Wednesday 9 March 2011

Ash Wednesday

What kind of Lenten discipline does my heart and soul seek this year? I yearn to inhabit more deeply my experience of God in which I feel called and invited to live by love, grace, Spirit, by the infinite, eternal, transforming, creative, sacred energy of life.

In contrast there is the Church, with its expectation of prayerful discipline through Lent and the suppression of pleasures, desires and addictions. The Church is an institution which requires people to live by rules and laws (Biblical or otherwise) creating in the process categories which include and exclude.

Far from encouraging people to live into and believe in the sacred energy of life the Church divides the human community in categories of people in which some are less entitled than others to the fullness of their humanity.

Today’s lessons can be read as providing support for a disciplined Lent but I found evidence for a contrary perspective when I read them this morning.

Isaiah 1.10-18 rejects as futile the countless sacrifices and idolatrous ceremonies and instead encourages the people to do good, pursue justice, guide the oppressed; uphold the rights of the fatherless and plead the widow’s cause. But it was the next verse, 19, which caught my attention: “... you will eat the best that earth yields.” The problem is, the first half of the verse will be taken to support those who believe Lent is about following the rules: “If you are willing to obey ...” it begins.

1 Timothy 6.6-19 concludes with an invitation to fix our hopes on “God, who richly provides all things for us to enjoy.” We are exhorted "... to do good and to be rich in well-doing ...” and if we follow the advice, we will “... grasp the life that is life indeed.”

Luke 15.11-end is of course the parable of the Prodigal Son. As I read it, I wondered why the Church drills verse 21 into us: “Father, I have sinned against God and against you; I am no longer fit to be called your son” rather than verse 20: “While he was still a long way off his father saw him, and his heart went out to him; he ran to meet him, flung his arms round him, and kissed him.” This is the God I yearn to encounter and who in truth I do encounter, but often with no thanks to the Church, especially since I’m a gay man.

My life task, the task I will adopt this Lent and for the remainder of my life, (in the words of James O’Dea who I heard speaking in North Reddish, Manchester last Sunday) is: “... to grow and deepen our awareness of the concentrated living essence which has the capacity to align us with our own core. And not only to wake up to who it is we really are but who we can become in those moments when greatness, wisdom or unusual generosity are called for.”

My project for Lent may seem to be very different from the traditional Lenten disciplines but I suspect it is something which resonates with many more people than the fasting tradition and is in truth much closer to the teaching of Jesus who clearly experienced in his body, heart and soul a tender intimacy and love which is the essence of his Father.

Writes James O’Dea:

“These moments when you are picked up and carried towards the seemingly infinite reserves of essence are a reminder that the truly great adventure in your life is the fullest realisation of your inner wholeness and where it wants to take you.”

“When you begin to surrender to ‘I don’t know’ you break the control that false certainty has over your life. Admitting doubt is a dimension of the authentic journey of faith.”

My faith, my spiritual life, is anchored in an hour of deep attention every morning where I discover an inner awareness that is carrying me through all of life’s many challenges and difficulties. This is a faith which has no need of an intermediary between me and my Life, life in all its fullness, eating the best that earth yields. This is Life filled with a raw, elemental energy - a truly spirit-anchored, inner, soul life.

Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees in response to their question about the greatest commandment in the law is: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.” That is the greatest, the first commandment. The second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”’

For those of us who have or are struggling with deep anxieties about whether or not we have been created as we experience ourselves in the core of our being – lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender – or who are haunted by the many prejudices of the Church against us, leading us to question whether our SELF is to be honoured, loved and cherished, James O’Dea’s statement about the first commandment needs to be internalised and trusted as a true reflection of Jesus’ teaching – to love our neighbour and to love God as we love ourselves:

“The first commandment is ‘Be yourself.’ It is a commandment which strikes terror in the hearts of many. We wonder, ‘Do I have permission to be myself? How will I be received if I am really myself? Is it safe to be myself? Who am I?' And sometimes we find ourselves utterly amazed: ‘Wow, how did I achieve that? I had no idea I was capable of such things! Where are these incredible ideas and feelings coming from? What is this charged feeling I have about my own destiny? How do I stay true to myself?’

I pray that all followers of Changing Attitude, our supporters, trustees, patrons and the Director himself; will have a holy, healthy and creative Lent in which we are enriched and nourished by a deepening awareness of God’s tender love in the very core of our being.

Colin Coward


  1. On Sunday at an 8am Service, a woman in her 70's and ex Catholic said, "Don't you think everyone should make an effort to come to Church on Ash Wednesday?" Why? At an early Ash Wednesday service this morning, a quick straw poll revealed that most had little intention of using the next 40 days as a time for disciplined prayer and fasting. Preferable for each of us to grow into the fullness of our capacities in enriching and enhancing our potential and making a positive contribution to making the world a better place. Thanks to James O'Dea for stimulating Colin's contribution to inspiring us to make Lent positive and beautiful

  2. The core of your being is not some sexual inclination but your identity as a child of God.

  3. In our parish of three worship centres, our Ash Wednesday service this year was held at the one which tends to draw those least progressive in their views on LGBT issues. At the end of the service one of the regular attendees of that place asked for a quiet word.

    I was initially mystified as she announced her need to apologise to me. I was not aware of any issue between us. She explained that over the past year or more since she learned of my gender transition she had held negative thoughts about me. She had never voiced these thoughts in any way that allowed me to be aware of them but after last night's service she told me that during it, as we both prepared for Lent, she had been moved to believe her ideas about me were wrong and to offer an apology to me. She added that she still did not understand people changing publicly presented gender but she embraced me and I returned the gesture adding that I wasn’t sure I understood it either!

    I strongly believe that those who are not always made totally welcome should try hard to continue in their worship as part of whatever community they feel drawn to connect with. In time, God can move people’s hearts to make them more open.