Letting go into the arms of mercy, love and providence this Lent.

This lent I have been exploring three themes, or challenges: loving, listening and letting go.

This reflection explores the idea, no action, of letting go whist offering the thought that if we are to let go of something negative  then, the vacuum that is left must be filled with something else. These ‘something elses’ are given by God and, reveal to us the Divine character.

It seems to me letting go operates across three time horizons, the past, the present and the future and, what we are being asked to let go of, is the fanciful notion that we are somehow in perfect control and possess the ability to shape events. In reality we know this not to be true.

At the most basic level we can’t change our past, what has happened really has happened. In the words of a wise nun, ‘you can’t hope for a better past.’ The past just is the past. But, we can change our attitude towards the past. We can approach God and ask him to hold the past in His mercy, so reconciling us to the past and, providing us with the opportunity to forgive those who we feel (or know) to be complicit in shaping, for the worse, our back catalogue.

What of the present? Is it the case that our present anxieties can be symptoms of the knowledge that, despite our high expectations of ourselves, we are really not in control, that there is a certain randomness to life that no amount of effort, money or wishful thinking can mitigate? Is this what Jesus was acknowledging in Matthew 11, 28 and 29 ‘come unto me all you that are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am gentle and humble in heart and you shall find rest unto your souls?’ Letting go of anxieties implies two movements: confession (to our anxieties) and placing ourselves in the arms of Love.

But surely as great and resourceful visionaries (after all we are obsessed with mission and vision) we can shape and control the future? Maybe to some extent, but don’t we all also know that ‘…. happens? On the positive side of life’s balance sheet we also experience unexpected joys, such as falling in love, being offered a new position seemingly out of nowhere, meeting an old friend with whom we had lost contact, and so on. Or what about the unexpected gift given at a time of need, when perhaps we really don’t deserve it (like the gift of God Himself). In letting go of the idea that we can control the future we need to trust in God and most importantly His providence. After all many of us are still alive and kicking in spite of our own best, or should it be worst, efforts?

However, we sometimes face a further problem for despite our best efforts we simply find it impossible to let go. Often we think we have let go only to find out that we haven’t. The nagging hatred, or festering resentment returns, we still wake up fearing the worst or carry the suspicion that our true shortcomings are about to be exposed. So what is to be done?

St. Benedict provides a possible answer, when he urges his monks to ask God to supply by grace that which we can’t achieve through our own ‘natural’ efforts. Grace is God’s ‘supernatural gift’ to fallible human beings. Just simply confessing our resentments and anxieties, those emotions that bind us, alongside our desire to let them go provides God with the chink through which he can start to pour in His grace.

So this Lent may we bring the past to the Lord placing it into His mercy, the present to the Lord asking for it to be held in the arms of His love and, the future to the Lord trusting firmly in His providence. May we live a grace filled life.

Lent: Les Miserables, loving, listening and letting go.

Last week I was talking with a friend. We were reflecting on the meaning of Lent and, our own Lenten practices, or in my case, non practices. I have always been really poor at giving things up and, the alternative approach of taking up new and positive disciplines has never really felt right. My friend has enjoyed more success, but still felt that Lent had more to offer.

In our discussion we came up with three Lenten themes, or challenges, that we felt hit the nail on the head. We felt the challenge to love, to listen and to let go (and trust).

On Friday I went to the cinema with my daughters to watch Les Miserables. The film was great, so were the pop corn, pick and mix and fizzy drinks! To my surprise I found myself thinking about my Lenten challenges through the medium of the film.

If you haven’t seen the film, or play, here is a brief ‘theological’ synopsis: The main character Jean Valjean, having been released from nineteen years in prison (for stealing a crust of bread), can’t find work and shelter, because he has been branded as a criminal. Eventually he is offered sanctuary in Digne Cathedral by its bishop (Myriel). In his desperation Valjean steals the cathedrals silverware. Valjean is caught by the police.  Myriel covers for him, telling the police that the silverware was given as an act of charity. He then extends his charity by giving two extremely valuable candlesticks. Finding it hard to cope with Myriel’s compassion Valjean is depicted kneeling at an alter and, asking the great ‘I am,’ who ‘am I?’ He listens to God and resolves to become an honest man. In fact he becomes a wealthy industrialist.  When one of his employees (Fantine) is thrown out of the factory, by his less than loving foreman, and falls into prostitution, full of guilt, for failing to notice what had happened (he was confronting his long-term adversary Javert), he promises to find her daughter (Cossette), to love her, to look after her. He keeps his promise. He does so despite the fact that he lives in permanent danger of being discovered by Javert.  Eventually after several twists and turns Valjean and Cosette arrive in Paris where Cosette falls in love with the wealthy revolutionary Marius Pontmercy. Valjean is loathe to give Cosette, the person he loves mos,t away but eventually does so, after having saved Pontmercy’s life. Jabert continues to pursue Valjean and tracks him down amidst the revolutionaries. Jabert masquerades as a revolutionary but his true identity is revealed and Valjean is given the opportunity to exact revenge. He refuses to kill Jabert and, instead forgives him. Jabert is unable to cope with the forgives offered and is seen singing ‘who am I’ before eventually committing suicide. The two central protagonists stand in contrast to each other. Through love Valjean is transformed, through love Jabert is convicted. Each make their own choice. One listens to the Divine impulse, the other shuts his ears.

Loving and letting go, are inextricably intertwined. At the end of the film Valjean finds sanctuary in a monastery, where he prepares for the final letting go, as he faces death. Cosette and Pontmercy find Valjean at the monastery hoping to persuade him to come and live with them, but he is determined to let go of this life so that Cosette and Pontmercy can learn to live together, in love. In the final scene of the film Valjean is beckoned into heaven by Fantine and welcomed by Myriel. In letting go he finds real and enduring love.

The interconnectedness of life, where one choice made has long-term and eternal consequences, is a central theme of the story. Myriel’s charity leads to Valjean’s eternal salvation (maybe even his own?)  Sitting before God, and listening to his prayer ‘who am I’ being answered leads Valjean into a new life, and one where he is able to act with decency to his employees and townsfolk and, true charity towards Cossette and Pontmercy. In embracing life, as a true lover, Valjean is eventually able to let go of his past and enter into eternal life.

So are there any Lenten passages that support these themes, of love, listening and letting go? Matthew 25, 31-end (the Parable of the Sheep and Goats – Monday’s gospel reading) certainly supports the call to charity, and its relationship to salvation. Another relevant passage maybe Deuteronomy 30, 15 – end (last Thursday’s Old Testament reading) from which the following stand out:

‘See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways and observing his commandments, decrees and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous………Choose life so that you and your descendents may live……..for that means life for you and length of days.’

Can we make time to love, listen and let go this Lent?

Is there anyone we need to forgive?

Go on make the Pro Life choice this Lent.

Sometimes, but not always, the Lectionary provides readings which complement, or reinforce, each other. Today is such a day. The Common Worship Daily Eucharistic readings are: Deuteronomy 30: 15-end, Psalm 1 and Luke 9, 22-25.

All of these texts encourage  readers to make a positive choice to follow God and, warn of the consequences of rejecting God’s invitation to follow him.

Deuteronomy urges us to ‘choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days…’  The writer reminds us that our choices carry with them both short-term (temporal) and long-term consequences; ‘life to you and length of days.’ But, the consequences of our choices can never be solely personal, for the text makes it clear that the choices we make affect all of our descendants. If the consequence of the ‘Pro Life’ choice is just that, life, the result of alternative choices, choices which in any case result in the worship of ‘other gods,’ is to perish. Serving other gods, at best, can only have psychological short-term ‘benefits.’ The Pro Life choice has eternal spiritual consequences.

The Psalmist suggests that to make the ‘Pro Life’ choice is to be blessed and, to ‘bear fruit in due season.’  Fruit does not exist for its own sake, its only utility is in its ability to nourish. So as we become fruitful we feed and nourish others. But, what about the sting in the tale, the reference to bearing fruit in ‘due season.’  Maybe this is where the Gospel reading can come to our aid?

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves.’

Again we are presented with the choice – the Pro Life choice, but we are also asked to embrace a paradox. Life results from death and, it is through the pain of picking up our cross that we gain life. There will be pain and suffering in our Christian journey, we will be called on to bear ‘unreasonable agonies,’ to live with criticism, to undertake seemingly impossible tasks. But if we have made the Pro Life choice we can take up our cross hopeful, no confident, of resurrection glory, both in this life and the world to come, knowing that our choices will, in due course, bear fruit, not only for us, but also for those we love and pray for. Amen.

Are you making the Pro Life choice?

Valuing the ‘little picture’ with Rebecca Adlington, Mother Theresa and Jesus.

Riding along in my automobile (as the song goes) I found myself listening to Rebecca Adlington’s retirement interview. Alongside all of the normal stuff about thanking her family and coaches for the support she was given during her illustrious career she made the following ‘theological’ point: ‘if I could help just one person to get into the water I would be so happy.’

It strikes me that her comment, whilst carrying a ‘theological’ connotation is also highly counter-cultural. In modern society we are not used to working in units of one. Small scale incremental growth is not acceptable to a society conditioned to think that more is better. In today’s world the bigger the number, the more impressive. Sadly this mode of thinking frequently pervades church life.

Yet both Jesus and Mother Theresa make it clear that Christianity, with its unconditional regard for each individual, should be content, no joyful, with making a real and salvific difference to just one person. Christianity at its core seeks to change lives one-by-one and this was something Mother Theresa believed profoundly. Malcolm Muggeridge in Something Beautiful for God summarised Mother Theresa’s theology as follows:

Christianity is not a statistical view of life. That there should be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over all the host of the just is an anti statistical proposition. Likewise the work of the Missionaries of Charity. Mother Theresa is fond of saying that welfare is for a purpose – an admirable and necessary one – whereas Christian love is for a person. The one is about numbers, the other about man who was also God.’

Jesus, Mother Theresa and Rebecca Adlington appear to be on to something. Go on, just like them, think small.

Are we enslaved by a paradigm that values all things big?

Are we missing the ‘little picture’?

‘I have nothing to say,’ and saying nothing. Give it a go.

Last week I was travelling in the car with a loved one. She mentioned that her friends  sometimes say to her, ‘your very quiet today.’ When I asked her why she was often thought of as quiet she answered ‘I have nothing to say.’ What I think she was articulating  is that she was happy to be with her friends in a very real and physical manner but, that she didn’t feel the need to be in on every conversation, or to have a view on all conceivable subjects.

Such quietness can presumably be a virtue, and an act of love both for self and others, by providing self with a sense of peace, calm and space, others with the opportunity to consider and express their opinions. Opinions which may be more valid than our own (they may of course also be entirely trivial or unfounded).

Perhaps one of the issues in contemporary society, including the church, is the expectation that we have to say something, to have an opinion on all manner of issues even when the issue is not particularly important to us, or when we  do not possess the experience, knowledge, insight or whatever, to make a substantive contribution.

I suspect that one of the problems with speaking too much is that we start to overestimate the value of our opinions (pride) and, in a very subtle way, box ourselves into a situation from which it becomes increasingly difficult to backtrack without appearing fickle.

Perhaps the Rule of Benedict can help us to consider the value of saying nothing. In Chapter Six of his rule (Cherishing Silence in the Monastery) Benedict writes:

‘In a monastery we ought to follow the advice of the psalm which says: I have resolved to keep watch over my ways so that I may not sin with my tongue………In this verse the psalmist shows that, because of the value of silence, there are times when we ought not to speak even though what we have in mind is good. How much more important it is to refrain from evil speech when we remember that sins bring us down in punishment. In fact, so important is it to cultivate silence, even about matters concerning sacred values that spiritual instruction, that permission to speak should only be granted rarely to monks and nuns, even though they have achieved a high standard of monastic obedience.’

Three thoughts:

In general terms am I speaking too much?

Do I feel obliged or pressurized into having an opinion on all sorts of issues that in reality are of little real interest to me?

If I am to make a contribution to a debate or discussion is my response well thought through (have I pondered in my heart like Mary, as well as in my head)?