Second Sunday of Lent, 14th February 2016
Sunday 14th February 2016, by Fr James Heard
That great icon’s in Indian history, Mahatma Gandhi, spoke these perceptive words: ‘There is more to life than increasing its speed’. We regularly need to be reminded of this, and perhaps it could make a good Lenten discipline this year. Why?
Well, because technology can be a wonderful thing (I love my iphone/ ipad – GPS watch) - but technology also has the habit of speeding things up. Many of us are no longer happy to wait for a few days for a response to a letter. In the world of emails and smart phones we can begin to get impatient if we haven’t received a response in a few hours. I know some of you here don’t have computers let alone emails… and I sometimes think how amazing that must be! Because life in the modern world has certainly increased its speed.
This need for speed is combined with a stress on what is calculable – what you can measure. And these can have profoundly negative effects. Just think of the disastrous results that prioritisation of targets over patient care have had in certain hospitals. Is education simply about producing students who know how to pass exams so as to gain entry into a top-tier university, rather than the old style of teaching where learning is important for its own sake (the dilemma played out in Alan Bennet’s History Boys).
It seems that wherever you turn, in business, in industry, in education, success is measured by this – speed and calculability. To get on means that you will have to fill your diary, work every hour God sends, work both smart and fast. Even the church is not immune to this ethos, with potential bishop having to do mini-MBAs. Is busyness axiomatically a good thing? I get twitchy when someone says they didn’t want to disturb me because I must be so busy.
Perhaps during this season of Lent, we might learn two things from the monastic tradition – stability and stillness/slowing down.
Michael Sadgrove, who was Dean of Durham, described that, when he was in Sheffield and trying to raise funds for the Cathedral, he asked a wealthy businessman to help.
As he wrote out the cheque, he said to me: ‘Michael, it’s really important that the church models something different from the hectic pace at which we in the public and private sectors expect to see results. The cathedral has been here for centuries…it looks at things from the vantage point of eternity. It can help us take the long view, learn the meaning of patience.’
Perhaps this is what St Benedict meant by stability in his rule for monks. I once went on retreat to the Benedictine monastery Worth Abbey. I was shown around and various places were pointed out: the chapel, refectory, library, common room, a rather beautiful quiet garden. And a little further on was their cemetery. Part of the Benedictine commitment is to stability, so when monks make their solemn vows to living in this particular place, they do so knowing that they will be there until their dying days. And this was where they would be buried.
Their challenge to us is about not running feverishly from place to place, either physically or metaphorically, but being committed to the present where God has placed us, living according to that long view. It is precisely because of the nature of our life today, especially in this frenetic city of London, that the concept of stability is so important. One theologian (Grün) calls stability ‘medicine for a restless era’.
Stability is not just, or primarily, about geographic or emotional space – as important as they are – but about spiritual space. Stability of space and relationship are not the ultimate goal but the means towards establishing stability of the heart. As Metropolitan Anthony Bloom writes:
‘…at the heart of stability there is the attitude that God is everywhere, that we have no need to seek God elsewhere, that if I can’t find God here I shan’t find Him anywhere, because the kingdom of God begins with us.’
That’s the invitation of stability in our fast paced and changing world. We have daily prayer here, about fifteen minutes, little and often. You’re welcome to pop in when you can.
The other thing to learn from the monastic tradition is stillness – In our fast paced lives, slowing down and pausing - being still and silent - is a very difficult challenge. We learn about speeding up at a very young age. We learn it from adults. I remember when we gave our children’s buggy away and they start to walk – but with their little legs they go, compared to our big legs, terribly slow. If you actually want to get anywhere it can be infuriating. I would find myself looking back and saying, ‘come on’, ‘hurry up’. Children also have a real sense of wonder about life and the universe – a flower. A dog! The wind blowing the leaves in a tree. Wow!
Perhaps you hadn’t considered the two year old as an image of God. They remind us adults, who have lost this wonder, to slow down and smell the proverbial roses. Lent can also be our teacher. The invitation during Lent is to slow down. The scary thing that might happen here – as our Gospel reading suggests – is that we begin to face our demons, and that can be uncomfortable and challenging.
This is exactly what Psalm 46 encourages us to do – ‘be still and know that I am God...’ It’s about finding soul space in a busy world. And Lent is a time of year that can kick start it. The gift of Lent could be finding equilibrium, balance, among the world’s destabilising, capricious changes and chances.
We are invited into a differently calibrated kind of life, a way of being that is not governed by the breathless sprint of our ordinary days but that paces itself according to divine time, discovers its own rhythms through living reflectively.
For me, the first sign of success will be not to agree with anyone who says to me ‘You must be so busy’. Indeed, authentic Christian ministry means the very opposite: having time for other people and for God.
Putting this in musical terms – God’s pace could be described as Adagio, lento, sometimes andante, but not often presto or vivace; it’s the still small voice, not the earthquake, wind and fire.
It’s true that occasionally, ‘he is such a fast god’ as R.S. Thomas says: baffling, elusive, strange. But most of the time he is so slow his movement is undetectable except to those who stay still for long enough. To see it, we need to become more contemplative: sit in the park and travel at God’s speed; or when a child approaches to play, put down your ipad/ book/ phone (whatever is causing your busyness)... and play, waste some time, do a puzzle, read their book, play a game.
Lastly, during the first three Sundays of Lent we have a focus on stewardship – taking responsibility as a whole community for the life of this church. This involves our time and also our financial resources. A letter has been sent out to the whole parish (let me know if you didn’t get one) detailing our vision as a church. It’s a vision that includes being a welcoming and hospitable community, where we grow deeper in our faith, which includes nurturing our children, ensuring that our beautiful church is kept in good condition, that its heated a lit, and where we aren’t simply focused inwards but that we serve the community and a variety of ways – part of which is giving our share of the Common Fund where we support churches in poorer parts of London who couldn’t otherwise have a priest. This all takes money – in fact, about £220,000 a year. The importance of planned regular giving is to help us plan and have important things like budgets.
As the vicar, I don’t know who gives what, but I’m conscious that many of you give regularly and generously and so a huge thanks to you for that. If you are able, I would encourage you to review your giving during Lent. And if you haven’t yet got around to starting planned giving, do consider starting now.
Returning to our invitation to find stability and stillness. Try this in Lent: pay attention, slow down, listen to music, read a book, go to an art gallery, waste some time, see into the life of things. It will bring to life’s relentless flow and flux the gift of stability and peace. Spring is nearly here, Lent’s slow awakening, forty days for the wilderness of our lives to blossom, for us to listen and pay attention and find a new happiness in our souls.
Fr James Heard
Reference: Michael Sadgrove, Durham Cathedral, 10 February 2013