Lent – can it be a good time to recognise our own vulnerabilities and reconnect with our own true identity? Celebrating and affirming the good things we see in one another can be a powerful route to deepening friendship and building community, says Livability’s Corin Pilling.
By the time you are reading this, our annual pancake feast will be over. Different traditions choose to celebrate their launch into Lent in a variety of ways, but New Orleans’ Mardi Gras might lay claim to being one of the most joyous. Having visited New Orleans a couple of years back, I experienced a town that likes to party 24-7. A New Orleans street celebration offers a pied-piper experience. You may not have intended to spend the evening chaotically dancing down the street behind a brass band, but the call proves irresistible. I was reminded of the words of Community Engagement specialist – Dave Andrew’s who says: ‘Nothing brings together a community like a party or a crisis.’ Arguably at Mardi Gras, you get to experience both.
Public celebration is a great way to draw together with neighbours. The quality of our relationships will be changed by those we pray with, build with and party with. If we get to do all of these activities with the same people, the result is likely to be a real richness of relationship. So what does the period of Lent and the biblical story, teach us? We see that a different kind of public celebration preceded Jesus’ launch into ministry.
At Jesus’ baptism, we witness a Father’s celebration of his Son – ‘This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ In this brief phrase, Jesus is affirmed in all he is by the Father. In turn, we are told all we need to know about his relationship with God. In these words we see a celebration of his true identity.
The 40 years that the Israelites spent in the desert was a period of regularly forgetting who they were. In contrast, Jesus’ time in the desert becomes a place to remember who he is.
The Father’s words of affirmation are the ones that are echoing in Jesus’ ears when he makes for the wilderness, words that underpin his response when tempted. A grounded response, drawn from the security he gains from knowing who he is.
Perhaps these come from situations where we are surprised at our own actions, or our reactions to others’ opinions. In the passage, all of the tempter’s questions start by questioning Jesus’ identity; ‘If you are…’ yet their foundations are based on false assumptions of who Jesus is.
Such power is about the spectacular and the impressive; it is power as control. But Jesus’ identity is based on humility and love; a very different kind of power. This is true identity, as modelled by Jesus.
Many of us will also have a keen sense of our own ulnerability, too. These experiences of our own vulnerability can also lead to further questioning about our identity. Yet this passage points to the value of a celebration affirming and honouring who we are. Might there be a community practice that can help to remind us of who we are, and who we truly belong to? Perhaps this is something we would all benefit from doing more often, and might even work as a tradition in Lent.
A collective act which provides an opportunity to celebrate the good we see in each other will look different in each setting. Depending on context, and the level of relationship, one approach could be a simple process of sharing affirmations. Bernadette, a member of our Livability team, offered us a practice which helped each person both recognise and celebrate their gifts. Each of our names was written on a piece of paper and they were then circulated around the group. On each turn, we wrote down the particular qualities we’d appreciated about that team member, folded the page down and passed this on to the next person, with just the name visible. At the end each of us received a page of appreciations from all the team.
This process was a gift to many of us as we were enlightened by colleagues highlighting gifts and qualities we may have been slow to see in ourselves. It was an experience of something quiet, and affirming rather than public and open, though extroverts might want it played differently! I still have mine, and have enjoyed the blessing from returning to it. A powerful gift, particularly when shared collectively.
So, let’s celebrate. Let’s enjoy the power of community to remind us of who we are, and bring the best of us to a fruitful place. Also, let’s not forget to party together, when the time is right…. And the time is always right!
The difference between successfulness and fruitfulness – words from priest and spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen:
‘There is a great difference between successfulness and fruitfulness. Success comes from strength, control, and respectability. A successful person has the energy to create something, to keep control over its development, and to make it available in large quantities. Success brings many rewards and often fame. Fruits, however, come from weakness and vulnerability. And fruits are unique. A child is the fruit conceived in vulnerability, community is the fruit born through shared brokenness, and intimacy is the fruit that grows through touching one another’s wounds. Let’s remind one another that what brings us true joy is not successfulness but fruitfulness.’