Monday, May 25, 2020

Flow mingled down...

Yesterday I wrote of my sense "that many of the so-called mistakes in our lives, the errors and wrong turnings, are allowed (at least) by the Spirit working in our hearts to bring us to where God can heal us, restore us and turn our steps back to the true North."

I am concerned that I may have implied that too much of this could be due to human wisdom, when of course almost the opposite is true. It is when we are given the grace to let go of human wisdom and trust only God's that we can be led safely through the paths of memory and healing, to understand that in the end "It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees." (Psalm 119:71 NIV)

It is hard for us to understand that there is nothing that we can do to earn the mercy of Christ, and it is harder still perhaps for us to realise that our forgiveness and healing has nothing to do with our finding the right way to say sorry. It was on the cross that all the work was done, all the love poured out in tears and blood. All that we have to do is accept that "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!" (Galatians 2:20-21 NIV)

Our healing comes from that:

Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

(Isaiah 53:4-6 NIV)

These realisations are gifts, and they seem to be received by repentance. Real repentance, clean and wholesome, gentle and life-giving, we seem often to overlook; but it is the opening of our hearts to that sorrow and love of our Lord's self-gift. Just that. Not a means of self-accusation, but a turning, in infinite relief and hope, from ourselves to our saviour.

Isaac of Nineveh had this to say:

Repentance is given us as grace after grace, for repentance is a second regeneration by God. That of which we have received an earnest by baptism, we receive as a gift by means of repentance. Repentance is the door of mercy, opened to those who seek it. By this door we enter into the mercy of God, and apart from this entrance we shall not find mercy.

[The title of this post is taken from Isaac Watts' hymn 'When I Survey the Wondrous Cross'] 

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Back to the North

I sometimes think that many of the so-called mistakes in our lives, the errors and wrong turnings, are allowed (at least) by the Spirit working in our hearts to bring us to where God can heal us, restore us and turn our steps back to the true North. Yes, it is true that at times these wrong turnings may bring us to where we may find great pain and loss, where dreams and ambitions may come to nothing; but sometimes physical healing may first necessitate surgery!

John O'Donohue wrote (thanks to Barbara for the quote):
One of the qualities that you can develop, particularly in your older years, is a sense of great compassion for yourself. When you visit the wounds within the temple of memory, you should not blame yourself for making bad mistakes that you greatly regret. Sometimes you have grown unexpectedly through these mistakes. Frequently, in a journey of the soul, the most precious moments are the mistakes. They have brought you to a place that you would otherwise have always avoided. You should bring a compassionate mindfulness to your mistakes and wounds.
This is not a new idea. Throughout the Psalms there are hints, and more than hints, of this possibility, but it finds its clearest expression in Psalm 119. For instance, (Psalm 119:67,71 NIV) "Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word... It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees."

I have found that these Spirit surgeries are very often mercifully hidden from us at the time. Perhaps we could not cope with the truth of them; perhaps the knowledge might allow us to avoid the error, and hence the healing also. We cannot know. But that unknowing may be a part of the process itself. Ecclesiastes 11:5 reads, "As you do not know the path of the wind, or know how life enters the body being formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things." Proverbs 20:24 is even more pointed: "A person’s steps are directed by the LORD. How then can anyone understand their own way?"

Further on in the passage Barbara quotes, O'Donohue suggests revisiting the remembered time and finding again the state of mind ("inhabit the rhythm" he says) but for myself I am not sure of this. Too easily I become caught up, going back obsessively like a man picking at an old scar. For me, it is the Spirit's leading that is everything. In prayer, especially in a contemplative or other prayer form that allows space for the Spirit to move freely - and this is one of the great benefits of Quaker worship - the Spirit can bring us directly into whatever anamnesis will contribute immediately to our healing, and perhaps more, to our self-forgiveness.

James Nayler is often remembered among Friends for all the wrong reasons, but some of his later writings were among the most beautiful and most powerful of early Quaker texts. He touched keenly upon just what we are considering here:
Art thou in the Darkness? Mind it not, for if thou dost it will fill thee more, but stand still and act not, and wait in patience till Light arises out of Darkness to lead thee. Art thou wounded in conscience? Feed not there, but abide in the Light which leads to Grace and Truth, which teaches to deny, and puts off the weight, and removes the cause, and brings saving health to Light. (Quaker faith & practice 21.65)
But perhaps the best words to end with are Barbara's own, from the conclusion of her own post:
We are poor sods just trying to find our way home, after all. Let's forgive ourselves and cast ourselves into that Ocean of Mercy held out to us.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Sink down to the seed

Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. (John 12:24 NIV)



Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For, "All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever." And this is the word that was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:22-25 NIV)

One of the things people - myself included - seem to find most difficult in these days of the pandemic is enforced inability to act. It is as though we long to do something - anything! - to break out of this inaction. But strange, powerful things happen in stillness. Seeds lie dormant over winter in order to germinate germinate in spring; insect larvae, quiet in their pupae, become butterflies, or bright beetles that scamper in sunlight.

The quiet heart, if it accepts inaction, can allow God's wonders to come to be. Waiting is an act of patience, an openness to what may come. St Romuald's brief rule for Camaldolese monks ends,

Empty yourself completely and sit waiting,
content with the grace of God,
like the chick who tastes nothing and eats nothing
but what his mother brings him.

And Isaac Pennington put it:

Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.

(Quaker faith & practice 26.70)


Thursday, May 14, 2020

Into your hands...

Yet you, LORD, are our Father.
We are the clay, you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand. (Isaiah 64:8 NIV)

In you, LORD, I have taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
deliver me in your righteousness.
Turn your ear to me,
come quickly to my rescue;
be my rock of refuge,
a strong fortress to save me.
Since you are my rock and my fortress,
for the sake of your name lead and guide me.
Keep me free from the trap that is set for me,
for you are my refuge.
Into your hands I commit my spirit;
deliver me, LORD, my faithful God. (Psalm 31:1-5 NIV)

In the stillness of worship, "shielded" in this pocket of light just before summer, the blessedness of being helpless in God's hands has never been clearer. Jesus it was who said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." (Matthew 5:3-4 NIV)

To trust in God when all human ingenuity and will are exhausted is not defeat, except perhaps from the point of view of some iron-jawed self-determination, but courage before the inevitable. In the acceptance of what is, there are vast estates of beauty, expanses of sheer gift, where the grace of God flows like healing rivers, bearing us up into the the light, into the peace of God, far beyond all we can understand. (Philippians 4:7)

It is well, it is well with my soul... (Horatio Spafford)

Saturday, May 02, 2020

Dark Tales

This evening is particularly quiet. The leaves of the hazels at the back of the garden are hardly moving, and light from the west is casting clean shadows of the roofline on to the trees. This spring the weather is so beautiful - even the rainy days have a clean, healing quality about them - that the threat of the current pandemic seems hard to believe, a dark tale from another time, perhaps, or from a dystopian fiction...

I will extol the LORD at all times;
  his praise will always be on my lips.

I will glory in the LORD;
  let the afflicted hear and rejoice.

Glorify the LORD with me;
  let us exalt his name together.

(Psalm 34:1-3 NIV)

It's interesting, isn't, how David phrases this? If the poet was indeed David (this is one of the psalms whose attribution is most likely to be accurate) then of course he would know about affliction, but the psalms in general are stunningly honest about this kind of thing. In one of my favourite passages from Psalm 119 we read,

[67] Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word...
[71] It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.

(Psalm 119:67,71 NIV)
Why might this be? We are familiar enough, though very often we struggle to apply it to our own lives, with the concept Paul expresses in Romans 8:28, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." All things, not just the convenient ones, or the pleasant ones. Of course, the verse is not saying that all things are good - some things, like the situation in which we all find ourselves at the moment, patently are not good at all. But the anonymous poet of Psalm 119 seems to go even beyond the apostle.

I have come to recognise, from periods in my own life of desolation and functional solitude (being alone in the sense not always of physical isolation, but of being cut off from understanding and comfort: "You have taken from me friend and neighbour – darkness is my closest friend." (Psalm 88:18)) the power of this kind of prayer, and how actually to pray the Psalms, to take their words and make them one's own, brings strength and refuge, comfort even, in dark places. I don't think it is hyperbole to say that at these times in my life I would not have come through had it not been for the Psalms.

In some deep mystery these words in the psalms prefigure the cross of Christ, and it is there that understanding begins to break through. Jesus called his disciples to "take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it." (Matthew 16:24-25 NIV) Peter wrote "To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps." (1 Peter 2:21 NIV)

It's really important to understand that none of these insights were my own doing. None came about through any particular insight or perspicuity of mine, still less through any imagined godliness: it was all sheer gift. Nor am I saying that the ultimate healing of wounds of the spirit - such as we all are suffering in these perfect days of springtime, as the earth stretches and heals from the long years of environmental abuse and exploitation - comes purely through the prayerful acceptance of suffering. My survival may, in my own instance, have come that way - but it was only after the passage of many years, and through skilled and patient help, that their effects have finally begun to be something like healed. But their value - that is another matter entirely. One of the hardest things to take is the illusion of the pointlessness of one's own suffering; the realisation that it is not, after all, a waste of life and hope, but a way into endless life and indestructible hope, through and not despite the Cross is what brings us at last to that refuge David described in Psalm 63:6-8,

On my bed I remember you;
I think of you through the watches of the night.
Because you are my help,
I sing in the shadow of your wings.
I cling to you;
your right hand upholds me.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Resurrexit!

The resurrection, an event recorded in all four Gospels, referred to in the New Testament epistles, including the earliest of Paul's, and attested to in Acts, is one of those stumbling blocks that naturalistic readers find least easy to accept, and that embarrass even some committed Christians. Yet Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15 most strikingly, but elsewhere as well, makes the resurrection of Christ the cornerstone of our hope.

Michael J Gorman writes,

For the apostle Paul, the resurrection of Christ was not merely one among many Christian convictions; it was the one that guaranteed the significance of all others and provided the rationale for the life of faith, hope and love expected of those who live in Christ. From Paul's perspective, to deny or misinterpret the resurrection is to undermine the entire Christian faith.

In his response to the Corinthians who denied the resurrection of the dead, Paul argued logically that if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, he says, "your faith is vain; you are still in your sins" (1 Cor 15:17). That is, Christ's death on the cross for sins (see 1 Cor 15:3) has no saving significance without the resurrection. It is merely the Roman crucifixion of a false messiah...

We must stress here one key point that contemporary Christians often fail to understand or try to avoid: that Christ's resurrection was a bodily resurrection. Paul was a Pharisee, not a Platonist, and he did not believe in the immortality of a body-less soul. Bodily resurrection does not mean simply the resuscitation of a corpse, but neither is it merely a metaphor for Christ’s ongoing existence in the Church as His body, or something similar.

Paul's Corinthian audience was apparently confused about the corporeality of resurrection, too, so the apostle develops some elaborate analogies to help the Corinthians understand that bodily resurrection means transformation, and thus both continuity and discontinuity with respect to our current bodily existence (see 1 Cor 15:35-57).

So much of our Christian hope makes little sense without the Spirit. As I mentioned in my last blog post, "The same Spirit which inspired the writers of the Bible is the Spirit which gives us understanding of it..." (London Yearly Meeting 1986 - Quaker faith & practice 27.34) But if Tom Wright is correct, there is abundant textual and historical evidence that makes perfect sense if a physical resurrection is a matter of fact, and very little sense otherwise.

Henri Nouwen, in one of the Daily Reflections published on the Nouwen Society's website, wrote:

The resurrection of Jesus is the basis of our faith in the resurrection of our bodies.  Often we hear the suggestion that our bodies are the prisons of our souls and that the spiritual life is the way out of these prisons.  But by our faith in the resurrection of the body we proclaim that the spiritual life and the life in the body cannot be separated.  Our bodies, as Paul says, are temples of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 6:19) and, therefore, sacred.  The resurrection of the body means that what we have lived in the body will not go to waste but will be lifted in our eternal life with God.  As Christ bears the marks of his suffering in his risen body, our bodies in the resurrection will bear the marks of our suffering.  Our wounds will become signs of glory in the resurrection…

John Ortberg is well aware of the staggering implications of a belief based on such a claim:

There is a second revolution. This time we know the revolutionary's name. We know where he lived. We know how he lived. We know what he taught. We know how he died. This is, Jesus said, the way life works. You have to be willing to sacrifice something if anything is ever going to be the way it is supposed to be. No sacrifice, no harvest. Only it isn't seeds this time; this time it's you.

What got released on [Easter] Sunday was hope. Not hope that life would turn out well. Hope that called people to die: die to selfishness and sin and fear and greed, die to the lesser life of a lesser self so that a greater self might be born. And many people did. This hope changed things. Because of their belief in the resurrection of the body. Because of Sunday.

A hope that is not only undefeated by the possibility of death; a hope that calls us to die, metaphorically or literally, is an indefatigable hope, a faith and a hope that endures all things (1 Corinthians 13); a hope that in the end is indistinguishable from love. It is out of this love that we can pray, and out of his glorious risen life that our Lord Jesus is in truth the Christ, the mercy of God:

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are - yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16 NIV)

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Sinking Down

We understand the Bible as a record arising from… struggles to comprehend God’s ways with people. The same Spirit which inspired the writers of the Bible is the Spirit which gives us understanding of it... (London Yearly Meeting 1986 - Quaker faith & practice 27.34)

We do Scripture, and ourselves, a disservice if we read it as a manual of instructions, or else simply as a history book. The reach of the Bible is vast in terms both of its chronological scope and its range of purposes. What is consistent is its record of people's encounters with God; the terms in which they express them are drawn inevitably from the the societies in which they lived, societies very different from our own.

When we pick up the Bible we can be greatly helped by the apparatus of Biblical criticism, and still more by Biblical theology, but the study of Scripture is only a small part of our own encounter with it. George Boobyer, Qfp 27.30:

An intelligent analytical and critical approach [to the Bible] has its rightful place. We then stand over the Bible as subjects investigating an object. An inversion of this subject–object relationship is, however, possible. We then approach the Bible not mainly to criticise, but to listen; not merely to question, but to be challenged, and to open our lives penitentially both to its judgments and to its liberating gospel.

Pathways to God are many and varied. Friends, however, along with a great company of other seekers, have been able to testify that this receptive personal response to the biblical message, and especially to the call of Jesus, leads to joyous self-fulfilling life, and to a redemptive awareness of the love and glory of God.

It is this prayerful approach to the Bible that allows the healing touch of God's word to unknot our hearts, that dissolves our separateness from people, from creatures living and otherwise, from God. To sit still with a passage of Scripture, really still, may be transforming.

There is an ancient practice, known as Lectio divina, that is a formal way of doing just this. Of course it is not necessary to follow a formal pattern at all, so long as we are aware what we are doing, and do it deliberately; but it is vitally helpful to understand how others over many years (since c. 300 AD) have approached the Bible in order to encounter God. Basically, it may be likened to first, the taking of a bite, a short passage, of Scripture (reading); then chewing on it (meditation); savouring its essence (prayer) and, finally, "digesting" it and allowing it to make itself a part of the body (contemplation).

Jean Khoury writes (Lectio Divina, CTS 2006)

God's action in us does not take place on the surface. It is oriented towards the depths. This action infiltrates our deepest being and frees it, making it subtle and deifying it. This is why deep silent prayer, mental prayer, is founded on lectio; precisely because lectio opens up the way for God so that he may go ever deeper in us through mental prayer. The effort of lectio opens the door to the divine beam of contemplation...

This is a process not at all unlike the stillness we find in meeting for worship. We are relinquishing, once we have reached the stage of contemplation, our own will and our own critical faculties, and allowing the seed that has been sown in us to grow and breathe and act in us - cf. Isaac Pennington, Qfp 26.70:

Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.