"Through all the changing scenes of life,
In trouble and in joy,
The praises of my God shall still
My heart and tongue employ."
Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady (Singing the Faith 638)
The opening verse of that hymn is one of my favourites for it speaks of the constancy of God and the recognition that, whatever life may bring for us, we are people created for praise. So often we allow ourselves to worry so much about the sorrows and difficulties that we encounter, that we forget to praise God. I'm not suggesting that our praise should be glib or shallow or deny how we are feeling; it is right and proper to feel and experience a whole range of emotions at different times. But, "it is our joy and our salvation, always and everywhere to bring our thanks and praise".
On February 22nd, the church will begin the season called Lent, when society is of the opinion that the church is concerned only with giving up chocolate or alcohol or anything else that one enjoys. I believe we have a different message to share... that there are times when it is good to reflect on our priorities; about who and what REALLY matters to us and to think about our view of the world. Yes, we are encouraged to think about the time that Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted, "yet without sin". The historic temptations described in the Bible are just as real for us today. They are the temptations of believing that only the material world is of significance and that the spiritual is only for the weak; that power (as much as we can get) should be our ultimate aim, no matter what the consequences; and that we can bargain with God such that we are looked after simply because we ask God to do that for us in times of trouble.
However, the deeper message of Lent is one of a Saviour who "is not a high priest unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who has been tested in every way as we are, only without sinning. It is a message of challenge and choice that asks some really big questions about being human, including our relationship with other human beings, how we respond to suffering and how we take seriously the responsibility to care for the planet. Christians believe that we cannot do all this in our own strength, because if we could, then we would be God. During this season let us therefore recognise that we are not all powerful or all-knowing and "boldly approach the throne of grace, in order that we may receive mercy and find grace to give us timely help." (Hebrews 4:15-16). Living life in the Christian tradition is not about giving things up for six weeks in a year and being miserable until Easter Day arrives. It's about receiving mercy and grace, knowing that we are forgiven people and allowing that knowledge to influence every part of our lives. It's about remembering that we do all this following in the steps of Jesus, who was afraid himself, was betrayed by his friends, got angry and wept at the tomb of a friend.
It is a good discipline to spend a specific period of the year reflecting on our Christian journey so far – looking back at the good parts and learning from the bits that we wish had happened differently. But, whilst the journey through Lent may lead to the cross and God's ultimate gift of life for humanity through the death of Jesus, it does not end at the cross and that surely is a reason to praise our God whose love has no end.