2018 Random Lent Thought #13: Simplicity

Here’s one of my favourite sayings: ‘Junk will always expand to fill available space’.

And here’s one of the most challenging sayings of Jesus: ‘‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.‘ (Matthew 6:19-21 NIV).

You and I have been formed by a culture in which our right to store up for ourselves treasures on earth is considered sacrosanct. A huge advertising industry is dedicated to making us discontented with what we have, and success is most often defined in terms of increasing wealth. But here Jesus stands against this and unmasks it for what it is: idolatry: ‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’.

Back in the 1970s there was a saying: ‘Live simply, that others might simply live’. I’m fortunate (although it doesn’t always feel that way!) to be married to a woman who cares deeply about the simple life and who regularly goes through the house, identifies things we don’t use and don’t need, and finds a charity to give them away to. We’re also fortunate in that we live in a small house, so there isn’t much space to accumulate junk anyway, because (as I said above) junk will always expand to fill available space.

‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth…but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven’. How am I putting this teaching of Jesus into practice in my life? How about you?

2018 Random Lent Thought #12: Faith and Unbelief

Just a short RLT this morning. As part of my One Year Bible readings today I read Mark 9:2-9, which ends with the story of Jesus delivering a boy from an impure spirit when the disciples have not been able to do this. After the boy’s father describes his symptoms to Jesus, he says “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help u!” “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”  Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23-24 NIV).

This is my favourite prayer in the Bible, because I often have a problem with faith. When I read Jesus saying “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24), my heart sinks and I know there’s no hope for me because I have never at any time in my life been able to summon up faith like that. Some may be able to do it, but I can’t.

So I’m encouraged by the raw honesty of the father in today’s story. “I believe and I don’t believe – please help me move forward, Lord!” And the amazing thing is that it’s enough; Jesus immediately turns and delivers the boy, and he is set free from his troubles.

Does this mean that the father’s faith was enough? I think I would prefer to believe it means Jesus‘ faith is enough. The father may not have strong faith, but Jesus has absolute faith in his Father in heaven, and so he is able to deliver the boy.

Growing in faith is something we sometimes think about during Lent, but I suspect that to many of us it’s even more difficult than fasting and self-denial! How would we even begin to grow in faith? It’s easy to become discouraged when, year after year, we can see only negligible movement on that score. “Lord, I believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” remains our prayer as the years go by – maybe even more so.

Today when I’m faced with desperate situations that need fervent, faithful prayer, I know I’m going to feel inadequate about addressing them. But I’m going to try to remind myself that although my faith feels weak, Jesus’ faith is strong, and the letter to the Hebrews tells us that he is always praying to the Father for us. And that will be enough.

 

2018 Random Lent Thought #11: Neighbours and Foreigners

Sometimes our Lent disciplines can be overly individualistic. We think about our own prayer, our own fasting, our own self-denial, our own individual relationship with God. But God has a different vision. To God, holiness is social as well as personal.

This morning in my ‘One Year Bible’ readings I read Leviticus 19-20, the so-called ‘holiness code’. It begins with the famous words “Be holy, because I, Yahweh your God, am holy” (19:2). But it immediately begins to define holiness in social terms: respect your father and mother; keep the Sabbath (in modern Judaism, that is very much a community discipline, and I expect the same was true in ancient times); don’t harvest your field or vineyard so thoroughly that you don’t leave something behind for the poor; don’t steal, lie, deceive one another; don’t defraud your neighbour; don’t hold back the wages of a day-labourer overnight; don’t pervert justice by showing partiality in court to either rich or poor; don’t slander your neighbour or endanger their life; love your neighbour as yourself (this is just a selection from 19:3-18).

The one that really struck me was this one: ‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God’ (Leviticus 19:33-34).

So they were commanded not only to love their neighbour as themselves, but the foreigner living among them – the immigrant, the refugee – as well. So all the commands about how you treat your neighbour also applied to how you treated the foreigner.

“Isn’t it awful – refugees and immigrants who haven’t paid taxes here get just the same benefits as us!” Well, in Leviticus God apparently disagrees with that sentiment. ‘The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born’.

We must not avoid thinking about these things during Lent. The way I treat my neighbour is an integral part of my relationship with God. This is not just about warm feelings and kind words; it’s about basic honesty, justice, and respect.

On Ash Wednesday we read from Isaiah 58, in which God rebukes the Israelites for following the prescribed fasts but not caring about their neighbours. ‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?’ (Isaiah 58:6-7; the whole chapter is worth a re-read today).

Lent is not just about ‘me and God’, because holiness is not just about ‘me and God’. Both are social. After all, Jesus has told us that the way we treat people in need is the way we treat him (Matthew 25:31-46).

How will we treat our Lord today when he comes to us in our neighbour?

2018 Random Lent Thought #10: Taking On and Giving Up

This morning Marci and I read some passages from Mark about sabbath observance. It got me thinking about ‘taking on and giving up’.

Traditionally, of course, we ‘gave things up for Lent’: chocolate, sugar in your coffee, alcohol etc. In recent years, however, there’s been some resistance to this idea. Isn’t it better to take on a positive practice during Lent? Volunteer in a homeless shelter, spend time with your family, read the Bible more, etc. etc.

Personally, I think we need to consider balance, and be realistic about scheduling.

When I look at the folks I know in Edmonton, I have to say that most of them aren’t sitting around with lots of empty space in their lives, just waiting to add another positive practice. Most of them are running at a hundred miles an hour from morning til night. They have far more things to do than they have time to do them in. That’s one of the reasons why ‘regular church attendance’ now seems to mean once a month rather than once a week.

Frankly, it’s not good news for these folks that Lent is here, and we have something more we want you to take on for the next six weeks!

So let’s be realistic. Every time we decide to do something new, we’re also going to have to decide what we’re going to stop doing in order to make room for it. Read the Gospel of Mark through Lent? Excellent idea. Now – when in your day are you going to do it? What are you currently doing at that time? So are you going to stop doing that, or move it to another time (and stop doing something else…)?

I’m all for adding positive habits to our lives. But I have to say, for most of the people I know, one of the most important positive habits they could learn would be this one: do nothing for a while every day. Don’t check email or surf Facebook. Don’t rush around doing things and fulfilling obligations. Shed some of those obligations. Decide what’s really important and what’s not. Let some things go, and don’t fill that space. Just sit, nurse a cup of coffee, and enjoy the quiet and solitude for half an hour. Or go for a walk, not for exercise, but just for the pleasure of it.

In the Old Testament when God gives the command to observe the Sabbath, the only rule he gives is “You shall do no work”. Nothing else is mandated for the Sabbath. It’s a day of rest.

That’s both giving up and taking on. Sounds like good common sense to me.

Happy Sunday.

2018 Random Lent Thought #9: More About Prayer

Yesterday we explored a simple framework for a daily prayer time. This is a good starting place for people who have never done anything like that before.

But of course there’s always more that could be said, and I’m a preacher, so I always have more to say! Today I’d like to explore the words we use in prayer. It seems to me that there are three options, or three elements if you like.

First, we can pray using our own words. This is sometimes called ‘extemporary prayer’. I think of what the psalmist says in Psalm 62:8: ‘Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge’ (NIV). When we ‘pour out our hearts’ to someone we don’t tend to use special words or a polished presentation; we just speak words of heartfelt honesty. The ACTS outline I gave yesterday (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) can easily be filled in with this sort of prayer. This style of prayer is also very easy when we’re in desperate need or overflowing with thanksgiving!

But sometimes we find it hard to find words. Conversational prayer can be a bit weird when the other party seems reluctant to join in the conversation! And this is where the second option can help: we can pray using other people’s words.

There’s nothing wrong with doing this. After all, a whole book of the Bible (the book of Psalms) appears to have been inspired by the Holy Spirit in order to give us words to use in prayer when we can’t find words ourselves (and some of them are very gritty and honest words). Jesus also gave us the Lord’s Prayer, which we can legitimately use either as a prayer in its own right, or as a framework for our own prayers. In the catholic traditions, the daily offices have made heavy use of the psalms and other biblical prayers to give depth and structure to our prayer lives.

But sometimes we need to stop talking. So, thirdly, we can pray without words (which C.S. Lewis thought was the highest form of prayer, although he admitted that he was often not on ‘good enough form’ to manage it). In silent prayer we simply sit or kneel in the presence of God. We listen, but we don’t worry if we don’t hear anything (with our ears or our hearts). That’s not the point. The point is simply to be with God, in that deep intimacy where words are not necessary. It’s what the psalmist was talking about: ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation’ (Psalm 62:1 NRSV).

I suspect that most mature Christians use a combination of these three elements: our own words, other people’s words, no words. I suspect that we all have one we like best and one we like least. And I suspect that Lent is a good time to challenge ourselves to explore the one we like the least.

2018 Random Lent Thought #8: Prayer

‘Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed’ (Mark 1:35 NIV).

One of the things we think about in Lent is prayer.

When I was a little boy I was taught to pray the Lord’s Prayer and other simple bedtime prayers. On Sunday we went to church and I joined in the liturgical prayers from the Book of Common Prayer. But I didn’t really have a personal prayer life.

I gave my life to Jesus when I was thirteen, and not long afterwards my dad gave me a little booklet called ‘Seven Minutes with God’ by Robert D. Foster (it’s now available as a PDF download on the Internet). It was written for beginners, and so Foster recommended starting with a short prayer period – five minutes might be too short, ten at first would be too long, but seven was a good compromise. He recommended doing this first thing in the morning, the beginning of the day, as a good time to tune into God’s presence – like Jesus getting up ‘very early in the morning’ and going out to a solitary place to pray.

The structure was simple:

Half a minute to prepare your heart, thanking God for the blessing of a night’s rest, asking God to cleanse your heart, open the scriptures to you and help you understand them.

Four minutes to read a short passage from the Bible, listening for a word from God for you.

Two and a half minutes to pray. The prayer should include (here are the old words Foster uses) Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication (ACTS).

Adoration is worship. I would add – if you can’t find words for this, use a psalm as a prayer of worship. Psalm 150 is good, or Psalm 92 or 93, or (if you want to take a little longer) Psalm 104. A well-loved hymn or song of praise can also be a help (‘Holy, Holy, Holy’, ‘I Lift My Eyes Up’ etc.).

Confession is simply being honest with God about our sins – we have not loved God with our whole heart or our neighbour as ourselves. Think back on the last twenty-four hours, call to mind specific failings, ask God for forgiveness, and thank him for his grace.

Thanksgiving comes next. Gratitude is a vital component of Christian living. Think of all the blessings (people, experiences, things, faith, community) you enjoy, and thank God for them.

Supplication is asking God for things. We pray for the needs of others, and our own needs too. Don’t be shy about this! You can also look ahead to what the day may hold and ask God’s help for any challenging situations you may be facing.

Foster doesn’t mention this, but very quickly in my own practice I got into the habit of concluding my prayer time with the Lord’s Prayer – it’s a good summary (and maybe correction!), and also ensures that I don’t leave out any of the important stuff!

This is a simple guide but I found it a great place to start! Gradually you’ll find the time grows (I find that now, nearly forty-six years after I started, I’m spending 30-35 minutes). But don’t rush to that; let the prayer time grow naturally, as you get used to it and begin to sense the benefits of it. You may also become more flexible about how you combine the various elements, what order you put them in, how you incorporate silence, and various other factors. That’s great! ‘Seven Minutes with God’ is not meant to be an inflexible structure – it’s meant to be a place to start.

I have absolutely no doubt that this ‘Morning Watch’ or ‘Quiet Time’ (to use two of the traditional names for it) has been by far the most important factor in my own Christian growth for the past forty-six years. I recommend it to you without reservation. and if you’ve never done it before, Lent is a good time to begin it.

2018 Random Lent Thought #7: Faith

“Do I have enough faith?” When I was a young Christian, that was often an agonizing – and paralyzing – question.

I came to conscious faith in Christ – there’s that word again, we use it in so many ways! – as a young teenager in the context of what we then called ‘the Pentecostal Movement’ in Anglicanism (not long afterwards we started calling it ‘the Charismatic Renewal’). ‘Faith’ was a huge issue for us charismatics, because of our emphasis on healing and supernatural intervention. We paid a lot of attention to verses like Mark 11:22-24:

‘Have faith in God,’ Jesus answered. ‘Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, “Go, throw yourself into the sea,” and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours’.

‘Heart’, to us, meant ‘the feelings’ (as it self-evidently does to all modern people); we didn’t know that the New Testament writers thought the feelings were centred in another organ of the body, the intestines (hence the King James Version’s translation of ‘compassion’ as ‘bowels of mercy’). ‘Heart’, in the New Testament, covers a much bigger portion of the inner life – the emotions, the thoughts, and especially the will, the choices we make.

What I missed when I read the New Testament was how active the words ‘faith’ and ‘believe’ are.

Four friends bring a paralyzed man to Jesus so that he can heal him. The house is too crowded and they can’t get to Jesus, so they climb up and dig a hole in the mud roof, and lower their friend down on his stretcher, right in front of Jesus. Mark says, ‘When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralysed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven’ (Mark 2:5).

But note this: what Jesus actually saw was their actions. Their ‘faith’ was a decision to act on trust. The action made it concrete – but also, somehow, easier to practice. They didn’t spend much time agonizing over whether they ‘had enough faith in their ‘hearts’. They were too busy digging a hole in the roof.

Matthew tells the famous miracle story of Jesus walking on the water, but he adds a detail not included in Mark:

But Jesus immediately said to them: ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.’

‘Lord, if it’s you,’ Peter replied, ‘tell me to come to you on the water.’

‘Come,’ he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came towards Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’ (Matthew 14:27-31).

What did ‘faith’ feel like for Peter? It felt like wet feet! Faith was a decision to act in a concrete way – to swing his feet over the side and step out, his eyes fixed on Jesus. Peter was already familiar with this kind of faith. A few months earlier, he had heard the invitation of Jesus, “Follow me”, and he had left his old life behind with his fishing nets and stepped out into the unknown, following wherever Jesus went – surely another example of ‘walking on water’!

This is why faith and action are not opposed to each other. As Christians we’re called to act in faith. Faith looks like giving generously to the poor and needy. It looks like taking your courage in your hands and speaking your word of testimony to a friend. It looks like loving your enemies and praying for those who hate you. It looks like giving your hungry enemy a plate of stew and a cup of coffee. It looks like getting out of your seat, coming to the front of the church and stretching out your hands to receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion.

In his book ‘Prayer’, Ole Hallesby says that the two essentials for prayer are faith and desperation. Most of us don’t have too much trouble with the desperation; the older we get, the more we realize that (contrary to Paul McCartney!) the ‘movement we need’ is emphatically not ‘on our shoulder’! It’s beyond us! We need help from outside, or we’re not going to get anywhere.

Faith, Hallesby says, can seem more intimidating, but it doesn’t need to. If you have enough faith to turn to Jesus and ask for help, then you have enough faith. That’s the ‘faith the size of a grain of mustard seed’ that Jesus was talking about.

In Lent, we seek to grow in faith. But we sometimes make this too complicated. Growing in faith means simply (a) asking what Jesus is calling us to do next, and then (b) getting out of the boat and starting to do it, trusting that he will be there to hold us up.

Carry on.

2018 Random Lent Thought #6: MYOB

Today’s RLT is particularly aimed at those of us who inhabit the internet regularly. I was a bit worried about this at first, and then I thought “Well, if you’re reading this, you’re on the internet, so it probably applies to you!”

Proverbs 26:17 says ‘Like one who grabs a stray dog by the ears is someone who rushes into a quarrel not their own’. I don’t know about you, but I really need to take that one to heart.

The internet has really brought home to me how many sadly misguided people there are in the world. Day by day, on a regular basis, people go online and spout nonsense.

By that, of course, I mean that they don’t agree with me.

Some of these people are friends of mine. Some of them are total strangers who are being quoted by friends of mine. Some of them are total strangers whose Facebook and Twitter posts, for some unfathomable reason, I’ve decided to follow – even though I have a pretty good idea they’re going to annoy me.

Here’s the thing. Before the internet, it was a fairly predictable thing that from time to time I would have to listen to people spouting what I, in my humble opinion, considered to be nonsense. However, the internet has vastly increased the likelihood of this happening. And more and more, people are taking the bait. Disagreements are increasing. Arguments with total strangers are degenerating into insults and name calling. And how many people are actually persuaded, and change their minds? I’m guessing, not many.

This Lent, I’m trying to take Proverbs 26:17 to heart. Don’t grab the ears of a stray dog, Tim. Don’t stick your nose in a quarrel that’s not yours. God has not appointed you as the official corrector of everyone you run across on the internet. If you want to do that, you will have a 24/7 job, because it will never, ever end.

In C.S. Lewis’ classic ‘The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe’, the children Peter and Susan are consulting old Professor Kirke about how they should approach a particular issue. The Professor turns to Susan and says, “My dear young lady, there is one plan which no one has yet suggested and which is well worth trying”.

“What’s that?” said Susan.

“We might all try minding our own business…”

Indeed. Keep your hands away from the ears of stray dogs.

Blessings on your day!

2018 Random Lent Thought #5: Dust

“You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). This cheerful sentence was part of last week’s Ash Wednesday liturgy; I went from person to person, dipping my finger in the ashes and tracing a black and messy sign of the cross on each forehead, looking at each one in turn and assuring them that yes, one day they were going to die.

They knew this was going to happen, and yet they still came to church. Because life can’t always be happy-clappy. Life is serious, and life is hard, and life as we know it is also inescapably terminal.

My friend Joe Walker (who died of cancer at 46) used to say “Have a miserable Lent!” Please understand, Joe was not a miserable person. But he knew that there are times in everyone’s life where we have to stop ‘cheering up’, look into the abyss and see if we can find God there.

I’m currently reading Kate Bowler’s brilliant book ‘“Everything Happens for a Reason” and Other Lies I’ve Loved’. In case you haven’t heard of it, Doctor Bowler teaches church history at Yale. She is in her thirties, and a couple of years ago she was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. She is married, with a four year old son, and the long-term prognosis is not good.

In one of my favourite chapters (the one in which she talks about taking up swearing for Lent), she describes the annoying experience of having people, over and over again, refusing to let Lent be – well – sombre. I’m dying, she says, and for forty days the church says everyone has to join me in that, and stare down death. But they won’t. “Everyone is trying to Easter the crap out of my Lent!” she complains.

Yes – of course Christianity is a joyful faith. But parts of life are not joyful. So Lent is not a happy-clappy part of the church year. It’s a time in which we reflect on the fact that we’re all going to die eventually, and when that day comes, lots of the nonsense we’ve devoted ourselves to won’t actually mean a thing. This is what I call an ‘Eyes Wide Open’ kind of faith. Don’t turn away from the hard truths. Don’t drown them with platitudes. Life can be a mess, but God is still our Rock. He is called by that name many times in the psalms, which do have a tendency to be rather gloomy.

So don’t let anyone Easter the crap out of your Lent. For these forty days, we’re going to acknowledge that the dark night of the soul can be real, the desert can be lonely, bad things do happen to good people, and sometimes things don’t make sense. And we’re going to cling to God our Rock anyway.

Carry on.

Into the Wilderness with Jesus (a sermon for Lent 1 on Mark 1:9-15)

I wonder what comes to your mind when you hear the words ‘trackless wilderness’? I wonder if you’ve ever been in one?

I’ve never really experienced a hot desert, but I’ve got a lot of experience of the cold variety. We lived in the Northwest Territories from 1984 to 1991, and while we were there I made many hunting trips out on the land. Aklavik, our first Arctic home, was an hour by snowmobile from the Richardson Mountains. The trail there led through small trees at first, but eventually as we climbed, the trees disappeared and we were in a ‘trackless waste’. The locals didn’t think of it as ‘trackless’, of course – they knew it well! One friend I was hunting with asked me if I was okay to find my way back to Aklavik by myself. “There’s a road you can follow”, he said. That didn’t make any sense to me, until I remembered that the Inuktitut word for ‘road’ can also mean ‘trail’, and a skidoo track in the snow was a trail to him!

We’re not told where the particular ‘wilderness’ was that Jesus went out to for forty days, but it’s traditionally been assumed that he went south into the Negev, or south-west into the Sinai Desert where the Israelites had wandered for forty years before entering the promised land. Mark’s gospel tells us very little about what happened during Jesus’ forty-day wilderness pilgrimage; we turn to Matthew and Luke for more details about the devil’s tests, but Mark has nothing about that. What he does tell us is that, first, it was the Spirit who led him out there – the word actually used is ‘drove him out’, a surprisingly forceful word; second, that while he was there he was tempted – the word can also mean ‘tested’ – by Satan; and third, that he had company while he was out there – wild beasts and angels!

So what’s it all about, this wilderness experience? And why has it been such a strong symbol for the Christian journey for two thousand years since then?

I already mentioned the story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness with Moses for forty years. But Moses himself had first met God in that same wilderness, at Mount Sinai, where he was looking after his father-in-law’s sheep; he saw a burning bush and had a dramatic encounter with Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was in the wilderness that the Israelites heard God speak and received the commandments and the rest of the Law through Moses.  They had to wait there a long time – forty years – before entering their promised land.

Later on in the Old Testament we read of how the prophet Elijah was on the run from the wicked Queen Jezebel who was trying to kill him. We’re told that he took a forty-day journey into the wilderness, fasting all the time, until he came to Mount Sinai, where Moses had met God. There Elijah too had an encounter with God’s ‘still, small voice’; he heard an encouraging and challenging word of God, and he was strengthened to go back and continue his struggle. These are just three of the many wilderness stories in the Old Testament.

So there’s a long tradition in Israel’s scriptures of the wilderness as the place you go to meet with God. It’s also a place of repentance. The Israelites had to wander there for forty years instead of entering immediately into their promised land, because of their lack of faith, their grumbling and complaining, and their idolatry. John the Baptist appeared in the Judean wilderness ‘proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1:4). And Matthew and Luke give us stories of Jesus being tested by the devil, tempted to take unholy paths rather than following the hard road of the cross; he intentionally turned from those dead-end paths and chose to do the will of his Father instead.

What is it about the wilderness that makes it such a fruitful place to have an encounter with God? I think it may be the lack of distractions there.

Let’s think about that for a minute. Here we are in the middle of a bustling city. Our senses are bombarded with sights and sounds and smells, every day, twenty-four hours a day. Many of us check our email first thing in the morning, maybe even before we brush our teeth, and we’re doing it again many times through the day. On any given day there are many, many things we need to do, probably far more than we can reasonably fit into twenty-four hours. And we’re constantly being bombarded with ads telling us we don’t have enough stuff yet; there’s at least one more thing we need to buy, and then our life will finally be complete.

These are the voices we choose to listen to. But where in the midst of all that distraction do we take time to listen to God? When do we slow down and take time for unhurried reading of the scriptures? When do we turn off the noise, so we can make friends with the silence, not saying anything, just content to rest in God’s presence?

We can do that in the city, or the country, in the midst of our busy lives, but it takes practice and discipline to be able to do it well. But the wilderness is a place where there are very few distractions. In the wilderness, it can sometimes be much easier to hear the voice of God.

In the history of Christian spirituality there have been monks and nuns who have intentionally gone out to live in caves and huts in the desert, away from all distractions, so they could spend all their time in prayer. We call them ‘the Desert Fathers’ (there were some Desert Mothers too, but you don’t hear of them as often). Later on, of course, monks and nuns got a little more organised, monasteries were founded, and people’s time was regulated in a way that left lots of room for silence and contemplation. Many of the classics of Christian spirituality were written by people living in situations like that.

But you and I don’t live there. We aren’t monks and nuns. We live ordinary lives in the world, many of us work jobs and raise families, and somehow we have to muddle along and try to grow a relationship with God in the midst of our daily routines. So what does the wilderness have to say to us, when we can’t go there?

Well, maybe we can. Remember, the wilderness is about turning away from distractions so that we can pay closer attention to the still, small voice of God. It’s about turning away from earthly comforts for a while so we can experience the comfort above all comfort – knowing ourselves to be loved and supported by God. It’s also about turning away from distractions so we can come face to face with the truth about ourselves – the ugly as well as the good. Yes, there are strengths and loves, but there are also behaviours we’re addicted to, and we don’t discover that until we try to do without them for a while.

That’s where Lent comes in.

I don’t have time this morning to tell you the long history of the evolution of Lent. I will just say that from ancient times it was connected with Easter, and the preparation for the baptism of new Christians which took place at the Easter Vigil. For the final few weeks of preparation, the new converts went through an especially rigorous time of fasting and praying, and it became the custom for the whole congregation to join them in this time. Gradually this season became associated with Jesus’ forty-day wilderness pilgrimage – Lent is forty days long if you don’t count the Sundays – and so it became a time of fasting and prayer and self-denial, with the goal of drawing closer to God.

That’s why we give things up during Lent. Giving things up is not a good in itself; there’s nothing especially meritorious about giving up sugar or alcohol or Facebook for Lent. But Lent is an opportunity for us to ask ourselves honestly about the things that are distracting us from God. Is that ‘comfort food’ becoming a snare for us? Do we turn to Facebook before we turn to the Bible in the morning? Is it time for us to intentionally ‘declutter’ our lives for a while so that there’s more room for God, more time to listen to him, less distraction when we do?

I’ve given up blogging and Facebook for Lent a number of times, and it’s always been beneficial for me. I get a lot of enjoyment out of social media, but it can seem like a very noisy and crowded world from time to time. It’s not for everyone, but for me, going on a blogging or Facebook fast has often been a very powerful spiritual discipline.

Let me suggest three questions we could ask ourselves when we’re thinking about possible wilderness disciplines.

First, what has gotten such a hold on me that I can’t imagine being able to live without it? Is it that wine bottle that lives in the fridge all the time, or in the cupboard above the stove? Is it that constant Facebook conversation? Is it the luxury of a daily latté at Starbucks? If we’ve become so dependent on something or some habit that we can’t imagine living without it – maybe that’s a sign we need to live without it for a while.

Second, where could my self-control muscles use a little exercise? Self-control is mentioned in the New Testament as a fruit of the Spirit – a virtue that the Holy Spirit grows in our lives. But my experience is that he usually grows it by exercise! When we’re trying to break a negative habit or form a positive habit, we’re always tempted to give up. Self-control grows as we practice not giving up. That’s why Lenten fasting is helpful too – it teaches us that most people don’t die of hunger when they miss two or three meals.

Third, what might be the biggest distraction from God in my life right now? What is taking up the time that I could be giving to quiet prayer and Bible reading? What’s filling my mind when I could be focussing on loving God with my whole heart and loving my neighbour as myself? Where do my thoughts, money, and spare time go? Is it possible that might be my real god, even though I think I’m worshipping the one true God?

Let me encourage you to think about these questions. Don’t put it off. Take a copy of this sermon home with you – or look it up on our church website this afternoon. Remind yourself of these questions, think and pray about them, and make some decisions about Lenten disciplines that are right for you.

Finally, let’s remind ourselves of where we want to refocus our attention. What are we being distracted from?

We said on Wednesday that the convergence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day this year was a good reminder that Lent is all about love. Jesus told us that the two great commandments were, first, that we love God with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength, and second, that we love our neighbour as we love ourselves. The meaning of our life is found in a strong relationship with God and a strong relationship with our neighbours – the people close to us, the people we meet every day, the people we’re able to help.

So it’s no good just giving things up for Lent and leaving it at that. We need to replace those things with better things. For instance, one of my Lent disciplines is a weekly two-meal fast – I miss breakfast and lunch and I don’t eat in between meals, so it’s almost a twenty-four hour fast. But I also make it a habit to take the lunch period, find a place where I can be alone, and spend the time in silent prayer, just sitting and listening, opening myself up to God’s presence.

So if you decide that watching TV while you eat supper is not a good thing and you want to give it up for Lent, what are you going to do in its place? If you’re living with your family, the obvious thing is to try to make supper more of a time of family interaction – conversation, storytelling and so on. And why not try ending the meal with a family devotional time, a short Bible reading and prayer?

Let me say this in conclusion: I have to confess that I really love Lent. It always arrives in the nick of time for me, as I’m getting too distracted by stuff that’s not important. So, let me encourage you to use this season to the full this year. Turn away from distractions and turn toward God. Trust me, you will be surprised at how much benefit you get from it.