luxury life.’ Achieving a balanced spiritual life – whatever that might mean to us individually – could be chasing an unattainable illusion. Prayer and silence may not come very high on the list. We can all undoubtedly fill in the blanks when it comes to prioritising what we give a lot of time to, and where we might feel less inclined to do things which may not bring any visible reward. Can we be honest about what we really want in life? Do I need another bit of bling? Probably not.
The Church is very good at distributing guilt about behaviours and priorities, especially during Lent. Denial, beating ourselves up about sin, insisting that we’re all hopeless sinners and deserve punishment. Despite what we’ve heard in the introduction to this service – ‘the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word’ – I think Lent could be much more positive and affirming. What on earth could a ‘holy Lent’ mean? A perpetual guilt-trip? All the implied negativity isn’t my idea of a balanced life. And possibly not your idea of one either. Nor was it Jesus’s, if you look at what the Gospels report about him.
If we listen to what Isaiah has to say about God’s view of fasting, we hear ‘Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?’ This call to action is fasting in a way, but it’s a reaching-out social-justice, Kingdom type of fasting, not a personal one aiming at increasing our own perception of how holy we think we’ll be by physical fasting. Or announcing to others about what we’re giving up for Lent.
Yes – we all need to do constant self-examination about our actions and motives. And be sorry for when we’ve left undone those things which we ought to have done; and do those things which we ought not to have done, without being obsessive about it. We have an ongoing struggle to choose the right, often difficult, pathway rather than the convenient, easier way which might not cost us as much. Not because God will punish us if we don’t, or reward us if we do. God doesn’t keep record books like Father Christmas. Our actions and motives should reflect what Jesus shows and teaches us – helping to build the Kingdom to make God’s world a better place, and that everyone can share in it. Along the way there could well be considerable self-denial if we give our time and effort to that instead of our own personal, self centred desires.
As for repentance, there’s so much spiritual baggage dragged around with that word that the real meaning gets hidden. Repentance isn’t the grovelling, breast-beating, negative image of us as being only miserable sinners. Of course, one meaning of repentance can be ‘saying sorry’. But a better one is the original word used, metanoia – inadequately translated as ‘repentance’ – which means change of direction or change of heart, or…change where you are looking for happiness. Metanoia means looking at the root of life patterns, where they might need altering, and leading us towards bringing them into line with Kingdom values. Look at ourselves, examine our consciences and behaviours, and then make an honest evaluation about what we’re doing. What a wonderful positive thing Lent can be, when we can concentrate on coming closer to the God Jesus shows us, to say Yes to the right relationships of love for God and neighbour Jesus teaches us about. Learn from him about obedience to God’s will, even though the price of that was, for him, giving his life to demonstrate that obedience and love.
The question is what does make up a balanced life, a healthy one both physically and spiritually. Most of us are aware enough to know that a balanced food diet is one which – ideally – includes of lots of variety and moderation in all things. Doesn’t this apply to the spiritual life as well? It’s a constant temptation, especially in Lent with its focus on probing into the darker sides of our lives, to overdose on piety. Too much heavy emphasis on individual, personal, religion-centred practices like self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting and self-denial, to the exclusion of other facets of our spiritual life, is just as unhealthy as paying only token lip service to living out our Christianity. We also need silence to be still in God’s presence, we need renewal, connection with others, being in community, giving attention to the world outside the limited confines of the Church.
Jesus didn’t spend his entire waking moments in prayer or doing good deeds or overly pious sermonising. He stopped and listened to marginalised and socially excluded people, he enjoyed company as well as being on his own. His inner circle included women, difficult for us to imagine how revolutionary that was in 1st century Middle Eastern society. The Gospels tell us he was a bit of a party person, having dinner with all sorts of people, even those his world considered sinners! Spending time with special friends. Challenging in his words and actions: ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her’ he says to the crowd who wanted to kill a woman caught committing adultery. Teaching everyone about what being fully alive really meant.
Jesus asks people in the Gospels ‘what do you want me to do for you.’ What do we want him to do for us? Could it be guiding us into a truly full life? Let’s not make Lent a miserable dirge, 40 days to be merely endured; but work through it as a positive experience, looking at ourselves as we really are and saying to God, ‘yes, I haven’t done all that well but I genuinely want to try harder. Give me the strength to change and develop the life balance I need for the spiritual journey.’ Make me a clean heart, O God: and renew a right spirit within me. Rejoice in Lent!
© Leslie Spatt 2022
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