Assistant Rector's House, March 2000
On a cold and wet night in January about sixty to seventy people took part in a sponsored sleep-out at St Peter’s to raise money for the Macedon Trust; an organisation which works for the homeless in Nottingham in many different ways. Among them were a couple of women who ensconced themselves in sleeping bags and blankets on the step just outside the West door. Their intention was not to sleep, but from an excellent vantage point to pray for the changing state of the city as the night progressed - to pray for pubbers and clubbers and street cleaners and MacDonalds staff and policemen and taxi drivers and early morning workers… and those sleeping rough.
At about 1.00am, to their embarrassment, the regular occupant turned up claiming his spot on the steps - one of the best in Nottingham. He was not best pleased to discover that some ‘do-gooders’ concerned for the homeless had robbed him of his usual shelter. He was angry at our ‘play-acting’, especially when he discovered that we had an endless supply of coffee and food available in the church to sustain us through night.
The women spent a long time talking with him, discovering who he was and why he was there, and in the end he opted to go off to another spot to sleep - but equipped with quantities of coffee, sandwiches and cake. The women said that that was one of the most transforming experiences of their lives. In that encounter they realised with startling clarity that, though it is vitally important to pray and to raise money to enable people to leave the streets, it is even more important to relate to ‘the homeless’ as ordinary human individuals and not as ‘faceless’ problems.
There is a young man who quite often comes to an early morning communion at one of the City Centre churches. His wife rarely comes - she says she doesn’t understand what the liturgy is all about! While he is worshipping, she has a coffee in MacDonalds and talks to the rough sleepers there and out on the pavements. As she gets to know them she discovers their needs, and both members of the couple then supply them with blankets and clothes etc. from home.
What have these stories to do with Lent which begins this year on 8th March? Lent in the church is a time of preparation for the great events of Holy Week and Easter. Outside the church, ‘Lent’ means almost nothing at all. Pancake Tuesday (or Mardi Gras) may still be observed as party or carnival, Easter may have something to do with fluffy bunnies or chocolate eggs, but the six weeks between has no meaning.
A significant question for the church is surely whether during Lent, we further withdraw from the world or engage more with it. And the ‘fence-sitting’ answer surely has to be ‘both’. Lent calls us back to the way of Our Lord, to travel with him through the wilderness to Gethsemane and the cross. It also calls us to bring to others as well as ourselves the consolation and hope of the Lord’s rising at Easter.
Quiet times of prayer can help us draw closer to God - you may like to join in the Wednesday evening reflections in church. Setting aside some time to read can provide illumination and understanding - there is a suggested booklist later on in the magazine. ‘Giving up’ something can contribute a little to our insight into real deprivation and introduce an element of self-discipline which some of us need more than others!
But alongside all this, Lent challenges us to bring to others who share in the suffering of Jesus’ cross, the hope and reality of his resurrection. The two stories I began with inspire us to ask ourselves how, this Lent, we may increase that human dimension of practical caring - which is essential to an active faith but sometimes the hardest of all to put into effect.