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.