The two friends were talking about Lent.
"Well of course I always give up marmalade," said one. "That's funny, so do I," replied the other.
Why give up things at all? And if you do, why marmalade?
Maybe the answer to the second question is that Lent follows on so quickly from the Seville orange season that it's a special test of one's self-denial to have to wait six weeks before tucking into that delicious new home-made marmalade!
But is giving things up at all helpful spiritually? Isn't it rather negative? Wouldn't it be better to take things up? What's Lent all about, anyway?
Basically, of course, it's the commemoration of Jesus fasting in the desert, at which time the devil came to tempt him. The history of Lent is complicated, and the observance of it has varied in different parts of the Christian church, but from the earliest days there has been a custom of fasting before Easter.
Every Christian's aim should be to grow in the knowledge of Christ and in likeness and obedience to him. I think it is human nature to need special times and seasons to work at this, just as we have anniversaries, celebrations, and The Year of This or That. Think of Lent in that way, and it is surely a useful institution.
Although Christians these days tend to pooh-pooh the idea of giving things up, I personally believe it has much to recommend it. The Bible has a lot to say, not least from the lips of Jesus himself, about fasting as a means of spiritual growth and power (see Luke 4.14, with its reference to "the power of the Spirit" following on immediately
from the account of the temptations), and St Paul says "All things are lawful for me, but I will not be enslaved by anything." You may not realise that you are enslaved to something until you try to give it up - a hobby, a TV programme… even marmalade! One year I was horrified to discover how much I missed my coffee.
At the same time, Lent is an opportunity to do something positive as an expression of our Christian faith. For instance, if self-denial saves you money, why not give that money to a Christian cause? If it saves you time, can you offer that time to God? And speaking of giving time to God, for some of us Lent might be the time to start a discipline of daily Bible study and prayer which will become a permanent habit.
May I leave the subject with a plug for our Lent Course? We shall be studying Archbishop Justin Welby's Lent book Dethroning Mammon, price £6.99 online, which Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, was seen reading on the Underground a few weeks ago. Details are on the flyer in church and on the WSL website; basically it's Wednesdays 8 March to 12 April 10-12 or 7.30-9.30 at The Parsonage, School Road. All are welcome!
q Confirmation is the normal way in which the Church of England receives people into full membership. It is the right thing for those who were baptised as infants and now wish to profess the Christian faith for themselves. We would normally expect a child to have reached the age of 11 before being presented for Confirmation. There is no maximum age!
Confirmation is also available to those who have the background of a different denomination but have now decided to 'make their home' in the C of E and wish to mark that decision formally.
If you are interested in joining a preparation course (which does not commit you to being confirmed), please let me know by Sunday 26 March. The Confirmation service will be conducted in a local church (not in Waltham St Lawrence) by the Bishop of Reading, probably on 9 July or 22 October. I will announce the arrangements as soon as they are finalised.
Your sincere friend and Vicar