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‘Well!’ said the Roman Catholic Priest, pointing his finger at me during an Ecumenical Ministers’ Fellowship, ‘And what is it that you are giving up for Lent?’ ‘Sin, Father!’ I replied, ‘Just sin!’ My response caused much amusement amongst my fellow Clergy, especially in the light of the Priest’s well-known love for a tipple or six. In truth, my retort was not aimed at the Priest in question. It was aimed more at the whole concept of ‘giving up things for Lent’. In my youth it was all about giving up meat, or chocolate, or smoking, or alcohol, etc. for the whole of the Lent period. Today (it would seem from the Social Media) it is all about giving up Facebook or Twitter. A number of my ‘Facebook Friends’ and ‘Twitter Followers’ have already informed me that I won’t hear anything from them until after Easter. For me, this whole idea of ‘giving up things for Lent’ is very negative and inward looking. For a number of years now I have taken a different stance, which I commend to you. Don’t give up something for Lent … take something on! Do something positive! Support a worthwhile cause financially, or give up a couple of hours a week to go help out in a Charity Shop, or get involved in one of the church organisations or outreach ministries, or even join the church cleaning rota, etc., etc. I don’t care what it is … just do something positive during Lent!

Lent is a religious observance in the Liturgical Calendar of many Christian denominations that begins on Ash Wednesday and covers a period of approximately six weeks before Easter Sunday. The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer, through prayer, penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial, for the events of Holy Week. Lent, along with its pious customs is observed by Christians in the Anglican, Calvinist, Lutheran, Methodist, and Roman Catholic traditions, and today, even some Baptist and Evangelical Churches also observe the Lenten season.

Lent culminates in the annual commemoration of Holy Week, marking the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, which recalls the tradition and events of the New Testament climaxing with Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday, and culminating in the joyful celebration on Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. During Lent Roman Catholic and some Protestant churches often remove flowers from their altars, while crucifixes, religious statues, and other elaborate religious symbols are veiled in violet fabrics in solemn observance of the event. Lent is traditionally described as lasting for forty days, in commemoration of the forty days which, according to the three Synoptic Gospels, Jesus spent (before beginning his public ministry) fasting in the desert, where he endured temptation by the Devil (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12,13; Luke 4:1-13).

One of the positive things Julia and I will be doing for Lent this year is to join with the Anglicans and Methodists in our Parish for their Lenten Studies. These are times of discussion, sharing and prayer around apposite Biblical themes, that take place each week in various homes throughout the Parish. The theme selected by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland for Lent this year is ‘Walking and Praying with Christians of the Middle East’, which seems to us to be very appropriate, given all the tumultuous happenings there at the present time. The Christian churches of the Middle East are facing a crisis unparalleled in recent history. As a result of a set of complex religious and political factors, the number of Christians in the region has fallen dramatically as many have sought refuge in other parts of the world, especially the West. However these are ancient communities that trace their origins back to the very beginnings of Christianity. The present conflicts and political instabilities in countries such as Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian Territories have had a profound impact upon these Christian communities. Many Church leaders in the region believe that without a Christian presence, the future of the Middle East looks very bleak indeed. At the same time our knowledge in the Western churches of these Christian communities remains minimal, and often we are unaware of who Middle Eastern Christians are, and what issues they face in today’s world. In popular perceptions of the Middle East, Arab equals Muslim and rarely Christian. Our knowledge of our Christian sisters and brothers in the region is an important factor in their survival.

‘Walking and Praying with Christians of the Middle East’ encourages us to join in walking with them and praying for and with them. It provides an opportunity for us to remember the lands in which Christianity has its roots – Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, and above all Jerusalem, are names that remind us of crucial events in the Bible, but also names that dominate our news today. This Lenten Resource is intended for ecumenical groups, church groups and individuals. It attempts to offer a traditional course that picks up on Lenten themes whilst at the same time praying with Christians of the Middle East. This Lent resource has been written in partnership with Embrace the Middle East, a non-governmental, inter-denominational charity working to improve the lives of vulnerable and disadvantaged people in the Middle East, that partners with local Christians who provide health, education and community development programmes to those in need – regardless of their faith or nationality.

Each study contains a blend of factual information about Christians in the Middle East and the issues they face today, stories of Christians in the Middle East, Biblical Reflections, points for discussion and further action, a ‘call’ from a Christian from the region in each week, together with prayers from Christians living in the region. The resources for each week follow the readings of the three year Revised Common Lectionary so they can also be a resource for Sunday worship and preaching. You can find all this information, and the various studies themselves, on the internet at http://www.ctbi.org.uk/688 all of which can be easily downloaded. So why not take a look, join a local ecumenical study group, or even set aside an hour a week to do the studies on your own or with friends? During this Lenten Season why not, quite deliberately, make a positive move and take some time out to think quietly and prayerfully about life, about God, about others? And, by the way, please don’t worry that those people who have given up reading Facebook or Twitter for Lent will be offended by what I have said here? They won’t be reading this because they have probably given up reading ‘blogs’ for Lent as well!

Life is not hurrying on to a receding future,
nor hankering after an imagined past.
It is the turning aside like Moses
to the miracle of the lit bush,
to a brightness that seemed as transitory
as your youth once,
but is the eternity that awaits you!

~ R S Thomas

Jim Binney


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