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Friday, February 24, 2017

Clarity begins with Ash Wednesday


What a strange day it has been with media reaction to a post on this blog from over a week ago.  The front page on the ODT; a Channel 39 news slot; and now this afternoon a movement into more familiar territory - recording a service on Otago Access Radio for Sunday.   Every reflection on a text raises issues and  next Sunday's gospel feels quite difficult to work with for a radio audience - whether I can use this again for Sunday in the Cathedral or have another approach at it - I have just not decided. See what you think ...

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?’

It’s the story of our lives in a way, isn’t it? We spend so much energy fretting about these things. If you have no money to pay the rent or to restock the fridge, or feed the family tonight – the counsel from Jesus that we are not to worry seems a little hollow. How can we not worry? How can we not be afraid, fretful and anxious in a world where home, and family seem so vulnerable and are threatened?

Can we live without fear?

Probably not, because fear is part of our human survival kit, it keeps us alive and alert to danger. We recognise it from our experience as travellers: at 37000 feet above the Tasman, our plane hits serious turbulence and we recognise the experience of fear; we feel our vulnerability; our pulse rate increases and, speaking for myself (I am a nervous flyer) I instinctively focus on something like the Jesus Prayer.

Fear is always the recognition of our vulnerability. There are times in life when we hit turbulence (for some many times!). We experience it when there is a health issue and medical tests are required; we may remember what it was like through all the uncertainty as we awaited results and speculated about the diagnostic possibilities. We worried for ourselves and for our loved ones. Then of course there is the fear that we experience through loss of employment, loss of financial security, loss of purpose in our lives – there are so many dimensions in which we may be vulnerable; fear wears so many faces. Unmasking fear is like peeling an onion: there is always another layer. Many aspects of human malice stem from deep and unacknowledged fear about ourselves – but more on that another time.

Jesus approaches the question by challenging us to be clear about who we most truly and deeply are. He says:

‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth'.

To live without fear is to live generously and that requires a great clarity in us; a clarity about where we have set our heart – God or mammon. It takes time for us to get that clarity. We may spend our lives working on it: and sometimes when we think we are clear, something happens and we realise we still have a way to go; this learning to trust, to rest, in God keeps on stretching us, testing us.

I enjoy the stories about the old Desert Fathers in Egypt who left the soft life of the cities and lived in the wilderness. One concerns Abba Macarius who lived very simply but nonetheless went away from
his dwelling one day only to return and find someone loading up a camel with as many of the old man’s belongings as he could. It is told that Macarius came up to the thief as if he were a stranger and helped him to load the camel and then saw him off in great peace of soul saying ‘We have brought nothing into this world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.’ (1 Tim.6.7) ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ (Job 1.21)

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, and we observe the start of Lent. In the Cathedral this Wednesday there is a service where we come to take communion and have our foreheads marked with the ashes from last year’s palm crosses. We remember our vulnerability, our mortality, and we recommit to follow Christ: this is a moment when we start to sort out where we have set our heart’; who we serve – God or something else; this is a moment when we work toward a deep clarity in ourselves – and begin to live without fear. God bless you on this journey.

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