Four short addresses with plenty of space between to reflect quietly, read, walk or pray in the chapel. Refreshments and lunch included. Speaker to be announced.
Lent begins. Thoughts turn to chocolate, booze or bacon sandwiches.
Rather like making a New Year Resolution, giving up something for Lent is one of those long-standing traditions which is often short-lived.
We might view giving up something as winning ourselves a few points on the self-righteousness scale. A personal sacrifice. A way to feel good about ourselves. If you read the previous post, you may have thought about giving up some aspect of technology – but that would be too much of a challenge perhaps.
For some, Lent is a time of fasting and focussing on what we’ve got wrong. It contains a very serious and dedicated purpose. So is giving up chocolate, booze or whatever really going to make a difference to the person we are?
Giving up something for the 40 days of Lent is a traditional way of making a token alignment with the suffering experienced by Jesus when he spent 40 days in the desert. (Forty is one of those Biblical numbers that means a long time: like when the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years or the 40 days and nights of rain which floated Noah’s ark.)
Aged about 30, Jesus was beginning the main period of his ministry on earth. Having been baptised by John the Baptist, Jesus then went in to the wilderness and was tempted by the Devil to give up his status as the Son of God. (Matthew 4:1-11).
It was a significant period in Jesus’ life. A life of remarkable teachings, healings, miracles and ministry. A life which was to last for just three more years before his betrayal, crucifixion, death and resurrection – all of which we mark at the end of Lent at Easter.
Lent is the Anglo-Saxon word for Spring and connects with the word ‘lengthen’. The daytime is getting longer. Growth is taking place.
In recent years, there has been an increased emphasis not on ‘giving up’ but on ‘taking up’ something that will deepen our faith in God and trust in Jesus, the one who went through that wilderness experience. To do something which reflects that Springtime meaning of ‘Lent’ – something that will help us to grow.
There are many ways we can do this…
- There are plenty of books written especially for Lent – some offer a reading for each of the 40 days, others one for every Sunday in the season.
- Your local church may be running a Lent course – a time to build up our faith with others.
- Develop a specific pattern of prayer – setting aside a time and place.
- Keep a journal: recording your experience of seeing God at work in your life and those around you.
- Going on a retreat or Quiet Day: making time just for you and God – a time for giving God some intentional attention.
In his Rule for monastic living, St Benedict wrote ‘The life of a monastic ought to be a continuous Lent… and look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.’
So let’s ‘give it up’ for Lent. A time of change and growth. A period of listening more to God and increased stability. Of looking forward to the future with joy and spiritual longing.
If I’d had £5 every time someone asked what I’ll be doing in retirement, I could have bought myself my own gold watch.
Play on repeat: ‘Writing books and blogs, learning the piano, photography, family history, U3A, joint ministry with my wife…’ But how upset I’d be if nobody asked. I am so grateful for and humbled by the interest and love shown in these last few months.
Preparing for the next stage of life – as I prefer to call it – started five years ago. You only get one go at this, I thought, and I want to make it work.
Having spent 30 years helping people with phased returns to work, I’ve taken a staged approach towards retirement. Five to four days a week three years ago. Three days since January. Changing the balance of life. Getting used to less structure. Less contact with people. Building new routines.
It’s worked. This writer approaches the next stage of life with a sense of calm. And for one for whom it is an elusive emotion, there’s even some excitement.
At work itself, the last three years have seen succession planning (a far too grand a title, really). We’ve crossed a few hurdles on the way. Many have helped in the process. That’s worked too. Achieving what we wanted. In full and on time. Recruiting replacements. Handing over to successors. Spending less time with immediate colleagues: enabling them to work together, develop and flourish. It’s going to be even better. Wow.
Unexpected, though, has been the return of ‘that Sunday evening feeling’. A loss of motivation sitting in tension with the calling and enjoyment of the vocation. Apprehension alongside anticipation. And a reduced irritation threshold…
A season of stopping and starting. The last client appointment. The last employer meeting. The last conference. The last training course delivered. The last team meeting. The last times of working with and learning so much from others. The last time I’ll see people who have meant so much to me. (Sorry. The hurts of history have made me sceptical of fond farewell, keep in touch promises.)
In all this, I’ve not been counting down the days. So this week’s realisation that there’s just six working ones to go came as a shock. The calmness shaken. The boat rocky. A strange time. The nearer it gets, the less believable it becomes. Such is the nature of change.
But it’s a time to give thanks for the privileges God has given. The privilege of making a difference. The privilege of playing a part in the lives of others. Seeing people make progress – especially in the small ways. Never ignore the small ways: they are always bigger than we think. The privilege of the next stage of life and all that will hold.
I’m writing this on retreat at Alton Abbey, a community of Benedictine monks in Hampshire. There’s a storm blowing outside. There’s one blowing inside too. But this is a place where the clock runs slowly. Where the silence of mealtimes is comforting. The routine of prayer is steadfast. The presence of God is everywhere. There’s sanctuary in the stillness. A place of stability in the stopping and the starting.
‘To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. Oh my God, in you I trust.’ (Psalm 25).
Play on repeat. It works.
‘To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. Oh my God, in you I trust.’