Monday, 28 October 2013

Biblical interpretation

As well as being the 22nd Sunday after Trinity this Sunday is also designated “Bible Sunday” in the church of England.
The Bible is a magisterial collection of books that are central to Jewish and Christian religion. In fact the Law (the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures) and the psalms are also reckoned to be part of the Muslim canon of Holy Scripture.
I have written and so have thousands of others about the Bible but what was the purpose of it?
I would say that the whole purpose of the Hebrew scriptures was to galvanise a community, to teach them how to live together in harmony, to live according to the will and purpose of God. In that respect the Christian New Testament carries on that raison d’ĂȘtre.
The community, the people of God, Israel, the people that struggled with God was all important to the Jews. Salvation itself was communitarian. Israel was saved together or not at all, a completely different approach to our highly individualised understanding of salvation (the “I am saved” approach, which is our modern individualistic approach of Western society being projected onto the Bible) and this community emphasis is carried on in the ministry of Jesus. In fact you could say that Jesus didn’t bring anything new to the faith but amplified various teachings already there in the Bible.
The two instructions that make up the Jesus Golden rule of Loving God and loving your neighbour were already there in the Bible in different places, but Jesus brought them together.
The Bible is a book that can attract or repel. In modern times it has repelled as many people as it has attracted, especially with its bloodthirstiness and supposedly God ordained violence and arcane laws.
For example one of the favourite stories that we tell to children is Noah’s ark - a homely tale of God ordained genocide against the entire human race when everyone in the world was deliberately drowned apart from one family – and we tell it complete with lovely pictures of smiling giraffes and hippos walking happily two by two into the ark. Once a child starts to reason, what are they to make of that?
Taken too literally, or without insight, The Bible is a powerful book which cut off from the community and the context in which it was written has the potential to be a very dangerous book. Many a lunatic from David Koresh at Waco to Jim Jones in the Jungle, to organised religions like the Jehovah’s witnesses and the Moonies to us and the Salvation army and everything else in-between; we all draw our inspiration from the same book.
So you see interpretation is absolutely key. Interpretation is everything. When he read the scroll from Isaiah in the synagogue Jesus was interpreting the Bible by applying it to himself. Because the Bible is so important and central to Christianity how we read and interpret it is the most important question for us all.
And central to that question is “Where is God in all these tens of thousands of words?” How can you discern the Word amongst all the tens of thousands of words?
Does God sit down and read the Bible story of the flood and reminisce and chuckle and think, “Yea, that was a good one – I did well there”
Or dare we think that the flood was not ordained by God as a punishment for sin in the first place despite that interpretation given by the original writers, but that a possibly actual event deep in the race memory banks – one already written about in an even older book “the epic of Gilgamesh” is being used and interpreted by the writers of Genesis to provide a symbolic story that says something about the human condition?
And what that something also open to interpretation.
Words are symbols that have a hinterland that can represent a world of ideas. The same word or phrase can be heard differently by a dozen different people because what they hear is filtered through their own world view and understanding.
The reason we have someone like me speaking about the readings on a Sunday morning is that the meaning of most texts are rarely plain and clear but require an interpretation.
In my interpretation what am I trying to uncover? Well, no matter what genre of writing I am looking at – a parable, History, poetry, a letter, the law, a prophesy or whatever it may be I am trying to discern that still small voice of God, gently speaking to us in the words, through the words and sometimes beneath and behind the words. I am trying in Biblical interpretation to discern the Holy Spirit of God speaking to us today. A living active presence. The breath of God beneath the surface of the stories.
It is that breath that raises dead inert words and gives them life and makes them useful to a community that is gathered around God and seeks to see his face and hear his voice. The Hebrew word for Spirit is the same as for wind or breath – ruach.
When scripture is read in this church the reader is speaking words that have the capacity to reveal God’s Spirit to people – a living presence that is not always clear, because God is not so easily pinned down and neatly packaged.
God is wild and free as the winds we are expecting this evening. Trying to nail Him down is like trying to catch the wind.  You’ll never do it but you can feel the power in the wind. You know the life giving properties of every breath you take, but if you try and trap your breath by holding it you’ll die. Neither can we trap God and cage him or prod him and examine him, but we can try and discern his presence through nature, through sacrament and through the words brought to us in the Bible Sunday by Sunday.


Monday, 21 October 2013

How does God answer prayer?

There are certain parables that describe the kind of people that are required for the Kingdom of God, and this is one of them.
We could miss the point of the parable altogether of course if we imaging that the point is that God is a lazy God that doesn’t immediately answer prayer but has to be bludgeoned into answering prayer by persistent nagging, because In another place (Matthew 6:7) Jesus says that God doesn’t hear because of our “much speaking” or babbling like the pagans do.
This particular parable is meant to stimulate, not so much perseverance in prayer, but faith that our prayers will be answered. Jesus sometimes teaches by contrariness. In this parable He is  saying  that if even this ineffective useless judge will eventually act because of the incessant badgering by the widow, then how much more will a just God who loves us want to answer our prayers.  
This raises the pertinent question – how does God answer prayer?
This is a delicate area that needs intelligent thought, because God can be seen as a cosmic slot machine where you put your requests in and they are automatically answered.  But if I pray for a warm sunny day tomorrow, that won’t happen
 If I pray for a Mercedes, that doesn’t mean I’ll get one. Just because an unemployed person prays for a job, doesn’t mean that God will find them one.  
Much more seriously When we pray for peace in Syria in our intercessions what happens to that prayer? How could it be answered?
Well, when we intercede for things like that, at the very least what we are doing is aligning our wills and aspirations to those of God. We presume that God is a God that wants peace in Syria and we pray for that, because that is what God would want. I do not presume to know what happens to those prayers beyond that because I just don’t know.
I don’t want to take a reductionist approach. Prayer may be much more than my experience allows, but I can only start with my experience and say what I absolutely know it to be true. If prayer is much more than I know it to be – fantastic – but I can only say what I have experienced and seen and have taken from that experience.  Prayer may be much more than this but it is at least this.
Prayer, for me, is fundamentally about consciously bringing your entire self, which includes your hopes and fears and wishes into communion with God. It is primarily about “being with” God rather than a chance to present a  list of requests, though that in itself may be a valuable exercise in aligning our wills to the divine will.
But consider this. Who or what in this world do you have the most influence over? Who can you most influence? It is yourself. Prayer, for me is about changing the world and starting in the only place you can start – starting with yourself. If the results of prayer are about looking for change things for the better – then be the change you are looking for in the world.
Because God works through us, not apart from us. God worked through Jesus, not apart from him.
For example if we pray for an end to a drought in Ethiopia. Is God going to answer that prayer by causing it to rain in Ethiopia, or might he more feasibly work through people to change the way that aid is delivered, or to educate and change a country’s mentality and ways of doing things, or by inspiring scientists to develop better more drought resistant forms of grain, or inspire better water storage and irrigation systems, to inspire nations to work together more effectively. These are all answers to prayer, and they all have their locus in a change that happens in the heart of individuals – changing the world one person at a time.
I have used this example many times before because it was so personal. But it was looking into the eyes of a young Romanian girl, severely physically and mentally disabled, and dying of AIDS that I had a Damascus road experience that told me that no amount of prayer was going to change anything for that girl or anyone else in that children’s hospice. But God was present and was answering prayer through the nurses that worked tirelessly with precious few resources to allrviate their suffering.  I asked the question then – where was God in that orphanage in Cernavoda, where was prayer being answered? Where God was, where Christ was, where prayer was being answered was in the very concrete human form – a lady called Lorna Jamiesson. She was Christ in that place, she was the answer to prayer.
When  change happens in a human heart based on a strong loving relationship to God that is an answer to prayer. Our faith rests on the assumption that things can be changed by Love and that starts right where we are. In giving it away, showing love to another we become Christ for others and only through changing ourselves can we begin to try to change others. As I say, because this is experience of how God works in the world isn’t to say that he doesn’t work in other ways. Your experience may tell you something different, but surely prayer is at least this, and doesn’t exclude other explanations – they are just beyond my experience.
In speaking o prayer I will end with a prayer that is very dear to me. I printed this prayer in my weekly email before I knew what I would be talking about today and I want to end with this well known prayer by Theresa of Avila morning. What is so profound is that it is a Christian prayer for God to change things in the world but the locus of that change is in ourselves. The way  that God  affects the world around us in answer to prayer  is for  God to change us and work  through us just as God worked through Jesus. 
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.


Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Life's incessant longing

All life is fired by longing. The simplest of plants and the highest of human love have this in common – yearning, restlessness, a certain inate insatiable pressure to eat, to grow, to breed, , to push beyond self, and people also experience this yearning as a pressure to build, to learn, to experience.
Longing, this insatiable life force that lies at the centre of all living things but is rarely examined.
What is this insatiable unconscious pressure within us to eat, drink, make love, to make our mark, to go beyond ourselves, our desire for immortality?
This pressure we see in plants. I’ve read about a man who after buying a house wanted to get rid of a bamboo plant. So he cut it down, chopped deep into its roots, and then poured a poison on top of them. He then filled the hole with gravel, and then paved the area with cement. Two years later, the cement heaved and cracked as that bamboo plant broke its way through that cement. The life principle was not so easily snuffed out by axes poison or cement. 
Now I’m trying to get rid of my ground elder in the vicarage garden, I know how the guy felt.
The life push is felt by all living things, us included. All of nature is driven to eat, grow, breed and fight for its space. We see it in the hormonal drives in babies and teenagers. In adults we see it in our restlessness, in our greed for experience, our hunger for sex, our insatiability, and even our escapes into day dreams, alcohol and drugs.
We are forever that bamboo plant, blindly pushing outwards, the baby crying for milk.
For anyone that believes in the divine, the source of that incessant longing is that the earth is ablaze with the fire of God. This basic life principle, is experienced as a burning longing, 
What is it all for? Well from a theistic viewpoint, all this longing and desire is not really blind at all. We may experience them as blind pressure, driving our lives to eat its way through food, sex, friendship and creativity, but they are the primal Spirit of God  groaning and praying through us.
We are infinite Spirits trapped in finite bodies. We are built for consummation with everything and find only partial satisfaction.
The comedian Russell Brand, in one of his most serious interviews with Jeremy Paxman, having stunned Paxman already by saying that he believes in God and prays, then said something quite profound. He said that all desire was actually a desire for God.
We are finite beings who want to embrace the infinite to find completeness, peace, shalom, complete happiness – all the things that elude us in life that can only be found in the wholeness, the unity of God. This unconscious desire is for communion with all things, and all things subsist in God.
Where do we look for this God with whom we wish to commune? Well, where does your longing, your desire, your restlessness, your insatiable life principle come from?
In comes from within you doesn’t it?
And I have already affirmed that in our tradition that life principle is the Spirit of God – so to find this God you look within, the know yourself and in knowing yourself you come to know God the source of all your longings and desires.
Jesus knew it. He said. “The kingdom of God is within you”.
It is perceiving that we all of us, and not just us human beings, but all life has this same force within it that we find out what we have in common.   WE find out that we all share the same source and the same longings, the life principle has the same source so that is our link to all other things.
We are finite and located in a time and place, but the Spirit within us all is infinite and not bound by time or space. Believing in God means we take both of those realities seriously.  
Jesus took that realities seriously and lived his life in a manner that flowed from that. One of the commonest and earliest ways of describing Jesus is as “Fully man and fully god”.
In western Christianity we tend to reserve that exclusively for Jesus. Here the Eastern Christian church retains a fuller interpretation – that this description of Jesus is actually a description of the human condition. For the Orthodox, the goal of the Christian life is to become what we already are at heart, to become like God.  To realise our own human reality.  That we too have two realities, we are the finite, clumsy, inarticulate person with feet of clay that I see in the mirror every morning, and we are also an infinite Spirit yearning for unity with all things.

Jesus knew it. And Jesus is our exemplar and guide as to how knowing this reality will work in your life, how we channel and manage our drives, our yearnings and desires for good, how we attune ourselves to the Sprit so that as a human being we can flourish and bear fruit. 

Monday, 7 October 2013

No pushing in now!

To modern people the mere mention of slaves without any moral indignation whatsoever sounds strange to our ears, but they were such an omnipresent feature of life in the ancient world and Jesus always drew his examples from life to make them relevant and recognizable to his audience so they are included without embarrassment.
This is not to condone slavery of course. As I’ve said before, a parable usually just has one main point and the rest of the story is there to provide colour – to make the lesson memorable.
So what is the main lesson here in this parable? Last week’s parable was about how to treat the poor. This week’s parable because it is addressed to the apostles, when translated to a modern context might best be seen as a lesson to church leaders.  
Just because you work for the church and have achieved a high position within it, don’t think for a second that this entitles you to any special treatment, or special favours or preferment at my table. In a sense it is an extension of last week’s parable that reveals God as showing no partiality – and working against the grain of the world’s values.
In the world we live in, the normal thing, the normal expectation, is that position and power buys influence and preferential treatment. That’s how it works in the world. But the Kingdom of God turns these normal rules upside down. Position and power in the church might buy you some deference and respect from others here on earth, but not from God.
In your service of the faith, you are doing no more than is required of anyone – to love God and love your neighbour as yourself. That is simply what is required. In fact the same commitment is required from all followers of the way of Jesus no matter where we see ourselves in relation to the church. The same demands, the same responsibilities extend to all people who call themselves Christians, whether they be the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope, me, you, or anyone else sitting in church on a Sunday morning. If we identify in any way with the aims of the way of Jesus then the responsibilities are common to us all.
We talk often don’t we about the balance between rights and responsibilities in our society, mostly that the balance has been tilted too far in one direction. Nowadays it is said that everyone knows their rights but are unaware of their responsibilities.
In the church that balance is tilted in exactly the opposite direction. We all have the same responsibilities, and none of us have any absolute rights.   Certainly no right to preferential treatment. God is the God of all or no-one.
Which brings me to the first part of today’s reading that sees the apostles asking Jesus to give them faith, or to increase their faith. I have always had a bit of a problem with the word “faith”. I’ve never really been able to grasp exactly what it means. It has long since stopped being for me a list of beliefs, doctrines and creeds that I am required to believe in before I can qualify to call myself  a Christian. For me, faith has become synonymous with the word Trust. Do we trust that God, however we understand that concept, truly loves us? Do we trust that he wants the best for us – to flourish in our life – this gift of life that we have been given? Do we trust that God wants the best for us, and that in the way revealed by Jesus this is the way to achieve fulfilment? Do we trust that the way of love is the best way the God given way to approach life?
Well, sometimes on this measure my faith is strong, but also, quite often my faith can be weak. My levels of faith fluctuate, and I’m sure yours does as well.
Thankfully as a human being Jesus knew full well that this is the case, and he makes the point that with even a tiny bit of trust you can do amazing things. And to ram home the point he gives a deliberately ludicrous example.

Our faith, our trust might well be wavering, it may currently be strong or perhaps currently lost because of a personal trauma, but even then if you dare to step out with what little faith you can muster, as a co-creator with God you can do amazing things.