john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK



    Imagine: Lent

    Good Shepherd Morning Communion 1/3/2009


    Genesis 9.8-17, Mark 1.9-15


    Today is St David's Day. Special to the Welsh, and to people like me who like to imagine ourselves as being Liverpool-Welsh (which I am, going back a generation or three). It gives me the chance to recite part of one of my favourite-ever poems, which is about St David and is written by the Welsh poet-priest Gwenallt (David James Jones); originally written in Welsh, of course, translated here for us.... [improvisation around theme of 'Welsh saints' based on conversation re. Joyce's Auntie Gwen}:
    There is no barrier between two worlds in the Church,
    The Church militant on earth
    Is one with the Church triumphant in heaven,
    And the saints are in this Church which is two in one.
    They come to worship with us, our small congregation,
    The saints our oldest ancestors
    Who built Wales on the foundation
    Of the Crib, the Cross and the Empty Tomb.
    And they go out as before to travel their old ways
    And to evangelize Wales. [1]
    Notice what the poet is doing here. As well as reminding us of the very deep Christian heritage of Wales, he's imagining that the saints of the church from throughout the centuries, are still with us. They are still with us today, going about their work of evangelising Wales. David - known as Dewi in Welsh - is remembered for travelling throughout Wales taking the gospel to the people. And Gwenallt's poem continues by imagining Dewi doing just that now - in this day and age...
    I have seen Dewi going from shire to shire like the gipsy of God.
    With the gospel and the altar in his caravan;
    He came to us in the colleges and schools
    To show us the purpose of learning.
    He went down into the pit with the coal miners
    And shone his lamp on the coal face.
    He put on the goggles of the steel worker, and the short grey overall.
    And showed the Christian being purified like metal in the furnace.
    He brought the factory people into his disreputable Church.
    He carried the Church everywhere
    Like a body with life and mind and will,
    And he did small things and great.
    He brought the Church into our homes,
    Put the holy vessels on the kitchen table
    With bread from the pantry and wine from the cellar,
    And he stood behind the table like a tramp
    So as not to hide from us the wonder of the sacrifice.
    I think that there's great wonder, and great beauty, in this poet's work of imagination: he puts into our minds pictures of the great saint visiting us in our workplaces, our schools and our homes. Comforting, inspiring, pictures. Thank God for the imagination of the poet.

    The season of Lent invites us all to use our imaginations. It starts, of course with Jesus.

    When Jesus went into the desert by himself, he had to struggle with both his body and his mind. There he was fasting: which focussed his attention on his physical body; and there he was in prayer: which was all about his spiritual preparation and his mental strength. The gospels tell the story of the struggle Jesus faced in the temptations of both body and mind.

    The fast in the desert would have severely tested Jesus' body and would have been a distraction to his mind which he had to get past. Without discipline, denying his body what it wanted, he could not hope to carry out God's will which would include pain, suffering and death. The prayer in the desert was a way of testing his complete faith in God, his spiritual oneness with the Father and the strength of his mental determination and obedience to his Father. [2]

    In fighting the temptations put before him Jesus used his imagination. The devil was trying to make him imagine one thing about himself - but Jesus worked hard to imagine something other.

    The devil presents him with visions of power: Jesus can give in to his body's demands for food by commanding stones to become bread; he can test his own divinity by demanding God save him if he recklessly endangers his life; he can turn aside from God's will and give in to temptation.

    Each time the devil tries to make Jesus imagine himself giving in to his very enticing temptations, all of Jesus' imagination and mental strength focusses on God as he replaces the devil's vision of himself with God's vision of who he is.

    The season of Lent invites us all to use our imaginations. Who would I be, if I saw myself through the eyes of the creator?

    The season of Lent invites us all to use our imaginations. How would our world look if we saw it God's way?

    It takes some doing, being imaginative like this. It takes faith. Faith like Noah's. What faith Noah must have had, looking out from the deck of his creaking little ark, to imagine that the drowning world he could see before his eyes had a bright future - and that would God put him and his descendents and the living creatures with him, at the centre of a new world of promise.

    Being imaginative takes faith. Faith like Jesus, able to stay in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; with the wild beasts. The angels waited on him, and helped Jesus to imagine a future in which he would be able to go out among the people and tell them, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.'

    Remember Jesus telling his followers that the key to belonging to his kingdom is to become like little children. Maybe that's because he knew that children are very good at using their imaginations: dreaming up new possibilities for themselves, creating new worlds, because they have faith in what's in their minds.

    If your mind is in good shape then you can use your imagination well. In our Lent group this year we are thinking about how Jesus helped and healed people with various physical ailments; but we know that good mental health is just as important as good physical health.

    We often take our mental health entirely for granted - until it breaks down. The ability to think clearly, to use our imagination, to use insight, and to hope and to shape a vision of the future, is often such a natural part of our mental life that we forget to realise how precious it is. Yet mental illness is extremely common.

    Many people will be affected by a mental illness such as depression at some time in their life. Stress, worry, trauma, life crises such as divorce or bereavement, and physical illness can all affect our mental wellbeing. When that happens then our imaginations can be distorted.

    Most of us know people this has happened to, with conditions like Alzheimer's; often it is painful for those who see it happening to their loved; sometimes there are moments of light relief. One day I was visiting Stonedale Lodge and there was a very old lady sitting there who I'd not seen before. She put out her hand and said, "I'm new, you know." And then she said, "I'm the oldest person here." Well, she looked like she might have been, and she looked like she was about to tell me how old she was, so I waited, and she said, "I'm two hundred, you know.".... As I was leaving I went to say goodbye to her and she said, "I'm going to give you a donation." There was another gap and she said, "I'm going to give you a million pounds."...

    We know that just as diseases or drugs can affect the mind, damaging memory or making it difficult to think clearly and freely, so also the spiritual journey too can be affected by doubt, anxiety and crisis, so that even the most faithful Christian can have times when imagination fails and all seems uncertain.

    Yet even when our imagination fails, and everything seems hopeless, God is still there; there is no state so desperate that God will abandon us. When we can't see clearly into the future then we need to realise that we need the support of others; and when life seems dark for others then we need to be a source of hope and inspiration for them.

    The season of Lent invites us all to use our imaginations. What could I do to bring light into someone else's darkness?

    The season of Lent invites us all to use our imaginations. Who can I ask to bring light into mine?


    Notes
    [1] Gwenallt's 'St David' translated in A. M. Allchin, Esther De Waal: Threshold of Light - Prayers and Praises from the Celtic Tradition
    [2] Exegesis based on material in Sense Making Faith: 2: Journey into Imagination Lent Course from CTBI.