My wife and I recently took a mid-winter break and travelled to the Galapagos Islands. It was fascinating to see the islands and their unique animal species that prompted for an earlier visitor, Charles Darwin, a string of questions that led to an exploration of origins. This later developed into the theory of evolution, itself one of the causes leading to the rise of Christian fundamentalism in the early 20th century. That’s for another column, though!
Near the end of our trip, I took some time to offer a prayer of gratitude for all who made the trip possible. It was our decision to go. We thought through the plan. We joined some cousins who came along. We saved up the money. We ordered the tickets. We went. It was “our” trip, “our” holiday.
But as I thought about it, I began to realize how many other people made it possible for us to take “our” holiday. The travel agent. The airport staff. The flight attendants. The pilots. The traffic controllers. The restaurant cooks and servers. The hotel staff. The drivers. The guides. The border control agents. The shop venders. The list goes on and on and on, both the obvious front-line people who provide the direct service as well as all the people you never see (or think of) who provide the food, fuel, documents, currency exchanges and infrastructure that make it all possible to travel. “My” trip became “our” trip. I literally depended on thousands of unnamed people to enjoy the trip I thought of as “mine.”
My prayer of thanksgiving became much longer than I had planned!
We live in a web of relationships which make living possible. In an age that has increasingly become focused on the individual, it is so easy to forget how interconnected we are. My decisions, actions, well- being and happiness are not anywhere nearly as autonomous as I might like to think they are.
There is a night prayer in the American Book of Common Prayer’s office of Compline (p. 134): “O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
This time of year brings this interconnectedness into particular focus. It is the time of annual meetings, where new officers of the parish are elected or appointed. On any particular Sunday – or weekday, perhaps – we might “decide” to “go to church” or not. We can frame it as, “It is between me and God,” but the parish church is there because of the countless hours of dedication of churchwardens and clergy, chancel guilds and servers, treasurers and diocesan officials, Sunday school teachers and catechists, pastoral care visitors and financial contributors. I thank God for all who contribute their time and talent, wisdom and money, prayers and presence to the mission of Christ in our parishes and communities. It makes a difference. “Our common life (as a church) depends on each other’s toil.”
We are also entering an unusually early season of Lent. Lent is a time for reflection, prayer, giving and confession. The Ash Wednesday liturgy in the Book of Alternative Services includes a Litany of Penitence, pp 283-285. One parishioner objected to praying it because “I haven’t done most of those things!” That’s hopefully true of most of us as individuals, but we all participate in a society where someone else has, whether on our behalf, in our name, or by our indifference. My sin, as well as my virtue, has impact and influence on those around me. “My” actions or inactions affect not only me but “us.” And so my repentance is important not only for confessing a sin and establishing a right relationship between me and God, but equally importantly between me and my neighbour, even those I might not know very well or even at all. This corporate dimension of our faith – its “political” aspect – is also why prayer (including thanksgiving and intercession) and almsgiving are also central to a good Lenten discipline.
May you have a gracious Lent. As St. Paul writes in Philippians, “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the Gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”