This time of Lent is an allusion to the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness before embarking upon his ministry. The Gospels repeatedly remind us that Jesus regularly struggled to find moments of solitude and silence, to escape the crowds following him wherever he went. Time out was essential to the state of his spiritual health and well-being.
Alongside a good friend, Michael Rusk, I was recently privileged to meet with David Porter, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Director of Reconciliation. He described for us the archbishop’s intention to establish a contemplative community to be resident in Lambeth Palace and serving the wider borough as well as any visitors to the Palace. But the main focus of the community is to provide a space for prayer and intimacy with God, space to take time out of a punishingly hectic diary in order to stop, to breathe, to find a spiritual and a physical centre for the soul.
During a post-graduate seminar I taught recently, I described the manner in which global events impact on the local and vice versa, and how all of this impacts on our ministry in any parish church. How is what we do relevant to the lives of the people we serve? and how even what we do at a local and community level has an impact on the wider church around the world.
During the WCC 10th Assembly last autumn, a young Christian woman from Iran spoke eloquently about the impact of economic sanctions on the ordinary people in her country – and I repeated her plea to end these sanctions during a lunch with the US Ambassador (apparently a personal friend of President Obama) and at a special parliamentary session on Iranian foreign relations at which there were delegates from the CIA, US and UK departments of defence, and trade interests from around the world. The general attitude of these officials was that the sanctions had worked, they had forced the Iranian government to come to the negotiating table. But I am there to ask, at what cost? The cost being the suffering of ordinary people for whom all this geopolitical intrigue has been a source of hunger, pain, and even death. Sanctions which cause human suffering touch the lives of each and every one of us – they touch our soul, and affect our right relationship with God.
So what does this have to do with the desert? with time out? David Porter mentioned there is a question we must ask ourselves in any conflict situation, whether it is in areas of violent conflict in the world, or the inner workings of deanery or parish politics. What is this conflict doing to your soul? You may believe you have right on your side, but what is holding onto that right doing to your relationship with God and with your fellow humanity? Answering such a question entails taking time out, setting yourself apart from whatever situation you are in, and asking yourself the tough questions. Why am I holding onto this? And what it is doing to me spiritually?
Once you are able to discern what it is that brings your soul closer to God, it is important to hold steady, even in the face of fear – and as Porter puts it, even in the face of someone holding a gun to your head and knowing that however much you may be facing him with a steadfast and loving heart, he could very well still pull the trigger. Surviving conflict is about knowing what you are about and holding onto that calm centre.
During a session of our Lent course, one of our parishioners asked if God were present among us, then surely that is heaven. Heaven is with us here and now, it is up to us to recognise this. So how do we recognise this in the situation described above? Do we have the courage to recognise even the most painful, the most fearful situations to also still be of God, and in the presence of God and heaven? It doesn’t mean we face these without fear. As I have said before – faith is real when it is accompanied by fear. What is courage without fear? There is no courage if you do not feel afraid. Courage is standing in that desert, naked, trembling and vulnerable before God, and yet choosing to continue standing there, waiting upon the spirit of God to lead you home.
These moments do not come out of the blue, they are worked at with discipline. They are worked at through the daily offices and through taking time out to converse intimately with our loving God in meditation and personal prayer. They are worked at in all the relationships we build up with our wider community and between ourselves as a parish. Hold steady to the discipline of prayer and service to one another and to community. Have the courage to take time each day to let go of everything, to walk in the desert, to discern what is good for your soul and its relationship with God. This is what lends strength, lends steadiness, to the times of trial. Before there is Easter, there is the desert and there is the trial. Embrace each, hold steady – for God is indeed with us and heaven is at hand.