Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The message of John the Baptist

We must not forget just how radical the first part of John’s message would sound to a Jewish audience accustomed to thinking of themselves as the “chosen people” or the “people of the covenant”. John the Baptist basically says that just because you were born Jewish doesn’t entitle you to any special relationship with God or any special status in God’s eyes. Wow,  a radical message indeed. The Jews’ claim to be the “chosen people” is blown apart by John who insists that a true follower of God is known by his or her deeds and not who your ancestors were or whether you were Bar Mitsva’d or not.
For John a Jew is as a Jew does. The direct application of this today for us is the same. A Christian is as a Christian does – in perfect accord with the message of Jesus who said “It is by our fruits that we will be known” – not by how many times we go to church or re-state what we say we believe, but for Christians – how much we love.
Jesus’ brother James in his letter in the New Testament puts it even more boldly when he writes “Faith without works is dead”.
The principle here is that what we believe will be pretty accurately reflected in what we say and do.
Quite justifiably the people in the crowd are curious to know what a person’s life may look like if lived in accordance with a deep knowledge of God and so  the crowd questions John. “What then should we do?”
John answers this general question with an answer that could only be described as “redistribution of wealth” or more generally as “Justice for the poor”. And this would be in full accordance with everything the Old Testament says about God. If you have two coats give one away – if you have a surplus of food, share it.  In fact, a concern for Justice, and dismay at exploitation of the poor is the overriding concern of the prophets in the Hebrew scriptures.  John’s answers if put into action would have a huge impact on the way society organises itself of course but also has a personal component.  In fact all three answers John gives are centred on Justice.
So to the tax collectors he implores them not to exploit people and to the soldiers, instead of a treatise on the morality of war or bearing arms which you might expect, John tells them not to extort money using force. Justice and fairness are uppermost, especially in relation to money.
The general spiritual principle undergirding this sense of Justice is an important one;
It is this: We are all made in the image of God, and none of us is any more deserving of the fruits of the earth than anyone else. None of us are more blessed by God than anyone else. In God there is no partiality. These are concepts that trip off the tongue so easily yet in real life, where the rubber hits the road it is just so difficult. God may show no partiality, but we certainly do. We sort out in our minds who we think is more deserving  and who isn’t. The invitation to all would be followers of the Jesus way is to show more of the indiscriminate grace of God  in our interactions with people and not to judge them.
I remember being what many will call a soft touch with the tramps that used to inhabit the churchyard in Margate, and sometimes when I used to give them money people would say. “You know that’ll just get spent on drink, don’t you?”  “That’s funny I used to think to myself. That’s exactly what I was going to spend it on as well!
But life is so complex it is truly difficult. Don’t be too hard on others, but equally don’t be too hard on yourself either. It is also too easy to judge yourself and  think you are a terrible person when you are not. You are a simple enfleshed human being trying your hardest in a complex world.  Sometimes you just have to exhibit a couple of other divine qualities we could all do with more of – wisdom and discernment.
So, rather surprisingly perhaps, or perhaps it isn’t surprising knowing what the prophets were always prophesying is that true repentance (reorienting your life) would be seen in a concern for fairness and justice.  The use of money and the way society is organised economically  are spiritual issues that were close to John the Baptist’s heart. And when you read the Hebrew scriptures you see that it was the central concern of all the prophets and one can discern from that – that to be living in accordance with God one needs to be just and fair.
But the reason we need to be just and fair expressed in Christian language – is that we are all children of God – we all share one Father so to hurt another is to hurt yourself and God, which ultimately is one and the same thing.
We do live in a complex and confusing world, which often seems all too eager to swindle and deceive us; a world where seeing everyone as a child of God takes a superhuman effort on our part – a huge act of faith to continue to trust when that trust is abused, to continue to treat impartially when there is pressure to discriminate, to risk being thought of as a gullible idiot in a dog eat dog world.
But this is the central practical application of a spiritual truth that all are loved equally and that everyone really is our brother and sister.
If we can hold that belief whilst keeping ourselves and our conduct informed by a discernment and wisdom that is also divine then we are on the way, the path set by Jesus. We may fall off that path quite a lot but with practice and without reproach, ( by which I mean prayer and meditation and forgiveness of yourself) just dust ourselves down and trust that nevertheless this path – the path of Love of God and loving your neighbour - is the right one that is in accordance with the will of God.
All of this – a concern for justice and fairness, equality in God, discernment and wisdom will be gained according to Paul in our other reading today by living out of the innate central peace and understanding gained from a relationship with God, whose qualities we are trying to manifest, to make known in our lives.  Centreing our lives in God’s grace produces good fruit in our lives.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Go beyond your mind

After all the stories about the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus in chapters 1 and 2 Luke appears to  start again from scratch quite abruptly.  It is as if he pressed the re-set button.
Luke re-sets the stage and lists all the people who are in charge of things, or so they think.  He starts with Emperor Tiberius. Then he lists all the governors in the various territories in the near East – Pilate, Herod, Philip and Lysanius. Then he moves on to the important religious figures like Annas and Caiaphas. These are the rulers of the earth.
But in the midst of all this Luke writes that “The word of God came to John, son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
John is neither an Emperor or Governor nor a priest but the word of God comes to him. And it comes not in Rome or in Jerusalem, the centres of political and religious power but “in the wilderness”.  The seats of political and religious power are circumvented as God speaks personally to someone “in the wilderness”
God coming to us in the wilderness – which may be a literal wilderness but can also be a metaphorical and spiritual wilderness is a common theme in the Bible. It appears to mean that only when we are churned up, when we don’t know which way to turn, when clarity has given way to confusion – that is the time when God can really reveal his presence to us.
Because our confusion and lack of clarity means that our ego has suffered a temporary setback. We are no longer in control and all the things we thought we believed in are turned upside down. In that state it is easier for the Holy Spirit to get a look in. Usually we are so set on our tram lines of belief, creed and sometimes ossified liturgies that the Spirit has very little room for manoeuvre. A jolt, despite being uncomfortable is what we need.
John’s call is to repentance, which in Greek is Metanoia. In the West this is usually explained as “changing your mind” and the unfortunate emphasis has been on  guilt, but in Eastern theology it means something rather profound and means to go beyond or beneath your mind and speaks of the transcending of individual concepts and beliefs, instead placing faith in the divine.
The Greek term for repentance, metanoia, denotes a true change of mind, a reorientation, a fundamental transformation of outlook, of an individual's vision of the world and of themselves, and a new way of loving others and the Universe.  It involves then, not mere regret of past evil as it does in the West but a recognition by a person of a darkened vision of their own condition, in which we see ourselves as separate from Deity, a perception that has reduced us to a divided, autonomous existence, depriving us of our natural peace and freedom. "Repentance," says Basil the great, the Eastern Father of the church is salvation, the healing of that false division - but not understanding that is the death of repentance."
Repentance thereby acquires a different dimension to mere dwelling on human sinfulness and guilt as we do in the Western church, and becomes  an awareness of one's estrangement from Divinity and one's neighbour and a mind to re-claim that unity which we do every time we share bread and wine.

Monday, 26 November 2012

For thine is the kingdom

I think it might surprise and shock some of us to learn that you are taking part in a subversive political act today; We are more used to thinking of ourselves as pillars of the establishment – though it really shouldn’t.
Jesus himself was executed because he was a political threat to the status quo. One of the things that is firmly attested in the gospels is the charge against him that led to his execution – “The King of the Jews”
The logic is obvious. If you owe your loyalty to God – if you believe that the final authority in your life is vested in God and the person who lived that belief out most fully in his life, Jesus, who then bids you to do the same and follow him down the same path, then warning signs go off in the corridors of the worldly powers.
Because if Jesus is your Lord, if Jesus is your king, then Caesar is not, the high priest and the Roman overlords are NOT. Their power and authority is undermined. You can appeal against their dictats because your source of authority lies elsewhere.
The same is true today. To say that Jesus is Lord or that Christ is King means that your ultimate loyalty lies not to Queen Elizabeth II or to any political party or to any Nation or political ideology but to the God revealed in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. A God who commands love. To say that Christ is king is a dangerous subversive act. To some that may be shocking news.
Centres of worldly power have been trying to deal with and accommodate and neuter this challenge ever since. Communist countries usually just tried to ban all religion. Another ploy is to say that politics and religion don’t mix – that Christianity is not political and politics and power must be allowed to operate without any interference in their schemes and Bishops are always getting told to stay out of politics.
What we have tried to do in Britain is shackle state and religion together as we have done in the UK where the head of state is the supreme Governor of the C. Of E. and our Bishops are part of the law making establishment because they sit in the house of Lords. Effectively they are trying to say that the state is God’s mouthpiece so you must give that loyalty you might otherwise give to God, you must give to us because we are doing God’s will. Because God and the state are one and the same thing.
The ramifications of that uneasy relationship may become apparent very soon if parliament legislates to force equality onto the C of  E and force us to accept women Bishops. Interesting times.
In declaring himself Christ’s representative on earth and declaring his pronouncements infallible that is exactly what the Pope does. He usurps God’s role and his religion becomes a wordly power in its own right in direct competition with the Kingdom of God. One of the prime movers of the reformation and the breaking away from Rome wasn’t so much Henry 8th’s desire to re-marry – that was just a symptom, but the far bigger question. Who has authority in this country – the king of England or a foreign potentate? It was the rise of the Nation state in Europe that led all European countries to re-define their relations with the Pope, even loyal catholic ones.
The Orthodox accomodate themselves to earthly state power with their theology of “symphony” where they are allied very strongly with a people or Nation and their leaders. You see that very well in Russia nowadays where the church becomes fiercely nationalistic – one of the uglier traits of the Orthodox church. Churches in the East are very definitely Russian. Greek. Serbian, Romanian etc. and fiercely support their ethnicity.  You cannot slide a piece of paper between Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox church nowadays.
But all of those contingent forms of relationship between Christianity and earthly power are plainly not what Jesus stood for. They all seek to avoid what Jesus really meant.
So If we want to take the title “Christ the King” at all seriously then we are a collection of subversives whose final loyalty lies with the way of divine love rather than the contingent authorities of Monarchy, country, parliament, nation. It lies in the character and nature of God as revealed in Jesus.
This topic caused one of the few major falling outs and source of tension I had with the British embassy in Bucharest.  One very thoughtful man in particular was challenged by this notion. He been one of Tony Blair’s advisors in the run up to the Iraq war and now works for NATO in Brussels. The tension is real and current.
One of the best hymns that sum up this odd state of affairs is the hymn “I vow to thee my country”
The first verse is standard stuff about loyalty to the nation, and there is another verse rarely seen that is even more militaristic and Nationalistic but the last verse introduces the concept of a higher authority than Queen and country.
The second verse goes like this.
And there's another country, I've heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.
We all have competing loyalties in our hearts. The question is, when we say Christ is King – do we really mean it?

Sunday, 18 November 2012

We are the second coming

Today I’m going to tell you a secret. It is a secret kept fiendishly hidden from us by the fact that it is completely out in the open and is so obvious we don’t even notice it. That is sometimes the best way to hide things.
“Christ will come again” we say and then we say “We are the body of Christ”. But we have the utmost difficulty putting those two things together and coming up with the obvious truth and realising “My God, we are the second coming”
The words “Second coming” by the way never appear in the new testament. They are derived from a Greek word “Parousia” which means presence.  We are the continuing and future presence of the spirit of Christ in the world.
 God is everywhere of course but as a focussed presence where God’s presence is revealed and unveiled in the world, just as it was in Jesus, is now located in us. And it is because there are so many of us that Jesus says in John 14
“Truly truly I say to you, he who believes on me will do the works that I do, and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father”
This second birth, being born again, this re-incarnation of the Spirit of Christ is symbolised in the well known parable of Pentecost. When the Spirit is poured out on everyone who believes in and follows in the way.
Christians have tried to interpret the Prensence of Christ in two other main ways.
First, the very early church of the first generation of Christians believed that the end of the world was nigh – literally; and Christ would re-appear to take the righteous to heaven.  Paul was amongst them which colours his attitudes and early letters. 
Once it became clear that Christ wasn’t going to return, the belief had to be modified to mean that he would come back at some indeterminate time in the future and this view was still potent enough to make it into the Nicene creed written in 325 AD and which we recite to this day despite 2000 years of our increase in knowledge and perception – so the belief that he will literally appear one day  persists.
Another modification of the notion of the presence of Christ when he didn’t return was to say that his real actual flesh and blood became truly present in the bread and the wine at the Eucharist. This came originally from the words of Jesus at the last supper – “This is my body”.  Spiritually, this sense that there is “oneness of being” – that Jesus in his own body say to people holding a piece of bread “This is my body” was a huge spiritual step forward because the Spirit that animated Jesus was then at least incarnated in matter and not located somewhere else and carried with it the added theological benefit that we then ate and drank his presence, taking it into ourselves.
The drawback with this approach though was that the Eucharistic prayer came to be seen mechanically rather than spiritually as a magic spell that could literally change bread to flesh and wine to blood – another idea that has doggedly persisted in our consciousness. The other drawback is that the burden of change is transferred to bread and wine rather than ourselves
It was Paul who realised the truth of the matter that when the Spirit of Christ is recognised and revealed in the hearts of individual Christians we collectively become the “Body of Christ”. “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12: 27).
All three understandings of Presence exist rather uneasily in the church of today but when you think about it, the perception that we are the “second coming” is a far more beautiful, though daunting, and personally empowering concept than all the others. It comes down to trusting our understanding of who and what God is and using that to be the change we are looking for in the world.
For Christ to come again into the world he needs our co-operation to be co-creators with God. This was never put so beautifully as it was by the 16th Century mystic  Theresa of Avila who expressed this understanding in her poem  called “Christ has no body”.

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Sunday, 11 November 2012


There are so many scattered thoughts and emotions on such a day that it can be hard to know what to think.  I’m going to read a poem now by a woman who lost two sons to warfare. Every year in Canada at the war memorial in Ottawa one mother is chosen to lay a wreath representing all mothers who lost children. One such recently, in year 2000, was Clare Stewart who had lost both her sons in war and in this poem she records her thoughts standing at the memorial that year, just as we did today, like this;

She stands in the cold
Her black cloth coat
Suits the occasion
But fails to keep her warm
Despite the gleam of silver
At her breast.*

Her thoughts circle round:

“Why did we have another war?
Didn’t we lose enough men already?
Why did my sons have to die?
O God, keep me upright.
Help me not to scream
Out their names.

“What will we have for dinner tonight?
What would Joey and Bill have wanted?
It’s so hard to have faith…
It’s so hard to have hope…
Why did my sons have to die?
Jesus, you comforted your mother
As she stood and watched you die.
If I pray hard enough
Will you bring comfort to me?

“If that preacher says ‘Noble Sacrifice’
One more time I’ll scream…
I’ll scream out their names
So hard the dead will hear me.
Only this time, I’ll scream out loud
Instead of in my heart.”

But she doesn’t scream…
She stands beside the Honour Guard
Who are older than her sons
Were when they died.

The people nearby watch her,
Wondering how she can stand
So still, so calm,
Knowing she lost two boys,
Thinking she has lost her grief
After all these years
When to her it might
Have been today.

It bears asking the question why do we do it? Remember and ponder. What good can come of it?
Well if an occasion like this can curb our enthusiasm for war by just a small amount I think it is worth it. If it can make our search for peaceful solutions that bit more earnest I think it is worth it. If it can bring the reality of the pain misery and human waste of war closer, rescuing war from Hollywood and jingoistic headlines I think it is worth it. If it reconnects us with the emotional pain of having lost a loved one to war and makes us think twice about our current actions I think it is worth it.
Death is the great leveller. It doesn’t ask your name, your religion, your politics, your race or gender. A mother’s tears over the death of her sons or daughters don’t sting any less because they happen to be British or Afghan, Israeli or Palestinian, Iranian or Iraqi. The pain is shared in common because we are human beings, and if an occasion like this can in any small way help to curb the madness I think it is worth it.
Exactly one month ago on the 10th October David Cameron gave a speech at the Imperial war museum, which was screened live and I happened to watch it. I am not a conservative and nor do I have any  particular liking for the Prime minister but I was very impressed that day by his genuineness and passion for his subject that actually gave me hope.  He said this;

 "For me, one of the most powerful things I have ever seen is the monument erected by the Turks in Gallipoli.

Think of the bloodshed.

Think of the tens of thousands of Turkish dead.

And then listen to the inscription to our boys and those from Commonwealth countries that fell.(words by Kemal Attaturk)

“Those heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives, you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country.

Therefore rest in peace.

There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side in this country of ours.

You, the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears, your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace.

After having lost their lives on this land they become our sons as well.”

For me those words capture so much of what this is all about.

That from such war and hatred can come unity and peace.(like blood red poppies growing out of the mud fields of devastating blood letting)

More than anything it should give us a confidence and determination never to go back.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

For all the saints.

One of the best descriptions of a saint I’ve ever heard is contained within this probably apocryphal story.
Sitting in a church a minister asked someone to describe a saint – and one little girl pointed to all the figures represented in their stained glass windows and said.
“Saints. They’re the people the light shines through”.
What a beautiful description of a person who walks so close to God that the light shines through in the way they act and live, in their capacity to love and be loved.
How they lived is the main point. The popular saints in the Christian calendar weren’t generally popular for anything they’d ever written or believed. They became popular as examples of how to live.
 As with so much in Christianity what was originally intended has changed out of all recognition over the last 2000 years. Saints, nowadays are more commonly thought of as people with miraculous powers who you pray through or sometimes to, in superstitious fashion to get something in return, be it good luck or a child, or protection or even to find something.
Originally it was not like that. Originally saints were just ordinary people like you and me, who because of what we believed had started to let some of the light through in our lives in the way we lived and loved.  We all have the light of God within us, but most of us have a dimmer switch which is usually set to a low light with occasional flashes of radiance – me included.  A saint is simply someone who allows more of the current, the energy of God through into our daily life. The switch is turned on higher throwing out a more consistent light.
The word “saint” means a witness, which is of course a legal term - someone whose life is a character witness for the divine mystery.
A great modern example of difference between what Sainthood was and has become is Mother Theresa of Calcutta. There is an official commission that gathers information for a process that pronounces whether she qualifies as an official “saint” or not. There is even a team of people that gathers information on whether she had ever performed a miracle, because the Roman Catholic church insists that a saint must possess the power to make miracles in order to qualify to become an official saint. Where and how did it all go so wrong and muddle headed?
Mother Theresa doesn’t need a team of religious bureaucrats to decide whether she will become a saint or not. Mother Theresa is a saint solely and simply because of the way she lived and loved and let the light shine through in her life. It was a life marked by compassion for others. It is the kind of lived example that led the Indian government to give her a state funeral, even though she was a foreigner and from a small minority faith, Christianity, in that country. That was a testimony to the impact her life had in India.
You don’t become a saint after you die, you live as a saint when you are alive and those things you did and said become an inspiration to others who try and walk the path of faith...
We all have the potential to let the light shine through us. We can all be examples of love and compassion. As Saint Francis said in words attributed to him. “Go preach the gospel. Use words if you have to.”
Keeping close to the source of the light is a great start and then allowing ourselves to live in that light rather than try and block that light out from our lives. It is through being close to love, and knowing love that one learns to love. In the love and security of God’s love for us – called God’s grace - that we learn to have the courage to love ourselves and others.
Today, Sophie Ann Hebdon has been purposely brought here today to come close to the light and symbolically be incorporated into the love and care of God. We are demonstrating something that we believe and trust to be true. That she is loved by God, the light that already shines within her. The light that enlightens every person. 

Monday, 29 October 2012

Mark 10: 46-52 - What do you see?

The problem for a modern audience hearing a story like the healing of blind Bartimaeus is that we hear it and go say “Aaaaah, Jesus has kindly helped a disabled man” , not unimportant in itself, but if that is all we see then completely missing the spiritual depth of the story. Mark has offered us here a story of spiritual renewal and so can be seen as a parable regarding baptism. Yes, this story is about conversion and baptism! Let’s look again.....
The language Mark uses is deliberate and revealing.
The parable is an echo of Isaiah 35:5 and for those with ears to hear and eyes to see there is much to get our teeth into here.
Bartimaeus is without perception and in dire need and his condition is symbolised by his location. In Mark’s text  he is “off the road” that is to say, not on the way, the path of the Kingdom.  The Greek Mark uses here is exactly the same as he uses to describe the futile seed in the parable of the sower (4:4)
When Jesus calls Bartimaeus, the phrase the people use is “Get up” which is the standard phrase used for resurrection and is being used to describe his conversion to the Christian movement because in the baptismal formula one dies and rises with Christ.  Your old way of being and living is symbolicly drowned and you emerge from the water with a new life.
Bartimaeus then  “throws off his cloak”. By the time Mark’s gospel was written (40 years after Jesus was crucified) it was already the custom that baptismal converts took off their old clothes to be clothed in new clothes, usually white, to represent their new risen life.
The man’s sole desire is to “see again” that is, to be enlightened. The phrase “has made you well” means equally “has saved you” (Luke 7:50)
The gift is salvation, the man’s cure is conversion, so that he becomes a follower of Jesus. The man who started “by the way” is now “on the way” literally “in the way”.
“The way”  is the road that Jesus invites us to travel. It is an active participatory journey in trust.
Mark also uses framing techniques in his gospel so where a story is put can have great significance. He uses a literary device where events are sandwiched between two other events and the two are supposed to interpret each other.
In Jesus’ literal journey from Caesarea Philippi to Jerusalem his journey, which ends on the cross is framed by two stories, both of them healings of blind men.  Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is framed by two stories of the healing of blind men.
Mark is trying to say, look at that journey and see if you have eyes to see. The way of healing, which is what the word salvation means, from the root “salve” – to heal, in a more holistic sense, leads to In Jesus’ case a literal death, but for us, following the way of Jesus means a  death of self interest a death of selfishness, and being re-born with a new perception, resurrected to a new life in the Spirit, re-born to a fullness of life lived in the conscious knowledge of God.
This is what Jesus calls fullness of life. 

Monday, 22 October 2012

The truth will set you free.

In Mark’s little vignette we have a lovely example of human ego and ambition and hunger for power on the part of two of the disciples, an example which it turns out was too embarrassing for Matthew when he came to write his gospel.
Matthew (20:20) took this story and deftly changed it so that it was their mother who asked for positions of power on her sons’ behalf trying to turn the story into one of maternal pride rather than naked ambition on the part of two of the disciples.
That is interesting because as well as having a story about human frailty, within the pages of the Bible itself you have another very human example of the group closing ranks and trying to cover up their faults to present a more acceptable public image.
The most spectacular modern example of this has been the child abuse that priests have been guilty of in catholic church in Ireland, where power had corrupted the institution and provided a safe haven for abusers. (They are not the only ones of course and the C of E is certainly not untainted, but Irish Catholicism is the most notable example).The response of the church in Ireland, when all the evidence came flooding out was the same as Matthew’s. Cover up, deny, present a united front, draw the wagons into a circle and defend ourselves.
The rest is history. Catholicism in Ireland is now on a life support machine – almost completely discredited. The seminaries are nearly all closed and the churches have emptied at an enormous rate. Being open and honest and apologising completely and facing up to the problem squarely would not have taken away the pain of the victims, but would have shown that the institutional church had a humane and spiritual heart and may be worth saving. Instead, all that was revealed was an empty heartless institution, just trying to defend itself at all costs.
On a different subject, mid week I wrote that “Transformation begins with acceptance”. Acceptance of our frailties, accepting that we also have very selfish motivations as well as our more altruistic ones.  If we are able to take a long hard look at ourselves and know and accept where we fall short of the ideal – Loving God and loving our neighbour as ourselves -  that is the beginning of transformation, for with acceptance we will need to also practice forgiveness.
You will of course realise that we have this mechanism built in to every service. We call it the confession. We all skip over it without paying it much mind mostly, but that is why it is there. We are then assured of God’s forgiveness. What most of us need is help to forgive ourselves. And even more help to forgive others – something I find very difficult indeed, but honesty – accepting that I find forgiveness difficult - is the best policy.
When I took my dog Toby down to the river yesterday morning and my favourite place was littered with bags, broken glass and beer cans, I certainly didn’t want to forgive those who did it – still less when I learned that they had also been deliberately smashing bottles in the cemetery as well.
First came anger. Then, eventually, came acceptance. It is horrible but It has happened and there is nothing you can do to make it not so. It is the same for little things like that as it is for much bigger things like illness, unemployment or death. It is how we react. Do we shrivel and die insideor do we grow? Well, perversely in Christian thought – both! The Christian message is that actually something has to die before something can grow.
Jesus encapsulates all this in his assessment of the situation that those who want to be great must first become servants.
What does this mean? It can only mean that salvation lies in going beyond our egos and natural selfish ambition to find commonality. What has to die first is our self-centred view of the world. That must die in order that a different understanding of our neighbour can grow. To see someone else not as someone to be exploited but a brother or sister to be helped, or to cooperate with, means a perceptual shift in the way we relate to humanity and the world around us.
Our normal loyalties start with ourself, then to our spouse and children, then on to a wide range of allegiances which might include nationality, class, religion, culture, friends. Now a measure of this is I think necessary in order to live, but the Jesus way is to subordinate these natural affinities and loyalties. The Jesus way is that they be transcended by a larger holistic view of the world.
Normally our loyalties and partialities are a series of concentric circles emanating out from US standing at the centre. It takes quite a shift in outlook to see the divine mystery at the centre and see all people and all the world as included in God’s huge circle of inclusion.
Who is my neighbour? One of Jesus’ most famous parables, the good Samaritan, was a commentary on that very question. We are all neighbours, one of another, and we should therefore love our neighbour as ourselves.
To truly be a servant leader needs that change in emphasis in our hearts – to change the locus of the centre of being from ourselves to knowing the true centre of being which is God.
That too involves acceptance. Acceptance that is the way the world truly is. We call this “faith” or “trust” and in acceptance of that fact will follow transformation. And transformation is a path, a journey on which we are all at different points and sometimes it feels as if we haven’t made much progress at all. Like when kids descrate one of your favourite spots. By God it is difficult to forgive – but knowing the process and practicing it is where we need to be in order to become healthy human beings having fullness of life. Accept, forgive, transform.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Things ain't what they used to be!

We have a saying in English – “The law is an ass”, most often applied when the letter of the law overrides the spirit of the law or takes no account of the context to which it is being applied and is therefore made to look unreasonable and stupid.
We say it about civil and criminal law but it can equally be applied to religious laws as well.
You could say, and some do, that what Jesus says about marriage and divorce is cast iron. Marriage is for life and divorce is a sin and anyone who divorces a woman and finds someone else is committing adultery – no question! Really??
But this ignores the social context in which this arose. Notice the question was about allowing a man to divorce his wife, not the other way around. In the society and culture of first century Palestine, a divorced woman’s life was perilous. No means of support and shunned by polite society, as either a pariah or a threat, she was a marginalised and reduced to penury. The man could just carry on of course.
Seen against this cultural backdrop – the ideal that Jesus is upholding of a marriage as a commitment for life can be seen as a huge support for women’s rights and wellbeing, protecting them against the prospect of being cast aside on a whim of a feckless husband.
All laws and rules have to be set in context and applied in context. It is fine to have an ideal but even the most cast iron ideals are very easily bent out of shape by circumstance. Take perhaps the apparently most cast iron law of all – “Thou shalt not kill”
If a young  man on a council estate in Hull takes a gun and kills someone he is an evil murderer who when caught will serve life imprisonment for his crime. But take that same young man out of the estate, put him in a uniform, send him to Afghanistan, and when he takes a gun and kills people there he is lauded as a Hero. He is still killing people but the context is different. In one he is a villain and the other a Hero. “Thou shalt not kill” is no longer so cast iron after all and becomes very elastic indeed.
Applying laws to the realities of life and ignoring the context potentially turns religion into an ogre, remote and condescending. In insisting on the letter of the law over the Spirit of the law, i.e. ignoring the humanity involved in every situation, religion is dehumanised.
The Spirit that motivated Jesus to say what he said I believe was said in a spirit of protection and love and concern for the position of women in the society that jesus was living in – not a cast iron irrevocable Holy law that could never be questioned.
Things change. All things change and develop, not least human relationships. And it is in recognition of that fact that the Church of England, while advocating the ideal of marriage as a life long commitment, quite rightly recognises divorce and the reality of marital breakdown. And we forgive and we re-marry people.
No-one ever goes into a marriage thinking that this will do for a couple of years and then I’ll try something else. I don’t think I’ve ever married anyone who didn’t aspire to the ideal, but life and circumstances and relationships change and we need to wake up and face reality.
What people need when a relationship breaks down is not condemnation for breaking a rule. Believe me most married couples quite happily condemn and accuse themselves when things go wrong. They need love and support in a very painful and difficult situation.
Every situation is different. When children are involved the situation differs even more significantly.
Solutions are not easy. Life and relationships can be messy and complex. One solution will work for one and not work for another.
My position as with so much of life and spirituality has become one of finding a balance. So it is not a simple battle between cast iron unbreakable rules versus situational ethics. It is rather holding both in a dynamic tension and respecting them both and allowing them to speak to eachother.
So I like most of us have to live with paradox. Yes I believe in “Till death do us part” but I also believe in relational breakdown – acceptance and forgiveness.
As a result, because we hold both these things in tension we can be accused of being wishy washy and betraying God’s holy laws, but I see it as being true to experience, and God speaks to us through experience.
The alternative is a hard, black and white religion. This kind is superficially attractive to many people, now as then, but this kind of religion leaves no room for the Spirit and leads not to peace and equanimity – it leads to the inquisition, to Saudi Arabia and to Iran.
The alternative  is a system where human frailty and divorce is not recognised at all and the only way out is a hypocritical declaration granted by an arbitrary power that the marriage never actually happened at all – called an annulment. This is simply a denial of reality.
Christianity at its very root and core is about living in the Spirit, not according to law. On a deeper level using the Bible as a rule book rather as a signpost to a mysterious spiritual reality is actually a denial of the message of Jesus who advocated human flourishing by finding your identity in God.  
Once we take the humanity out of religious law we end up with the inquisition or sharia law. I will prefer to live with paradox, messiness and uncertainty any day of the week. Jesus’ apparently harsh statement was I truly believe motivated by love and the desire to protect the position of women, supporting them and their ability to grow and flourish within the cultural realities of First century Palestine and Judaism as it then was. He was looking for the way of love. In our society we should also be looking for the way of love, but it will look very different to how it looked 2000 years ago.
Because taking God seriously means taking life, our culture and context seriously. We need to keep close to God both corporately and individually in order to be open to the wisdom and guidance of God, to be able to hear that “still small voice” guiding us into the truth.

Monday, 3 September 2012


Both the letter of James and what Jesus says according to Mark’s account, are calls for integrity.  Jesus was hard on conventional religiosity – pointing out the real difference between insisting on rituals like ritual washing before eating and yet having little love or compassion in their hearts.
Jesus quotes Isaiah and says “ These people honour me with their lips but their hearts are far from me” and calls religious people like that “hypocrites” which of course is Greek for actors – people simply playing a role.
In my experience the very emptiest of religion can be the most ritualistic where you know there is no spiritual heart and is a triumph of form over substance. In another rhetorical flourish Jesus called the Pharisees who approached religion in this way “Whitewashed tombs” meaning that everything is pretty and well ordered and respectable on the outside but is dead on the inside. You could say with some justification that Jesus hated religion, but what he means is more nuanced because what he actually railed against was unspiritual, empty, religious forms.   
And Jesus’ brother James takes up this thought and runs with it. James himself and the Jerusalem church he led clung much more closely to traditional Judaism and its outward forms and Mosaic law than did Paul (who himself was of course an ex-Pharisee), but despite that or perhaps because of it James recognises all too well the inherent danger of rites and rituals and beliefs themselves becoming detached, cast adrift from our actual lives and the way we live them and the way we relate to people and treat them.
James famously goes that one step further of course and in a way quite shockingly says that no matter what you say you believe in, it is completely useless until it is enfleshed in your life. And even further than that the implication of the last verse of the reading from James today is that in many respects he doesn’t care what doctrines you believe – because pure and undefiled religion lies in how we treat the vulnerable and weak. 
“Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (v.22)
It is the lack of integrity in religion that people really hate. From the really major and obscene things like priests abusing children, to simply talking about love and acceptance and welcome and then refusing to offer someone the communion bread because they don’t belong to our club or are deemed in some other way unacceptable.
Going back to Jesus he says “In vain do they worship, teaching human precepts as doctrines. You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human traditions”. That should make us all shake when we read out our doctrinal statements - I’ll say no more.
What is the commandment of God that Jesus accuses the Pharisees of abandoning? Well it forms part of the start of every Communion service. Jesus maintains that the entire law and the prophets – that means the entire body of scripture – the commandment of God - can be summed up as “Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself”
The teaching from both readings today – from Jesus and his brother – is show a little integrity. Integrate the inner and outer you. What we do should be an accurate reflection of what we say we believe. There has to be an alive spirituality underpinning the rituals otherwise we run the risk of becoming a whitewashed tomb – looks and sounds good but is actually dead inside.
None of us are perfect, least of all me, so if our goals in terms of our actions are still a fair way off from our talk, which is likely (!) we should at least though be “on the way” to integrating the two and we do this through Spiritual practice.
Nurturing a lively spirituality which is a relationship with the divine and integrating that into our lives was the premise of the Spirituality days we held here at Gainford. Not an optional extra for people interested in mysticism but according to Jesus the heart and soul, the beating heart of true religion.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Just because you are a character doesn't mean you have character. (Pulp fiction)

According to the author of Ephesians we are in a battle against what is described variously as “the wiles of the devil” or “the rulers, the authorities of this present darkness” and the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” and “the flaming arrows of the evil one”.
He also talks about some forthcoming “evil day” at which point I’m afraid I have switched off and I’m gazing out the window, so far removed is it from my experience.  I simply don’t see my life and faith as a battle against evil spirits.
As a culture we have long since stopped attributing everything wrong or bad that happens to us to deliberate malevolence by some objective embodiment of evil commonly termed the “devil” or evil spirits. In fact when we hear of the child murders and violent exorcisms that still happen in London today in communities of West African descent our reaction is mostly one of horror and disbelief that this kind of thing, these kind of beliefs can still hold sway in some cultures. There was a call just last week to criminalise labelling a child as possessed by evil spirits as child abuse.
But just because our view of the world and the way we interpret it may have changed out of all recognition it doesn’t change the fact that we are still beset by trials and tribulations, by fears, temptations, and we all have the potential to do things that we are not proud of.
The way to plot a course through all of this, in accordance with what Ephesians says is to cultivate virtuous patterns of thought and behaviour which will protect you (using the biblical language) or using a more modern idiom will empower you to resist the wrong path, give you character to stand for what is right or from being easily manipulated to participate in evil acts.
An Israeli journalist who got close to Adolf Eichmann at his trial expecting some incarnate devil radiating evil termed the now famous phrase “the banality of evil” when what was actually encountered was a petty bureaucrat.  We, each of us, have within us the potential for good or evil, so if we want to foster the good because evil is destructive and counter productive both to our own well being and the well being of our society, if we want to empower ourselves to be able to resist taking the wrong and sometimes easier path we still need the virtues that Ephesians lists..
Truthfulness, righteousness, peace, trust, and all of them in accordance with the divine will and character so in practising these values and virtues we are close to God. Using biblical language they are a gift from God
One of the most frightening things about what we still term “evil” such as the Holocaust for example, is that the vast majority of people involved were just so ordinary, so mundane. They didn’t have horns and a tail – they were just like us. The truly frightening thing is that they are no different, but their value system and the virtues they prized became warped. I encountered the same thing when I worked for a very short time as a prison chaplain. The first murderer I met was a frightened young man crying in his cell contemplating spending the rest of his life behind bars.
But why should we cultivate these values in our life - what good does it do us to be or possess all those things? Because it pleases God? Excellent but human beings are pretty mercenary....is there anything else?
Well the unarguable truth appears to be that people who foster and live more virtuous lives are actually more content, better adjusted, more fulfilled. Virtue appears to be its own reward. In short they are happier.
Happiness isn’t a very theological term and is seldom used. Religious people, theologians, priests, ministers are much more likely to ask whether you are saved, whether you believe the right things, attend services, and pray. They seldom, in my experience of church life ever ask anyone if they are happy. Happiness is deemed irrelevant at best but actually human beings strive for little else. We want what makes us happy, or at least what we think is going to make us happy.
Our society values material possessions above all else – that is where true happiness lies. Everything is advertised and sold on the underlying premise that the new car, the bigger house, the new kitchen, the new dress, the new ipad is going to finally make us happy and we are continually surprised when it doesn’t. This avarice extends beyond pure “things” to thrill seeking, drugs and drink as ways of making ourselves happier.  They keep us entertained fleetingly and then we go back to our default position.
In surveys of lottery winners, after the first flush of extreme happiness, after a while they normally just return to the same psychological state they had before they won the money. They have more things, but not more happiness.
Cultivating virtues, building character is not a fashionable thing to do.
But if we return to Ephesian’s list and the wider concept that certain things will help protect you and build you up and make you a happier human being (and is of God) while other things are destructive and ultimately leave you feeling unhappy and embittered, then we have a rationale for encouraging virtues and the virtuous life that people can readily accept.
Why should I lead a virtuous life? Because that is what God appears to want is good but If part of the reason is that my personal happiness and the greater well being of society depends on it, we are closer to something that might resonate in my opinion. Being honest and truthful, doing the right thing when there is no advantage for us, trusting that we are held and ultimately secure, feeling connected to God and the world, all have their root in Love and our creed is surely that God is Love.
The main virtues according to Paul are faith hope and love – the greatest of them being love. The fruit of the spirit again according to Paul are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.
If we cultivate those we are cultivating God in our life and protecting ourselves by promoting happiness and well being against all that leads to unhappiness and a society bent on self destruction.
As I have written recently, this is not the whole of the story. True happiness comes not just from “within”, these things have to be nurtured alongside solid relationships, friendships, and in my own opinion a very strong special and close relationship with another person – Love made flesh – for completeness. Happiness lies not just from within or just from without, but from between the two.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Walk this way

The OT reading set for today from proverbs throws light not just on the meaning of the Eucharist as written in John and undergirds what is being said in Ephesians but for me throws light on the whole core message of Christianity. It is just a few verses so here it is......
Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. She has sent out her serving girls, she calls from the highest places in the town, “You that are simple, turn in here!”. To those without sense she says, “Come eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity and live, and walk in the way of insight”.
That one little passage is dripping with so much relevant symbolism. We have lady wisdom, the female attribute of God, built on seven pillers . The significance of this is that In Hebrew numerology Seven is the Hebrew number of perfection. It is perfect or “complete” because it adds the number of God which is 3 to the number of the world which is 4. So 7 is Perfect meaning “complete” because it unites creation with the divine. As an aside, the reason there were only six water jars in John’s first sign in his gospel – the turning of water into wine is that 6 was incomplete – imperfect - and Jesus was squaring that circle.
 There is sacrifice and there is the banquet of bread and wine, to which the weary and lost are all invited and is so reminiscent of the Eucharist . In this divine banquet you will find life – the life of the world I talked about last week – that fusion of divine source and divine creation – and through this revelation of the true nature of things you will find insight – which is enlightenment, lit by the eternal light – the light that enlightens every person as John writes in his prologue.
Seeing everything in that light, everything we previously thought was patently obvious about the world is suddenly illuminated and we see it as it really is. Insight is being able to discern the inner truth of things and situations. When the light of God is turned on – I AM the light of the world - when we see this light in all things shining back at us we may experience the peace of God. Peace with God, ourselves and each other.
Read with insight the entire message of Jesus we can see here is laid open for us written down centuries before Jesus was even born. What the early church perceived was that the wisdom that had been revealed in words to them became a wisdom discernable in a human life so that words became the word or wisdom made flesh.
The wisdom brought forth in Jesus’ life is the wisdom that lies within us all. The spirit – that spring that wells up to eternal life, as Jesus told the woman at the well, is the divinity within.
We are caught here because we are trapped by words and concepts that are inadequate, but  “believing in Jesus” means (for me) believing in the Jesus way and seeing in Jesus the revelation of what is true for all of us, rather than worshipping a unique and innately different kind of being. He is showing us the way to the Father – the way to atonement and peace. In following his way – we too have it within us to find eternal life. As an aside it is a fact that Jesus never once asks anyone to worship him in the New testament but around 26 times Jesus asks that we follow him. Walk in his footsteps. Walk in the way.
It is a way of insight, characterised by wisdom and peace and the way it bears fruit in our lives is in both word and deed.

Monday, 13 August 2012

For the life of the world

“And the bread I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh”.
One of the best reads on the subject of the Eucharist is called “For the life of the world” taken from that verse in John by an American Orthodox theologian and I was instructed to read it by none other than Rowan Williams just before he ordained me priest in Canterbury.
What the Eucharist is or is not has exercised my mind for a dozen years. It is what I do every Sunday. In the established churches it is the one thing that I can do and you can’t. So what on earth is it?
I have told everyone before that I come originally from a low evangelical church where we didn’t celebrate the Eucharist every week and where the churchwarden still complained that we had too many of them. From there I immersed myself in an Anglo catholic monastery for two years where every single day I had a tasteless piece of plastic pushed into my hand and told that this was the “body of Christ”. That concentrates the mind I can tell you.
Then I went East and in Orthodoxy I experienced a different approach yet again and now all these years later after all I have experienced, I ask myself again what is it really all about...... and I can only give you the benefit of my experience of all these different approaches and my own theological thinking and have arrived at a few conclusions that may help some people I hope.
“The life of the world” What does that mean?
For some, this life means “religious” or “spiritual” life
Lost and confused as most of us are we can be encouraged to take refuge in a purely spiritual life, in a journey inwards fed with spiritual food so enabling us to endure the “other” secular life with all its frustrations and tribulations, so we can keep smiling in a deep religious way.
This way of looking at life comes in all different shapes and sizes but the result is more or less the same. It makes the secular life, the life of eating and drinking play second fiddle, almost an irrelevance. It is clearly a second class way of living and less important than the spiritual life of prayer and contemplation.
In contemporary Christianity this spiritual emphasis is counterbalanced by those who understand these words “For the life of the world” as “for the better life of the world”. They are activists committed to the social gospel. Christianity is primarily a religion of action – action to change the world that has been lost to us. They will often feel aggrieved at the spiritual ones for spending too much time praying or in silence, and exhort them to get up and get stuck in.
Whichever avenue you go down the underlying problem remains the same. It is one of dualism.
It is Spiritual versus material, sacred versus profane, supernatural versus natural.
But in the Hebrew Bible these dichotomies never existed. In the Bible the food that man is given to eat in order to live is given by God and it is given as communion with God.
The world is not just “material” and limited to material functions, as opposed to specifically spiritual functions by which we relate to God.
All that exists is God’s gift to mankind, and it all exists to make God known to mankind. In the Hebrew bible God blesses everything he created and in Biblical language this means that he makes all creation the sign and means of his presence and wisdom, and love and revelation.
In the story of the garden of Eden, the fruit that Adam and eve ate only differed from all other things in that it was forbidden. It had not been given or blessed. Therefore It was food that was an end in itself, a world loved and enjoyed for itself and not as a vehicle for communion with God.
The world is a fallen world only in so far as it has fallen away from the awareness that God is all in all. Our dependence and love for the world became a short circuit cut off from the life that created and sustains all things. So we still love, but we are still hungry because our love only extends to the world itself rather than a way of communion with God.
We forget that breathing is a communion with God, that eating can be receiving life from God in more than its purely physical sense.
In the truly Christian sense, when we see the world as an end in itself and devoid of God’s presence, we live in a flat two dimensional world because the world cut off from its source is a dying world and communion with it is a communion with death.
The life of the world devoid of presence of God is just the appearance of life. The figure of Adam sitting outside paradise weeping is a picture of mankind itself,  hungry for communion with life, with God yet unable to satisfy that hunger because we have removed the source of life from our perception of the world.
Jesus saw and perceived this connection within himself and all things and referred to God as his father. In the Eucharist which he instituted we set right what has been lost.
In eating and drinking bread and wine we truly commune with God. It is no longer spiritual versus material, natural versus supernatural. They are one and the same thing. The material is a vehicle for the spirit, a carrier of God’s presence. As i said last week, this is why I am a Christian, but I am not religious.
I say this because In a sense, religion is only needed when there is a barrier between man and God and we need people to perform cultic acts to set up a meeting between the two. What we say about Christ is that he tore those barriers down don’t we? There is no division between man and God, between the spiritual and the material.
This is why the early church had such freedom. They had no need of scared geography, no temples, no interest in the places where Jesus had walked, no pilgrimages. That all came later. There were no need for temples because the new people gathered in his name was the only temple needed. The fact that Christ was present was far more important than the places where Jesus had been. Jesus is important because in Him is the answer to all religion, all hunger for God. He was and symbolised in his own body the communion with God that is innate in all creation.
When we eat bread and drink wine we are communing with the entire world and the source of the entire world. It is a bringing together of the material and the divine and in our communion what changes is not the bread and wine – the Eucharistic prayer is not a magic spell - but what is most needed is that our perception of the bread and wine changes and what it then symbolises. That changes our perception of ourselves and all life. 

Monday, 30 July 2012

I find myself in you

Starting from a position where you are being asked to interpret these kinds of miraculous events as literal history remembered (where the event being literally true is critical) is problematic. Either you don’t believe that these kinds of things ever happen so you then you are forced to dismiss the stories out of hand as nonsense, or you kind of just about able to convince yourself that these things may have happened. But that usually doesn’t get us much further on because we end up just gawping at a miracle – exactly what Jesus didn’t want to happen.
The third option is to see the question of whether they were historical events or not as pretty much irrelevant . Once that question is safely parked, because in truth it is unanswerable, we can concentrate on the spiritual message they are meant to convey. These signs are vehicles for spiritual truth. And John’s gospel pointedly never uses the word miracle to describe these things anyway. He uses the word “signs”.
Now signs by their very nature point away from themselves to somewhere else. That is what a sign is and what it does.  Where do these signs lead us. To where are they pointing?  
Well in John’s sign of the feeding of the 5000 he is pointing us towards the spiritual meaning of the communion service that we are here sharing this very morning. In John’s gospel there is no account of the last supper and Jesus breaking and sharing bread, and yet the gospel is nevertheless all about what the Eucharist actually means.
In the simplest spiritual terms I can come up with, the significance of the 5 loaves and two fish is that this was everything the boy had. Absolutely everything was given. In a spiritual sense our whole minds bodies and spirit are put at the disposal of God. How I interpret that in practical terms is that we learn that actually we are not the centre of the universe, the true centre of the universe which is also our true centre is the divine mystery that we name God. We sacrifice self interest to gain something much greater – which is in fact turns out to be a greater sense of self located in God.
In dying to self interest we find a greater sense of life. The only way to test this theory is to actually try it and put it into practice. To use the picture language of the story, our lives are to be given, and then blessed by God and our life and talent and potential is unlocked and multiplied and is shared out amongst many people.  In God’s hands , what little we think we have can be used to great and lasting effect – if we have the guts to actually let go and do it.
And this problem is the subject of the second sign – the walking on the water. There is significance to the fact that in the story It was dark.  For the disciples were in fact in a spiritually dark place – just as we can be so often. The storms on the lake are a metaphor for all the storms of life that batter us and frighten us. Psychologically the root of all fear is the fear of death and oblivion.
The spiritual message of Jesus is “Do not be afraid. I AM”. In the midst of all of life’s dramas and tragedies, joys and sorrows, in the midst of all that frightens us, including death itself, God IS.
In the story, after being frightened not only of the storms of life but also frightened of the message that was coming towards them, they were mired in confusion. It was only when they perceived and understood – in the image from the story “when they wanted to take him into the boat” that they immediately reached safety. Immediately, the boat reached the land.
In understanding that God stands in and through all of life’s challenges, in that moment of clarity, “he who hears my word and believes on the one that sent me (I AM, God) has eternal life. He has eternal life NOW. He has already crossed over from life to death.”(5:24)
It is that conviction, that God stands at the centre of life, so we can only trust in his loving care, that we then can offer our lives to be blessed and shared out for the benefit of many and find a truer deeper, richer sense of who we are.
Like so much spirituality. It is just so simple and yet also not easy. Simple but not easy.
Training our minds to see life in a different way so that new way becomes our automatic default position is a lifetime’s work. What tends to happen in my experience is that we get flashes of wholeness and peace but we can’t hold on to it for very long. At the first sign of trouble we can revert to our lost and fearful ways all too easily. But through spiritual practice, continually reinforcing a different way to see God and the world, of which this Communion service is an example, we make progress one little bit at a time, with the hope that the next time trauma breaks into our lives we will have better tools to cope much more easily. 

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Love in a hopeless place

I have written before of a watershed moment in my spiritual and religious development which happened to me in my first ever trip to Romania, not as a priest but to help in a children’s hospice for kids dying of AIDS.
I looked into the eyes of a little girl who couldn’t speak, was mentally and physically disabled. Had full blown AIDS and was soon to die. It was looking into the eyes of that little girl, innocent yet suffering and not even going to make it to her teenage years that all faith in a healing God drained from my body.
Most of you will know that the first funeral I ever took was of a nine year old Romanian boy called Logan who died of AIDS and was buried on a dusty hillside in this grimy industrial town called Cernavoda – a name which literally means Black Water.
But that wasn’t the only spiritual experiences I had on that seminal visit to that country that would see me four years later pack my bags for Bucharest.
There was another, that I won’t go into now that told me in a very deep way that “God is”, and that despite everything I was meant to be in that place. It wasn’t that God was not a reality – it was that my understanding of the nature of God had to be smashed open and put back together again in a new way. A belief in a God that heals had to be radically altered.
About four years after these experiences on post ordination training I wrote an essay entitled “why God doesn’t heal” which earned the comment from my tutor, who now works in Durham as it happens as probably the most depressing piece she had ever read. (I wear that accolade as a badge of honour). Unbeknownst to me at the time she has a disabled child.
This is by way of saying that my relationship with healing stories in the Bible is shall we say rather ambivalent. And yet I do believe in healing in a holistic sense with a faith that could move mountains.
Healing for me implies peace and wholeness in a much wider sense than the mending of bones and curing leprosy.
Spiritual wholeness and peace are where these stories lead us. Wholeness and peace depend on incorporation. The whole tenor of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians this morning is basically one of “Once you were separate, now you are a part of it”. “Once you were without God, now you are in God”. His narrative uses the Jewish/Gentile division as his base line and then tells how we are now all one, children of the same covenant.
I used to ask myself where God was in that orphanage in Cernavoda. God, in St’ Lawrence’s hospice was a Scottish nurse called Lorna Jamieson. She worked all the hours God sent , in terrible conditions with hardly any resources, to try and alleviate the suffering of those children. She brought as much healing and peace as she could muster to make sure that they spent the last days and hours of their lives in as little pain as possible and knowing that they were loved.
I knew then that this was true Christian healing.
And Lorna could love like that because she felt loved. Her resources came from deep within her, enabling her to go on against sometimes almost insurmountable odds.
It is those internal spiritual resources that I am nowadays trying to cultivate both is myself and try and share with others as much as I can.
To enable ourselves, to empower ourselves we need to be able to dig deep and plumb huge reserves out of which we can operate. This is why I push contemplative prayer and meditation. This is why I try and communicate spiritual concepts that I have actually experienced as being true. 
Jesus wanted his disciples to retreat to a deserted place to re-charge their batteries. Retreats like this are wonderful and helpful, but what about when the retreat is over and you have to re-join the rat race. Wouldn’t it be great if you could take that place of refreshment and resource with you and be that calm refreshing place and draw your resources from there in the midst of life.
To find and live out of that centre, which is God, is the goal of the spiritual life and in finding that centre is the spiritual practice that enables us to find and live out of that centre. It is there that we find the healing, the wholeness and peace, which results in the kind of compassion exhibited by Lorna.        

Sunday, 8 July 2012

You are not alone

“I was caught up to the third heaven – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know – God knows”.
Paul is trying to describe his conversion experience on the road to Damascus
And according to Paul, this conversion experience which he also writes about in 1 Corinthians is an equivalent experience to what the disciples experienced in the resurrection “appearances”.
If in the broadest sense these experiences are what are known as “theophanies”  basically meaning an experience of the divine, which in the Bible is communicated as an “appearance”. So was this then the same thing that Jesus experienced at his baptism?
I would say yes because the result was the same. They all experienced an intense feeling of “connection”, a better word for our purposes is “communion” with the divine.
It was expressed in different ways. Jesus expressed it as an intimate familial connection, so that he referred to God as Father, and then encouraged us to do the same and address God as “Our” Father.
The disciples expressed their sense of connection with the divine in Christological terms, and talked of being in Christ, through the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. Whatever words you use, they are, I would say describing that same sense of connectedness with the universe that is the common property of all creation, but a connectedness that human beings have largely lost.
Another common theme is that feeling connected with the divine leads in all cases to feeling a close connection with other people because God is common to all people and all things. So Love of God and love of neighbour are two sides of the same coin and one melds into another.
Holy Communion service  is an expression of our connectedness with all things, all people, and the divine. It is the antidote to the alienation and fear that stalks and blights so many of our lives. And because Christianity is at heart a sensual incarnational religion being touched by God is mirrored in human touch as I believe Neil was saying last week. Being held by God has flesh put on its bones when you are held by a person.
In this same ball park, It has also helped me enormously to think of Sin in a completely different way than it is commonly understood. The central premise of Christianity is that it offers atonement – which is union or a reconciliation or communion with God. Reconciliation is the antidote to separation not evil. Sin, for me, is the state of separation from God and existential loneliness I talked about a few moments ago.
Sure enough, bad things, “evil” things you might say naturally flow from this state because evil things have their root in fear and self interest but the primary problem is separation or at least a perceived sense of separation from the divine.
Jesus discovered that this perceived state is actually an illusion and that the kingdom of God is within us.
Jesus wanted to bring together what was separated, even if that separation is only a misconception and invites us to go beyond our minds to see that too.
 Knowing that we are actually intimately connected to the source of all things and all things that emanate from the source is the result of these wonderful ecstatic revelations that people like Jesus, Paul and others are experiencing and which then subsequently transform their entire lives.
A flat two dimensional understanding of your own life, alone and disconnected from everything else looking forward to oblivion when we die is transformed into a fullness of life, eternally connected with everything and everyone else.
It is a challenge to think that it could all be just so simple. That the secret to life in all its fullness is about a change in perception, When you attune yourself to the truth of the universe, it liberates your very being. You might want to call that salvation, you may want to call it enlightenment, or atonement. The point is, that it is within our grasp, our gift, to transform ourselves by going beneath our minds to perceive that truth and by adopting practices that reinforce that truth.
Not everyone is ready to receive that truth of course. Jesus recognised that some are so blind that they will never see, and he referred to them as being spiritually dead. “Let the dead bury their own dead” he once sarcastically said and he warned that talking to some people was like casting pearls before swine so don’t waste your time, just accept what you cannot change.  And here too in this story we have instructions just to shake the dust from your feet from people who are not ready to hear.
Don’t be so anxious. The truth remains true no matter how many people accept it or deny it. And what is true has to become true for you – true to your own experience, or remains just another fancy or clever idea alongside many other fancy ideas.
Once you take something like this seriously, and start to practice spiritual practices that work for you, that truth starts having the power of truth for you.  And there is the challenge – to not just change our minds but through adopting spiritual practices to allow our change of mind to permeate and transform our entire lives – our body, mind and spirit.

Monday, 18 June 2012

For thine is the Kingdom

To understand these two parables we need to transport ourselves back to first century Palestine and into the minds and experience of Jesus’ early followers.
It was pretty clear to all his followers that Jesus’ had some earth shattering and life changing to impart. Nothing less than a change of perception of what the world was really like, who God was and how we could best relate to God.
It was the kind of message that was presented as being universally valid to all people at all times – a change of consciousness so profound it would feel as if we had been born again to a new way.
Yet when they looked at themselves, a rag tag, unremarkable, powerless and small group of people,   a subject people in an occupied country, in a dusty outpost of the Roman empire I can imagine  their confidence draining out of them. If they didn’t ask the question directly, Jesus must have intuitively understood what was in their hearts.
Hence the parable of the mustard seed. Something so very small, a mere speck is sown, yet it has the potential to grow to become an enormous great plant. That speck is the Spirit of God, an idea sown into people’s hearts that has the potential to grow into something huge if sown and cultivated in the right way. And that doesn’t always happen of course and there is an even more famous parable about that as well  - the parable of the sower..
The second question leading on from that was, well OK we’re going to be huge but when? How long does it take to grow because nothing much seems to be happening.  Hence the parable of the seed growing secretly.
It can take a long long time to grow and it develops secretly and silently so we have no real way of knowing how it is doing in the meantime so don’t be so anxious about it.
But what is the nature of that seed, what does the seed consist of, what is that germ of an idea?
Well  Jesus didn’t go around saying he was the messiah – that wasn’t a part of his preaching, so if you were in a crowd 2000 years ago listening to Jesus what would you have heard?
Well his opening gambit and main premise was “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand”. And you will find that every other parable in the New Testament is a commentary on that Kingdom and its qualities.  To go beyond your mind and perceive the presence of God within yourself and act accordingly in relation to that presence of the Spirit is the root of the message of Jesus. That is what you would have heard. That is the mustard seed that Jesus wanted to plant in us.
We need to provide the space and time to cultivate that seed so that over time it grows into this magnificent tree.  Sitting in God’s presence, we eventually become a tree big enough to shelter and give support to others.
For the seed to grow in and through our lives it needs to be both sown and received.  So here is the seed being sown. “Go beyond your mind. The kingdom of God is within you”.
Open your mind and heart to this message and let the seed be sown within you.
Go beyond your mind. The kingdom of God is within you. As Jesus says elsewhere “Those who have ears to hear. Let them hear”.
Go beyond your mind. The kingdom of God is within you.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Maxwell's house

“For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18)
In May’s  edition of the parish magazine I wrote an article on impermanence entitled “Nothing lasts forever”. I think I have had more people positively comment to me about that article than any other article I’ve ever written.
Then when Ingleton parish also asked me to start writing for them as well, instead of producing something new I sent them that article. I have been thanked for it personally and last week Sue Edwards who prints the sheet phoned me and said that she had never had such a response to the vicar’s article.
It is such a simple truth yet that is the point. It is true! Everything and everyone will die. In a hundred and thirty years from now everyone now in this church will be gone – everyone – because everything material is finite – everything dies – and one day even the earth itself will die burnt to a crisp by our Sun which will itself be in the midst of its death throws. Humanity will be gone and everything we ever built and strived after will be extinct along with us.
No-one can contest this. It is just an undeniable truth. One of the first goals of the spiritual life is to align ourselves with truth.
You may now be all thoroughly depressed, but really there is no need to be frightened of the truth. Especially there is no need to be frightened of that truth if we also perceive that beyond or rather within the physical created universe there is a mysterious depth to the universe – another truth more difficult to name and pin down – a mystery that we can intuitively and intellectually relate to – a depth to life we have named God,  or you may want to call it the universe itself or the pure being that indwells all creation.
It is to that mysterious depth to life that we commune with when we will share bread and wine together later.  What that means when we do that is that we are all of  connected, connected with each other and with God.  We are held together in the palm of God’s hand. In this case we really are all in this together. We all live and we will all die – but we say that we are also all held and there is no need to fear death.
Likewise when we baptise Maxwell in a minute we are saying much the same thing. Maxwell has just been born, and he shares the same fate as all human beings but today we are saying and demonstrating that Maxwell need never fear because God is always with him. We use various signs to demonstrate this – I anoint with oil, I  ill pour water over his head, I will give a candle to his parents – but this is all basically saying the same thing. He is held in the palm of God’s hand, God loves Maxwell and looks kindly upon him. Now Maxwell may never return that love. For all I know Maxwell may grow up to be an atheist. But though I believe that would be a shame, it won’t alter the fact that God loves and holds Maxwell, now, and for the rest of his earthly life and beyond, no matter whether he believes in God or not.
God’s love is free, constant and not in the slightest bit dependent on whether you ever return that love or not. If that sounds too good to be true – well that is what we call GRACE.
That love, that being held, that Grace, is not just for Maxwell, or me, or any select bunch of people it is for all of us, no matter who you are. Everything we do in church today is an affirmation of God’s Grace, which extends as Buzz Lightyear would say – to infinity and beyond.
We all of us have a deep well of fear inside us which manifests itself in many and various ways in our lives but the root of this fear is the fear of death.  But there is no need to be afraid because as Paul writes in another place – perfect love casts out fear. And as we say, God is Love.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

If only I knew

For me I think that the biggest problem of having a day called Trinity Sunday is this;
It encourages us to try and define intellectually what is essentially the divine mystery in which we live and move and have our being and the danger is that God is then  reduced to being a conundrum to be solved or pinned down instead of a mystery to rest in and relate to.
The older I get, the more I read and learn, it is becoming more and more apparent to me just how little I know.  The more I read the less I know. Over the years I have been increasingly drawn to another way of doing theology, much more prevalent in Eastern Orthodoxy than here in the West called apophatic theology. In the west it is called, in Latin, the via negativa. This way is allied to Christian mysticism and it maintains that you can only ever actually say what God is not.
This way focuses on either a spontaneous or a cultivated individual experience of God  who lies beyond our ordinary perception and defies all labels and concepts including those that try to label God as three. This is nowadays my default position regarding God but in deference to the Church of England’s liturgical calendar I will try and address the idea of God as Trinity.
And although the doctrine of the Trinity in the church came about from a felt need to prove Jesus’ divinity it is a mistake to think that the eternal being of God is entirely dependent on that.  If God is three God would still be three even if you don’t believe that Jesus is an incarnation of God’s wisdom. And  I am quite happy to conceptualise God that as being defined as having three different constituent parts of course so long as we also remember that God is ONE and is the principle of universal unity.
Paradoxically the most important lesson I’d like everyone to take from Trinity Sunday is that God is ONE.  Interestingly though, other religions, also intuitively see a threefold nature in God. In Hebrew numerology the number for God is three not one, and although hotly disputed, the word Elohim, the first word used for God in the Bible as in “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” is a plural form of the singular El. Also the Hindus have a word describing the oneness of God as having three core aspects which I love called saccidananda – Being, Wisdom and creative joy.  It is that second one, wisdom, (or Logos in Greek) that Christians sensed that Jesus manifested on earth.
The account of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus we heard today, Jesus is clearly pointing to the deficiencies of a purely intellectual understanding of God and encouraging Nicodemus to find the mystical experiential way that lies beyond intellectual understanding
Becauset there is another kind of knowing other than just intellectual knowing. It’s an intuition, a deeper knowing beyond words that leads us to direct communion. I think that is just what Jesus was talking about to Nicodemus in the gospel.
Nicodemus wasn’t a religious novice. He was a man of some stature and learning, a very religious man who would have known the scriptures inside out – a Pharisee – a devout strict religious Jew.  Intellectual debate and Biblical interpretation would have been meat and drink to him.
Yet it didn’t satisfy him. Something was missing and he knew it, which is why under cover of darkness to avoid his friends seeing him he went to see Jesus. Jesus told him what he needed – exactly what he was looking for - a true experience of the Spirit of God, independent of all his vast religious knowledge he had. An experience that would prove to be such a revelation to him that it would alter his consciousness so much that it would feel as if he had been born again.
He needed to know God in a different way – a way that a lifetime of intellectual wrangling could never approach. It was the same experience that Jesus had when he was baptised in the river Jordan when his apprehension of God’s Spirit led him to his profound intuitive knowing that he was a child of God.  It was an experience of enlightenment that propelled him into his short earthly ministry.
I don’t want to deride an intellectual appreciation of God – I’ve spent a dozen years doing little else – but without that deeper knowing, head knowledge is not enough to sustain a personal faith in my lived experience. 
 “What, you are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know about these things?” Jesus asks Nicodemus.
As Paul put it in his letter to the Romans “It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our Spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”
We are one with Christ our friend and brother when we perceive and experience our direct relationship with God, the one in whom all things live and move and have our being.
In the final analysis, as Jesus himself is saying to Nicodemus, knowing about God is no substitute for knowing  God.