Pam ( my wife) and I were both born in 1962 so this year we both turn 50. My birthday is in February and hers is in July. This year we will also be leaving Edinburgh which has been our home since 1990. We wanted to mark all of this with a party and decided it would be best to do this between our birthdays and before all the things we have to do before I am ordained and inducted in September become too pressing.
We settled on March as the date that would suit best and starting planning before Christmas. A venue and equipment had to be hired, invitations sent, a party playlist constructed, food and drink thought about and so on and so on.
March is also the month for Lenten discipline. This year I have again adopted the avoidance of sweetened foods as mine. This is a somewhat vague category covering confectionery, cakes and allied baked goods, and desserts of all kinds. I’m not at all clear why I do this but I feel I want to. I somewhat suspect myself of just enjoying imposing duties on myself but I don’t think that’s all there is to it.
I think the creation of a day-to-day reminder that this is a special time of year has real value to the Christian. Even if the discipline is not too onerous (as mine is not) it can do this work. I sometimes wonder about something more difficult (e.g. alcohol) but haven’t come to the view that this is necessary and am held back by a sense that it might be ostentatious and might inconvenience or embarrass others.
Which brings me back to the party. One of the lovely things was the help some of Pam’s friends offered in the area of the birthday cake. To accommodate 100 candles a lot of cake was required so a number of women baked, bought and/or decorated cakes which formed a fabulous array with the candles blazing. This was a lovely gesture and a dramatic centrepiece to the event.
Knowing this was happening I decided I would suspend my Lenten discipline for the evening and have some of the birthday cake in acknowledgement of the effort our friends had made on our (well lets be honest, on Pam’s) behalf. Not to eat any of the cake would have felt churlish and ungrateful in something like the way it feels ungrateful (to Christ) not to mark Lent in some way.
In this case I was confident that my communal obligation (to the women whose friendship means so much to my wife) took precedence over my personal obligation (to my Lord Jesus). Any unease I might feel over this precedence (does it mean I’m not putting him first?) is dealt with in my mind by thinking about what he might think about it.
My son suggested that the acceptance of hospitality (e.g. that of Matthew the tax collector) would be the appropriate New Testament witness in thinking about this and I went first to the eating of grain on the Sabbath but that isn’t really what makes the difference to me. My affinity which contemporary liberal Christianity (which I often resist) is clear to me in the extent to which, really, I just think Jesus wouldn’t mind me eating cake people have offered to my wife in friendship.
Ultimately this is a law and gospel question in my mind. In observing Lenten discipline I put myself under a law, and that’s a good thing. On this I am much more sympathetic to Luther than to Calvin. I see the law’s religious purpose less in making us better people than in reminding us of our dependence on God’s forgiving love enacted and made known in Christ. Like Luther (but on a smaller scale) I had a conversion experience rooted in perception of my own sinfulness and gratitude for its forgiveness (as related here.)
I think this will always shape the kind of Christian and hence the kind of minister I will be. My relationship to God (when it is most alive) is dominated on my side by gratitude. I know my own unworthiness and also how little that matters, how much God’s love is capable of forgiving and overlooking.
My breaking of my Lenten discipline is a reminder of this and of how important the other of the two great commands of Jesus is and remains. We are told to love God with everything we have and we are also told this does not and must not interfere with loving our neighbour.
When I ate my birthday cake on Saturday night these two commands came together for me. Thank you to all who were at our party and especially those who helped with any aspect of it and thank you to God for all your gifts to me, especially the gift of the love of a good woman but above all the gift of redemption in Christ Jesus.