What Do We Live For?

Today, the sun is shining. The bars and cafes are packed with folk who have ditched their thick coats and heavy boots. From wide-flung windows and back gardens, cheerful music and happy voices ring out. A special meal is prepared and a glass of wine is drunk, or two. After a long and cold winter, the people of Scotland are now, just as the people of Jerusalem did then, making the most of their festival, their long weekend away from work.

But not for one young man.

Not for the people whom he loves and the people he is loved by.

For us, this is the end of all things.

The end of what?

What did Jesus come for? What was His purpose? Why did He live? And why on Earth did He not run when he had the chance?

Because it didn’t have to end like this.

At about quarter to midnight last night, I was sitting on a tile floor that seemed to be getting colder by the minute. The sunshine had gone. The friends from the upper room had gone. The meal had long since been eaten and my stomach was beginning to grumble. On that cold tile floor, I had a certain sympathy with Peter and James and John as they nodded off in Gethsemane. And I started to wonder – what are we all still doing here? The garden is open. The road is over there. The people who are going to come to arrest you aren’t here yet. Run. Run, for God’s sake, while you still have the chance. Why can’t we change the story? Why couldn’t He?

He was his father’s son, and his mother’s son, and Joseph’s, too, and they had taught him well, raised him up right, and now, on this darkest of their days, this brave and beautiful boy, now become a man, says, these are the things for which I have lived and they are the things for which I am prepared to die. Not for this man the path of least resistance. Not for Him to betray his principles and his integrity.

For me. For you. For the whole world, even the parts that turned their backs and declared that they wanted nothing to do with it.

For peace. For love. For equality. For justice. For freedom. For fairness.

For truths that I hold to be self-evident, but which led to Him being branded a radical and a terrorist. Truths that He refused to betray and for which He was killed. Truths for which people are still being killed today. As I sat there last night and asked why He didn’t run, I thought about Jesus, yes, but I thought about the ones who came after him. The brave men and women of integrity who said, these are the things for which I have lived and they are the things for which I am prepared to die.

And now he’s gone.

The churches have been emptied of God. The world is cold and dark, the singing voices are silenced, and it feels as though we might never be happy again. The light of the world has gone out.

What do we do now?

What do we live for?

And what would we die for?

Death Watch

The days lengthen.

The walk through Lent deepens.

Does it not seem sometimes as though this will never end?

Not like that other purple season. The days of Advent are filled with being busy and frantic; dashing around, making preparations, thinking secretly that a couple of extra days before Christmas would be no bad thing. It is no coincidence that the months of pregnancy are filled with being busy and frantic; dashing around, making preparations, and realizing in the last few weeks before the due date that the relationship between hours in the day and length of a to-do list are perhaps not as elastic as one might fantasize.

They are purple seasons, but that does not make them the same thing.

They are opposites. Bookends. The bookends that mark the beginning and the end of life.

The days of Lent are a bit barren. It’s a grim time, a difficult time, a time when our vulnerabilities are stripped bare and we have what seems like an uncomfortably long time to meditate and regret and wish that we might have done things differently. Perhaps we feel a bit guilty, as the season stretches on with what seems like no end in sight, for sneaking a look at our watches. Is it not Holy Week yet?

And when Holy Week comes, I will sit for hours on a cold tile floor keeping watch over a garden. The things I feel on that night are a microcosm of all the meditations and regrets and wishes that Lent stirs up in me. But, still, I will sneak a look at my watch. Isn’t it midnight yet?

No wonder He almost lost his nerve.

If they’re going to come, can’t they just get on with it?

 It feels interminable because we sit by a death bed. We wait for the end, knowing that, when it comes, the one who we love and by whom we have been loved will die. We wait for the awfulest of Fridays. And it is awful because we know that we will never be able to do anything to stop it.

In my professional life, I see more death than most people. In my personal life, I’m no stranger to it. I’ve seen deaths that have come quickly and unexpectedly, but more often what I’ve seen is the kind of death that has come after days or weeks. The deaths that are anticipated if not really expected. And for people who are waiting for death and the people who wait with them, it is grim and it feels oppressive and the days are too long but not long enough and there is far far too much time to think about the things that we might have done differently.

This is Lent.

We are there with Him in a desert, grim in its emptiness and oppressive in its vastness, knowing and yet refusing to know what waits for us when we leave.

There is no end in sight.

But even as we sneak glimpses of the slow-moving second hand, what we really want is for the end never to come.

Stay by His side. Keep watch. Keep alert. Keep loving Him.

The end is where we start from.

 

Bare

I love the fine adornments of Christianity. Or of the way I choose to practice my Christianity.

Perhaps that isn’t something I should admit to.

Perhaps you would think more of me if I said that I were above all that.

But if you have seen the satisfaction I take in the weight of a thurible in my hands, my childlike delight at the swirling rose petals of Corpus Christi, my joy in the rich music and trumpeting organs, my pleasure in the changing colours of the liturgical year, or even my penchant for getting Bishops to sit in fairy-light strewn thrones, you will know that I speak the truth.

“I don’t like Lent,” my mum said when I was a child (and again many times since I’ve been an adult). “I don’t like how the church is when it’s all stripped and there are no flowers.”

So you will know too that at least I come by it honestly.

Of my love for the sparkle, for the shine, for the holy razzmatazz of the way I choose to worship and all the ephemera that comes with it.

For ephemera is what it is.

The swirling incense will be lost in a scent memory, the rose petals will wilt and fade, the notes from the trumpeting organ will die away, the colours will change and change and change again, and the fairy lights… well, we all know what happens to fairy lights.

As all of that is lost to time and space, what is it that remains with us?

Lent is not a comfortable season for me. But is it a comfortable season for anyone? For is not Lent about looking down into our very bones, into our very souls, and learning whether we can live with what we see there when all the rest is stripped away? If the ephemera is gone, what have we got left?

Those do not strike me as questions that are supposed to be comfortable.

At dinner with some friends this week, the conversation turned to what we learn about ourselves we are forced through circumstance to live without all the fuss and the fancy of our usual daily lives. Two had just returned from a year working in East Africa, away from first-world preoccupations. Another spoke of a solitary walk she had been on, more than five hundred miles, separated for weeks from the privileges and the inconveniences of what we consider normality. In that conversation, there are memories of people the world over, of pilgrimages and of spiritual retreat and, yes, of Jesus Christ in the desert too.

If people talk of finding themselves, we tend to snort a bit. It’s all a bit New Age and buzz word and surely worthy of an eye roll or two. But is it not what we do? We go on these journeys, to the ends of the earth or simply to the depth of our own psyche. And we come back and we are never ever the same.

Lent is not a comfortable season, but Lent is when we find out who we are.

From the crumble of ash on a forehead to the touch of lips on the bare wood of a cross to the empty cavernous space that once was filled with light and life and laughter.

If we take away all the rest, who are we?

Who do we want to become?

Father, Forgive…

He was a Hutu.
The radio told him that the Tutsis were like cockroaches
and must be destroyed —
he took his machete;
he went to his neighbour’s house.
Father, forgive…

She sheltered her neighbours,
whose children had played with her children;
but then she became afraid for her own family —
she told them they must leave.
Father, forgive…

He was a priest.
The people gathered in his church
to pray for God’s help and to beg for sanctuary;
his Archbishop reminded him of his duty —
he let in the soldiers.
Father, forgive…

He was a UN peacekeeper.
He saw what was happening;
he reported to people in offices far away;
they said “Do nothing —
his hands were tied.
Father, forgive…

She has shares
in a company that sold arms
to the government in Rwanda.
She heard the distant news;
the money still goes into her acount.

And he and she and we must give account
for our complicity in the cruelty
and the cold violence of our world.

Father, forgive us.

Jan Sutch Pickard

Just As We Are

I find one of the most astonishing things about the Bible to be that, every once in a while, I can still be surprised by it.

It can be through re-reading a passage that I haven’t read in a long time or through listening to it read with perhaps a different emphasis than I’ve heard before or through the context that it’s being read in. For whatever reason, there are times in our lives when the old familiar words let rip into our consciousness in new and exciting ways.

This weekend, I was reading Evening Prayer with the small community of Scottish Episcopalians who gather together on a Saturday evening for the short online service. And when the time came for the Epistle, I found that the words of St Paul, words that I must have heard and read dozens of times, were still surprising to me.

However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God has called you. This is my rule in all the churches. In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God.

Or to put it in the words of a great twenty-first century orator: “Baby, you were born this way.”

Lent is a time of self-reflection, of growth, of change.

But what is it that we hope to change into?

God will be who God will be, a priest said this week*. God is full of mystery and beauty and surprise and even some unwelcome stuff that we can’t cope with, he said, but we love Him and trust Him and we’re with Him anyway. God will be who God will be.

And if that’s true of God, would God expect anything less of me, His child, who was formed in His image and likeness?

I will be who I will be.

What does God ask of us during Lent?

Not to seek to change what He has made, but to see the potential in it. Not to think about what we could have been, but to fulfill who we are. Not to become someone else, but to be the very best version of ourselves we can be.

Because the promise of Lent is this: that our God is a God who made us and died for us and loves us.

Just exactly as we are.

 

*With apologies to the Reverend AKM Adam and the line from his sermon for Lent 3 that I have, with permission, stolen.