Stamina

“All you need at this time of Lent is stamina,” sayeth Bishop Kevin to me this morning. And he’s right. We are into the fifth week of Lent and it is about this time that we might be wearying. Whatever we gave up or took on is starting to take its toll. One of my little flock committed to coming to Morning Prayer every day in Lent. “We don’t have it next week, though?” she asked, a little hopefully I thought. “Oh yes we do,” sayeth I. And I saw her face fall. “It seems to be longer than six weeks I’ve been getting up early.”

Some have already fallen by the wayside. No alcohol has become no alcohol during the week. Unlikely Feast days have been sought to break the fast. But why is it important to keep on going? To not cheat? To keep on living out the promises we may to God and ourselves on Ash Wednesday? I mean, my little offering doesn’t make much difference in the grand scheme of things. Nobody will notice if I don’t keep up with my Lenten discipline.

Well, let me share with you a Jewish story…

Once upon a time in the old country, there was a town in a wine-producing region of Eastern Europe. The villagers in this region heard that a very famous rabbi was going to be on a grand tour early the following year and would be passing through their town. So they called a town meeting and said, “We must have some kind of great celebration in the rabbi’s honour.”

Then one of the villagers suggested, “Since we all make wine, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had some kind of wine festival where we tasted the very best of wine?”

And then someone countered, “But each family only  makes a little wine each year. A big celebration would use up one family’s entire supply of wine for a year.”

So they devised a plan. They put a big oak barrel in the centre of the town, and every week, just before Shabbat, every household was to bring a small pitcher of wine and pour it into the cask. Then, by the end of the six months, they would have a great cask of wine.

But in one of the village families, the husband went home and he said to his wife, “Listen, you know that everyone is going to be bringing wine, and we are not a rich family. There’s going to be so much wine in that cask, ours certainly will make no difference. Why don’t we just fill our pitcher up with water? When I take it to the cask, I’ll pour it in right at the lip – I guarantee that no one will see.” And that’s what he did, every week.

Six month’s later the big day arrived. They set up a stand in the centre of town and put the cask on top of it. Right on schedule, the famous rabbi appeared. The townspeople were all proud of their village, their wine, and the rabbi. They presented him with a beautiful, ceremonial kiddish cup to taste the wine and inaugurate the celebration. He put the lovely cup underneath the spigot, filled it up, and lifted it high.

Suddenly there was a gasp from the crowd: his cup was filled to the brim with water.

from Because God Loves Stories edited by Steve Zeitlin

kiddish cup

Prayer for today

I came across this prayer many years ago in ‘Becoming what I am’ by HA Williams (DLT, 1977).  Somehow I find it just when I need it most.

O God, I am so hellishly angry;
I think so-and-so is a swine;
I am tortured by worry about this or that;
I am pretty sure I have missed my chances in life;
this or that has left me feeling terribly depressed.
But nonetheless here I am like this,
feeling both bloody and bloody-minded,
and I am going to stay here for ten minutes.
You are most unlikely to give me anything.
I know that.
But I am going to stay for the ten minutes nonetheless.

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Remembering

I remember my first Lent like it was yesterday. I was 27 when I first joined the Church and had only distant memories of a large grey building at Granny’s where pandrops were dispensed from fur coat pockets and boxed pews kept you firmly ensconced. The joy and riot of colour and drama and smells and sounds of the Episcopal Church were shocking to me, but also familiar. Not familiar in church terms, but made me feel like I was at home. As each season passed I knew that this was where I wanted to stay. This was where I belonged.

And so my first Lent came to pass. I walked in to church and gasped at the beauty and delight of the purpleness. The altar frontal, the burse and veil, the flashes of it around the building, the lack of flowers, the starkness all set the scene. Then there were these unfamiliar Anglican hymns but there was something more. I’m not a musician but even I could tell that the tone was different, the tempo was slower, the words were more poignant. I think it was then that I first realised that hymns were chosen to fit the season, to fit the liturgy and how important that was. The notices told me that Confession was available, something which I had previously thought of as strictly for the Roman Catholics, but then I realised that this was all part of the season of preparation.  To turn from sin and seek repentance. To cleanse and purify our hearts. To rouse us to prayer, self-denial and service of neighbour.

I’d never given anything up for Lent before. Of course I’d heard people talk about it – usually chocolate, cigarettes or booze – but I’d never made that kind of commitment before. But I also heard the gospel say that we shouldn’t talk about it, that it should be done in secret with God alone, and that we should oil our faces and keep cheerful. That’s what I heard, that first Lent. But I felt unprepared. I hadn’t had enough time to think about it, to plan it. But I really wanted to take it seriously, to make a promise to God and to keep it. To do something as a sacrifice that would make me a better person because I still didn’t really believe that God loved me as I was.

Nothing prepared me for the powerfulness of that first Ash Wednesday service. Nor for the emotion that would well up when the priest said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Repent and turn to Christ.” Tears sprung to my eyes and I really didn’t know why. Perhaps it was the seriousness of it. Perhaps it was the touch on my forehead and the sign of the cross, so recently given to me in oil at my Confirmation. Perhaps it was the purpleness, the solemnity, the music – who knows? All I knew as I walked away from the altar rail and saw that Mr W also had an ash cross, as did Mrs L and Mrs R and all the rest, all much better Christians than I, all who were much further along this path with God, all were marked with the same cross and all reminded of their mortality and the need for repentance. All of us there that night were in it together. And that each year they came back to be reminded again.

I’ll never forget that first Lent. As the drama unfolded over the weeks I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. It was like finding a favourite series on TV when you can’t wait for the next episode. The following year I thought I would be better prepared and asked in the pub after church one Sunday if there was a book anyone could recommend which would tell me what it all meant. “Yes, there is,” said someone, and I whipped out my filofax to write down its title, “its called the Bible!”

Ever since then I’ve never lost the thrill of the change of seasons in Church and in particular the journey and drama of Lent. Since ordination I’ve wanted every single one of my little flocks to gasp as they walk into church when the seasons change and feel the drama unfold in words and symbols. The signs and symbols work best for me. I know that now. For some its the words and I’ve tried to work with them too. I don’t give up so much these days as try to take something on. I’m afraid there is little sacrifice in saying Morning Prayer with others but I always do that in church each Lent and Advent. But whatever I do, there is nothing that quite compares with that first Lent.

A priest prepares for Holy Week

Anxiety lies like a knot,

a clot,

stopping the flow

and twisting,

blocking

all in its path.

Sleep is distant

as images come unbidden

and lists form

and then get stuck.

Stuck like beads on a necklace

with knots keeping them in place,

preventing them from

sliding smoothly

to and fro,

ebb and flow.

What will it take

to slip the knot

unblock the clot

to let the stream

rush once more

over the pebble dam,

laughing and gurgling,

splashing and foaming,

free to go where it will?

What will it take

to find that clear pool of grace?

The clock chimes

and I’m minded

that it is time to pray.

Lent

God of spring time

as the frost melts

and the trees bud

may I cross over

from darkness to light

from grumbling to appreciation

from hesitating to striding

from boredom to creativity

from looking down to gazing up

from indifference to your Passion

from chill to warmth and love

in this world and the next.