Ever since someone noticed that this year Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day, people on Twitter and Facebook have been having a field day. Most people seem to see it as something incongruous: Valentine’s Day is about romance and chocolate and pleasure and more than a hint of sex; Ash Wednesday is about self-denial and taking up your cross and going into the desert with Jesus and getting closer to God. What can the two possibly have to do with each other?
Personally, I’m much more interested in the connections than the contradictions. Valentine’s Day, we’re told, is all about love. And what’s Christian growth about, if it’s not about growing in love? How do we grow as Christians? You don’t need me to answer that one for you: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength…You shall love our neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31).
Christianity is relational: it’s about growing in our loving relationship with God and our neighbour. And wise people know that life is relational too. It’s often been observed that no one on their death bed says to themselves “Gee, I wish I’d spent more time at the office!” We all know instinctively that when we’re facing the ultimate test, that stuff’s not going to count for very much. What will count will the quality of our relationships - the quality of the love we’ve offered.
So I want to spend a few minutes with you tonight, as we begin our Lenten journey, unpacking this theme of love. How might we make this Lent all about love? I’m actually going to offer you three ‘L’ words tonight to hang our thoughts on: Love, Listening, and Labour, and all connected with Lent (I know, that’s four ‘L’ words…!).
So – love. “Love is all you need”, sang the Beatles, and then they broke up and proceeded to sue each other for millions of pounds. Obviously, love wasn’t all they needed – or at least, the sort of love they aspired to wasn’t adequate to guide them through the challenges of long-term relationships.
So let’s start by reminding ourselves that when the writers of the New Testament used the word ‘love’, they probably had something different in mind. “Getting the Love you Want” was the title of a well-known book of the 1980s, but nothing could be further from the Christian conception of love. We’re not about getting the love you want; we’re about giving the love God wants you to give. And when the New Testament describes this love, it always describes actions.
What does Jesus do to illustrate to his disciples what it means to “love one another as I have loved you”? He gets down from the supper table, removes his outer garment, wraps a towel around his waist, and washes their feet. In their culture this was the servant’s job, but for some reason that night no servant had been there to do it. And of course, a few hours later he ‘loved them to the end’ (John 13:1) by laying down his life on the cross for the salvation of the whole world.
This is the most important thing for us as Christians. God is love, and we are made in the image of God, so growing in love is growing in God’s image. And that love is offered in two directions: to God and to our neighbour.
We love God because God first loved us. We don’t love God as a way of earning God’s love; God’s love for us is unconditional and indestructible, and Jesus tells us that he pours it out on the righteous and the unrighteous. We know ourselves to be loved by God, and in response, we offer our own – much smaller – love to God.
And then we love our neighbour. ‘Neighbour’ doesn’t just mean those in close proximity to us – family, friends, the people on our street. Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan? ‘Neighbour’ means people in need who we are in a position to help, both near and far away.
How do we love these people? I want to make a suggestion to you this Lent: let’s start by listening to them.
Most of us are much quicker to speak than to listen. This applies both in our relationship with God and our relationships with other people. When we take time to pray, most of us take time to talk to God. We’ve got our concerns, things we want or need for ourselves, loved ones we’re anxious about and so on. And so we sit down to pray, and we start talking right away. “God please do this. God, please bless that person. God, if you want to know how to bless them, I’ve got some ideas I could give you”.
The same with other people. It’s scary to think how much of our conversation consists in showing off to other people. I’ve got such a good joke to tell you! You’re going to love this story! I’m going to share my political views on this subject and you’re going to see immediately that I’m right and you’re wrong!
And even when we do listen, how carefully do we listen? For instance, when I sit down to read the Bible – to listen for the Holy Spirit’s voice – am I open to the possibility that there might be something new for me today in the passage? Or do I just think “Good Samaritan, yeah, yeah, I know that story, I know what it means”? Do I just read it quickly, and then pass on to sharing my shopping list with God?
Or when someone’s talking to us, how long are we prepared to listen before we interrupt? Ten seconds? Twenty if they’re lucky? Do we assume that after twenty seconds we know enough to respond helpfully to them? I’m sure we’ve all had that experience: we start sharing our struggles with someone, and they don’t really let us get finished before they’re launching into giving us their helpful advice, which is actually not that helpful, because they haven’t given us time to really go deep yet.
So how about this Lent we all resolve to do our best to become better listeners – to God, and to other people?
Some of us in our parish have decided to read the Gospel of Mark this Lent. Let’s not assume each day that we already know what God’s going to say to us in the daily passage. Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to speak to us, and then let’s read it through, slowly and meditatively, two or three times. Which words or phrases particularly strike us, and why? What’s the passage saying to us about God? About ourselves? About life? About what’s important and what’s not important? What’s the passage calling me to put into practice? What difference would it make today if I tried to practice it?
We can also listen to God in silent prayer. Most people who do that don’t actually hear God speak in an audible voice, although some people do report that they feel they’re received some guidance and direction from God. But it’s mostly about quietening down and becoming more aware of the presence and peace and joy that God gives. Again, it’s not something that can be rushed. A lot of people find that about ten or twelve minutes in, they start to notice things they hadn’t noticed before. Are you willing to wait that long?
And let’s listen to others, and pay attention to what they say. A friend of mine used to do a little exercise: he’d get people together in pairs, and then one person had to listen carefully while the other took five minutes to describe something that had happened to them recently. When they were done the listener had to take three minutes to recount in as much detail as possible what they had heard. The first time I was the listener, I was amazed at how hard that was! We’re just not that practiced in listening!
And yet people long to be listened to! When we really listen to someone, we’re communicating to them that we value them, that we love them. I’m ashamed to admit how frequently I really don’t listen to Marci; she’s talking to me, but I’m doing something else or thinking about something else, and I only listen with one ear and a quarter of a brain.
This may be the most loving thing we can do this Lent: to resolve to become better listeners - to God, and to other people.
Finally comes labour. In 1 Thessalonians Paul writes, ‘…remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Thessalonians 1:3).
Labour of love – that’s a striking phrase! But it reminds us that biblical love is not primarily about feelings; it’s all about actions. Listening is one such action, but there are many others. Jesus says “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). What’s the point of saying we love Jesus if, as soon as he tells us to do something we don’t want to do, we refuse to do it? That love isn’t worth very much, is it? It needs to have a little labour added to it, to make it real!
What does it mean to love our enemies? In Romans chapter 12 Paul quotes the Old Testament: ‘No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink’ (Romans 12:20). And in the parable of the sheep and the goats Jesus spells out for us what Christian love looks like: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:35-36).
What labour of love might God be calling you to this Lent? You don’t necessarily have to undertake some new relationship (although, I have to say, every prison chaplain I know is looking for more volunteers to go in and spend time with the inmates). But when we think of the people who are already in our lives, and we think of their needs, is there anything else we can do to love them in action? Or do we perhaps need to go first and listen carefully to them, so that we don’t assume we already know what their needs are? You see how these three ‘L’s tie together!
So – this could be our Lent. Let’s make these six and a half weeks until Easter a season of love. Let’s work on our relationships with God and our neighbours. Let’s make it our first priority to learn to become better listeners – to God, and also to people. And then let’s find new ways of putting our love into action – our labour of love - so that we can truly be a blessing to others as God has blessed us.