Late last year I had the unusual experience of attending a book group where the group had been reading a book I wrote about 14 years ago; much of the book consisted of a series of Lent Lectures I gave at York Minster.
The clear challenge in the book, and which surfaced in the very civilised conversation we had in the book group, was about change and my insistence that change is not only inevitable, even in the Christian faith, but to be welcomed. Change is not everyone’s favourite word, as I’ve discovered to my cost, even if change is what God calls us to do.
The conversation ranged pretty widely and could’ve gone on for several days, I suspect: we talked about the nature of faith, about what it means to believe in God, about how we know Christian truth from Christian fiction, and about the significant contemporary interest in things spiritual rather than in formal expressions of religion. And given that it's Lent and spirituality and spiritual discipline are on everyone’s lips and at the forefront of everyone’s thinking, I thought I might pick up that strand this morning.
But let’s be clear from the start: I find Lent just about the most difficult time of the year. Not because I struggle with giving things up and disciplining my body for the sake of my soul, though that is not my particular form of spiritual tradition. Nor is it difficult because Lent is so early this year that I’ve hardly finished putting away the Christmas decorations; though that is also true. None of that is the real problem. The difficulty I have with this time of the year is spirituality.
The closing years of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st have seen an explosion of interest in spirituality, though not always in forms that those of us over a certain age will recognise. Apart from the few celebrities who dive whole-heartedly into Scientology or the various Kabbalistic sects, most people today seem to want to satisfy their spiritual hunger by dipping into a wide variety of spiritual forms, ideas and practices to find something that meets their needs. Rarely, it seems now, does that take traditional forms. Indeed, traditional forms of religion, at least in the West, are seen, as the press delights in reminding us, to be one the wane, while the less dogmatic forms of Eastern spirituality and practice are seen to offer quite a range of things that are attractive to the spiritually inclined. It is very easy to overstate and over-generalise in all this, and not being a sociologist of religion I would not want to do that. But, apart from the keenest of converts to Roman Catholicism or certain forms of Evangelical Christianity, few people today think that if you find a religion or spiritual tradition, practice or idea attractive that you have to, therefore, buy the whole package. People feel more free today to put their own spiritual package together from a wide variety of even sometimes conflicting sources, however irritating traditional religious types or fundamentalist purists might find it.
The normal sermon to preach at this point, in the sort of evangelical church that is coming to dominate the English Anglican ecclesiastical landscape, is that the churches have to change in order to meet this obvious spiritual need because only the Christian faith, suitably re-packaged of course, can really meet the spiritual needs of people today. The churches are fading away, the argument goes, because they are failing to respond to this great mission opportunity, and if we were only able to tell the Christian story in ways that young people, especially, could relate to, then our churches would be full and this great spiritual hunger would be satisfied.
I don’t find myself able to preach that normal sermon for two main reasons. On the one hand, the kinds of very traditional and formal and even intellectual forms of spirituality that we offer in a places like cathedrals remarkably continue to draw people in. It may not be for everyone, but it clearly works for some. And on the other hand, I don’t think it matters very much how eclectic a person’s spiritual lunch box is as long as it helps them to become the kind of person God created them to be. I know at least one woman whose spirituality is most definitely what you would call ‘new age’, crystals, hokum and all, and yet who was moved to tears at Midnight Mass in Exeter Cathedral by the beauty, joy, simplicity and inclusiveness of our worship and by our celebration of the birth of God among us. Why shouldn’t she have a faith which is new age crypto-Buddhism with a bit of Christianity thrown in from time to time? She can see the beauty of truth in many different forms and respond to it.
But that’s not the main point either. My problem with spirituality in general, and with this time of year in particular, is the way in which spirituality becomes a kind of fluffy obsession with self, and often not in the least self-critical. It becomes about what I need to meet my needs, how my spiritual hunger is satisfied, how my spirituality massages and affirms my sense of who I am. None of that, of course, could be further from the kind of spiritual understanding taught by all of the great spiritual teachers throughout all of human history. The great teachers have all known that my spiritual needs will never be met if I only focus on myself; my spiritual needs will be met in proportion to the ways in which I am able to forget about myself, and to focus on the needs, hopes and aspirations of others. It sounds trite, but, as one famous spiritual teacher put it, in order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.
Being a Christian, I want to illustrate this point from the famous Gospel story about Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness following his baptism by John. In the story Jesus is presented with a variety of worldly temptations, all of which he refuses knowing that none of them are routes by which he can serve God. They are all, however, ways in which he could promote himself; and we have to understand, particularly in a religious context, that the line between doing things that draw attention to the message of the gospel and things that draw attention to yourself is very thin and easily crossed. Jesus himself was brilliant at doing dramatic things which brought his message of God’s love alive and into the consciousness of all sorts of people, but which also managed, in themselves, to be examples of his message. Of course he became a focus of attention - he must have been an extraordinary person in many kinds of ways - but he always used that, right to the end, to serve the message of God’s love and the needs of others. Indeed, I’ve always thought that one of the most moving parts of the passion story in John’s gospel is the incident where Jesus, hanging in agony on the cross, sets up John and his mother Mary to look after each other. Even under torture, the medium and the message are one.
The temptations in the wilderness are not some form of extreme temptation which only the Son of God could withstand; in fact they are the routine temptations of everyday life. In the first Jesus is hungry and the devil tempts him to use his power to feed himself. Jesus, of course, refuses knowing that the power and the position he has is not given so that he can satisfy his own needs, but so that he can serve the God who is life itself. The devil then tempts him to use his power to protect himself in what would have been a very ‘look-at-me’ sort of stunt. Jesus, again, refuses knowing that that kind of stunt proves nothing except one’s focus on oneself. The devil finally gives Jesus a view, as it were, of how he could use his power and the sense of his mission to have the whole world eating out of his hand. But again, Jesus refuses: his work is not to be one of world domination, as it were, but of service, of giving himself in the service and for the sake of others.
I suspect that final temptation is the worst for religious people. When we are fired up by our love for God and a passion in God’s name for the world, we begin to think that, if only we could get the world to listen, then they would understand the greatness of the message we bring. And how many religious leaders have we seen throughout history be tempted to do things that end up being bizarre and grotesque in the name of the God they claim to serve, to the point where the message is lost and begins to be destroyed. Whether it is the anathemas of the councils of the early church, the Crusades, Jamestown, the Evangelical right-wing in America or the Taliban and Isis, the temptation to dominate the world in the name of your God only leads to hell.
The trend in contemporary spirituality to be focussed in on your own needs is, in fact, nothing but a superficial version of giving in to these temptations: pandering to yourself is little better than pandering to the world. But allowing something like the message of God’s love, as shown in the life and death of Christ to drive your spirituality, will inevitably lead you elsewhere. In fact it will lead us to focus on and fight against the great injustices and banalities of our world; it will teach us an openness to understand the needs and concerns of others, as in fact the greatest of spiritual writers and leaders have always done; it will teach us to stand up for those who find it difficult to stand up for themselves; it will teach us to oppose all that detracts from human flourishing or destroys the human spirit or that degrades another person or our world. And remarkably, it is also a spirituality that will satisfy our deepest needs.
We have an opportunity in this period of Lent to walk with Jesus the road of love. We celebrated not long ago that God so loved the world that he came to live among us as one of us as our incarnate God; in a few weeks we will celebrate that God so loved the world that this incarnate God gives himself up to death for us and is raised in love by God to give us the salvation that is fullness of life for now and for eternity. Between Christmas and the cross, we can learn the spiritual disciplines of love as we walk with Jesus in his ministry.
So, Lent is a time for spiritual discipline and for focusing on and learning from the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Lent is a time to learn the spiritual disciplines of love - not for oneself, but for God and for the world; and as we do that we may be surprised, like Jesus in our reading, to find that angels come and minister to our needs as well.