Act, reflect, connect: Getting the balance right

At 11.45 every morning, three soothing bells chime out from my iPhone. “Do you want to meditate?” comes the helpful enquiry from my screen, sent each day without fail by my ‘Mindfulness’  app (with handy alerts and tools to track my progress as an enlightened member of the human race).

I glance at my screen. “Seriously? Meditate now? I’m driving/typing/hanging out washing/reading at my child’s school/masterminding the incoming reign of peace and justice for the world.  Maybe later…”

The philosopher Socrates famously suggested that the unexamined life was not worth living. It’s a pretty bold statement. Are we all to be philosophers, floating through life clad in yoga pants, clutching our Mindfulness apps and gazing earnestly at our navels? Or did Socrates have something more balanced in mind?

Church communities have typically been big on reflection – worship, preaching, Bible study and prayer all encourage us to examine our lives carefully. For me, no matter what chaos the week  has held, our lay preachers seldom fail to produce the gem of an idea to polish throughout the week. Too often, though, nothing much happens beyond mental activity. I find it relatively easy to ponder. It’s harder to act. And there’s been no shortage of criticism fired at the church over exactly this tendency.

How do we get the balance right between thought, belief and action?

For this reason, one of my favourite seasons of church life is Lent. Misunderstood by her peers, Lent has been seen as a grim, humourless  character, endlessly dwelling on self-sacrifice and  guilt. Yet the Lent I’ve come to know is quite different: filled with optimistic opportunities for growth, humble awareness and a determination to round out reflection  with action. Lent is Jesus’  companion on the journey to the cross and beyond, into new life. Over 40 days, she reaches into our minds and spirits and urges us on to become the people we’re called to be.

UnitingWorld’s  Lent Event is a movement of people throughout Australia committed to 40 days of action, reflection and connection. Specifically, we’re called out of the comfort of our  everyday lives to connect with others around the world, many of them in places where the church is alive and well, yet hunger stalks whole families, communities strive to rebuild life after war  and parents struggle to send their children to school.

Why focus on our global partners? Partly because it’s so easy in our fast paced, family focussed lives, to miss people and places on the edge. Jesus’ life, on the other hand, was a song pitched  exactly at the men, women and children others overlooked. Jesus saw people who hovered on the periphery, bleeding, blind or bereft. His sight transformed the way he lived. It carried him  through death at the hands of the powerful and today offers us an alternative vision.

For the past eight years, hundreds of churches around Australia have adopted this vision and participated in Lent Event. Focussing their eyes upon the journey of Jesus in the weeks leading up  to his death and sharpening their inward gaze, they’re also taking action to create a world of inclusion, peace, justice and compassion. Inspired by reflection upon the Scriptures, people  intentionally simplify their lives in the lead-up to Easter. Aware of the vast gap between our own lifestyles and those of most of the developing world, they give up practical items like takeaway food, morning coffees or trips to the cinema. Some determine to live on a fraction of their usual budget. It’s an act born less of self-denial and more of solidarity. And it’s practical too.

The  money saved is dedicated to water, health, education and peace projects carried out by Uniting Church partners in Asia, Africa and the Pacific, materially changing life for the better. In South  Sudan, for example, where more mothers and babies die during childbirth than virtually any other place on earth, funding from Lent Event is helping train a new generation of young  midwives.

It’s an amazing project. Originally located in Leer and run by the Presbyterian Relief and Development Agency (PRDA) in partnership with UnitingWorld, the midwifery school was destroyed  by the renewed civil war that broke out just over a year ago. Many residents of Leer fled into the bush as their whole community was razed to the ground. Undeterred, the trainee midwives were  relocated under cover of night and are continuing their training in nearby Kenya, practising their skills in refugee camps bursting at the seams.

“So many mothers are suffering in South Sudan, especially in the villages because there are not enough midwives,” a young mother and trainee midwife told UnitingWorld’s Stephanie Dalton  recently, as they sheltered together from heat and dust in a tin roof classroom.

“I want to be a midwife to assist women during their delivery.”

South Sudan’s maternal and child mortality rates may well be among the worst in the world, but these young women are determined to be part of change. And hope is a vital part of this equation.This year’s Bible study material, prepared by respected Pacific theologian Rev Dr Cliff Bird, is on exactly this theme.

“Forty Days of Hope calls participants to engage with the stories of the Scriptures, old and new, as we trace Jesus’ journey together to the cross.” Cliff said. “We’re called to strive to discern how God’s story in Jesus Christ helps to shape our own story.

“At the same time, we hear stories from Uniting Church partners all over the world. These stories give us the opportunity to look at life from a different point of view and dare to hope for a  more equitable, just and humane society.”

You can now guide your Lenten journey from your mobile or tablet – Lent Event includes its own app, delivering daily prayers along with information about the lives of people in Zimbabwe,  Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka and Maluku, Indonesia. Children and youth resources explore the whole issue of poverty, foster a different view of people with disability and highlight the  practical ways peace is coming among some of our world’s most troubled people groups. In worship, congregations are encouraged in the knowledge that their reflection, connection and action  is part of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom and helps create new opportunities for people everywhere to experience fullness of life.

The unexamined life may well not be worth living, but nor is the life of inaction – a life overwhelmed by or immune to others. Engaging in action, reflection and connection is a balancing act for  the soul. We don’t often get it right, but when we do it’s a powerful witness to the world of the genuine transformation Christ promises.


Cath Taylor

Image: Midwives in South Sudan with Stephanie Dalton from UnitingWorld.

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