The season of Lent, which runs from Ash Wednesday until Easter, is approaching its final stages. Lent recalls the forty days spent by Jesus in the wilderness and the focus in Guidelines, the study notes published by the Bible Reading Fellowship, has been on wilderness experiences in our own lives. The Bible reading yesterday was from the Old Testament book Numbers, Chapter 33 – a lengthy list of the meanderings of the people of Israel through the wilderness. Reflecting on the passage, Alec Gilmore, a Baptist minister asks,
Where are we going? Where do we expect to get to? And what would we do if we did arrive? Arriving at goals, achieving targets, has its place, but it is not necessarily the ‘god’ that many politicians, business people an: even preachers would have us believe. In many situations, it might be better to avoid the frustrations and tensions by changing the focus – learning to make the most of where we are.
In some respects, Jews have been better at this than Christians. perhaps because of their history, perhaps because they have had to be. Towards the end of Fiddler on the Roof, when the village of Anatevye has been destroyed, they have lost pretty well everything they had and are to become refugees once again, one of the characters says, ‘Anatevye was never all that wonderful anyway.’ This is not exactly ‘tomorrow to fresh pastures new’ but a recognition that the ‘now’ is what matters.
They seemed telling words in a goal-oriented society where everything is directed towards some future object – learning what is necessary to pass exams, getting the qualifications needed for a job, having the money needed for a mortgage, saving as much as needed for a pension: the focus is always on the future.
Pondering Gilmore’s words I turned to Philip Toynbee’s Part of a Journey, which I have been revisiting 25 years after I first read it. It sticks much better now; I read it at the speed I would read a novel, reading it when I was 22.
There was an uncanny moment when I thought that I was reading Gilmore again. It seemed that words had somehow slipped from one page to another.
One of my most persistent errors is that I still – if only half-consciously -look for some future event which will change the whole course and texture of my life. This resembles nostalgia, in being another way of evading the present moment.
If I were of a Pentecostal frame of mind I would consider the unlikely coincidence of two passages written decades apart by utterly different writers in very different publications to be “a word from the Lord”; being a plain old, dull old Protestant, I would think that they are perhaps something I should think about (says he, pushing a letter about saving for the future into a drawer)