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To embrace loss

08 March 2019

LENT this year was heralded by a reading at Morning Prayer from the second chapter of the Book of Jeremiah: “My people . . . have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” Christians, not being given to worshipping in high places, or setting up images in groves and under every green tree, can find it hard to apply to themselves the correction of the ancient Israelites. The Jeremiah verse, though, uses a different imagery, one that Christ would draw on. The metaphor is vivid: God is the ever-renewing source of fresh, life-giving sustenance, appearing, as if by miracle, out of the dry ground. Yet, because it is hard to trust a miracle, people seek a more comprehensible, seemingly reliable store of material goodness, not appreciating that spiritual and material wealth are bound together. Like the manna harvested in the desert, or the goods hoarded in barns, material wealth — even if it can be held on to, which Jeremiah challenges — is ultimately worthless. The dying have a few things still to teach the living.

This is not the full story. God does not condemn prudence: the capital reserve held to cover cashflow variations, or, more domestically, the stock of spare batteries and bulbs in the understairs cupboard — or, more biblically, the spare oil for a virgin’s lamp. And it would be disingenuous to ignore the worst aspect of poverty: not being able to meet emergency expenditure without plunging further into debt. Voluntarily living by faith, in its traditional definition, is an exhilarating vocation, but not given to many. There is a fine line between this and Harold Skimpole-like financial irresponsibility. More typical is the calling to provide for oneself and for others — though always with the understanding that God is the source of this provision. But there is a fine line, here, too, and one that, it could be argued, most Christians in the developed world crossed years ago. A financial cushion is a comfortable thing beneath one, but a dangerous thing when it gets on top.

This is the purpose of keeping Lent. Lent is always about love; but it is love of God, and the love of material things can interfere with this. Worse than the love of material things is their casual use, indicating a sense of entitlement and disregard for their value. Next week, in these pages, Eve Poole considers the example of Marie Kondo, whose fashionable approach to tidiness includes expressing love for the possessions that one wishes to keep, and thanks for those that one needs to discard. The novelist Rose Macaulay expressed the pleasure of decluttering in her 1935 essay “Getting rid”. Six years later, her London flat was utterly destroyed in the Blitz, leaving all her possessions “lying sodden in a mass of wreckage smelling of mortality”. Every human life involves involuntary loss. The discipline of Lent, which includes voluntary loss, schools believers to trust in the God of living water.

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