Quick, Slow, Slow – The Discipleship Rhythm

dance_steps

 

I remember vaguely being told that the waltz rhythm could be described as ‘Quick, Quick, Slow’. How this was meant to help me dance I don’t know; it didn’t. But I digress.

Today I came across a verse that described the rhythm of discipleship as ‘Quick, Slow, Slow’.

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this:

everyone should be quick to listen,

slow to speak

and slow to become angry[1]

Why does James, perhaps the practical of the New Testament writers, describe the rhythm of discipleship in this way?

Being quick to listen and slow to speak is about relating to others. It is about valuing the other person and believing that they have something interesting and valuable to share.

The great danger in the life of a disciple of Jesus is that as we learn more through our study and experience, we know quite rightly that we have more and more ‘good stuff’ in our heads that we can share with others which might actually be a blessing and a help to them.

Indeed, it would not be kind nor Christian to refuse to share the good things we have received from God.

But our sharing is only valuable and useful to the degree that it speaks into the situation and needs of our friends and that is something that can only be determined through listening.

So there is a paradox here; the more you have to share, the more listening and not speaking becomes important.

We need to explore by active listening where our friend is, what they are going through, where God may be working in their lives, and it is only when we have developed an understanding of them and their situation, that we can start to think about what might be helpful and appropriate for us to share with them.

So if we can understand why we need to be quick to listen and slow to speak, what about being slow to become angry?

We know that anger is a valid emotion sometimes, we are right to get angry at some things. Jesus Himself got angry on occasion. Perhaps the most famous example of that was when he visited the temple at Jerusalem and found that the Court of the Gentiles – the only space in the temple to which women and non-Jews had access – far from being a quiet and holy place for prayer, had become a noisy marketplace where unscrupulous traders short-changed pilgrims. Jesus was so angry about this that he overturned the stalls and chased the traders out with a whip.

So if anger can be valid and appropriate why does James say we should be slow to become angry?

Perhaps it is because anger can have very many causes, and for many of us most of the time our feelings of anger will have little to do with righteousness.

James indicates his rationale about anger in the next verse when he goes on to say;

because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires[2].

James reminds us that anger often leads to conduct that we later regret. We shout, we swear, we insult, we demean, we wound with our words, or even our fists. None of which is helpful in building up a Christian community.

Perhaps it is here the greatest danger in anger – it often destroys relationships. Once we get angry with someone – for whatever reason – it can create a barrier in our relationship with them and it can be a long and very slow path back to mutual forgiveness and restoration.

For this reason anger is a dangerous emotion within a Christian community and we should reflect very carefully on the reason for our anger, and whether it is justified and righteous, or merely the expression of our human frailty and imperfection. Slowness in getting angry will save us a lot of heartache and prevent a lot of harm.

So I think we should all learn to dance the discipleship dance – Quick, Slow, Slow.

God help us all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] James 1 :19, NIVUK

[2] James 1 :20 NIVUK

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Come and See

whatareyoulookingfor

At the Bishop of Leicester’s ‘School of Prayer’ event at St Botolph’s, Shepshed this evening we were encouraged to experience 5 different ways of praying.

One way that particularly helped me this evening was praying with scripture.

One of the biblical passages we were given to pray with was John 1:38-39

Then Jesus turned, and seeing them following, said to them, “What do you seek?”

They said to Him, “Rabbi” (which is to say, when translated, Teacher), “where are You staying?”

He said to them, “Come and see.”

Meditating on this led me to write the following poem:

You ask me a question

‘What are you looking for?’

I don’t have an answer

Something, someone, help?

I can’t truly say.

Your response to me

Is not an exploration of

My question

But an invitation to experience

Your answer

Come and see.

 

The Flying Fish

fishcross

Our NEARER community met on Wednesday and we explored how poetry connects with prayer.

We were challenged to respond to different objects placed around the room.

The object that caught my attention was a Fish Cross. It is a cross that when viewed from the front looks perfectly ordinary, however when viewed from the side it looks like a fish.

This is a reference to the fact that the early Christians used the fish as a secret symbol of their faith. The word for fish in greek is ‘icthus’ and this can be used as an acronym – iesus, christos theos huios soter (Jesus, Christ, of God, the Son, Saviour).

As I thought about the fish I suddenly thought of flying fish and this led me into a reflection of how that can be seen as an image of Christians.

I wrote the following poem in response.

 

The Flying Fish

A fish that swims in company,

In playful relation,

Yet with purposeful intent,

Unlike its peers, is a citizen of two worlds,

Soaring now and then,

To its lower companions lost to sight,

Joining brother birds in glorious flight.

 

Then re-entering that heavy, liquid world

Warmed by the sun,

Invigorated by the air,

And dazzled by the light.

 

With a life above and below,

Ambassador between two worlds

That are strangers to each other.

 

So we who live below.

Immersed in torrent and tide,

Yet from time to time receive grace to know

Escape and soar in warmer, brighter climes,

Likewise must we return to share,

Our second life,

To strengthen, challenge, and implore,

Our low-bound companions,

That all might know and taste life on that more glorious plane,

The son to see, his warmth to share,

The joy to soar.

 

Stephen John MARCH, Feast of St. Winwaloc, 2017

The Approaching Footfall – a poem

the_dying_detective_by_herrmagermilch-d4pmbqo

There have been several recent deaths that have touched my life.

There is also a nagging encroachment into my life of the signs of my own mortality.

All of which leaves me no choice but to think.

As I struggle to corral my thoughts and set them in some kind of framework. I find that, as with all of the most profound human experiences, it is only poetry that has the strength to carry the weight of the mystery I find myself staring at; prose just cannot do it.

And so I found myself in the small hours of last night crafting a poem that expresses something of what I am feeling at present, and of something that I am holding on to.

 

The Approaching Footfall

There is flat, focussed footfall,
At the edge of my perception.
Close by, afar?
Impossible to tell.
Yet gaining.

There is no advantage won in running,
Yet nothing lost in standing still.
The meeting, though obscure,
Is fixed inviolate in time.

– And that acceptance made,
The fear is less, the when
And more, the how.

A peaceful passing?
Old and full of years,
A slow decline into the dark abyss;
A live coal that flames,
Then glows,
Then cools,
Then cold extinguished,
Lost to sight.
Or a wild, explosive raging at the dying of the light?

– Do not speak of legacy, that charade,
That myth of lasting worth,
As if a fistful of years,
Would not suffice,
To wipe the greatest from the earth.
The Ozymandian conceit
Is merciless laid bare
– The wind blows,
The sands shift,
No trace remains.
All gone.

-What value then, a life?
If there is a heart,
From which the universe receives its pulse,
And if that heart regards a man,
And scrutes him path and deed and thought
Then only in that heart survives
An estimation, value, worth.

And if that heart were moved so to,
It might recognise itself in dim reflect
And cede that as an offspring child
From which no Father can himself de-turn
But gathers in and shares his life
And suffers not to part again.

Stephen John MARCH the Feast of St Scholastica, 2017

Faith in Three Pictures

godshapedholegregolsenpainting-1hand-of-god

I was asked to talk to a group of young children and tell them about my faith and spiritual life.

I said yes, but then as I started to think about how I might do it, it became really challenging.

I’ve been a student of theology for nearly 2 decades. Almost everything I have learned is complex and in order to say anything I have to spend a lot of time listing exceptions, limiting applications etc.

So how on earth was I to share my faith with little children?!

I eventually decided that the best thing I could do was use pictures that show some of the things I hold most deeply as spiritual convictions.

godshapedholeMy first picture was this one. It shows a despondent man with a heart-shaped hole in his chest.

For me this illustrates that quote from St Augustine, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee”. This is often stated as there being a God-shaped hole in us that nothing but a relationship with Jesus can fulfil.

In sharing this with the children I used the example of the children’s toy with different shaped holes and different shaped blocks.  You cannot fill a hole with any shape other than the one that corresponds. In a similar way I believe that all other attempts to find fulfilment, purpose in life, significance, or to make sense of the way the universe is, with be ultimately unsatisfactory outside of a relationship with Jesus.

gregolsenpainting-1

The second picture I showed the children was this one by Greg OLSEN.

The image shows a young man, a backpacker, sitting down on a bench chatting with Jesus.

The young man looks a little tired, despondent; Jesus looks friendly, interested, animated, and concerned.

For me this picture sums up how fantastic it is to be able to talk to Jesus at any moment in my life’s journey. When I’m tired, sad, angry, losing me way, scared, confused etc. I can just stop. Take a few minutes out and talk with Jesus. It is so great to know that he comes to me, listens and that he will help me find my way forward. Whatever I need – encouragement, challenge, direction, perspective etc. Jesus can give that to me.

Of course prayer is also really great for the positive moments in my journey too. Jesus loves to share my joys and successes and to share my simple enjoyment of the everyday pleasures of life. Expressing gratitude to Jesus for these things is really important and also health-giving if scientific studies are to be believed.

hand-of-god

The final picture was this one by YONGSUNG KIM.

It shows a moment from the story when Jesus walked on the water to his disciples who were in a small boat in a storm.

One of the disciples, St Peter, had had the courage to ask Jesus if he could walk on the water and come to meet him.

Jesus invited Peter to come to him and he was initially able to walk on the water too.

But then Peter took his eyes off Jesus, he started to look at the waves and the storm instead. At that moment St Peter started to sink.

This picture captures the moment when Jesus reaches down to a sinking Peter and draws he back up and brings him safely to the boat. There is no anger, disappointment, disapproval in the face of Jesus, simply a welcoming smile.

I find this picture a powerful reminder that when I foul up, lose faith, make mistakes, get it badly wrong etc. Jesus is not angry, he is not disappointed. He simply comes to me, stretches out his hand, helps me up and says, ‘Let’s try again’.

 

These were my three pictures. The children seemed to understand them and to understand something of what I was trying to share.

Which, I suppose reminds me that ultimately the Christian faith is both a mystery too deep for human minds to fully comprehend and a simple love relationships with Jesus that is accessible even to the youngest child.

 

 

 

 

 

Five-Finger Life-Blessing

 

saint-john-the-baptist-icxc

There is a rich symbolism in the simple gesture of how we hold our hand as we bless someone; either by making the sign of the cross over them, or just as we pray for them.

This icon shows St John the Baptist one particular gesture. There are actually three different ways in which hands have been held in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

blessing-hand-gestures

Fig. 1 – In Eastern Rite icons of Jesus, the Lord is shown holding His right hand in a particular way. The pinkie and ring fingers are touching the thumb, these three digits symbolizing the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. The other two fingers are held straight. Those two fingers represent the two natures of Jesus — Divine and human. It’s a gesture that is sometimes used by the Vicar of Christ, the pope.

Fig. 2 – There’s another gesture used by Eastern Catholic and Orthodox bishops and priests. It is a form of finger spelling. The index finger of the right hand is held up straight (forming the letter “I”). The middle finger is slightly curved (forming the letter “C”). The ring finger is held down and crossing the thumb, thus forming an “X.” The pinkie is held up, but slightly curved in the form of another “C.” Put it together and what have you got? IC XC. These Greek letters are a Christogram or monogram for the name of Jesus. The first and last letters of Jesus (Iesous) and Christos (Xristos) these four Greek letters therefore stand for the Holy Name — Jesus the Christ.

Fig. 3 – In the Jewish tradition, the Aaronic Blessing (Num 6:22- 27) is prayed by the kohamin, the sons of Aaron, with hands extended over the people. Both hands are held flat, palms down, with the four fingers of each hand divided into a “V” shape. (Think “Star Trek”: “Live long and prosper.”) The hand gesture forms the Hebrew letter ‘shin’,

This letter is used to represent the name of God ‘El Shaddai’. El Shaddai is “The Lord God Almighty” in Hebrew.

So when we bless one another we can choose to use either of these hand gestures as a means of enriching that act and situating it within the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Of course it is only God who can act in blessing, but he has saved us so that we can be a blessing to others.

But I will save you. And you will be a blessing. (Zechariah 8:13b, NIV)

We should certainly be a blessing to others in our acts and our speech, but we should also be a blessing to them through our praying.

Using these hand gestures is a rich way to convey the act of blessing and its root and foundation in the God who commanded the Hebrew priests to bless Israel and who, in Jesus, has opened up that blessing to all people everywhere.

(Adapted from Father GOLDRICK, The Anchor, 12th Jan 2015 accessed online at http://www.anchornews.org/columnists/goldrick/archive-2014/07-04-14.html on 16/12/2016)

Santa and Sex

st-nicholas-icon

I read a recent post on a Catholic website that really made me think. The post was entitled ‘St Nicholas – a bishop who went to jail for the truth’[1].

Most people know St Nicholas as the 4th century saint who is the origin of the Santa Claus or Father Christmas figure. He was a bishop known for his great acts of charity. One of these acts occurred when he heard of a man whose wife had died and who could not afford to look after his three daughters. The desperate man could see no way out other than to sell his daughters as slaves into the sex industry. St Nicholas was moved to act and went at night and reached in through the window of the house and put gold coins in the stockings of the three girls that were hanging up to dry – hence the origin of the Christmas stocking.

This picture of a kindly, generous, charitable man fits very well with our image of Father Christmas. However some of the lesser known stories about St Nicholas reveal a different man.

  • According to St Methodius, during the Diocletian persecutions in 304 A.D. St Nicholas was tortured, chained up and thrown into prison for publicly preaching the Christian faith.
  • A medieval life of St Nicholas records him as having attended the Nicene Council in 325 A.D. This council gathered together many bishops who came to discuss the teaching of Arius, a teaching that was finally declared heresy as it denied the divinity of Christ. At this council St Nicholas was reported as being so enraged by the heretical teaching of one of those defending the Arian heresy that he walked across the room and punched him in the face. Unsurprisingly his fellow bishops felt this kind of behaviour was unacceptable and presented to the Emperor Constantine who had called the council. Constantine condemned his behaviour as unbecoming the office of bishop and stripped him of his bishop’s robes and had him thrown into jail. St Nicholas was only reinstated after a subsequent miracle which was interpreted as divine approval. This explains why some icons of St Nicholas show him without the bishop’s mitre[2].

These two incidents give us a slightly different picture of the man. Perhaps the best we can say of St Nicholas is that he was a man of principle and passion. His principles set the course of his life and he was unswerving whatever the danger or personal cost. His passion led him to take action, some of which was courageous, some of which was costly, and some of which was ill advised.

The article went on to draw the following conclusion about St Nicholas:

The saint who is revered almost globally for his kindness and generosity was really someone who knew how to draw a hard line in the sand and to take a principled stand when it really counted. He would not compromise on his faith in the face of torture and death, nor would he stand by idly when those who should know better spoke falsely about the faith. Nicholas was a man of steadfast principle who made it clear that his “yes” meant “yes” and his “no” meant “no.”

The author also stated:

In our times of doctrinal confusion where leading prelates in the Catholic Church seem willing to compromise the truths of the Catholic faith in the name of false notions of “diversity,” “inclusivity,” “dialogue,” “mercy,” “pastoral accompaniment,” and the “internal forum” — even to the point of allowing unrepentant adulterers to receive Holy Communion, of winking at unnatural and immoral sexual practices as if they could be the basis upon which to form a “family,” and of permitting “individual conscience” to be the final arbiter of moral decisions, especially in the area of sexuality — the example of Bishop Nicholas bears a closer look.

This really made me think. I can agree with the first statement, I’m less in agreement with the second. I started reflecting on why I am less comfortable with that?

I think the author makes a mistake in ignoring the ‘hierarchy of truths’ – the reality that some truths of the Christian faith are more important than others.

St Nicholas’ defence of the divinity of Christ and his refusal to worship anyone but God were both acts that defend the very heart of the Christian faith.

If Christ was not God incarnate then the central pillar of the Christian faith – that his death opened up the way of salvation for humankind – has no basis. If Christ was only a man, then his death cannot have universal significance.

But are the other issues that the author then refers to – the issues of teaching about divorce and sexual mores – of the same level?

Another factor is that truths need to be agreed in order to be defended.

In relation to divorce we have to be more nuanced in our reading of Jesus’ teaching on the subject. What Jesus was addressing was not divorce per se, but the abuse of divorce by first century Jewish men as a means of abandoning wives that no longer pleased them. In the context of a society where men held most of the power and where divorce was rarely something low status women would ever want, some of the conclusions we have traditionally made regarding Jesus’ teaching on divorce start to become a little less obvious and less universal.

With regard to sexual mores we see many instances in the New Testament where sexual immorality is challenged within the Church[3]. The young Christian communities were commanded by the apostolic writers to have counter-cultural sexual ethics.

It is important to note that this is in the context of the first century Roman world which was one where all kinds of sexual activity was part and parcel of everyday life. And yet the Christian churches were continually called to stand in radical opposition to this way of living. In some instances they were even called to exclude from their fellowship those who refused to bring this area of their lives into line (1 Cor 5:1-2).

Returning to the article about St Nicholas, part of me agrees with the writer that we need to similarly stand as a counter cultural witness against the sexual licence that is prevalent in our own society and not to flinch from that.

But another part of me want to recognise that I too fall far short of the standard of holiness to which Christ calls me in many areas of my life; as a man dependent upon God’s mercy and forgiveness for my daily failures to live as Christ commands me to:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’

This is the first and greatest commandment.

And the second is like it:

‘Love your neighbour as yourself.[4]

So how do I reconcile the fact that the only people who have any right to be in a Christian church are those who know themselves to be failures – sinners who stand in vital and daily need of God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness – and the fact that Christian communities are called to exemplify a different standard of morality and to challenge all behaviour within the community – sexual and otherwise – which fails to meet the ideal?

One of the mantras of recent thinking has been ‘belonging, believing, behaving’; this phrase encapsulates the idea that Christian communities need to be place of welcome where all find acceptance and a home – a place to belong.

Those who find a home within the Christian community are then to be accompanied in a journey that helps them come to understand the Christian message and to personally accept that message – to believe.

The final stage in the journey to authentic Christian faith is the process of helping these new followers of Jesus to bring the different areas of their life into line with the teaching of Jesus that they have accepted – to behave.

I think this is a helpful approach but it also has its challenges. At what point does the radical challenge ‘to put your life in order come in?’ How do churches cope with the reality of having a community where some of its members are living lives that openly flout the teaching of Jesus? When is the Christ-like and loving response not accepting someone in their sin but challenging that sin as behaviour that, if unchecked, will bring spiritual death[5]?

I remember the story of when a woman was brought by an angry mob to Jesus. They wanted to stone the woman as she had been caught in the act of adultery. The mob called upon Jesus to pronounce her guilty and legitimise their intended action. But Jesus refused to condemn the woman and instead challenged the mob;

‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’[6]

At this challenge the crowd melted away. But once alone with the woman Jesus’ final words to her were not; ‘Go, your sin does not matter’, but;

‘Go now and leave your life of sin’[7].

In Jesus treatment of this woman we see grace, mercy and forgiveness but also the challenge to change her ways.

How do we as Christian communities express both of these?

I am conscious that for most of us accepting is easier than challenging and that ‘rubbing along’ with societal values is easier than standing counter-culturally against them. It is for this reason that I found the article on St Nicholas so thought-provoking.

As Christian communities we have to be places of welcome, places where God’s inclusive love is experienced, but we also have to be places of challenge, we need to support each other on the rocky road to transformation; transformation of our thinking, speaking, and living. This is the road to radical holiness, anything less is an inauthentic and incomplete response to Jesus.

__________________

[1] https://www.lifesitenews.com/opinion/st.-nicholas-a-bishop-who-went-to-jail-for-the-truth

[2] Petrus de Natalibus, Catalogus sanctorum et gestorum eorum ex diversis voluminibus collectus, Lugduni 1508, Fol. VII.  The English title appears to be ‘Legends of the Saints’. Petrus became bishop of Equilio (Jesolo) near Venice in 1370 and died around 1400.

[3] See I Corinthians chapters 6 and 10, Ephesians 5 :5, Hebrews 13:4, Jude 1:7, Revelation 21:8

[4] Matthew 22 :37-39 NIV

[5] See Revelation 21 :8

[6] John 8 :7 NIV

[7] John 8 :11 NIV