The gift from those who have been there

Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength;    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.

(Habakkuk 3: 17 – 19)

On Saturday we read these extraordinarily pertinent words as part of our daily morning prayer. Habakkuk is prophesying about a nation and country that will be destroyed by war and by the betrayal of their calling. He foresees the rise of Babylon, its invasion of Judah and the devastation and the subjugation this will bring. All seems hopeless and lost. Reading through the book day by day over the last week has seemed very familiar, like hearing about what is happening in the Middle East now. And alongside the reading, as we have interceded for the world, I have felt that same kind of dismay and powerlessness that I think most of us feel when we listen to what is happening in Iraq and Syria, let alone all the other theatres of war in our world.

But then Habakkuk surprises and jilts us into a different point of view in the very last verses of the last chapter. Suddenly we are looking out from a wider horizon. Almost seemingly as an effort at self-determination, Habakkuk states, that despite the signs he “will rejoice in the Lord; (he) will exult in the God of my salvation.” He reminds himself that God is his strength. With a determination to persevere in faith he states that he will not give up on hope for the future because ultimately God will be there to help him.

Habakkuk might have prophesised around 607 BC but his word is a gift and a challenge in our time. Encountering events as horrific and fearful as we see through our media, feeling the same kind of powerlessness we might feel, perhaps being tempted to give up on God or at least believe that God doesn’t care / isn’t interested, Habakkuk determines otherwise. His action reminds me of a message scrawled by a Jewish author who hid from the Nazis in a dark and damp cellar in Cologne, Germany, which was discovered not long after the end of World War II.

“I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining. I believe in love even when not feeling it.

I believe in God even when He is silent.”

The biggest victory of evil is to destroy hope. The most effective response we can make is to determine to persevere in faith and hope, following Jesus, practicing the things of the kingdom: peace, mercy and justice and knowing that our strength lies ultimately not in ourselves but in God.

Paying Attention

Attention is the rarest and purist form of generosity. Simone Weil

Jesus said to Martha, “Marta, Martha, you are anxious about many things. Only one thing is necessary.” Martha, the sister of Mary, had been banging about noisily and huffily, and eventually complained to Jesus that her sister was not helping her. Instead of taking Martha’s side Jesus condoned Mary’s behaviour, saying she had “chosen the better part.” She was attending to one thing and one thing only, Jesus himself.

Many people feel secretly pretty sympathetic to Martha, who was, no doubt, trying to get a meal ready for Jesus and to be a good hostess. But Mary was practicing another kind of hospitality: that of paying their guest full attention. We might secretly think she was still doing the easy thing. Which one of us would not want to sit down and give Jesus our full attention! But that is to assume that Jesus was doing the pastoring. As a dear friend of Jesus, Mary could have been the one looking after him: gently listening to him, his needs; caring for him in his tiredness.

We use the term “paying attention” and rightly, because it costs us something to give attention, whether it is to the person in conversation with us, the road we are walking down, the people sitting alongside us on a train, the News, or our times of prayer. Real attention demands first that we try to wake up to the present moment and secondly that we keep watch over our ego’s desire to jump in, to take over; to make everything about me. Real attention is about creating a sense of space and spaciousness, a hospitable place, in which any transaction between myself and the other can take place – has, if you like, room to breathe.

This is never more so than when we are practicing attentiveness (mindfulness / contemplation etc) in prayer. At times, everything in us is fidgety and impatient. We long to get up and go off and do something “meaningful.” What is the point of sitting here and waiting on God? It seems such a waste of time. But it is at this point of resistance that, if we stick with it, we begin to comprehend Simone Weil statement above. We are doing our best to attend to God without most of the time feeling any response from him. In R S Thomas’ words, we are more likely most of the time, to experience God as a “great absence.” It takes generosity on our side to go on practicing attention when there seem to be no visible results. We think we attend for God’s sake. It is only when we continue in the practice that we realise that there are results and that actually we are receiving much more than we are giving.

Giving attention is pure because it is single minded, rather than pure in a cleanliness way of meaning. It is rare because it demands such an effort and we live in a world that constantly distracts us and pulls us into the “many things.” It is generous because it is about giving all of ourselves to the other without necessarily any reward, “save that of knowing that we do your will.” But as in everything our generous God gives us, whether we are attending to people, a tree in blossom or God himself, in the giving of attention we always receive far more back.

We are all ‘unbalanced’

I love the story of Elijah when he is so fed up, exhausted and miserable that he says to God that he just wants to lie down and die (1 Kings 19). He has reason to feel thus. He has just done prolonged battle with the priests of Baal and been on a physical, emotional and spiritual high. He is bound to have a very human reaction of feeling overwhelmed by exhaustion and depression, and he does. This is what happens when we become for a brief time, unbalanced in the way we live.

One of the big complaints people have is that there is a lack of balance in their lives. We talk all the time of life/work balance. Many of us know we do not take enough exercise, eat the right food and waste our leisure time doing non-life enhancing things. We long for balance in our lives, the sort of equilibrium that we imagine should be / could be normal if only we got some kind of rhythm and discipline into our days. Perhaps this is why there is a growing interest in new monasticism. We imagine that the timetabled life of the religious is better balanced. But St Benedict, the founder of classic monasticism found he had to get up in the middle of the night if he wanted to have any personal prayer time. He was just too busy dealing with all the problems of his community to find time during the day.

I think that the balanced life is a myth. It certainly isn’t something Jesus preached. He didn’t say the kingdom of God is mercy, justice, peace and balance. Jesus’ own life was a constant balancing act of trying to find time to be alone with his Father, from whom he was resourced, amidst the demands of a very busy schedule. His days I am sure were planned but Jesus always had to be prepared for the unexpected. If Jesus seems to have been able to stay internally in balance whatever came towards him, it will be because he took time out and centred himself by his relationship with his Father. He tried to teach his disciples to do the same.

Our lives have times of intense, sometimes overwhelming activity, which may lead to stress and tiredness. Life does throw ‘wobbles’ at us, some of which are very serious and take a long time to come to terms with. All this is normal and we are not supposed to be able to cope endlessly. We have to stop and recognise we need rest.

But out of such times also come all sorts of insights and growth. We are told that a certain amount of stress in our lives is essential for creativity and emotional health. Indeed, you could not walk if you did not throw yourself out of balance momentarily with every step you took. The kingdom of God is justice, mercy and peace. We might find more peace if we stopped putting impossible demands on ourselves by seeking for a balanced life but simply accepted that moving in and out of balance is how life is. Like Jesus, we need to find what will give us stability when life inevitably throws something at us. Like Jesus, we will probably find the only answer to that is a closer walk with God, especially when it all gets too much.

You are what you eat

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said, “My son, the battle is between two “wolves” inside us all.

One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”       (A Native American Metaphor)

 

During the week we were reading in daily prayer from the letter of James, all about the destructive power of the tongue,

“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.” (James 3:5b & 6)

We all know the temptation of the “wolf” tongue, which takes our evil and spreads it, magnifies it and reinforces it. We feed the bad wolf every time we dwell on the negativity in our head and heart but even more so when we allow it onto our tongue

Today our Sunday gospel reading has been from John’s gospel (John 6: 24-35) where Jesus describes himself as the “Bread of Life”.

It is all about the ways in which we “feed” ourselves, our bodies, our hearts, our minds, our thoughts and feelings. We can feed on the bread which gives us and all the world life or we can feed on malice.

God feeds us all the time, if only we spend time with him and listen. On Monday, I was told the story of the two wolves, all week we listened to James’ letter set as the daily reading. Today we are reminded to feed on Jesus, the Bread of Life. God has certainly been trying to get a message across to me all week. What has he been saying to you?

Pearls, Parables and Prayer

There is a Moment in each Day that Satan cannot find

Nor can his Watch Fiends find it, but the Industrious

find This Moment & it multiply, & when it once is found

It Renovates every Moment of the Day if rightly placed

Milton 35:42-45 by William Blake

Lately, one or two parables have been sparking afresh for me, particularly the one about the pearl merchant who finds a pearl of great price and sells all his other pearls to buy it. Although I have known this story all my life I had filed it as meaning pretty well the same thing as the parable about the treasure buried in the field. I thought I had understood it. End of story. One of the things that can too easily happen when we become over-familiar with parts of the bible is that we think we have learnt the lesson. We cease to listen, to apply what we are hearing to ourselves. We go to sleep. But parables have huge power to speak to us where we are at any time. Ones that we have known all our lives suddenly spark new understanding in us. We find ourselves in the story again but in a new place and with a new revelation.

As I say, I had been thinking a lot about The Pearl of Great Price and the fact that the merchant already possessed many beautiful “pearls” – perhaps profound and lovely things that most of us would consider ultimately satisfying – and then along comes this one pearl, so outclassing all others that the merchant knows he must give all the rest for that one. But what does it cost the merchant to let go of all these other beautiful things? They have not ceased to be beautiful, to hold memories, to be precious. But he cannot buy (afford?) this new, stunning pearl unless he sells all the rest. Does he struggle to sell / let go of the other pearls in his life? What does it cost him?

I had been mulling these ideas over in my head for many days, a bit like a cow chews the cud, when I came on the wonderful lines of poetry at the top of this page, which were new to me. Here was a pearl of great price, not the pearl, but a pearl that gave me access to perhaps sometimes, very briefly, recognising that there is “a pearl of great price.” This ’minor’ pearl is contemplative prayer, which “when once….found, It renovates every Moment of the Day if rightly placed.” Contemplative prayer practiced over time has this extraordinary power to transform our responses to the world. This was what I understood, rightly or wrongly, to be Blake’s “Moment.”

The pearl merchant practiced his trade, collected precious objects and got more and more experienced in recognising what was truly exquisite until one day he came across that which was priceless. Perhaps those of us who are seeking the Pearl of Great Price and have not yet realised fully for ourselves what it looks like, are invited to keep working diligently with the pearls we have received, like that pearl called prayer, so that we will recognise the Pearl when we see it.

Only a man

Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; (John 19:11)

Reading the gospel today during the Eucharist (Mark 6: 14-29), I was struck by how modern and familiar it all sounded.  It is a grim story: the tale of Herod Antipas’ stepdaughter dancing before her stepfather at a great feast; his rash promise to her that as a reward she may ask for anything she wants, “up to half (his) kingdom,” and after receiving advice from her mother, the girl asking for John the Baptist’s head on a platter – now.  It is modern and familiar because we all know stories of contemporary tyrants – Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Pinochet, Idi Amin – and tyrannies, where people with too much power, full of pride and rage, unrestrained and uncontrolled but most of all deeply afraid, murder those who speak out against them or any hapless man or woman who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Such people are also often very weak, oscillating between decisions.  You notice in Mark’s account that Herod’s stepdaughter asks for the head of John the Baptist now.  We know that Herod was fascinated by John’s preaching and might not have carried out the execution after his guests had gone home.

Power and prestige as we know can be very dangerous things.  It is easy, as someone has said, to begin “to believe your publicity.”  What a contrast it was, therefore, to be present yesterday at the Service of Thanksgiving for our outgoing Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens and to see how, as part of that service, he took off and put down the symbols of his office.  It was very moving and quite painful to watch him take off his mitre and cope and lay them on the altar.  He was now simply the priest and those surrounding him, the dean and canons of the cathedral, dressed in bright robes that denote a certain power and authority, seemed for a second more dominant; Bishop Tim, diminished – but of course, that was the point.  He is only a man, as is every human being despite any marks of office.  But then Tim knelt in front of the altar to pray and he was suddenly “everyman”, one of us, in need of God’s wisdom and mercy; not a lonely figure because one with us – made one through Christ Jesus, who also stripped himself of all power and authority when he came to us.

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. (Philippians 2: 5b – 7)
How glorious it is ‘only’ to be a man or a woman, made in the image of God, his adopted child.  What a relief at the end of the day to be simply yourself.

Because you’re worth it.

I noticed the other day that the company who used the catchphrase, “Because you’re worth it” at the end of their advertisements, seem to have dropped the tag.  It was a successful catchphrase in commercial terms because the public not only remembered the phrase but also recalled the product – so why has it been dropped?  People seemed to find it distasteful.  It seemed to speak of the worst of our present culture: selfishness, self-absorption and greed.  The advertisement seemed to imply that the person who bought their product was somehow worth more than other people.  Stand-up comedians started sending it up.  Journalists used the terms as a short-hand to describe an egotistical and spoilt UK.  The catchphrase became a bad joke.

The thing is it is not so far from the truth of how we do see ourselves.  Time and time again you hear people on television saying the equivalent of ‘because I’m worth it’, in comments like, “I’ve worked hard all my life so I deserve this (as they buy a second home or an expensive car).”  A right is claimed that many people in the world cannot claim because, although they have worked hard all their lives, too, often much harder than any of us ever will just to keep body and soul together, the situation they have been born to in their lives will mean they will never receive any of the material good things that we claim as our due.  By all means buy a second home or expensive car but don’t try and don’t claim a moral right about it.  Be honest, say I have been fortunate or even blessed; not “because I’m worth it.”

But, here is the punch line.  We are worth it.  God in Christ tells us so.  In the crucifixion and the love outpoured there, God is saying, “You are worth it.  This is what you are worth to me.  In love, through my son Jesus, I will show you how great is my sense of your worth by becoming human, being alongside you and dying for you.  You are worth it to me.”  The big point in this is that it is not something intrinsic in me: not some huge talent or special quality I possess that makes me worth it.  It is all comes from God.  It is God valuing me, his love for me that makes me worth it.  And, of course, as soon as I take this in, I realise that God has exactly the same attitude towards everyone in his world.  We are all worth it, because he makes it so.

What response does this pull out of me?  First, an extraordinary sense of gratitude and a greater sense of the worthiness (worth – ness) of our God which leads to genuine worship (worth – ship) and a renewed sense of the value of every person in the world.  We are all worth it, thanks be to God.

Contemplation and Concentration

Contemplation and Concentration

 

A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all.  No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for.  You are made in the image of what you desire.

Thomas Merton

 

The quotation above by Thomas Merton, is one of my favourites and stares at me as a screen saver whenever I switch on my computer.  It is very powerful: we are shaped by the end we live for – that we, in essence, become what we most desire.  But it is a totally orthodox statement.  Our desires are a kind of food.  Just as receiving Christ makes us more like Christ so both the good and the bad things we desire will, over time, change us into that thing or that person.  Lately, I found myself wondering what I truly do desire.  I would love to say my life is all spiritual.  I would love to say that loving God and allowing him to love me is the end for which I am living and which I desire with all my heart.  The problem is that when I come to God in contemplative prayer, I realise that I am driven by all sorts of voices inside me, many of which are so buried that it is hard for me to be aware of them.  Labels, masks, false selves: how am I to know who I am or what I really want?

The great eye opening to my lack of real desire for God shows most when I try to settle into contemplative prayer.  Not only is my mind busy with all the many things I have to do today,  but there is a constant running commentary as if everything I think and do becomes a vehicle for performance, for conversation, is turned into a project, a piece of writing or teaching; is, in a way, offered to others.  And then there is the constant, “What will people think?”  “Is it okay?”  “It costs too much and I am exhausted.”  “I don’t want to take the chance.”  Perhaps these show more than other things what my real desires are – for an easy life, in which I will get things right and no one will tell me off!

The great gift of all of this is that it shows how little I can do of myself to help myself: how much I need God and the help that only he can give.  So as I sit down yet again to try to concentrate; perhaps the hardest thing in learning how to contemplate, I am comforted by this wonderful poem by Denise Levertov.

 

Flickering Mind

Lord, not you,

it is I who am absent.

At first

belief was a joy I kept in secret,

stealing alone

into sacred places:

a quick glance, and away—and back,

circling.

I have long since uttered your name

but now

I elude your presence.

I stop

to think about you, and my mind

at once

like a minnow darts away,

darts

into the shadows, into gleams that fret

unceasing over

the river’s purling and passing.

Not for one second

will my self hold still, but wanders

anywhere,

everywhere it can turn. Not you,

it is I who am absent.

You are the stream, the fish, the light,

the pulsing shadow,

you the unchanging presence, in whom

all moves and changes.

How can I focus my flickering, perceive

at the fountain’s heart

the sapphire I know is there?

 

Perhaps in the end all any of us can say is, “I want to want to be spiritual.  I want to want my deepest desire to be a longing for God.”

 

(Launde Abbey has its own Thomas Merton retreat, “Attention to Paradise: A Guided Retreat with Thomas Merton,” starting on July 14th.)

 

Original Insecurity

Preparing for this Sunday’s sermon I came across the phrase, “Original Insecurity”, when reading one of my favourite bible commentators, David Lose. One of the readings this Sunday was about Adam and Eve hiding in the Garden of Eden from God, after they have taken the apple. As most people know the action of taking that fruit was the first so-called Original Sin and since then, according to the theory, every human being has been born sinful. I don’t happen to believe that, but that every single human being has a propensity to sin and with the best will in the world, cannot seem to manage not to, I do agree.

I was made to think again when David Lose said he preferred to speak of “Original Insecurity” rather than “Original Sin.” In the changing of that one word he opened up the Adam and Eve story to speak even more relevantly into our modern world.

David’s theory, as I understood it, is that the story is as much about identity as it is about anything else. Not the identity we have but the identity we want to have. We know that Eve is tempted to take the apple because then she will be “like God, (knowing good and evil).” God has created her and placed her in a beautiful situation. But it is not enough. She wants to have the knowledge that God has because with it she thinks she will be “like him.” Although she has everything she could possibly need she does not appear to have a mature sense of self. So she tries to manipulate her environment. She seeks the recognition she wants, to establish her value, to get a sense of worth from herself and her own actions. She finds she cannot do it. She looks to herself and what she can make of herself, all by herself, to give herself significance and meaning. When things begin to go pear-shaped (apple-shaped?) she pulls Adam in to give her back-up and collude in her quest for self-significance. Together they leave God entirely out of the picture and they soon realise that they do not trust the false, selfish and self-serving personas they have created; moreover, they no longer trust each other or God. They experience themselves for the first time as separated, “naked” (vulnerable, fragile) and alone.
If we could point to one thing in our present age that seems to wound people and fails always to bring lasting contentment, it is that search for an identity which is not our own. We cannot establish ourselves, our value or our own worth on our own. We need a significant other to do that, and that very significant Other is God, who made us, knows us through and through and loves us with a passion we can’t begin to comprehend.

We may often find ourselves reverting to the original sin of pretending to be someone other than we are but perhaps this Collect from the Fourth Sunday in Lent will help us, when reminded of our frailty, to turn again to the One who gives us life, identity, significance and security.

O God,
you know us to be set
in the midst of so many and great dangers,
that by reason of the frailty of our nature
we cannot always stand upright:
grant to us such strength and protection
as may support us in all dangers
and carry us through all temptations;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.


Allegorically Speaking

If you go back a couple of centuries in time, before we began to believe that Fact and Truth are the same thing (which they are not) the Church used to approach scripture in various ways. One of these ways was as allegory, another as metaphor. These ways of approaching scripture did not begin with Christians. They are to be found in the Jewish tradition as well, which is, of course, far older. For example, if the Psalmist says that God is a Rock or a Shield, he does not mean that God is literally these things, but metaphorically. The psalmist experiences God as a strong basis for his life and feels protected by him. When Jesus speaks in parables, he is being allegorical. The Sower who goes out to sow does in reality sprinkle his seed all over the place – that is literally true, but the seed, the birds who eat it, the weeds that choke it and the hard ground that prevents the seeds from taking root stand for something else, human reception of God’s word. What is important is to realise that in allegory you have two meanings: the literary meaning and the hidden meaning. They exist side by side and neither undermines the other. On the contrary, the different ways of reading and meditating on the word enrich each other.

Hidden meaning sometimes comes as a personal message. One of the things I am constantly impressed by is how I can know a bible story very well, and then one day, out of the blue, I see something entirely new in it. Usually this happens when I am simply sitting quietly, waiting on God. I had this experience this last week when, to be honest, I was emotionally quite distracted. Suddenly one of my favourite passages in the Old Testament came to me: the story of Elijah after the battle with the prophets of Baal, fleeing to the desert because he knows Queen Jezebel is seeking his life. He is exhausted and demoralised and just wants to lie down and die. Eventually, after some sustaining food and rest he goes to Mount Horeb where he finds God does not speak through fire, wind or earthquake but in a still small voice that comes out of sheer silence (I Kings 19: 12, 13). The NRSV says,

When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.

The first thing that struck me was that earlier in the story Elijah is raging, full of resentment, bitterness and despair. These moods are internal mirrors of the external storm on Horeb illustrated in the fire, wind and earthquake. Elijah cannot hear God whilst he is so caught up in the voices of dismay inside him. Elijah is in a cave. Literally he might be there for protection from the storm. Allegorically, the cave may be the shut in place of Elijah’s darkness and bitterness. The mysterious “sheer” silence of God’s response brings Elijah out of himself, and then, as Matthew Henry’s commentary says,

The wind, and earthquake, and fire, did not make him cover his face, but the still voice did. Gracious souls are more affected by the tender mercies of the Lord, than by his terrors.

The Elijah story can be read simply as history. But on this occasion, as I thought about it, I saw my own disturbed emotions reflected in those of Elijah; the loud voices that got in the way of God’s still small voice as being the clamour of my own disquiet; the cave as my being turned in on myself and the silence out of which came God’s voice, as the quiet I eventually heard. The passage spoke to me. The passage turned me around – and I remembered and realised afresh something very important. God speaks in a quiet voice or as the New International Version of the Bible has it, a whisper. We have to be quiet to hear him.