What shall we do in Lent? Jesus gives us instructions in the gospel reading under four headings: almsgiving, praying, fasting and treasure.
He assumes we will give: but he warns us to do so without making a public show of our generosity. We have many opportunities to do this, through various Lent appeals, through direct giving to the church or other charities, or by helping individuals in need. The money we save by our Lenten discipline is traditionally given to those who need it more than we do.
Jesus assumes we will pray: but he encourages us to make time to be alone with God. Praying in church with others is the bedrock, but if we don’t also have space in our lives for quiet facetime with God, it will be hard to grow spiritually.
He assumes we will fast: but rather than tell all our friends what we are giving up for Lent, we should make no fuss about it but just get on with it quietly. And fasting isn’t about dieting but about sharpening our hunger for God.
We can usually remember that Lent is about fasting, praying and giving. But Jesus then reminds us of the most important thing of all: being aware of where our treasure is. What is it that really motivates us? What will we wish, at the end of our lives, that we had paid more attention to?
I think Attention is a good word to think about, and I want to propose a Lenten discipline to you. It’s the one I’m going to try to observe this year, at least the one that will be public. And that is making an effort to engage in more of what I am calling Acts of Loving Attention.
I hope this will help me to do what I spoke about on Sunday, look up and out rather than just down and in. Rather than indulge in navel-gazing about my spiritual or physical health, I want to be more connected with other people as well as with God.
An Act of Loving Attention is a matter of being single-minded in the present moment, switching off all the busyness in my head or on my phone, or just listening to someone who is front of me in the flesh. I need to do more of this with my family, with my friends, with church members and people I meet in the course of my daily life. I think one of my biggest challenges is being constantly distracted.
Women on the whole tend to be rather proud of our multi-tasking abilities, like Martha in the gospels, though we can’t compete with teenagers who can text, listen to music, watch TV and do their homework simultaneously – or so they claim.
Instead of giving a quarter of our attention to any one job or person, we could decide to slow down and focus all our attention on just one thing at a time. Lyndon Johnson unkindly said of President Gerald Ford that he couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time. But maybe that was actually a good thing.
Being attended to properly is a sign that someone cares about us. The other day I heard a youth worker tell the story of one of the young people he works with, a 13-year-old girl called Naomi. She lives on a housing estate where she faces plenty of challenges, and in a family situation that is far from ideal, but unlike many of her peers she is doing well at school and has a clear sense of purpose and self-worth. The difference, he said, is that she goes to church. She belongs to a community of people of many different generations and ethnic backgrounds who have known her by her name all her life. They are interested in her well-being. They listen to her problems. They give her encouragement and praise, and they also offer her the opportunity to serve and lead. She gets plenty of loving attention, and the effects are tremendous.
Just imagine if everyone paid that kind of loving attention to at least one other person every day. What difference would it make in your life, or in mine?
It might be that our nearest and dearest are the ones most in need of more of our attention. We might be taking our most important relationships for granted and risking that they will begin to weaken. Maybe we need some special set-aside time for our partners, parents, children and best friends this Lent.
It might be that there is someone in our life with whom we are not at peace, and we just try to avoid them. Lent might be the time to ask them to sit down and talk, and try to put things right before something small becomes a huge problem. Paying loving attention to someone whom we don’t feel drawn to will actually make us like them more – this is proven by experience over and over again.
Or maybe we just go through our daily life in this big city in a bit of a private fog, whether we are cut off from others by the music in our headphones or the social media on our phone or the book we bury our head in – those last two I can certainly recognize as habits of mine. We may miss seeing the most important things – the person who needs a smile of encouragement or a kindly word or a bit of practical help. People who beg on the streets sometimes say they would rather have a friendly, human “good morning” than a coin thrown into their hat.
The Bishops of the Church of England made quite a media splash yesterday by issuing a letter to Anglicans about the general election. Plenty of people in politics and the media criticized it before they read it, assuming they knew what it contained. I do urge you to read the whole document, because it covers a lot of the topics we have already planned to consider during Lent. These include the commands, listed in the reading from Isaiah, to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to share our bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into our house, to cover the naked, and not to hide ourselves from our own kin. But for tonight I just want to remind you of the title of the Bishop’s letter: it is called “Who is my neighbour?”
When Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan in order to answer this question, it turned out that our neighbour is the person who needs our loving attention, or the person who gives us the loving attention we need. It is the person whom we treasure, and the person who treasures us. It is the person who flourishes because we know their name and their story, or the person who helps us to flourish by listening to ours.
So along with whatever private fasting, praying and giving you commit yourself to this Lent, why not consider carefully what, and whom, you really treasure. Why not go public with some extra acts of loving attention. And please check up to see if I am keeping my resolution too. Let’s see if the community in and around St Mary’s can notice the difference by the time we get to Easter.