Walking, Standing, Sitting

Walking Standing Sitting

Life is all about progression.

It’s about moving forward in a chosen direction.

The book of psalms in the Bible – the 150 psalms which functioned as the hymn book of the people of God – opens with a stark presentation of how that life progression works.

We are shown a description of the person who is blessed by God, but it is presented negatively; we are told that those who are blessed by God are those who do not…

It is as if we are being told, ‘Look, God’s desire for you is that you should be blessed, and that will always happen unless…’

Blessing us is God’s default position, but we can place ourselves outside of it through disobedience.

Of course, this is not an arithmetic process – it is not the case that those who do good are always blessed.

We only have to look at the life of Jesus to see that; or to read the book of Job in the Old Testament.

In this life it is often the case that bad stuff happens to good people.

Yet, these instances are ‘unnatural’.

There is still an underlying truth that, in the way God deals with human beings, blessing often follows obedience.

So what does the psalm teach us?

We are shown that which sets us on a downward path, which takes us outside of the orbit of God’s desire to bless us.

‘Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,’
(Psalm 1:1, NIVUK)

We are shown that going wrong is a process, a downward progression.

Firstly, we start to ‘walk in step with the wicked’ – we allow ourselves to fall into the company of those who reject God – we listen to them and we follow their advice.

Notice how casual an unintended this can be. Just walking along and, almost by chance, we find ourselves in lock-step with someone else. This leads to a conversation and before we know it, we have become connected.

How might this play out in our lives today?

We listen to the cultural influencers and leaders who reject God and we start to pay attention to them more than we do to God. We watch the movies, read the books, consume the social media that present and promote ways of thinking and living that are opposed to God and godliness.

All of these things gradually bring to bear an influence upon our values, thoughts and actions. Bit by bit we become less and less godly.

Secondly, we ‘stand in the way of sinners’. Here we have moved on from a casual ‘bumping into’ someone. Here we start to associate with, to seek out the company of, those who lives and actions are clearly opposed to God. We keep company with those whose values are not God’s.

In our contemporary context it is about going to the places where godly conduct is not only not practised but flouted. Values of holiness and purity turned on their head. Ethics and standards of behaviour ostentatiously broken.

Finally, we ‘sit in the seat of mockers’ – we firmly take sides with those who ridicule righteousness, who despise God and who see God’s people as their enemy. It is at this stage that our ‘conversion’ is complete. We have sided with the opposition. We have taken our place with those who set themselves against God and against good.

Although the end is dramatic, the process that leads us there needn’t be so.

As we saw above, the first step is accidental, unconscious even.

The rest of the process can be lived as a gentle, downwards slide.

Bit by bit, choice by choice, step by step we gradually distance ourselves further and further from God.

But although the process can be largely unconscious it is not without momentum.

We gather speed as we go.

And the further and faster we go, the harder and harder it becomes to stop and turn around.

We can find ourselves trapped in a vortex from which it feels like we cannot escape.

So, if stopping is so hard, the wisest course of action is not to start in the first place.

So how might we prevent ourselves from going astray, from starting on that downward spiral?

Helpfully, the psalm shows us how this progression is prevented – it is by reflecting, meditating, savouring the word of God.

A deep embracing of God’s word as our rule of life is the silver bullet that keeps us centred in the place where God’s blessing falls.

The psalm then presents us with the results of that blessing. It uses the image of a tree planted beside a stream. A tree that is resourced, secure against the drought that was often a part of middle-eastern life; a tree that produces both leaves and fruit.

Tree of Life

Whilst we probably get the metaphor of fruit – qualities, characteristics, attitudes, behaviours flowing out of our life with God that bring blessing to others – perhaps the metaphor of leaves is less clear.

In the ancient world, leaves were often used as medicines for healing.

So a tree that is full of leaf is one that offers healing to those around it.

So the person who dwells in the orbit of God’s blessing is a person whose life offers ‘fruit’ which enriches and blesses those around them and ‘leaves’ which bring healing to others.

This is such a beautiful image.

Growing Old Grace-Full

Old Monk

I came across a medieval poem written by an unknown monk.

The poem is a description of an old monk who had been a soldier and fought in the crusades. On his return from warfare he entered a monastery and lived out the rest of his days as a monk.

The poem really moved me as it is a wonderful picture of a man growing old in God; growing old grace-full.

 

He, after the bustle of temporal warfare,

Enlightened with the grace of a spiritual gift,

Covetous to be the special soldier of Christ,

In this house was made a cloistered monk.

 

More than usually placid, gentle and benign,

As white as a swan on account of his old age,

Bland and affable and lovable,

He possessed in himself the grace of the Holy Spirit.

 

For he often frequented Holy Church,

Joyfully listened to the mysteries of the Mass,

Proclaimed such praises as he was able,

And mentally ruminated the heavenly glory.

 

His gentle and jocose conversation,

Highly commendable and religious,

Was thus pleasing to the whole fraternity,

Because it was neither stuffy nor squeamish.

 

Here, as often as he rambled across the cloister,

He bowed from side to side to the monks,

And he saluted with a bob of his head, thus,

The ones whom he loved most intimately[1].

 

He had been a man of war, but on his return from fighting he felt the call to become a soldier of Christ.

To leave the battles of earth and to engage instead in spiritual battle.

That choice, and that engagement had led to a deep transformation of character.

Instead of a capacity for war in the world, he had developed a capacity for peace within himself.

What was it that had brought about this transformation?

  • A joyful engagement in the practices of the church – in particular the Holy Eucharist.
  • An attitude of worship in how he lived his life – praising God to the best of his ability.
  • A mental life focused on the meditation of God.

This practice, over time, had led him to become an affable companion, someone whose company was both pleasurable and beneficial.

He had retained the realism of the soldier – his conversation was neither stuffy nor squeamish – and yet it had also become full of grace and truth.

The poem closes with a picture of the old monk, slowly making his was across the cloister, bowing to each monk whose path he crossed and silently acknowledging those he was closest to with a gentle nod of his head.

Growing old grace-full.

 

[1] “Ipse post militia cursum temporalis” quoted as a footnote in “Dark Ages” in ‘The British Magazine and Monthly Register of Religious and Ecclesiastical Information, Documents Respecting the State of the Poor, Progress of Education’, Volume 10, p670 pub London : J. G. & F.  Rivington, 1836.

It’s Friday But Sunday’s Coming

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On Good Friday the disciples saw their dreams destroyed, their hopes crushed, their Lord killed, their community ripped apart.

What despair, what sadness, what loss.

But on Easter Sunday the women go to the tomb of Jesus and find it empty. They see an angel who asks,

‘Why do you seek the living amongst the dead? He is not here, but is risen!’ (Luke 24:5-6).

It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming!

At this particular moment the whole world is being rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic.

We have experienced our normal life being turned upside down.

We are living through the horror of millions of people getting sick and thousands are dying.

Our normal daily activities and routines and disrupted, our future plans are put on hold, it feels like everything is in flux and we don’t know what the future will be.

This year we need to know more than ever the hope that Jesus brings – it may be Friday, but Sunday’s coming.

Whatever the future holds we can face it because God is with us.

We do not know what the future holds,

but we do know the One who holds the future.

Jesus has proved His love for us in dying on the cross.

He has proved his power to save by rising from the grave.

It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.

And even in the midst of this dark time we have seen some new lights of hope.

We have had to reassess who the key workers really are in our society and we have found that they are not those who command 6 figure salaries, but the carers, the nurses, the delivery drivers, the farmers.

We can choose a future in which they are fairly paid and justly treated.

We have rediscovered neighbourliness and communities have come together in new ways to care for and support each other.

We can choose to make this the new normal and transform our villages and towns.

We have had to re-imagine new ways of working and connecting and we have seen new possibilities.

We can choose to embrace these more flexible, more family-friendly, smarter ways of working.

We have massively reduced pollution levels across the world, and maybe, just maybe, we can decide to choose a greener future.

Yes, it’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.

This Easter as we experience the awfulness, pain and loss of Good Friday may we never lose sight of the hope of Easter Sunday.

It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.

empty-tomb-3326100_1280

Making Your Place Thinner

Thin-Places-1024x768

In this COVID-19 lockdown we find ourselves distanced from our normal places of divine encounter – churches, sacred places, holy wells, places of natural beauty.

This situation made me wonder whether theology of ‘Thin Places’ is worth exploring.

Writing about his own experience of a ‘thin place’ a journalist explains,

“There is a name for spaces such as this: “thin places”, a Celtic Christian term for “those rare locales where the distance between heaven and Earth collapses”, as Eric Weiner puts it in his spirituality travelogue, ‘Man Seeks God’. They’ve been called “the places in the world where the walls are weak”, where another dimension seems nearer than usual.”[1]

I’m sure each one of us has encountered a ‘thin space’ many times. Maybe it’s a place of extraordinary beauty, or a moment in time – a sunrise or sunset, or maybe it’s a place where someone deeply spiritual has lived and prayed, or maybe it’s a moment of deep significance in your life.

At each of these ‘thin places’ we sense the presence of God, we know in a way beyond explaining that there is more to life than life. We know, deeply, unshakeably, that the simple reductionism of science that would make existence merely an interplay of atoms and molecules is just plain wrong. In the moment of encounter we are convinced that life is more than merely what we can measure.

the simple reductionism of science, that would make existence merely an interplay of atoms and molecules, is just plain wrong

I have experienced many ‘thin places’ in my life.

Some of these it was the place itself that is ‘thin’ because of what had happened there, or because of its intrinsic qualities.

I remember kneeling in prayer inside the ruins of the church built on the islet where St Cuthbert first retreated to be alone with God when the pressure of leading Lindisfarne Abbey got too much. That was a deeply spiritual moment in my life.

Other places are deeply ordinary but become ‘thin’ in a moment of divine encounter.

I remember sitting in my living room holding my new-born son and I suddenly felt a love sweep over me for this child that rocked me to my core.

As I struggled to make sense of this I heard the voice of God say,

‘If you, as a human father, can love your son this much, how much more do you think that I, your heavenly Father, love you?’

That was another life changing moment where my relationship with God was transformed, my understanding of religion turned upside down, and the direction of my life irrevocably altered.

The very ordinary place in which I found myself had become ‘thin’.

Separated as we are in our isolation I wonder if there are things that we can do, that might make our places thinner?

Are there practices that we could adopt that might transform the places in which we are confined into ‘thin places’?

I believe there are some things that might help;

The setting aside of a space to pray and the regular practice of using it.

Set up a prayer space in a quiet corner. In all Orthodox homes there is an icon shelf in the corner of the room opposite the door, so as you enter a room the first thing you see is a reminder of God’s presence here.

When Jesus was asked to teach his disciples how to pray he gave them these instructions,

‘But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.’ Matthew 6:6-7, NIV

So set up a quiet space to pray, establish a regular practice of prayer – it doesn’t have to be long, just make it regular to start with. Don’t worry about words if they don’t come – use prayers like the Lord’s Prayer, or just BE with God in silence.

Maybe that will help your place to become thinner.

Sacred Art

You could also decorate your home with things that draw your thoughts upwards and outwards. There is some good advice on what helps us become more spiritual from St Paul;

‘Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.’ Philippians 4:8, NIV.

Artwork that includes biblical texts, or spiritual themes, icons, pictures of extraordinary beauty – anything that lifts your spirits and your thoughts away from earthly preoccupations and draws them to respond to God in thankfulness and hope.

Icon of the Face of Christ

I have a small icon of Christ that I picked up in a charity shop in Rome, a charity that worked with people living on the streets.

The icon only cost a few euros and it is not a high quality item.

And yet there is something about it. Perhaps it’s about where I bought it and why, but something has made it significant in my life.

It is my regular practice to spend time in prayer before it – it is placed on my desk and I regularly take a moment just to be with Jesus – face to face. It helps.

Listen Well

 

Listen to podcasts, music etc. that you find has a similar tendency to draw your thoughts upwards to God and outwards to others. Handel’s Messiah I find particularly powerful. An acquaintance told me recently of how Mendelssohn’s Elijah had been spiritually profound in his life. Find something of spiritual quality that draws you to God, that opens your heart and mind to a divine encounter.

Isolation mustn’t become the new normal

Of course all the above is in the nature of making the best of a bad job.

The Christian faith is unalterably communal; we cannot be children of God and not be brothers and sisters to those in a similar relationship with our Father.

In fact, Jesus made genuine Christian community the irrefutable proof of us being his disciples,

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34-35, NIV

So whilst our private spiritual practices are important and necessary, than cannot be a substitute for corporate spiritual life – worship, prayer, fellowship, bearing with one another, loving and caring for one another.

But maybe in these unusual times, we can find ways of making the places in which we find ourselves holed up ‘thinner’. Maybe this time of isolation is a call to go deeper with God, to open up more of our life to his influence, to be less distracted by the passing from the eternal.

I pray that your and my place might become thinner.

 

[1] This column will change your life: where heaven and Earth collide – Oliver Burkeman, Sat 22 Mar 2014,www.theguardian.com

Coronavirus – Saviour of the Church?

covid-image-sm

Several people have already marked on the similarities between the Babylonian exile of the Jews (605-538 B.C.) and the lock-down that many Christians are currently living through.

From my kitchen window I can see my local church 60 metres away – but it might as well be in a different country – the people of God are currently forbidden to gather, to worship, to share their faith. And who knows how many months (years?) that this will last for?

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.

There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs,

our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?

Psalm 137

 

Although we are still in our own country, this country feels very different now; hardly, recognizable in fact.

Of course, in some ways the Babylonian exile is a poor analogy.

We have not been conquered by an aggressive foreign power, merely attacked by a microscopic virus. The restrictions on our liberties are not designed to suppress religious observance, but merely to maintain contamination levels low enough so that our health services can cope.

Our ‘exile’ is about preserving life, not about conquest.

But as the prophet stared out on a deserted Jerusalem he exclaimed;

How deserted lies the city, once so full of people!

Lamentations 1:1

I think we can all relate to that sentiment as we stare out on a newly deserted world.

So what lessons might there be for us in the Babylonian exile as we live through an inner-exile of lock-down?

 

The practice of faith continues.

Daniel was stated as continuing to pray three times a day, presumably at the time of the morning evening and midday sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple.

Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before.

Daniel 6:10, NIV

Daniel oriented himself towards the temple in Jerusalem and prayed towards it.

He rhythm-ed his life around prayer towards the temple. He used it as the structural grid for his everyday life.

Will we rhythm our lives around prayer to God – will we uphold our communities and nations before God in prayer. Will we use this opportunity to go deeper with God?

The practice of the Angelus bell was developed by St Francis of Assisi – possibly in response to his experience of the Muslim call to prayer when he was in Egypt.

He developed a 6am, midday and 6pm prayer call. When they heard the angelus bell sound ordinary people would stop in the midst of their everyday activity, and take a few minutes to pray. Thus doing they structured their lives around the practice of prayer.

How might we do this?

 

Faith Morphs into new structures.

Even before the Babylonian Exile we see some evidence that local religious practice was springing up centred around prophets and people who were considered holy.

It is an interesting incidental detail that when the Shunamite woman’s son dies, she announces to her husband that she is going to visit the prophet.

She called her husband and said, “Please send me one of the servants and a donkey so I can go to the man of God quickly and return.”

“Why go to him today?” he asked. “It’s not the New Moon or the Sabbath.”

“That’s all right,” she said.

2 Kings 4:22-23

Which implies that people were gathering around local prophets for prayer, worship, and religious instruction on a regular basis.

This was possibly due to the spiritual corruption of temple worship in Jerusalem and the proliferation of idolatry in the land. You might characterise it as a spiritual resistance to the structures having been contaminated.

But these local worshipping centres based around individuals were further developed into the synagogue during the Babylonian exile. A system of a worshipping life that was non-sacrificial and which saw itself in compliment to the Jerusalem temple.

As we experienced an exile from our normal ways of being church what new ways can we imagine that might enable us to continue to worship God, encourage one another in our faith, proclaim the message of Jesus to those who haven’t yet heard it?

Christ’s word to St Francis of Assisi was, ‘Francis, repair my house, which is falling into ruin’. One thing we know for certain in the Northern hemisphere is that the Christian Church is largely falling into ruin.

Many traditional churches and traditional denominations are in terminal decline. Most are failing to create sufficient numbers of disciples of Jesus to even sustain themselves as congregations.

Our house lies in ruins – but many in church leadership are unwilling (or unable) to embrace the adaptive changes required by the circumstances. We are still rearranging the deckchairs as the ship goes down, unable to embrace the massive changes that are necessary.

This time we are living through may be a moment of creative disruption.

This may be an opportunity for a new church to emerge.

When Jesus sent out the 72 disciples on their first missionary journey, he told them to preach the gospel, heal the sick, cast out demons, and accept hospitality. However if a town or village rejected their message they were to hake the dust off their feet and leave.

However many denominational churches find themselves locked in to pouring resources into contexts that have been resistant to the gospel for 60 years. Perhaps we can now break that cycle, walk away from congregations that refuse to become disciples, and move out to look for new people open to hearing the message of Jesus and to making a whole-life response?

 

The Fields are White for Harvest

Perhaps the main thing we can see in this context is the opportunity for sharing the love of God with those around us. If people are ever going to be open to thinking about eternal issues, if there are ever going to be opportunities for showing different values, Christ’s love and compassion – it is now.

How will individual Christians and local groups mobilize themselves for the support pf those in their communities for whom this is going to be a nightmare journey of sickness, unemployment, bankruptcy, relationship breakdown, loss of self-identity, anxiety etc.

Will Christians show themselves to have a markedly different attitude and approach – instead of selfish hoarding, will we be people of generous sharing?

Instead of being full of fear and anxiety will we be hopefully cheerful?

 

Stay Faithful

Jesus once asked his followers,

‘However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” Luke 18:8

This seems to have been a  genuine question. Perhaps it is Jesus’ question to each generation.

Will we remain faithful to our calling to;

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations,

baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

Matthew 28:19-20

One thing Jesus surely does not see, as He examines our churches, is us being faithful to the only thing we have been told to do.

We do lots of other stuff. Perhaps we need to hear Jesus words to Martha,

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things,

but few things are needed—or indeed only one.

Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:41-42

It is highly possible that the post-coronavirus church will look very different from the pre-coronavirus church.

That could be a good thing or a bad thing.

The measure of it will be whether that new shape of church is capable of doing the ‘one thing needful’ for which it exists.

How to Wave Goodbye to Anxiety

High Anxiety

Philippians 4:6-7

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

In this passage from Bible St Paul writes to a church telling them that they should make expressing gratitude and thanksgiving part of their prayer-life.

Interestingly, St Paul says that;

prayer and anxiety

are inversely related.

He says the more you pray prayers of gratitude, the less anxious you will be.

Interestingly, science has recently proved St Paul to be right.

In Psychology Today[1] they listed 7 scientifically proven benefits of expressing thankfulness or gratitude : Can you guess what they are?

 

  1. Gratitude opens the door to more relationships. People who show appreciation of others have more friends.
  2. Gratitude improves physical health. Grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and report feeling healthier than other people.
  3. Gratitude improves psychological health. It reduces toxic emotions – envy, resentment, frustration, regret. It increases happiness and reduces depression.
  4. Gratitude enhances empathy and reduces aggression.
  5. Grateful people sleep better. Spend just 15 minutes jotting down a few grateful sentiments before bed, and you will sleep better and longer.
  6. Gratitude improves self-esteem.
  7. Gratitude increases mental strength. Recognising all that you have to be thankful for —even during the worst times—fosters resilience.

 

Isn’t that amazing! 2000 years before science was able to confirm it, God told us that,

 

‘Gratitude is good for you!’

 

In the swirl of anxiety we are facing around the Corona Virus pandemic, it might be a good opportunity, to reduce your anxiety by practising the spiritual discipline of gratitude and thanksgiving.

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/what-mentally-strong-people-dont-do/201504/7-scientifically-proven-benefits-gratitude

Eyes Wide Open

Eyes Wide Open

There is a lot of advice about how to pray in the Bible but not a single verse that tells us to close our eyes when we pray.

On the contrary on two occasions, when Jesus prayed to the Father, He lifted up His eyes to heaven (John 11:41; 17:1).

Which is contrasted in the story of the tax collector who “would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven” (Luke 18:13).

So why has praying with our eyes closed become such a prevalent practice in the West?

Perhaps reformation theology is to blame in the distrust of the use of art in worship. The church architecture of the reformation was of blank white preaching boxes with nothing to distract the worshipper from attending to the preacher.

Whereas from the earliest days of the church in the 3rd century, as soon as Christians had places set aside for worship they decorated them with religious art. Which is actually quite a surprising thing.

For the Jewish faith forbade any visual representations of God,

‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.’

Exodus 20:4

So no images or representation of any living creature were allowed in the place of worship. Something we still see today if you go into a Islamic mosque – geometric patterns are the only form of art on display.

So what brought about this massive change in practice in the Christian church?

In the 8th century and again in the 9th there was a controversy about whether religious images or icons were something Christians should use. There were probably a few factors in this;

  • The rise of Islam and its prohibition on the use of images (shared with Judaism), there was a political utility for the emperor in getting the Christian church to align with Islamic and Jewish practice.

  • Some abuse in the spirituality around icons that seemed superstitious – wonder-working icons- and there was some icon veneration that looked like icon worship

It required the deliberations of the 7th Ecumenical Council at Nicea to confirm that icons and more widely art, had a place in spiritual practice.

It was St John of Damascus who wrote most significantly on the theological reasoning supporting the use of icons.

‘In former times, God, being without form or body, could in no way be represented. But today, since God has appeared in the flesh and lived among men, I can represent what is visible in God.

I do not worship matter, but I worship the creator of matter who became matter for my sake … and who through matter accomplished my salvation. Never will I cease to honour that matter which brought about my salvation!’[1]

A more modern voice has expressed the same idea;

By virtue of the incarnation, nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see.

Teilhard de CHARDIN, Le Milieu Divin.

St John also helped clarify the difference between worship and veneration.

In the Bible absolute worship ‘latreia’ is only ever rightly offered to God, but we also read many instances where patriarchs and prophets show honour ‘proskinesis’ to people, or places or things, to whom honour is due e.g. angels, holy places such as the Tent of Meeting, Jews were to pray facing towards the Temple in Jerusalem etc.

Something of this secondary form of veneration/adoration/honour is seen in the old form of the marriage vows where the groom vows to his bride,

‘With my body I thee worship’.

Obviously what is being done here is not setting up his wife as a god, but rather having an attitude of honour, or veneration towards his bride – a proskinesis.

Interesting Nik KERSHAW has a song, ‘Take me to the Church (of You)’ that nicely illustrates this (Take me to the Church – Nik KERSHAW).

Perhaps another reason why we close our eyes has less to do with a suspicion of art and more to do with the fact that we don’t expect God to answer our prayers by speaking through the created world?

When we have our eyes open in prayer we give God another means of speaking to us. So praying with open eyes can be a sign that we expect to hear God speak to us.

If Moses had not seen the burning bush, would he have met with God?

As Elizabeth Barrett BROWNING wrote;

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,

Auror Leigh Book

The downside of praying with our eyes open is that we can be distracted – here the use of religious art and icons can help. They give a focus for our eyes that draws us into prayer.

Christ and Saint Mena

There are strong parallels between icon writing and preaching.

In both we hope that the Holy Spirit works through the person to reveal something of the truth about God to the audience we address.

The preacher or icon creator have a spiritual gift to be able to use words (verbal images) or physical images in a way that the Holy Spirit can inhabit.

Neither will present a perfect image of God, the icon artist here has some advantage over the preacher as, through the non-realistic style of iconography, their imperfection is stated and expressed.

Would that most preachers embraced such humility about their attempts to describe God!

So pray with your eyes open. Find an icon, or religious image that helps you focus. Be open to that fact that God might speak to you through something you can see.

[1] St John of Damascus, On the Divine Images, New YorK: St Vladimir’s Press, 1997, p23

Mission Impossible

Mission Impossible

Have you seen the Mission Impossible films?

Tom Cruise, this message will self-destruct in 5 seconds, a mission that no-one can else can accomplish but it’s yours, should you choose to accept it –

Of course they do accept it, and then we are on an action roller-coaster for the next 2 hours with amazing gadgets, stunts, and a lot of improbable plot lines!

I wonder if we had to imagine a Mission Impossible scenario for Jesus, what would that look like?

If I was to ask you,

‘what is the worst case scenario for salvation?’

I wonder what you would think of?

What kind of person, in what kind of situation would be too difficult even for Jesus to save?

What kind of person is least likely to turn to Jesus, and what kind of life circumstances would make their journey to God the most unlikely?

If I had to imagine who might be the hardest person for Jesus to win to faith I might think of a person who has set the direction of their whole life against God.

Perhaps a hardened criminal, someone who has lived a life with no thought of anyone but themselves and haven’t given a moment’s thought of who they were hurting.

Thinking about the circumstances of our Mission Impossible for Jesus is a bit trickier.

Perhaps it is easier if we come at the problem from the other direction and try and identify the things that usually help people find God.

If we can identify those, then the Mission Impossible case is one where none of those are present, right?

So, when you hear people talk about their experience of coming to faith, what are the things they talk about that help them find God? Any ideas? What are the things that generally are helpful in our faith journey?

  • Church attendance, exploring the Christian message.
  • Reading the Bible.
  • Experiencing a genuinely Christian community where acceptance of love are experienced.
  • Holy Communion
  • Being baptised and confirmed.
  • Confession and absolution.
  • Encountering God in prayer.

So if we put all this together the most difficult case for Jesus to save would be someone whose life has been characterised by sinfulness and who has no access to any of these things that would normally be helpful in a person’s journey to faith.

So, imagine the scenario,

a hardened criminal,

who has been arrested (again)

and found guilty of a crime so serious that it carries a death sentence

he has been sentenced to death for his crimes,

but suddenly, moments before he dies, he turns to Jesus and says,

“Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

The questions is, will salvation even be possible in this case?

I mean, look at the problems;

• He can’t be given a clear explanation of the Christian gospel – at this point there isn’t a clearly defined Christian gospel.
• He can’t read the Bible – half of it hasn’t been written yet!
• There is no Creed for him to understand and declare as his faith.
• He can’t be baptised.
• He can’t be confirmed.
• He can‘t receive Holy Communion.
• He can’t confess his (many) sins and be absolved of them.
• He can’t even show evidence of a real change of heart through a transformed life.

Is it possible for this kind of a person – a career criminal – to be saved without any access to any of the things which are normally a vital part of the Christian faith journey?

This really is ‘Mission Impossible’ in terms of salvation.

But what is Jesus’ response to this ‘Mission Impossible’?

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise”.

Isn’t that the most amazing thing you have ever heard!

What makes this even more significant is that there are only 4 people in the Bible who we absolutely know are saved and with God in heaven.

Enoch Moses Grandfather

Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away. Gen 5:24

The prophet Elijah,

As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. 2 Kings 2:11

Jesus, who we are told ascended to heaven,

When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them.
While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Luke 24: 50-51

The only other person in the whole of the Bible who we absolutely know is saved, is this unnamed criminal – we know this because Jesus promises him that he is saved.

It is like God is making a point –

You want to know how amazing my grace is?

You want proof of how far my grace can reach?

Let’s find the least promising candidate in the whole of the New Testament.

Let’s put him in the least promising situation in the whole New Testament.

Let’s give him the least access to anything that would normally be thought of as helpful.

And let me show you what I can do!

Such is Jesus’ incredible power to save that in a single moment of time, this hardened criminal turns towards Jesus , expresses faith in him, and he is immediately saved.

Isn’t that the most incredible thing you ever heard!? The power of God to save!

Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, Jesus – Saviour of the Universe.

A Saviour who, even when dying on a cross, can still extend salvation to the most difficult case, in the most difficult circumstances, with the lest possible help.

So who do you think can’t be saved?

In your mind’s eye, go through all the people you know.

The people you’ve written them off. The one’s of whom you’ve said well maybe so and so is a possibility, but them, NO CHANCE!

In the light of today’s gospel reading I challenge you;
• Who is too hard a case?
• Whose life is too far away from God?
• Who is too distant from church, Bible reading, prayer, that you can’t even imagine how they might come to God?

Do you really believe those people can’t be saved?

If there are people for whom you think salvation is too hard,

then

YOUR GOD IS TOO SMALL.

We must never, ever, ever underestimate the power of Jesus to save.

Mustard and Mulberries

Mustard and Mulberry

In Luke 17 Jesus describes the nature of a community of His followers.

In some ways it is a very realistic portrayal of the reality of human society.

  • People will cause each other to ‘stumble’, that is, to fall short of the calling of a follower of Jesus, to behave in inappropriate ways.
  • People will offend each other and fall out.

None of this is a surprise to anyone who has lived with other people in a tight-knit group.

What does come as a surprise is what Jesus says next.

  • That those who cause other people to stumble in their faith are in serious spiritual trouble, akin to mortal danger.
  • That offenses committed within the community of Jesus’ followers are to be forgiven in an unlimited way.

The Apostles are staggered at the difficulty of this calling.

As they honestly examine themselves, they are most acutely aware that they are not the kind of people who are capable of either not causing others to stumble, or of being able to forgive offenses in an unlimited way.

Their shocked response to Jesus’ description of the demands of this impossible community, is to ask that they might be given more faith,

‘Increase our faith!’

Jesus turns things around and states that any real faith can accomplish the impossible,

“If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree,

 ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”

The image is significant. The Black Mulberry (Morus Nigra) is a tree that has exceptionally deep roots. The roots under the ground are as thick as the branches above. It is therefore an image of steadfastness, immovability.

This is related to a similar saying of Jesus in Matt 17:20, where Jesus talks about ‘casting mountains into the sea’.

One of the titles of honour given to great Rabbis was ‘Uprooter of Mountains’ i.e. those who can remove great difficulties.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together – a book about the reality of Christian community – about the fact that,

Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize;

it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.

The great difference in Christian community is that whilst human love is directed to the other person for his own sake, spiritual love loves him for Christ’s sake.

Dietrich BONHOEFFER was under no illusions as to the difficulty of living in Christian community. He came up with 7 ministries that he felt were essential if we were to create Christian community approximating to the ideal that Jesus sets out.

You might want to consider these ministries.

 

The 7 Ministries of Community

The Ministry of Holding one’s Tongue –

Often we combat our evil thoughts most effectively if we absolutely refuse to allow them to be expressed in words.

Thus it must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him.

The Ministry of Meekness –

Only he who lives by the forgiveness of his sin in Jesus Christ will rightly think little of himself.

Brotherly love will find any number of extenuations for the sins of others; only for my sin is there no apology whatsoever. Therefore my sin is the worst.

The Ministry of Listening –

The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them.

Just as love for God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.

The Ministry of Helpfulness –

This means, initially, simple assistance in trifling, external matters.

One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly.

The Ministry of Bearing –

The Christian must bear the burden of a brother. He must suffer and endure the brother.

The service of forgiveness is rendered by one to the others daily. It occurs, without words, in the intercessions for one another. And every member of the fellowship, who does not grow weary in this ministry, can depend upon it that this service is also being rendered him by the brethren.

The Ministry of Proclaiming-

Where Christians live together the time must inevitably come when in some crisis one person will have to declare God’s Word and will to another.

The basis upon which Christians can speak to one another is that each knows the other as a sinner, who, with all his human dignity, is lonely and lost if he is not given help.

The Ministry of Authority –

Jesus made authority in the fellowship dependent upon brotherly service.

Genuine spiritual authority is to be found only where the ministry of hearing, helping, bearing, and proclaiming is carried out.

(from Dietrich BONHOEFFER, Life Together, London: SCM Press, 1954)

 

 

Clocks With No Hands

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At Peterborough Cathedral I came across this very early clock which dates from the 15th century.

We would struggle to recognise it as a clock, given the fact that those things we most associate with clocks- a face and hands – are entirely absent.

It was an interesting co-incidence coming across this clock, as I just happen to be in the middle of reading a book by John Swinton called ‘Becoming Friends of Time’.

Swinton reminded me that the driver for creating some of the earliest clocks was the monastic life.

It was important for monks to turn to God in worship and prayer at regular times during the day and night, and the earliest clocks were made to enable them to fulfil this vocation.

This was why a face and hands were irrelevant, all they needed was a bell to ring, to remind them to stop working and turn to prayer.

So the measurement of time was conceived originally as something that helps us in our spiritual life.

When I was studying theology one of the students was from Africa. I remember his horror when we were told that we had two minutes to get from one lecture room to another between classes. He could not conceive of a unit of time as short as two minutes.

At the end of the first year, he was invited to address the college and give us his reflections of a year living in a European culture. He said,

‘I have learned that you Europeans have watches, but we Africans have time.’

Watching my African fellow-student, he always had time to chat, to respond to people, to say ‘hello’. Whereas I was often rushing from one place to the next, trying not to be late.

One of us was a slave to time, and one of us was a master of time.

This African approach to time was also experienced by a group from the college who went to deliver some training in an African context. They were given 3 days to deliver training on a particular subject.

They had prepared a 3 day programme starting at 9 am and going through until 5pm every day. Each session was allocated in terms of content and who would deliver it. A full programme in effect.

Early on the first morning they went to the place where the training was taking place and set up everything ready.

9 o’clock came and went, no-one was there. 10 o’clock likewise. At 1130 the first people began to arrive. Finally by late afternoon all the expected participants had arrived and they could begin.

They learned that in Africa things start when everyone is ready, not when the clock demands.

Europeans have watches, Africans have time.

I often think about my own relationship with time.

Is time for me like monastic time, something that helps me to orient myself towards God at regular moments in my everyday?

Or do I experience time as a tyrannical pressure that works more to squeeze out ‘God-time’ from my day and which also prevents me form being available to others?