What does a Bishop give up for Lent?

We are at that time of year where people give up chocolate, or beer, or television, or whatever, but this year I’m not giving anything up except for a few hours each week. I am going to do a bit more volunteering around the North East and write about it each week to celebrate and promote some of the great work being done here.

Each month over 14 million people in the UK give their time freely to help out as a volunteer (2014/15 figures). Because of them we have foodbanks and Oxfam shops. Shops are run in hospitals and blood is delivered for emergency operations. Children are helped in school and the elderly have people to talk with. Refugees are welcomed, and guide-dog puppies are trained. All this and so much more goes on unseen and unacknowledged in Britain today, and it is getting more and more important as we live through this ‘economic downturn’.

My gift of a few hours isn’t very much and I know that I will leave each charity I visit wishing I could do more. That’s always true, but when each of us do what we can it is amazing what we achieve together.

For me, though, there are deeper reasons to volunteer, and especially to do so at Lent. Like most people I find it much easier to notice what I don’t have than what I do. I take my health, and my family, and the fact I have somewhere to live for granted. I easily sink into simply looking after myself and those closest to me. Loving people, which is what my Christian faith calls me to do, involves reaching out beyond myself. It’s not always comfortable, but it is good. It’s what we see Jesus do at Easter (which is why we have Lent), and the truth is that we usually receive far more than we give when we take the risk of loving other people.

Moreover, volunteering gets me out into the communities I am part of and called to serve, but which will rarely come into the church. When I volunteer I meet people, I engage in the conversations of the world, I have a chance to be the salt and light I am called to be.

And in so doing I find myself immensely enriched, just as I do when I volunteer in the normal run of things (I am part of Northumbria Blood Bikes). Like most people I can’t do much, but all we are called to do is offer ourselves.

So I don’t feel like a hero when I volunteer. I expect that I will meet fascinating and wonderful people. I am up for some hard work, but I also suspect there will be laughter, moments of tenderness, and lots of mugs of tea. I will go to give of myself, but will probably come back greatly enriched… which is what I find happens when I try to live out my faith in practical ways.

Truthfully I might cut back on biscuits during Lent too, although that has more to do with preparing for the Great North Run than with Lent. The focus, though, will be on celebrating the many incredible charities we have here in the North East…

… how about you?

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