by Canon Robert Hammond, is Lay Chair of Chelmsford Diocesan Synod and a Member of General Synod
It’s that time of year when I’m sure we’ve all been asked by work colleagues: ‘What are you giving up for Lent then?’
It’s a ‘good opportunity’ question, really. A chance to do a quick bit of round the water cooler theology. Explain why many Christians give something up for Lent, that it’s more than not eating chocolate, or giving up cake. I tend to explain that it’s also about focussing on prayer life, God and perhaps taking something else on, or at least replacing the meaningless with the meaningful. And then I’d usually answer the question. One year it was single use plastic; that was interesting as with my Pret lunch being on full view in the office, I couldn’t sneak the odd plastic pot of (imported) strawberries and blueberries past my colleagues. Usually of course it’s alcohol or more specifically in my case, wine. I should explain though that I have a sideline in wine education, judging and leading wine tours abroad and that unfortunately March and April just happen to be when many of the international wine fairs are held: Düsseldorf, Verona, Vienna, Bordeaux… So, when I say I’m giving up drinking alcohol I usually add ‘unless it’s professional drinking’. At least, I used to.
Last year was different of course, The first Lockdown was introduced during Lent and we were all adapting to new ways of going about our daily lives: Zoom Church, online shopping, face masks, hand washing, the daily Prime Minister Briefing, the statistics and sadly probably also having some personal experience of the effects of Covid-19. Everything changed so quickly; plans were changed, flights cancelled, hotels re-booked, working from home was a novelty and frankly, I can’t remember whether I continued to give something up for Lent or not.
So, what about this year?
Like many of us my life has become far simpler, less complex, less frenetic but no less busy. I’ve become used to operating in one place – the canvas my life is played out on is smaller. As a Civil Servant I’m working from home full time and haven’t been to a work office for almost a year. I spend most of my time in my study, so separation between home and work life is blurred. I miss my daily commute by train; time to think, to pray, to read, to be quiet. I miss the walk to my office in Canary Wharf along the Thames. I thought I’d gain time but I seem to have lost it; the pandemic has been a time thief. I go from bed to office in 5 seconds now and that’s not long enough for me to contemplate the day ahead.
Of course, it’s also taken many other things we valued, eating out, our favourite coffee shop, travel, holidays, visiting friends and family or having them to dinner… the list goes on. It’s easy to feel the pandemic has robbed us of them as well.
But, I then read the Gospels set out for Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday:
“Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?” (Mark 8:17),
“But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret …… and whenever you fast, do not look dismal, … put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your father who is in secret and your Father, who is in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6: 6 & 16).
Have things really been stolen in the way I thought they had? Yes, I’ve lost my favourite apricot tart from the bakers in Canary Wharf each morning and my coffee. I’ve lost the glamour of flying to wine fairs and tasting some excellent wines, and I’ve lost the kudos I got from posting that on Facebook. Hardly important things in the scheme of things!
So, this Lent I’m not going to focus on what I’ve lost or what I feel has been taken from me; none of that really matters and pales into insignificance when I look at how some people’s lives have changed over this year. But I am going to put effort into ‘perceiving and understanding’ and not dwell on ‘talking about having no bread’. I’m going to get some of that lost time back, which hasn’t been stollen – I’ve just lost the ability to use it properly. And I’m going to focus on going into my room and praying, not just working. It seems to me that this Lent especially is an even better time than usual to focus on what’s important and not to get too hung up on giving something up. If I were at the water cooler in the office I’d say that what we’ve given up already is more than enough and perhaps we should enjoy that coffee or apricot tart and not feel too guilty, but we should reflect on the whole last year and what we can learn from it.
I got up earlier this morning, went for a walk and said Morning Prayer overlooking the sea; it felt good to have regained something I’d lost. And I will be giving up drinking alcohol this Lent, including professional drinking.