Saturday, February 27, 2016


Some time ago, I heard the story of a man who checked into a religious retreat to recharge his soul. The brother monk showed him to his bare room and gave him the usual welcome with an unusual twist; “Here is your room. Toilets are down the corridor. If you find that you need anything, please let us know and we will teach you how to live without it.”

Everybody knows that Lent is known as a time of learning to live without things. However, not everybody understands why. This year, I have joined the Lenten-observers by giving up something, in an attempt to understand why. The 'why' is more important than the 'what', and you may find it surprising.

Firstly, and to answer the most obvious question, I have given up watching TV. You might say its not a great loss, and I would agree.

When my father died last December, when I was grieving, I found myself resenting TV. It was so intrusive, I could not stay in the same room and had to physically had to walk out. I needed to think my own thoughts, and feel my own feelings without an unthinking, unfeeling, programmed machine in the corner telling me what to think or feel. I resented the blue box telling me what was important and what was not. My father was certainly not important to the TV, and neither was my grief, or the overwhelming currents of love that swept me along at that time. I needed to feel the grief and the love, and could share neither with the TV's relentless drivel.

Since then, the TV and I have come to something of a cease-fire, though we may resume hostilities in future. Giving it up has not been a heroic burden of Herculean proportions to me. In fact, it's been quite a holiday.

You might also say that a better Martin will emerge from this Lenten journey, and you could be right. That would be a consequence of my self-imposed exile from TV-land, but its not the primary reason.

That reason is quite difficult to explain, especially in a world that revolves around the core value of self-satisfaction. Inspired by a Christianity Today article, I deliberately set out on this journey with the express purpose of avoiding a self-satisfaction or self-improvement program. I decided to shun anything that had self as a primary motivator, even self-improvement.

For example, I could have given up chocolate, or wine, with the aim of losing weight. These are good goals in themselves, and it that's your Lenten observance, I wish you all the best. But its not for me. I aim to get away from what Lent can do for me.

If one word were to summarize my reason for doing Lent, it would be “available”. I hope to make myself available. Call it a mental desk-clearing, if you like, or a de-cluttering, or becoming more present in the moment, or not pursuing a thousand TV crusades against this or that urgent cause. I aim to make room, in my head and in my schedule, and in doing so, to make myself available to whatever wanders by. I don't aim to perfect the art of silence, and if I were to try, I would find myself doing what I aimed not to do. I'm curious to discover who, or what, turns up at my door.

As this is a religious observance, my availability extends firstly in the God-direction. Will He wonder through my door, and sit down for a chat? Naturally, dispensing with the noise and distractions (and untruths) of the TV assists greatly in setting a congenial atmosphere, and I think its beginning to work.

My availability also extends in the human direction. Remarkably, this posture of not-seeking-self-improvement has improved things wonderfully in this area. The first thing I left behind was any notion that my self-improvement-program makes me a better, more worthy person than my neighbours. This is where the Pharisees, that Jesus roundly condemned, tripped up. It occurs to me that, fundamentally, they were doing religion for their own self-interests. What made Jesus so unpopular with them is that He exposed their motivations. The problem was not that they were doing the wrong religion (actually, Jesus and His followers didn't have a problem with Pharisees, but you'd have to read more of the New Testament to understand the issue there); the problem was that they were doing it for the wrong reasons. They were self-centred. You could say they worshipped self, instead of God.

In a more contemporary example, the announcement of my Lenten intentions was greeted by my family with a pressing practical concern. My wife immediately asked if my abstinence included the watching of films or movies. She had (very lovingly) planned a surprise indoor picnic for my birthday that would include a video. Had I been more concerned about sticking to the program for my own self-improvement, this would have presented the kind of dilemma I might have experienced if I had been offered a large, fatty sundae part way through a crash diet course. Because my Lent was not a religious excuse to get on an overdue diet, I easily accepted, and thoroughly enjoyed The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Self-worship explains much of what we do, including our religious observances. For instance, it explains the suicide-bombers, who do what they do because they think they can get a better deal for themselves in the after-life. It also explains our non-religious, non-observances; we wonder what benefit we can get from religion, and are often persuaded that it is not worth the time and effort. I get that. We are finite; we only have so much time, energy and money, and we need to think carefully about how to spend them wisely.

Wisdom, the thing that seems most elusive in our foolhardy world, tells us of the profound paradox; love. Love is not self-centred; it is not interested in a program of self-improvement. 

As I am a very visual person, I need to see something to understand it. I can't grasp love as an abstract ideal, but I can visualise it in the life and person of Jesus. In my Lenten journey, I hope to join with Him on His. It leads to the cross, where all self-interests are brought to an end. At the cross, God gives Himself in the most irreversible, public, demonstrable, concrete, self-less way. He becomes available, at the ultimate cost of all He is and all He has. That's love in its purest, most original form. The end-point of God's Lenten journey at Easter, speaks to me of the start of mine. That's why I am doing it.

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