Standing at the chasm: A reflection for Shrove Tuesday

Doesn’t Christmas feel such a long time ago?

In the Church calendar, we have travelled through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, and the unimaginatively titled “Ordinary Time” before reaching the start of Lent. You don’t have to be religious to have felt a rhythm to the journey in recent months: the closing nights and the expectant waiting of Advent, the bittersweet (for many) joy of Christmas with all its promise and regrets, and the long, dull days of January that brings us through winter towards Spring – and Easter.

But now we reach a precipice – a chasm that we must cross before we can rest in the balmy days of late Spring and early Summer, with its sunny afternoons and cool evenings; lengthening days and Easter-egg-fuelled TV binges as the sun sets later, and later.

Lent.

Self denial.
Giving up.
Discipline.
Hardship.

For a while now, we take up a different pace.

I didn’t know until recently that Shrove Tuesday is also known as “Mardi Gras”: literally “Fat Tuesday”. Historically, Shrove Tuesday had a carnival feel about it (and the word carnival might mean “to put away flesh” – a word for the final day of eating meat before the long abstinence of Lent).

So here we are. Shrove Tuesday. Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras.

Celebration and carnival.

Finishing off the spoils of the past few weeks, before the slower pace of Ash Wednesday and Lent. A strange mix of surplus: using up the extra we have, and of shriving: self-examination and reflection for what lies ahead.

Surplus and shriving.

In the Christian tradition, Shrove Tuesday was the day to make this shift from plenty to paucity. It was a day for using up the leftovers: for feasting and fattening and saying goodbye to indulgence. And it was a day for reflecting on one’s own darkness and failures; spiritual preparation for the disciplines of Lent.

I wonder what the spirituality of Shrove Tuesday looks like for you? The following questions might help:

From plenty…
What has gone well for you in the past few weeks?
What resources have been at your disposal?
How wisely did you use (or abuse) them?

To paucity…
What areas of discomfort, or pain, or shame are you aware of within yourself?
What darkness have you seen in life around you?
Which wrongs in the world would you like to put right?

It’s not really fashionable to talk about “sin” anymore. (I’ve written about this before). But Lent is a time to reflect on our sin. Or, if you prefer, on our failings, insecurities, hurts, pains, disappointments, mistakes, regrets and missed opportunities. Collectively, we might call these things sin, or we might not. It doesn’t matter.

But as we stand at this dark chasm of everything that we wish we and the world were not, we have a chance to bring change. Sin, darkness, failure, regret: these things do not have the last say. Lent reminds us of the importance of facing them, and then conquering them.

Just as, in the Christian tradition, Jesus wrestled for 40 days with the demons of his own greed, and invincibility, and power: so we wrestle with our own demons as we enter this chasm of Lent.

As Christ wrestled, we wrestle. And as Christ conquered, we conquer. We emerge on Easter Sunday, having lived through the self-denial of Lent and the trauma of Holy Week, as people renewed and re-formed. People committed to bringing light into darkness, hope into despair, and life into lifelessness.

But that’s for later.

For now, we begin.
We enter into darkness and denial.
We go from plenty to paucity.
We face our demons, and we wrestle.

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The death of a dream…

How many of your dreams have died?

The friends of Jesus had a big dream. Political autonomy, religious freedom, an established kingdom. They were planning for revolution.

Everything had pointed towards it. Miracles and healings. Visions and voices from the sky. A herald in the wilderness. Challenges to authority. And a leader who was determined, radical, and not quite of this world.

The tension was mounting. Talk of signs and swords. Decisions of ‘in’ or ‘out’. Predictions of denial and betrayal. Declarations of loyalty. A meal, a prayer, a confrontation…

24 hours later, their revolutionary leader was dead.20160324_155808

How could they have got it so wrong?
Didn’t they see his power?
Didn’t they hear his words?

This was his moment: why didn’t he fight?
They had planned for God’s Kingdom.
All they were left with was a dead body.

Their great leader had failed.
His friends had misplaced their trust.
The dream was dead.

They’d have to watch their backs now too. Rome wasn’t kind to trouble makers. And the Temple authorities had flexed their muscles. Pilate and Herod had shaken hands under a banner of hate. At best, Jesus’ friends would be laughing stocks. The mugs who had fallen for the latest self-styled messiah. At worst, they’d be dead by the end of the week.

Some questions to unsettle:

How many of your dreams have died?
Which of your hopes remain unrealised?
In what or who have you (mis)placed your faith and trust?
Are you carrying frustrated expectations?

This is not the end

Our sin is too small

Sin
(/’sɪn/)

It’s not really a fashionable word. Archaic, damning, uncomfortable. The preserve of the religious or the old fashioned. A word we usually try and avoid.

Lent forces us to confront sin, knowingly or not.

As we enter a season of self-denial or renewed discipline, we may be setting aside things that we think might be associated with sin. Food, bad habits, unkind attitudes, silly distractions.

Perhaps when we think of sin, we think of something like the seven deadly sins:
Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, Pride.

 We think of sin as action or inaction that damages others, spoils creation, and hurts ourselves.

But if this is all we think of when we think of sin, then our sin is much too small.

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Am I a sinful person? The question is a painful one to ask.

Most of us, on some level, feel woefully inadequate and painfully aware of our failings. We carry around the guilt of memories of times we have allowed the darker side of our nature to overcome us. And we carry around shame about the times we have felt not good enough, or simply not enough. Each of us will see brokenness in our lives.

Sin is about more than what we do, or don’t do.
Sin is about losing sight of our true self.
Sin is about forgetting the identity that God has given us.
Sin is about holding back part of our self from God.
Sin is about falling short of everything that we could do, and everything we could be.

To turn from sin is to become more fully ourselves.
To turn from sin is to embrace the darkest, most broken part of our self.
To turn from sin is to accept the part of our self that we hide away: the part of us that longs for wholeness, healing and acceptance.

This turning away from who we are not, and realising more fully our true identity, is what we see in those people who meet Jesus. Mary, his mother; the disciples; the men suffering from leprosy, paralysis and deformity in Luke 5 and 6; the woman who was haemorrhaging; Mary, Martha and Lazarus; the Samaritan woman at the well; the woman who anoints Jesus; the woman caught in adultery; the thief on the cross: All come to a fuller understanding of their identity and purpose after an encounter (or several) with Christ.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
Deut 6:4-5

You shall love your neighbour as yourself.
Lev 19:18

In our self examination, how often do we consider whether we love ourselves?
We may feel that to do so is to be selfish or conceited.

But perhaps the first step to dealing with the brokenness in our lives is to learn to love our very self.

Perhaps we cannot fully love God and love others, until we first learn to accept the parts of our self that we detest.

Turning from sin is about becoming more the person that we are meant to be. This means tackling some difficult truths and travelling some dark paths.

I love the prayer of confession below because it sums up, for me, what sin and repentance are about. We are not naughty children, tempted by uncontrollable impulses and guilty of breaking the rules. Sin is more complex, more damaging, and yet infinitely more redeemable than this.

We long to be free and accepted and whole.
We are painfully aware that we screw things up.
We carry guilt and shame as tumours on our souls.
We are so overwhelmed at times by our own darkness and brokenness, that we feel we cannot go on.

But God is good, and he is calling us to name our darkness, to embrace our brokenness, and to accept the transformation of his love and forgiveness.

O God, Giver of Life, Bearer of Pain, Maker of Love,
you are able to accept in us what we cannot even acknowledge;
you are able to name in us what we cannot bear to speak of;
you are able to hold in your memory
what we have tried to forget;
you are able to hold out to us
the glory that we cannot conceive of.
Reconcile us through You
to all that we have rejected in our selves,
that we may find no part of your creation
to be alien or strange to us,
and that we ourselves may be made whole.
Through Jesus Christ, our lover and our friend.
Amen.
Janet Morley

God forgives you.
Will you forgive yourself?

Into the Ashes

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

On Ash Wednesday, are we concerned with our beginning or our ending?

We are at the beginning of Lent: forty days of fasting and devotion lie ahead of us.
We are perhaps considering beginning something new: a spiritual discipline, new habit, or acts of kindness.
We are reminded, as the cross of ash dusts our faces, of the new beginnings we have in Christ.

And Ash Wednesday is about our ending too.
We might be committing ourselves to ending bad habits, or denying ourselves something for a season.
We are invited to confront our mortality: to dust you will return.
We are marked with ash: the bleak nothingness that is left after glowing embers have died cold.

Ash Wednesday is a beginning and an ending.
Ash Wednesday is a liturgical staging post, encouraging us to take a moment, step out of our tired routines, and pause.
Ash Wednesday is a turning circle: an opportunity to look back, look ahead, put down, pick up, re-evaluate, take stock, change direction, and carry on.

Ash Wednesday is the day when we have the courage to face our ending.
Into the ashes we go, as we put on the symbol of all that threatens our wellbeing and happiness.
Ash Wednesday is the day when we can wear death on our face and say that this is not the end.

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The ash that we wear is not a smudge, but a cross.
A reminder of the instrument of destruction that brought an end to death.
A statement that we find our beginning in Christ’s ending.

On Ash Wednesday, we are called again to faithfulness.
The crossed ash is a reminder of God’s faithfulness to us: the once-for-all act that has put an end to death and destruction so that we can face all our endings with courage and hope.
As we stop at the staging post, turn around in the turning circle, we do so confident of God’s unending love for us.

The ash that we wear today is not a curse, but a blessing.

Over two millennia ago, God was calling his people back to him through the words of the prophet Joel.
God is still calling.
Ash Wednesday is a day to hear the distant voice of our God, ever-patient, ever-loving, as he calls us back again to his mercy.

Yet even now, says the Lord,
   return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 
   rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
   for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
   and relents from punishing. 
(Joel 2:12-13)

This Lent, what do you want to turn from and to?
This Lent, what do you want to put down or pick up?
Is there “bleak nothingness” in your life?
What would transform this nothingness into a new start?
What signs can you see around you of God’s faithfulness to you?
Is God calling you to something?