How to change the world this Lent by Stewart Perry

This Sunday night I’ve been asked to speak at the Cathedral in Brisbane. Each month they do something different at their regular weekly Evensong service and run what they call ‘Theologians, Mystics and Godbotherers’. The guest preacher picks someone who has impacted them who fits one of those categories. When the Dean (a ‘Dean’ is what they call the parish priest of the Cathedral if you didn’t know) asked me to speak, he listed off a range of names mostly big names in the world of theology or key Christinas throughout the ages, many of whom I’d come across in my theology degree and hadn’t heard much of since.

The Dean asked me to think about who I might pick, and without giving it too much thought I just asked if anyone had picked Bono, the lead singer of the rock band U2. He seemed a bit surprised by my question but pleasantly intrigued and said no but indicated that would be a good choice. That was more than 6 months ago and now I have to think about what I’m going to say and brush up on what I know about Bono. Fortunately just before Christmas I finished his memoir called ‘Surrender’.

In my thinking I thought I might ‘multi-task’ a little and reflect on something that struck me in that book that might be helpful to think about during Lent.

At the beginning of the book Bono reminded me of a song lyric in one of U2’s earlier songs. ‘Rejoice’ from one the album ‘October’: the line is “I can’t change the world but I can change the world in me”.

I remember as a teenager, falling in love with the poetry of U2 lyrics that really resonated with my church upbringing mixed with teenage angst and youthful idealism. Throughout his memoir I was reminded of these powerful words that impacted me much more than my father’s sermons at the time. It also inspired some of my own exploration of poetry which later became writing my own song lyrics.

Towards the end of the memoir however, Bono flips this old lyric on its head as in his later life he ponders whether he got it wrong all those years ago as he says: “I can’t change the world in me but I can change the world”. That line has been rattling around in my head since I heard it on the audiobook before Christmas… what would it mean for me… I don’t have the resources or influence that a mega rich, super famous rock star has, how could I possibly think that I could change the world?

It’s the first half of the quote that I have been pondering, is he really right? Can we not change ourselves… it’s a big existential question and one perfect for pondering during Lent. On the one hand a classic theme is that we can change we can repent and we can, through spiritual discipline and the power of the Holy Spirit, turn ourselves around. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been beginning to wonder if that is really “change” or are we instead discovering who we really are, something God has always known. I am reminded of one of the best known passages of the book of the Prophet Jeremiah:

‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ (Jeremiah 1:5)

Or the lesser known section of Psalm 139:

‘O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.’ (Psalm 139:1-5)

I wonder if a life of faith is less about finding what is wrong and sinful about ourselves and fixing them and more about finding out who God has made us and called us to be and living into that. In a way I think that trying to be someone who we are not can be in a sense sinful.

One of the many personality typing tests I’ve done over the years was one called ‘Leading from your strengths’ which highlighted your leadership strengths and the types of roles you were best suited to. The person facilitating this test suggested that you can operate in roles that are outside your natural strength areas but only for around 3 years and then you can break or break others. Wouldn’t breaking yourself or breaking others be something we’d call sin?

I’m sure we’ve all met that person who is trying to be someone they’re not… the introvert who’s masquerading as an extravert… the person who is a natural leader trying to take the back seat or the control freak trying to not micro-manage anything… but have you ever spent the time reflecting on when and how you might be doing that type of thing.

You and I are beautifully and wonderfully created by God, but you and I were beautifully and wonderfully crated very differently, I don’t have to be like you and you don’t have to be like me. We might have similarities but often the things that are distinctive about ourselves, and often the things we see as weaknesses and frailties are exactly what God uses to show others who God is through us.

It strikes me after reflecting on this for the last few months, that those who really change the world are those who are most aware of who they are. I wonder if this Lent we might spend some time asking ourselves the question of who we really are, who is the person that God has always known but we’ve been trying to fix, change, cover up or hide? How might we journey this Lent to be more at peace with who we are which might in turn make us more impactful in God’s mission to change the world.