Meditations preached on Ash Wednesday (22 February 2012) by Reverend Sarah Eynstone, Chaplain

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Meditations preached on Ash Wednesday (22 February 2012) by Reverend Sarah Eynstone, Chaplain

On Ash Wednesday, Rev Sarah Eynstone held a series of four liturgies and meditations. In these, she contemplated how poverty, chastity and obedience can give us the freedom to grow into the full stature of our humanity through following in the way of Christ.

Freedom in a modern age
We live in a culture preoccupied with choice; today, even if you’re not aware of it, you will make a huge number of choices; some of these will be superficial - what to wear, what to eat, how to get to work; some have more significant consequences - where and how should I spend or save what money I have? Where should I send my children to school? Some choices may be profound - what do I really believe about the world?; how do I really feel about my partner’s desire to have children?

However we feel about choice, and we may feel bewildered by the dizzying array of choices on offer, the freedom to choose is held up as a sign that we live in a thriving economic and social culture. Politicians of every persuasion reassure us that if elected they will guarantee us more choice; about which doctors will treat us and which school our children attend.

Our economic system too depends on stimulating our freedom to choose; capitalism relies on an endless process of possession and consumption simply to survive. As consumers we are constantly invited to exercise choice; about what clothes to wear, what food to eat, where to socialise and with whom. These choices are intended to provide us with ever greater levels of pleasure and satisfaction.

But, although we have more freedom than our parents or grandparents ever had, it is well-documented that we haven’t become any happier. Depression rates have soared and as a society we have become more atomised, asserting our rights to freedom but somehow not feeling more liberated.

Helen Dunmore, in her poem ‘when you’ve got’, points to the discrepancy between what our modern understanding of freedom promises us and what it actually brings; not happiness or fulfilment but a dull sense of dissatisfaction and yearning.

So why doesn’t our focus on freedom deliver what it promises? Why don’t more of us simply feel better?

Part of the answer lies in how we understand ourselves; in our modern age our sense of self is rooted in personal autonomy. As an individual, with my own personal needs and wants, I can gain a sense of identity through making choices about how my needs and wants are best fulfilled.

The Christian understanding of the self is rather different; I gain my sense of self not through personal will but through being deeply rooted in God; through acknowledging my need of God and becoming more, not less, dependent on the God who knows me better than I know myself. The words we hear when receiving the sign of the cross in Ash reminds us of this: ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return’.

During the season of Lent we seek to deepen this radical dependence on God; through prayer, meditation and discipline we engage more fully in the life-long process of conversion which begins in our baptism. Lent calls us to ‘turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’ This conversion is a process of becoming human; of becoming more deeply rooted in God; we look to his Son Jesus Christ as our blueprint of what it means to be fully human.

On the surface this might not be an appealing prospect; after all, Jesus enjoyed none of the kind of freedoms we aspire to today;

There is no evidence that he enjoyed sexual intimacy, he wasn’t rich, he wasn’t successful, he was sometimes popular, but often for the wrong reasons, he was subject to great hostility from the powers that be and although he had friends, these friends ultimately betrayed him.

But the earliest Christians talk a lot about freedom; a reappearing theme in Paul’s letter is the freedom that is found in life in Christ.

Poverty, chastity and obedience are three, admittedly unfashionable, virtues which can aid us in the process of conversion- properly understood they are tools which lead us away from sin and towards faithfulness in Christ.

Poverty takes us away from possessing and gives us instead the freedom to receive.

Chastity leads us away from fantasy and takes us instead to a point of authenticity.

Obedience takes from us the burden of asserting who and what we are towards being free simply to respond.

Receiving, authenticity and responding – three key notes for a holy Lent.

Poverty
Poverty, on the face of it, is wholly undesirable. Voluntarily giving up those possessions which provide comfort, which perhaps help us feel better about ourselves, seems the action of a kill joy.

But true poverty isn’t about being poor- people who are genuinely poor do not feel they are being virtuous, nor that they are free. More often life is simply harder and more dangerous when we are poor.

Living in the way of poverty is less about giving up all our possessions and more about recognising that our possessions don’t really belong to us anyway. The things which we own and which give us pleasure or a sense of identity do not belong to us- they are bestowed upon us. Who we are and that we are alive at all is a gift from God. Possessions can get in the way of us understanding this basic truth so there is real wisdom in giving up our possessions. In a Western culture where most to us have too much, deliberately choosing to live with less helps us to reflect more about the challenges those that are genuinely poor face. But the real virtue in poverty lies in helping us make an inner shift from needing to possess to being free to receive.

Making this inward shift from possessing to receiving invites us to think more about what we believe we need to survive.- not just food or clothing but also about the inner resources we need to cope with bereavement, loss or unexpected failure. Living in the way of poverty is an act of trust in which we believe that we will be given the resources to cope with life and respond creatively to it.

These inner resources aren’t ours to possess or hoard; God makes them available to us as we need them. So these inner resources- the ability to let go when a loved one has died, or a love affair ended, to respond positively to distressing news about our health, not taking it out on colleagues when we have too much to do and can’t see a way of getting it done- these resources aren’t ours to boast about or possess.

Most of us mostly operate with the assumption that we own our lives; our intellects, our bodies, our successes and failures are our own. All these belong to us and are ours to use as we choose. But this freedom potentially brings with a burden; that of needing to prove that what we own, who we are, is of value.

It is as if our lives were a bank account running on a profit or loss basis. Accordingly success brings us into credit, failure into debt. We are likely to see our success as a possession which we can display to others. On the other hand past failures can feel like a debt hanging over us.

The result of this profit/loss view of ourselves is that we relate in very particular ways to our past and our future. Where we have enjoyed success in the past we can find ourselves wishing to keep this success alive in the present. We all know the annoying person who brags about past achievements but who relates only superficially to the present.

Past failures can leave us feeling constrained, dwelling in a debtor’s prison, focused on the future as time when we can build up sufficient credit to get us out of our debt.

Whether living with success or failure our relationship to the present, our freedom to receive what it has to give us, is severely compromised. The present is rendered bankrupt.

This is what Jesus is getting at when he tells the parable of the rich man. The rich man is seeking reassurance in the present by making plans for the future; in doing so he has lost sight of today’s reality.

Worrying about the future means we deny ourselves the role of receiving God’s mercy. Jesus says ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’

So poverty requires us to make an internal shift; away from possessing to receiving life as it is, with the resources God gives us day by day.

In this spirit of receiving we give up the freedom to choose. This is where our conversion towards receiving life as it is brings us face-to face with the ultimate reality- we don’t choose who we are. Contemporary culture might tell us otherwise; that I am free to reinvent myself through making different choices, but these are often only superficial changes. Maturity comes in accepting who I am and knowing that God delights in my very being. Our modern emphasis on the freedom to choose perhaps comes at the cost of our freedom to receive; to receive the greatest of all gifts; God’s gift of himself in Jesus Christ. 

Chastity
Most of us associate chastity with not doing something that we’d like to do; with not having sex outside marriage or not having sex at all. Whilst chastity can and should inform our sexual behaviour chastity, properly understood, has much wider implications.

Chastity comes from the word ‘pure’ – because sex is a bodily act it is often seen as less than pure. In contrast intellect and emotions are not bodily and are associated with the mind or soul. So they can automatically be put on a higher plane, and fall more easily into the category of pure. Chastity as a virtue applies to sex, so the thinking goes, but not to other types of behaviour.

But pure and chaste are terms that can be applied to many different aspects of being human. I can have purity of will or mind; which might mean I have the capacity to discern what is true and on the other hand, what is unreal, what is false.

Emotional chastity consists of discovering your own genuine feelings and honouring these in the light of opposite but more transitory feelings. We see this sort of emotional chastity in good parents; parents who, however exasperating or difficult their children are, do not allow these temporary states to affect the deep love they have for their children. On the other hand a lack of emotional chastity means we are at the mercy of whatever passing emotion comes along. Our culture is inclined to honour strong emotion without discerning how stable or long-lasting these strong emotions are. Put crudely ‘being in love’ can be a reason for getting married, ‘falling out of love’ can be a reason for leaving a marriage. The result is that I lurch between one relationship and another and am left unsatisfied and frustrated.

Being emotionally chaste gives us a stability and singleness of purpose which is liberating. So Ruth is able to say to her mother-in-law ‘Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.’ Ruth is able to follow through on these promises because they are real and lasting.

We now live in a society where the line between what is real and what is fantasy has become blurred; where participants in reality programmes are often hopelessly manipulated for the entertainment of viewers. We are subject to more and more images of people who are not like us but sensationalised or sexualised versions of us. The danger lies in believing we are supposed to become like the image. It requires an emotional and intellectual chastity to discern which images are real and honour our humanity.

The conversion towards becoming fully human is ruptured by holding up images of humanity which are rooted in fantasy, damaging what is authentic and true.

Of course distinguishing between the authentic and the false presents a challenge especially when we seek to root out in ourselves what it true within our deepest selves. Are my feelings for this person real for example, or am I using fantasy to make them into what I want them to be? Is my desire for them to be a particular sort of person blinding me to what they really are? Equally can I only value myself if I am beautiful and intelligent and friends with the right kind of people? As I blind to who I really am, and exclude any people or evidence which points to something more disturbing and yet more real. The illusory narratives we have about ourselves can lead us away from the deeper truth; that God made us and not we ourselves; that we are created by a loving God has the hallmark of authenticity and brings with it true freedom.

Being chaste involves wisdom and discernment; we have to sift through our experiences, as if we are panning for gold, so that we are enriched by our experiences rather than diminished or destroyed by them. Discovering in our experiences that which God wishes us to receive.

Edward Carpenter, in his poem ‘The Lake of Beauty’ expresses the need to be true to what is authentic and real:

‘Do not recklessly spill the waters of your mind in this direction or in that,

lest you become like a spring, lost and dissipated in the desert’.

Lent calls us to venture into a more chaste relationship with God and with ourselves, where we put aside fantasy and dare to engage more deeply with the source of all love; he who makes intimacy possible.

Obedience
Obedience for most of us means doing what you’re told; obeying an external authority. In our culture -which prizes our freedom to choose and define who we are, obedience gets a bad press.

But the word obedience comes from the Latin word meaning ‘listen or to hear’. Rather than fulfilling an external demand, obedience is better thought of as listening and responding. Something which can only happen in relationship. Holy obedience invites us to develop the capacity to listen to God not only as an external authority but as one who dwells within us. To discover who you are being called to become; what is the route of conversion which is only yours to tread.

The Israelites in the Old Testament battled with obedience; again and again we finding them being disobedient to God, which often meant believing their way was the better way. The prophet Ezekiel pointed to the God who dwells within us and who invites us into relationship with him. ‘A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and will give you a heart of flesh. I will my spirit within you, and make you follow my statues and be careful to observe my ordinances.’

Obedience here isn’t seen as mechanically doing what you’re told but instead embodying God’s spirit, making the shift from cold-hearted obedience to warm-spirited response- becoming truly human.

So being obedient to the will of God doesn’t mean obeying an external authority figure like a headmaster or a demanding boss. It is more likely to mean listening to the still small voice of calm- being attuned to the voice of God calling us to lives that are full of grace and truth.

This means taking seriously the call to interdependency which is the human life; we are social beings so it is when serving other people that we feel most fully ourselves and at one with the world. Very often in crisis situations people display great acts of heroism; someone who goes into a burning building to rescue a child for example will say that they didn’t think about it- they just felt compelled to act, to put their own self in danger, for the sake of someone else. They were being obedient to that inner voice which called them to risk their own life for the sake of someone vulnerable and in danger.

This of course is what Jesus did when gave himself over to the Roman authorities before his crucifixion. This wasn’t a simple or straightforward act for Jesus; we know that on one-level he wished that he could over-rule the sense of compulsion which called him to give up his life. A compulsion which arose from his great love for us.

In the reading we’ve heard from John’s gospel, Jesus speaks about the claims that loves makes upon all of us. ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.’

Jesus speaks here of love as a commandment but he also speaks tenderly to his disciples as friends with whom he has shared everything. No longer his servants they are his friends, chosen by God. They are now called to act in love as Jesus does, with all the claims that this will make upon them. In this they will bear fruit for the father who will give them whatever they ask for.

Obedience then, can be described as holy listening; attending to the voice within us which is both true to who we are and which is greater than who we are: this frees us from the burden of asserting our identities and asks us instead to attend to the voice of God.

In a spirit of obedience Lent invites us live more deliberately, taking time to pay attention; finding sources of stillness; giving up the burden of making unnecessary choices and simply attending to those things which honour humanity and are true to God. Mary Oliver describes this process of slowing life down and paying attention in her poem ‘The Summer Day’: