Today is the first Sunday of Lent, and together with other Christians in this neighbourhood we are following the national Churches Together in Britain and Ireland Lent Course The Mystery of God. We will be meeting on Thursday evening at St James, Norland Square, and the subject I have been given is the mystery of God’s Glory. https://ctbi.org.uk/lent/. This is in anticipation of the readings set for next week, as a way of preparing ourselves – this is one of the reasons we always put the readings for the following Sunday on the weekly notice sheet, as it is sound spiritual wisdom to prepare for the weekly Eucharist by reading and meditating on the readings before hearing then in Church. Our faith is the same as anything in life – the more we put into it, the more we get out of it. The less we put into it, the less we get out of it. It isn’t magic or rocket science. If you haven’t tried it before, why not start this Lent?
The Bible is full of references and descriptions of the Glory of God. The Hebrew word Shekinah שכינה means literally “settling”. In the Lent Course material, we have a girl talking about her name Shekinah and describing the meaning for herself in this way “My parents called me Shekinah, which means “Glory of God.” I love my name. The root of my name suggests birds which like to settle down in a nest, like a mother hen with all her chicks underneath her. So it’s like God “settling down” among us when we pray together or gather together for worship.” Quakers describe this experience is silent worship, where no-one should speak until the presence of God is felt to have “settled” amongst them. Silence in worship can do this. It also sets us free from the dominant tyranny in our culture – the culture of me only and me first.
All churches in the mainstream Christian tradition are called to deal with the two aspects of life in equal measure. The shorthand for these two aspects you could call the vertical and the horizontal. The vertical measure refers to our direct relationship with God, both as individuals and as a community. The theological term we use for this experience of God is Transcendence. God is unknowable, supreme, and other. Worship must always have this vertical or transcendent dimension – for some, this may be communicated through ritual – vestments incense, music etc, or through ritual which claims it isn’t ritual – long sermons, jeans, and guitars. At the same time churches as faith communities are called to address the horizontal dimension of life – money, the economy, and the way we deal with each other. This ranges from simple neighbourliness to addressing issues of society and politics – right now a divided and fragmented society, rising violence (linguistically and physically), lack of political leadership, and the rise of extremism of all kinds, including secular extremism and political correctness. The new film Capernaum, the first film directed by an Arab woman to win an Oscar, tells the story of the child Zain who takes his parents to court and sues them for bringing him into this world communicates this sense of social disorder very powerfully. The theological term for this is immanence – God with us. Put the vertical and the horizontal together and you have the Cross, at the centre of our faith, which the theologian Paul Tillich described as the “intersection of the timeless with time.” This is the setting for our experience of God.
Lent is a time of course for us to focus on our relationship with God and each other, as like all relationships, if we do not give it time and attention it withers. That’s why we use the Anglo Saxon word Lent to describe this period of 40 days – Lent simply means Spring, and if we allow it to, this season can be a springtime of the heart – experiencing our love for God and God’s love for us as though it were brand new and we were falling in love for the first time. For most people, God’s love, and God’s glory are probably experienced through the daily and the so-called ordinary. An amazing sunset, a high mountain, a fast-flowing river, a wood full of bluebells or birdsong at dusk or dawn. Or through our human interactions – someone who was there for us when we were down, hurt or lost, someone who told us that we matter to them, a stranger who helped us when we were lost. But there also the other overwhelming experiences of God which we may have and are more reluctant to talk about lest people think we are weird. Dreams, experiences of the numinous power of God in prayer, visions and so on. In my own life, I’ve been fortunate enough to have travelled quite a bit, and some of these experiences may have come to me in places where I was an illiterate – where I could neither read nor speak the language. This may open us up to other experiences. So, take a moment now to speak to your neighbour and ask this question, “In what ways has God communicated with you?”
Do join with us this Lent in giving our relationship with God and with each other some priority. This is what this season is for, so try not to miss the opportunity. Remember too the three traditional aspects of Lent which have thousands of years of experience and knowledge behind them – Prayer, Giving, and self-Denial. The last one is often misrepresented as simply giving up some of the things we enjoy. But of course, it’s much more than that. Whoever started the fashion around the 1960’s for saying that Lent isn’t about giving things up wasn’t fully aware of the human and spiritual picture. We all need to give things up – that resentment we can’t get rid of, that unresolved quarrel with a family member I haven’t spoken to in decades, or even my over-hasty and acid tongue. The Archbishop’s Lent Book this year, Reconciliation, is by the Indian theologian Muthuraj Swamy, and he writes this, “The very basic Christian world view of love and peace with God and with one another, based on what God has done for humanity through Jesus Christ, is where we begin our ministry of reconciliation.” Lent addresses the human condition fully and offers everyone an opportunity for change and renewal so that we can become what we were intended to be – the image and reflection of God’s glory. So in answer to the question of what is God’s glory I come back again and again to the second century Church father Irenaeus, who said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Let’s become fully alive this Lent!