Keep knocking

‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Luke 11: 9,10

These words were part of our gospel reading a couple of weeks ago and as I first read them I had the usual feeling of comfort, security and hope. But this was not a casual reading, so I asked myself the spiritual director’s question, “What do you really want deep down; what do you want to ask for?”  If asked what are you really searching for what would be your response?  What door are you knocking at?  Who is to open it?

At first glance these three questions can be taken as saying much the same thing but all ask subtly different questions. If we take the last one, for example, believing that God is a loving father who made us for relationship with Him, then the question arises, “Why is the door not open?  Is it me who is actually keeping the door closed against God?”  There are visual memories here of Holman Hunt’s painting, “The light of the world,” in which Jesus is shown as being on the outside of a door (supposedly of the human heart and soul) on which there is no handle (so he cannot force an entry) and knocking on the door to be let in.

The other two statements of invitations of Jesus feed into this last question of the door. Suppose what I ask for, is to have a heart full of love and gratitude for God and my neighbour?  Suppose I am seeking simply for God – although I know that I have found Him or He me, there is still so much hunger and desire for a closer relationship.  If these two desires are explored I come up against my own habitual response of selfishness and meanness of heart, my own lukewarm commitment to my discipleship, my own lack of care for others.  So I realise that it my door that remains closed to God and the qualities of compassion, gratitude and the desire for justice that at one level I so dearly want.

C.S. Lewis was once asked why he prayed because he could change God’s mind. His response was that he didn’t pray to change God but to change himself.

So the invitation is to keep on knocking, like the woman claiming justice from the unjust judge or the friend at midnight asking for the loan of bread from his neighbour; but to realise I am the unjust judge and the woman who wants justice.  I am the friend who wakes his neighbour because he needs bread and the neighbour who wants to ignore him.  When I realise this I know that what Jesus is inviting me to do is to go on knocking against my own hardness of heart.  I ask, seek, knock – in other words I pray, not to change God’s mind but to change mine; to be more in line with what God wants for me.  God is already there for me one hundred percent.  He doesn’t have to change.

Christ-like hospitality

Two of the readings today (the eighth Sunday after Trinity) are about hospitality. The Old Testament reading is the story of Abraham welcoming the three strangers who come to him when he is encamped at the oaks of Mamre, and who tell him that Sarah, his wife, will bear a son.  The New Testament lesson is the famous one of Jesus being welcomed into the home of Mary and Martha and then Martha getting very cross because she is doing all the work whilst her younger sister sits at Jesus’ feet.

Hospitality was very important in the world of the Middle East, not just for Jews and later, in the Christian tradition, but for all cultures. It might have had something to do with the distances people had to travel or, if you were someone like a Bedouin, how seldom you actually saw people other than your family.

In the story of Abraham and the three visitors, the feeling we receive from Abraham is almost one of entreaty. As soon as Abraham sees the men he runs to them (it was not dignified for an old man to run – and Abraham is old at this stage.)  Abraham bows to the ground, which I presume means he gets on his knees and bends his forehead to touch the earth in front of them.  He offers food and water modestly and humbly but the actual meal, which is produced with as much speed and care as possible, is as good and as generous a feast as could be created in the circumstances.  And then Abraham stands by waiting on his guests whilst they eat.  In all this Abraham is only doing what would have been expected in the culture of the time.

Fast forward to Mary and Martha and Martha’s frustration with Mary for not helping prepare the meal for Jesus. When the men came to Abraham it took Abraham, Sarah and a servant to produce the repast.  Martha is not then being unfair when she wants one other person, her own sister, to help her and complains to Jesus.  But very gently and compassionately (this is the meaning of Martha’s name being repeated twice by Jesus) Jesus tells Martha that “Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”  Jesus is not telling Martha off.  He is not trying to make her feel small.  He is trying to open her eyes to a new way of looking that is a break with her cultural norms.  In this case, Jesus is saying, in this one unique and particular case, Mary has chosen to do the right thing and that is to sit at the feet of Jesus, like a disciple, and lap up the food of everlasting life, the Word of God, the presence of the Christ.

This story reminds us that our actions need to flow from our interior relationship with God. It is extraordinarily important that we should practice hospitality but if we want to grow truly hospitable hearts they will need to be nourished beforehand by the hospitality God first showed us, in his gift of Jesus Christ.  We need to feed on and be refreshed by his presence deep in our hearts.  Then we will learn to look on all people, of all faiths and none, as precious, honoured and loved by God, and we will be able to welcome them in our hearts.

He turned aside to look

The gospel reading for today, 10th July, 2016, is perhaps the most famous of all Jesus’s parables, “The Good Samaritan.”  We have heard the story so many times that the surprise ending is no surprise to us anymore.  We know that the supposed enemy (The Samaritan) turns out to be the true neighbour: the real friend to the (presumably) Jewish man, left near death at the side of the dangerous road.  It is easy to sit back and say, I know this one so I don’t really have to listen.  But as always, Jesus’ parables has something more to say to us.

In the story we read that a passing priest and then a Levite seeing the beaten up man, scurry by on the other side of the road. But according to your translation, the Samaritan “turns aside” or “comes near” and he really sees the wounded man.  In some versions he “looks with compassion” on the man.  Whatever version of the Bible you use it is all boils down to the Samaritan’s willingness to see.  This seeing goes beyond viewing the situation.  It is a seeing with the heart and the mind and the will.  Just like the priest and the Levite, we imagine the Samaritan is afraid – afraid that the robbers may be close by, afraid of getting involved.  Unlike to other two the Samaritan “feels the fear but does it anyway.”  By looking deeply at the dire predicament of the other, the Samaritan’s heart is moved beyond his own fears and anxieties to the needs of the other.

What pre-empts the story of the Samaritan, is a question from a lawyer asking what he must do to win eternal life. Jesus’ initial response is to quote the two great commandments – to love God with all your heart, mind and strength and to love your neighbour as yourself.  “Who is my neighbour?” the lawyer responds trying to be clever.  And thus we get the fuller illumination of what it means to be a disciple and to be in relationship with Jesus (which is to gain eternal life).  The disciple must be prepared to look and to see.  Unlike the quick glance at what is unpleasant and the hasty turning away in self-protection, we must look with the eyes of the heart and mind.  Out of the seeing will come response.

Remember the Somme, Pray for Turkey, Pray for us all

Today (July 1st, 2016) is the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme.  As I write this various services and acts of remembrance are going on in many different places and attended by people from many different cultures.  At Morning Prayer today we remembered those who died at the Somme and those who have died or been wounded by the latest bombings by so called “Islamic State” in Istanbul.  We have also remembered in our prayers this week the present state of our nation after the Brexit vote.  This has shown up the deep divisions in our society: the deep fear and anxiety about “the foreigner” – an anxiety that is as old as the hills.  At its worse it has given rise to a sharp increase in crimes of hate.  We don’t know for sure but it appears we have been lied to in the EU referendum campaign about certain things by those who were voted in to be our representatives.  Who do we trust?  Where do we turn to when we are cynically manipulated by our leaders and certain parts of our media?

We have to keep turning to Christ who shows us the way. We are reminded that the hated Samaritan turns out to be our neighbour, that in Christ there is no slave or freeman, no male or female, no black or white, no Jew or Gentile – perhaps no Christian or Muslim?  And as we look at the pictures of the Somme, perhaps we should also grieve more seriously for the people of Turkey who have been bombed more times in the last three years than either Brussels or Paris by the same enemy as bombed them.  Perhaps we need to think more clearly and truthfully.  We may not be guilty of hate crimes but we may be lazy in our thinking and mean in our compassion.  This is why I reproduce here a piece by an Irish American professor that came out this week after the bombing on Istanbul,

Once again, they strike. Against a Muslim country. And not just a Muslim country, but the most popular and beloved country by Muslims. And they strike in our holiest month, Ramadan. And not just the holiest month, but its last 10 holiest days.

What more proof does anyone need that ISIS/terrorism hate Muslims and Islam.

And YET we are consistently asked does ISIS/terrorism represent Islam and are asked to apologize for it, even as Muslims are consistently its biggest victims.

This is political, not religious. Political violence, not religious violence. That is, it is violence to serve narrow political interests, not violence ordered by religion – as the official story line is supposed to go. In fact, it hates Islam and Muslims, even as it cloaks itself in that name with the intent to fool only jumpy clueless observers in the West – because they know Muslims know better. And chumps like Trump who hate us too will soon be aiding and abetting their narrative against ours, because he is on their hate wavelength – not ours.

Dr Craig Constantine


Pray and keep calm

After the banking crisis the popular slogan became “Keep calm and carry on.” After what has happened in the last week or two (if you include the dreadful news of the massacre in Florida and the murder of Jo Cox, as well as the result of the EU Referendum) I found myself on Friday morning in the garden at 5.30am saying, “Keep calm and pray.”  But actually, of course, that is the wrong way round.  It should be, “Pray and keep calm.”  That is what I have been trying to do.

However, it has not been as simple as that. My head has tried to be reasonable.  I have looked at this incident within my limited knowledge and understanding of world history.  I have seen how like a pack of cards, one wrong decision, very often made at the time with the best of motives, has led to another and so on, to the state we are in now.  Most importantly, I have turned to the words of Jesus about not worrying.  I even wrote a long email to one of my sons on Friday, quoting scripture at him, which upon consideration was possibly not the most helpful thing to do.  But I was trying to reach out to comfort him – because I needed comforting.

I have used all of these methods to be reasonable and sensible – and I have had indigestion for two days. My head hasn’t the power to over-rule my emotions.  Using my faith to paper over the cracks of pain doesn’t work.  God wants me to face the truth of what I am feeling, what my “gut” is telling me; and my gut is telling me that I am bereaved.  I did not expect this reaction.

I do not feel anxious about money or “the future” for some reason. Probably because what will be will be and somehow we will survive.  What I feel is deeply sad, as if I have lost dear friends.  I am bereaved.  I realise now that when I went abroad in Europe I shared something with others – we were connected – we were family, even if distant cousins.  That will no longer be the case.  Now I will be a stranger when I go to France or Italy.  But worse, much worse than this, is that Scotland, the ancestral home of all my relations on my maternal grandmother’s side going back generations and many on my father’s side, too, may be lost to us.  It is faintly possible that even Ireland will become a place in which I need a passport.

So I come to this morning and owning this pain and, as I have been taught, I ask myself, “where is the gift in this experience?” What is God trying to give me?  First, I really need to see clearly how disenfranchised and powerless my brothers and sisters in this country have been feeling and how clearly these areas have been delineated: north as opposed to south (in England), town as opposed to rural, haves (those who feel they have some power) as opposed to have nots (those who feel not listened to, voiceless or marginalised).  Secondly, my feelings tell me that I am in relationship with those beyond our borders.  I see how much I have valued this even as it is taken away.  Lastly, and most importantly, this is as much about how we learn to be “we” and not “them and us.”  “We”, when we see that we are brother and sister to the streams of refugees who look to Europe; “we”, when we look at our shared financial problems; “we”, when it comes to care of our environment; “we”, when we celebrate the shared history of these islands we call home.  In Christ we never find our identity by being over and against other people – that is the false way.  We find our identity in our commonality with others.  But this means listening to their pain, there sense of being disenfranchised, and trying to do what we can to change things.

Natural prayer

Yesterday I led a day on prayer for thirty-five women. Today I am presiding at a baptism for a 10 month old little girl who goes by the delightful name of Tygr (pronounced tiger.)  I found myself thinking about Tygr when talking to the women about prayer and about Jesus’ saying that only those who receive the kingdom of God like a child can enter it.

At ten months Tygr is a delight: full of curiosity and energy. She was fascinated by the big iron pokers that we have by one of the fire places at Launde Abbey and by the fir cones in the unlit fire.  Her attention was grabbed by the coloured glass paperweights but even more attractive were the boxes of jigsaw puzzles, which had to be rescued.  Every now and then Tygr would go a little too far for her abilities and there would be a bump and the beginnings of a cry, but she was easily distracted and back into her world of endless curiosities and delight.

Some time ago I learnt two things about prayer from two different sources. The first thing I learnt is that prayer is the most natural thing in the world.  The second is that all prayer is praise.  Put these two things together and you have a child’s response to the world as a place of utter delight and interest.

We make prayer such a work. We screw ourselves up and shut ourselves down and forget that what prayer is in its simplest form is response to the love of the God who made us and saved us.  Children pray but we just don’t see it as prayer.  We don’t call it prayer.

I have written before of my father’s experience as a five year old of lying out beneath the sky in a field of bracken and feeling such love coming to him and such love flowing out of him that he remembered it all his life. Many of us have such memories – but we don’t tend to call them prayer.  We have all watched small children dancing with sheer delight and joy, revelling in the natural world around them, living utterly in the moment.  They don’t have to be speaking words of praise.  They are praise.  They are delight.  They are gladness.  They don’t have to comprehend who God is as a separate entity to themselves and pay lip service.  They are in God.  Nothing divides them. They are life.

What is more, of course, they trust. When Tygr sat down suddenly on her well-padded behind and was slightly shocked, she squealed and instantly her Mum was there and a second later Tygr had forgotten all about it.  Tygr could take on the world because her Mum was there.  As far as Tygr is concerned her Mum will always be there.  Mum won’t be but God will be.  That is the trust we need to practice.

Prayer is natural as a response to the gift of life and praise naturally follows. Children know this instinctively.  Adults forget.  Much of our maturing as Christians and as people is about learning to unlearn all that is false and unhelpful in our prayer life and about returning to that place where we can delight in all that has and is being given to us and simply say thank you.

“All Real Living is Meeting” Martin Buber

The Jewish philosopher and theologian, author of the celebrated book,  “I and Thou,” said “All real living is meeting.” At those moments when we feel fully alive, awake to and aware of the present moment, there is always a sense of meeting.  But what or who are we meeting and is there any way in which we can make these meetings happen?

Buber went on to say that these meetings take place with nature, with humans and animals, when we are being creative or receiving (truly meeting) someone else’s creation and of course, with God. But the main thing to take on board is that such meetings can only happen in the present moment. Just as we are only truly alive when we live in the present moment (not in memories of the past or dreams of the future) so the real meeting of one with another can only happen in the present.

This is why that sense of real meeting is so ephemeral. The most vivid experience once over can only be recalled in memory.  We know we have been there; we have a lingering taste of the experience; we may have been changed for ever by the meeting that took place, but we can no longer enter acutely and at will into that same emotional space.  It is past.

What does Buber mean by “meeting?” He is describing sacred space, a place where I am available to the Other.  I can only be available when I am aware of the sacredness of the Other; when my own self-centred agenda is held in check and I consciously open myself to receive.  If I walk out of my front door in the morning with a head full of stuff, my “to do” list, my desire to impress my will onto the world, I will not be available to receive God’s world, which is offering itself to me all around me.  If I am with another person and I do not make a real effort to give them space and time, to still my mouth and to listen, I simply will not see them.  Without realising it I will stereotype and judge them according to my will, experience and knowledge.

Even as I sit down to silent prayer I can be led astray if what I do within that prayer shuts out a sense of the Other. In prayer, in worship, in reading scripture there needs to be a concerted effort to be aware of the Other, whether you understand that Other as within or without yourself.

All real living is meeting which means all real living is relationship. This is what we find in Jesus’ description of his closeness to and dependence on the Father.  This is what we understand in the doctrine of the Trinity.  And this is what teaches us that we need to try to practice the sacredness of the present moment, to hold back on our own agendas so that we may meet whatever the day gives.

Inside Story

We have just had two retreats back to back at Launde; one all through Holy Week and up to Easter Day and the other looking at the Resurrection stories in Easter Week. What really came alive for me was how vividly all the stories speak to us.  The gospels are not histories.  They are not simply the stories of the insiders who were there – the disciples and other witnesses.  We are inside the story and the story is inside us.  Yet again I am aware that the Bible is the story of Everyman (and Everywoman).

In reading the Holy Week stories you become aware that one of the main themes running through is failure – the failure of the disciples to understand what Jesus is about, to be courageous and to be faithful friends. Well that is probably most of us down to a tee.  In the Easter stories what comes through is the great mix of emotions – grief, fear, confusion, joy (when they see the Lord) and plain muddle.  The most common emotion, though, is doubt.  Not only can they not believe their eyes (and remember Jesus’ appearance has changed) they doubt themselves and him.  This is hardly surprising.  Everything they have ever known has been turned upside down.  It is almost as if they have to start from scratch as newborns.  They have to renegotiate all they thought they knew about Jesus, looking back at Jesus now through the cross and resurrection.  They have to understand the faith they inherited and the culture so closely aligned to that faith in a very different way.  It is a huge, earth shaking change when they actually begin to “get” that God is in Jesus on the cross! And even more of a challenge to see a dead man walking, eating, being alongside them and forgiving them all their failure and doubt.

But this story is for us, as John in his gospel points out several times. At the end of the story about Thomas in chapter 21 he writes that he has gathered these stories together so that we may believe.  John is talking to us down the centuries.

When we really give ourselves time to ponder the stories of Holy Week and Easter, it comes home to us that the stories are for us and about us. What is more it is possible to feel that same sense of the world turning over that the first disciples felt.  In the words of G K Chesterton, “The whole world turned over and came up right.”

Passionate Authors

One of the things we all seem to do as Christians is to collate the stories of Christmas, Holy Week and Easter. We have four gospels, each reflecting a very different character.  But when it comes to the big festivals we tend to merge all the stories into one – unless, that is, we are very specifically following one gospel writer.  So, for example, one of the most popular services of Good Friday is built around the Seven Words from the Cross: an amalgam of the seven different sentences Jesus is supposed to have said on the cross, from all four gospels.  In reality, Luke has three of the sentences, John has three quite different ones, and Matthew and Mark have their own sentence – which they share.

For the last few weeks I have been preparing to co-lead our Holy Week retreat at Launde Abbey. We decided to walk with Jesus through his last week and because Mark is the gospel writer who really delineates this week, day by day, even telling us the time of the day sometimes, we decided to go with Mark’s gospel.  But because this is the year of Luke the Reading of the Palms and the Passion reading in the Eucharist today were Luke’s story.

What struck me more than anything was how vividly Luke Passion narrative came alive because I have been steeping myself in Mark.  We do ourselves a dis-service when we tangle up the gospels in our services. Weight is lost.  Drive is lost; because the effect of running the stories together dilutes the passion (small p) of the gospel writers who all knew what they wanted to draw out from Jesus’ time on earth.  They were all writing for different audiences – but still audiences with whom we find we have much in common today, because some things never change – and they wrote of the Jesus who had changed their lives from their perspective, and my goodness, how Jesus empowered them and how their love for him comes out in their stories when we get to know them and their unique point of view.

So Mark is all about Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God as opposed to the corrupt powers of state and religion that dominated and subjugated the people of his time. Jesus is human, passionate and confrontational of the corrupt authorities.  His call to his disciples is to participate in his work, to walk in his way, to bring in the kingdom.  His cry from the cross is one of utter human desolation and failure.  Luke’s Jesus is tender, vulnerable, the servant king who calls his disciples into the same sense of service and humility. Luke’s Jesus speaks words of forgiveness (twice) from the cross and at the end lets go of his life in utter trust to his Father.  John and Matthew’s Jesus is different again.

Different as they are, these four gospel do not detract from each other. It is much more as if four people were talking about someone very important to them and a situation they all knew this person to have been in and we hear the same story different variations.  It is as if one story throws light on another which rather than detracting brings more depth to the whole.  We do not have to be afraid that different sentences appear in different gospels.  Together they make up so much more than a whole.


Mothering Sunday

In twenty-five years of ministry it never struck me until now, how (at first sight) odd the readings are for Mothering Sunday. I say “at first sight” because they are not really odd at all once you remember that this is also the fourth Sunday in Lent and that we are moving ever closer to the Cross.

What I think threw me was a kind of clash of cultures. I remembered years of Mothering Sundays in a parish church; “All Age” services that were often full of children and families who didn’t come very often; services that usually ended with gleeful children receiving little bunches of flowers from the vicar which were then passed on to their mums.  This was supposed to be a happy, attractive occasion.  What many of us clergy were trying to do was to give our rare visitors the kind of jolly experience that would make them come back again.

In this year of Luke there is a choice of two gospel readings for Mothering Sunday. The first, from Luke 2, is the couple of verses when Simeon says to Mary in the Temple in Jerusalem, “And a sword will pierce your heart, too.” Or from John 19 when we find Mary standing at the foot of the cross and Jesus gives her to the Beloved Disciple as his new mother.  Neither of these are cheerful, “hip, hip hooray” for the joys of motherhood type readings.  And the thing is I don’t ever remember preaching on the texts in my twenty-two years of parish ministry.  It is a great pity if I didn’t.

“Standing at the foot of the cross was Mary.” You could stop there and leave it to the imagination to paint the vivid picture of what she must be going through.  You could not do so without a box of tissues nearby.  All the disciples (bar John) have run away.  Only Mary, John and two other women have the courage to be there.

Someone once said that motherhood was 50% love and 50% guilt. Anyone who has been a mother knows this.  Perhaps as an adult child we also know guilt for the way we did not always respect, love and understand what our parents were going through.  Mothers and fathers look back on the way they let their children down and adult children look at the way they let their parents down.

What was going through Mary’s mind as she looked at her son? She had shown such faithfulness at the beginning but later there had been moments of friction (for example, at the Marriage at Cana, in Galilee), moments of real misunderstanding when she had listened to the negative things being said about her son to the extent that she came with his brothers to take him away because everyone was saying he was mad.  As she looked at Jesus now being executed as a criminal, was she confused?  Was a part of her saying, “Are these leaders of our religion right?  Is my son a blasphemer?

In a way, however disturbed Mary might have been, not only because of the horror in front of her but because of confusion in her own mind, does not matter. What matters is her faithfulness to the son she loved.  That she was there for him.

And Jesus is, of course, is faithful to her. In the rather formal words he says, “Women behold your Son.  Son behold your mother,” Jesus hands over legal responsibility for his mother.  He makes sure, in a country where women were utterly materially dependent on men that his mother will be looked after.  But, despite the fact that Jesus had younger brothers, he also hands her over to John:  someone who knows who Jesus is, who does understand what Jesus’ ministry was all about.

This a moment of profound reconciliation, where faithful love and care overcome all other considerations – all past hurts and misunderstanding. It is also a moment of hope for the future.  With John as her guardian Mary will from hereon in be at the heart of the little group of disciples who will change the world.  Jesus’ brother, James will become a leader of the Church.

Mary is like us with our own children: wanting the best for them, fearing for them; sometimes making the mistake of trying to take control for their own good! Church should be about telling it as it is; not always playing Happy Families to get the punters in.  This story of love and guilt is in the end about a mother’s profound love and faithfulness to her son and God’s overarching faithfulness to world.  Jesus does not only look after his mother’s legal and material future, but after that which has always given her hope and meaning, her faith in God.  In the midst of darkness the promise of tomorrow is beginning to take root.