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.