Canon Dr Angus Ritchie, Director of the Contextual Theology Centre, blogs on a call to prayer, listening and social action this Lent
Lent is traditionally seen as a rather gloomy time, when we turn inward in tortured self-examination. The truth is very different. The deeper purpose of this season is to draw us outward – into a deeper communion with God and with neighbour. Lent is a time of judgement, certainly. But the ultimate purpose of God’s judgment is always that of love.
God’s judgment confronts us with reality. His word pierces through our layers of self-deception. It pierces through the false gods of profit, popularity and status on which we set our hearts, and through our shell of self-protecting cynicism.
Under the loving judgment of God, we see ourselves as we really are. We see the futility of our self-deception, the emptiness of our false gods and the destructiveness of our cynicism. Why does God force this painful truth upon us? For this reason: it is only when we face the reality of our lives that change and growth become possible.
The prayers and practices of Lent exist to open us to reality. Their words of penitence urge us to face the truth about our sins and their impact on others. The chastening words of the Ash Wednesday liturgy ‘Remember thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return’ force us to face the truth of our mortality.
We won’t go on forever. The choices we make each day mean there are paths down which we have decided not to travel, possibilities we have shut down, perhaps permanently. We need to ask what kind of values we will affirm, in our deeds as well as our words. As I face my mortality, I am forced to ask: what do I want this life to say?
This question needs to be considered alongside an honest examination of what my life currently says. What would you say my values and priorities were if you looked, not at the beliefs I profess, but at the ways I spend my time and money, the things that preoccupy and vex me, the ways I treat the people around me?
Lent helps us to explore the gap between the answers we give to these two questions: what does this life say? and what do I want it to say?
These are questions we can also ask of our common life. In The Rock T.S. Eliot asks:
What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle together because you love each other?
What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together
To make money from each other?’ or ‘This is a community?’
Today, many people are asking these questions with a new intensity. There is a large and growing gap between rich and poor, one which politicians of all parties say they want to see reversed. And we all live with the ongoing and unpredictable consequences of the global financial crisis for years to come.
This Lent, two Christian social action charities – The Contextual Theology Centre and the Church Urban Fund – are issuing a Call to Change. (This is online at www.calltochange.withtank.com and on Twitter at @calltochange.) It builds on decades of ministry by churches in some of England’s poorest neighbourhoods. It seeks to draw more people into their work of prayer, of listening and of action for social justice.
The Call to Change is not a call to scapegoat someone else – be they a ‘benefits scrounger’ or a banker. Each of us is called to open ourselves to reality. We do this through prayer: as we encounter the ultimate reality of God in Scripture, worship and personal devotion. We do it through listening: and in particular, a serious engagement with the voice of England’s poorest communities.
Words are not enough. They need to take flesh in action. The experience of our partner churches points to concrete things every Christian and congregation can do – to tackle poverty, and build an economic system that works for poor as well as rich.
It is through such changes that we grow together into ‘life in all its fulness’. That is the message of Lent. And, more importantly, it is the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, God’s word of love made flesh