Back to Basics was the name given to a campaign launched by the Conservative Party in 1993. It was widely interpreted as a moral campaign, and hence was ridiculed by political opponents, who coined the term "Back to bed-sits" as several instances of "sleaze" came to light!
Any institution would be wise, on a regular
basis, to look at itself and see where improvements need to be made.
The church is no exception, which is why the season of Lent is to be
welcomed. It is the opportunity for all of us to get ‘back to basics’ –
penitence, almsgiving and self-denial – these four basic
actions – spiritual basics you might say - characterise the season of
Lent and have done for centuries. As we approach Ash Wednesday, we need
to spend time today asking ourselves how we intend to spend this Lent.
Will it be the same routine, with the clergy wearing different coloured
frocks? Or will it be a time when we take seriously the call to
discipleship. Do we need to get back to spiritual basics?
We cannot claim to have a decent relationship with God if we do not
make time for prayer. I don’t just mean coming to mass on a Sunday. We
can easily get through the liturgy without really praying – let’s not
confuse the two! Liturgy and prayer can sometimes be two different
things. There is no substitute for quietly waiting upon God. And yet,
time after time, we realise how people find silence difficult.
Thomas Merton wrote:
Silence is the country where the saints learned their language.
Silence creates space and we find God in the space.
In the silence we can hear ourselves think,
We can listen to the words that come from our hearts,
The anxieties we have been avoiding, the questions that we need to ask.
I hope that the commitment we make to prayer during Lent might mean coming to a weekday service. It must mean, I hope, coming to church on Ash Wednesday. Prayer – one of the four marks of Lent - don’t start Lent without it!
Penitence. Lent is a time for us to get our relationship with God on the right track if it has in some way or other come off the rails. But part of how we express our relationship with God has to do with the way we relate to one another. 1993 didn’t just see the Back to Bed-sits campaign emerge, it saw the first text message being sent in the USA. Most of us find it impossible to live without the wonders of technology these days and it undoubtedly has its merits. We save a lot of money when we can email things rather than print them off and post them. We can shop in bed if we want! But of course we have to look on the effect it has on human relationships. Much easier to email or text someone you don’t really want to speak to – more difficult to pick up the ‘phone or – shock, horror – speak to them face to face. Some might argue that the English language has been sacrificed upon the Altar of the mobile telephone. The ability to relate to one another might not be sacrificed on the altar of the mobile telephone, but it is most definitely compromised by it! If we want to be restored to God, we first have to be restored to one another. Otherwise it is, and always will be to some extent, a flawed relationship. If you are tempted to text or email someone, rather than speak to the face to face, think again. Pick up the phone. Talk to the person you need to be reconciled to. As they say “it’s good to talk!”
Almsgiving. Talking about money from the pulpit has to be done delicately. One of the advantages, some say, of giving up cigarettes, alcohol, chocolates and sweets, is that they save money (and a few calories too!). That isn’t the point of Lent!! We might not have an endless pot of gold to dole out to even the most worthy of causes, but traditionally, if we are giving up something for Lent, then the money saved would go to a charitable cause. It might be the church. It might be Christian Aid. It might be a charity close to your heart. If giving up something is primarily about saving calories and coppers – then we are doing it for all the wrong reasons!
When the Church of England published its Common Worship series in 2000
one of the notes made it clear that “the weekdays of Lent and every
Friday in the year are days of discipline and self denial”. Fasting
might be something closely associated with Lent but in fact most world
religions incorporate fasting into their disciplines. Realistically,
people need to be sensible when it comes to fasting. Often our health
dictates that we eat certain things at certain times of the day or
suffer the consequences. But how often do we eat more than we need and
more than is good for us? Perhaps on Fridays in Lent you might try just
to eat the minimum.
The Church Urban Fund this Lent is promoting
a “Retreat on the Street”. The prophet Jeremiah writes: "Seek the peace
of the city...and pray to the Lord for it: for in its peace, you will
have peace." Retreat on the Street is a powerful activity that
enables one to spend a day on the streets with just 50p in your pocket
and freedom from the usual preoccupations and busyness. The purpose is
to experience what's going on, observe the people and patterns of the
city and to pray and reflect. It’s happening in Liverpool on Wednesday
3rd March. Each event will start with a gathering at 9:30 am for
prayer, where you will be given 50p, a small wooden cross, emergency
contact details and a map of the area. You'll then take off on your own
prayer walk before meeting up at the church at 6:30 pm for a light
supper and a chance to pray and share your thoughts on the experience.
Maybe you might consider doing this as part of your Lenten discipline.
Booking forms are available on the Church Urban Fund website and there
are some at the back of church.
Lent can be many things then. It can be a
challenge. It can be a time of growth. If we take it seriously it can
be a time of risk-taking. It can be a time for us to discover afresh,
or perhaps even for the first time, how much God loves us and desires
us to be reconciled to him. Finally words of the Jesuit writer, Fr.
Herbert McCabe, who speaks of the risk that we all need to take. He
...you have to be ready to take a risk. You have to be ready to be destroyed, for all your security to crumble. You have to be prepared to let go of that faith in yourself that you have so lovingly built up, your faith in what belongs to you, your possessions of every kind. You have to be ready to be taken into the dark abyss of God’s love. You have to have faith in his love; for you face the dreadful danger of becoming good, of becoming yourself as loving as God is loving. And this is a frightening prospect. The motorway can do terrible things to the countryside as it spears through it. And God’s love can do terrible things to you. It may make you kind and considerate and loving.
Let’s pray that is the case for all of us