Gale force winds are lashing the west coast of Scotland, not for the first time this winter. But this time the storms have brought down the power lines, and we are without light or heat or cooking facilities. The predictions are for a protracted outage.
The scene might appear dismal, but actually it is more like a half-forgotten winter's tale. We have managed to get a log fire burning. On the hearthrug, a large Labrador and a small but determined cat are stretched out in a rare moment of peaceful coexistence. Children, parents and grandparents complete the picture. In the blessed absence of television, computer games or broadband, we talk to one another, share laughter, enjoy one anothers' company. In the interludes of quiet, I reflect on the power of attraction exerted by a few blazing logs, drawing us all together around the source of flickering firelight and marrow-thawing warmth.
The spirit of the Gospel is a spirit of attraction, not coercion.
Tonight there is no need to tell recalcitrant children or boisterous pets where they may or may not go. No need for rules. Every creature in the house gathers quite naturally around the center of warmth, light and welcome.
And as I relish this brief dreamtime, memories of summer in Australia drift back in the calm of the candlelight. I remember travelling across vast tracts of land, dotted with cattle stations the size of Wales. And Iremember being asked how I imagined the cattle could be persuaded to stay within the bounds of their rightful stations. No chance of fencing in a station that size. So the answer is a water hole. In the presence of a water hole, there is no need to dictate where the cattle may or may not roam. They gravitate quite naturally toward the source of life, the living water. It all comes down to the power of attraction.
The spirit of the Gospel is a spirit of attraction, not coercion. We see this again and again in the life and words of Jesus, who invites us to come to him and rest (Mt 11: 1-8), to drink from the living water (Jn 7:37), to make a journey with him to "come and see" (Jn 1:39). He reminds us that "I know my own and my own know me" (Jn 10:14). This is the knowledge that draws us to the center of attraction, the voice in our hearts that we most deeply desire to follow. There is no need for fences in the world of Jesus of Nazareth, where God's love is a welcoming smile, not a threatening finger. People do not need to be told to follow him; they are powerfully and naturally attracted to his presence.
A wise saying tells us that "God draws, the devil drives." It follows that when our hearts are feeling drawn by the power of divine attraction, there God is at work; but if we are feeling the pressure of coercion, this is not of God. It is not hard to see the difference between human communities that revolve around a center of attraction, where love glows and draws, and those that rely on fences and demarcations to keep the flock within the prescribed boundaries. Where the spirit of love is the center of attraction, many will find their way to that center, drawn like iron filings to a powerful magnet.
Where the spirit of love and warmth and light flows, people will always be attracted to its source. Where it is blocked by our own determination to be in control and rules and sanctions are the driving force, people will remain distant or walk away. Those who remain will huddle around the edges, fearfully striving to stay in favor. Expansive loving response will shrink into fearful obedience or disillusioned withdrawal. This should not surprise us.
Like the planets, we are at peace with ourselves and one another when we are orbiting around the deep center of attraction. God's love, like an all-pervading gravitational pull, draws us to where our hearts long to be, rendering all fences superfluous. And ultimately this is the only place where we are truly sheltered from the storms that rage around us.
As Lent begins, we might take to heart the wisdom of St. Augustine of Hippo: "Love, and do as you will." When our focus is on the heart of God, the rules and fences fade into insignificance. A Maori proverb reflects the same wisdom: "Turn your face to the sun, and the shadows fall behind you." May Lent be an invitation to draw closer to the center of attraction and reconnect to our true place of belonging, in orbit around the source of our being.