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January 18th, 2013

Is Lent for men?! Rediscovering the lost art of spiritual bushcraft!

Lent for men – the lost bushcraft of the soul


Have you noticed the lack of men in the church? According to some recent research, at the current rate of loss there will be no men in the church in this country by 2028.

Youth experts are also talking about how the church is losing young people. Fuller Youth Institute has developed the theme of ‘sticky faith’ for young people. They say that the way to make faith stick is to notice God through spiritual practices. I think there is a similar lack of ‘sticky faith’ among men, and the solution is the same.

The 40 days of Lent (which means spring) is an opportunity for new growth in creating ‘sticky faith’. Forty days is a significant biblical number. It is also the length of time that helps us, psychologically, to break unhelpful habits and start new helpful ones. Making changes stick is not easy. It is why Lent as a season is so important. I first really discovered the power of Lent and 40 days when I read Rick Warren’s bestseller The Purpose Driven Life. Ever since then I have taken Lent seriously. It can change lives, with change that sticks.

By the way, do keep eating chocolate; Lent is about something else. It is a chance to notice Jesus again in a fresh way.

One of the problems with creating ‘sticky faith’ with men is that they are presented with a distorted, feminised portrait of Jesus. We need to rediscover a lost portrait of Jesus: he is not gentle Jesus, meek and mild; he does not float around in a nightgown. Mark’s gospel offers us a neglected title for Jesus, one that speaks powerfully to men. Jesus is called the ‘more powerful one’ by John the Baptist (Mark 1:7). In the Greek he is literally ‘the stronger one’.

Who does this make Jesus like? It echoes the portrayal of Yahweh as divine warrior in Isaiah’s new exodus theology.

Mark’s gospel employs the same root Greek word that is used in the Septuagint version of Isaiah 40:10. Yahweh comes with power in that verse, with the sense of being the more powerful one, the stronger one. In Isaiah 49, Yahweh will contend with fierce warriors and take plunder and captives from them. So Jesus is the divine warrior. But he was also a contemplative. How do we get men to take contemplation seriously, because many don’t?

One ancient term for a contemplative is that of a ‘tracker’. Someone who tracked the footsteps of the Invisible One, in the words of a fifth century Bishop Diadochus of Photike. This is the lost bushcraft of the soul that men need to be reintroduced to if they are going to be changed into the likeness of Christ.

Lent is associated with Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, where he battled Satan and contemplated God. It also echoes the story of the Exodus, the people of God in the wilderness journeying from slavery into freedom. Isaiah the prophet talked about a new exodus. As Christians we believe that is what Jesus came to fulfil, and Mark’s gospel takes up this theme.

Lent is also a time for recognising that in order for Jesus to do this, his journey needed to end with the cross and the resurrection.

Jesus himself picks up the language of being a warrior when he is accused by the teachers of the law of being possessed by Satan: ‘By the prince of demons he is driving out demons’ (Mark 3:22). Jesus calls them to him and speaks to them in an important parable.

No one, he says, can ‘enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he can rob [plunder] his house’ (Mark 3:27). Satan is the strong man here; it is the same root Greek word which describes Jesus as ‘the stronger one’. As the stronger one, Jesus is the divine warrior who has come to bind the strong man and plunder his house and his kingdom.

Jesus bound Satan in his encounter with him in the desert (Mark 1:13), and the first miracle recorded by Mark is the driving out of an evil spirit (Mark 1:21–27). Jesus has already demonstrated the truth of his parable, that he has bound Satan, and is now plundering his kingdom.

But it is on the cross that he completes his eschatological victory over Satan, death and sin. That victory, won in principle, needs now to be won in reality in the present through hard conflict. Men who are caught in bitter existential battles with lust, greed, power and the slavery of the economic system – who are caught in addictions to pornography, alcohol, drugs and the emptiness of competing in the arena of consumerism – need to hear the language of the strong man being bound in their lives. This language needs to be part of their spiritual rebirth. Forty days of wrestling with these addictions this Lent might just be the breakthrough they need.

In my pastoral experience, helping men use the language of binding the strong man in their spiritual life is very important, as is asking them what is the strong man that needs binding. Which inner demon afflicts them the most, to use the language of the earliest Christian psychologists, the Desert Fathers? The afflictive thoughts they identified are still the ones that need wrestling with: gluttony, lust and greed; anger, sadness and spiritual apathy, or carelessness; vanity and pride.

We may have opened the door to Christ, but very often we fail to close the door to Satan; very often we fail to close the door on our sinful thought patterns. These thoughts are tracked and transformed through spiritual practices like Lectio Divina (a slow, prayerful tracking of God through reading Scripture in a meditative way)and the Jesus Prayer, the simple repetition with our breath of the ancient words, ‘Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,’ which enables us to become aware of the presence of God.

Our rationalistic culture dismisses the reality of spiritual warfare. We seem to have lost sight of the deep theology of what Jesus is teaching here. What does Satan seek to do? In the language of Jesus in Mark’s gospel, Satan makes us spiritually blind and spiritually deaf; he makes us hard-hearted. Jesus says to the disciples after the dazzle of kingdom miracles: ‘Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened?’ (Mark 8:17).

We need to be ransomed from this slavery; rescued from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light.

As warriors in the likeness of Christ, we are to be fishers of men, women and children – an image Jeremiah used in the context of war (Jeremiah 16:16). A common Jewish idea of the time was about the ‘nets of Satan’. Jesus’ use of this image is not a sentimental one. It is about the rescue of people from the nets of Satan into the nets of the kingdom. It is an urgent image.

We need to go back to Scripture to recapture the true image of Jesus and men, and we need to go back to more ancient traditions than our own to challenge our thinking. Lent is a perfect opportunity to unplug from the things that drive us and consume us.

But just as we need to get our children to notice God more, and learn to pay attention to Him, so we need to do that with men. They need to be taught how to track God again, to relearn the joy, to borrow the words of a wilderness expert, of tracking the Mystery to its Source.

Shaun Lambert is the Senior Minister of Stanmore Baptist Church and the author of A Book of Sparks – A Study in Christian MindFullness.

A Book of Sparks is a 40 day devotional book that invites us to track the story of Jesus from beginning to end in a new way, learning to pay attention wherever we are.

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