I'm going off to Compton Durville for an 8-day retreat starting on Friday afternoon, so I'll be leaving a little hole in the blogosphere till next month, effectively. See you then!
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In the latest (July 14) post in her Lectionary Blog, Sarah Dylan Breuer quotes at length from an excellent Christianity Today interview with the Rt. Rev. Dr. David Zac Niringiye, Assistant Bishop of Kampala in the Church of Uganda. I'm not going to quote it again here, - I'd strongly encourage you to read it in full - but Dr Niringiye's point is that he has "...come to the conclusion that the powerful, those at the center, must begin to realize that the future shape of things does not belong to them. The future shape of things is on the periphery. The future shape of things is not in Jerusalem, but outside. It is Nazareth. It is Antioch."
I've been thinking a lot about being here in Wool. This is a village in rural Dorset, hidden away from what makes 21st century Britain the way it is, just a dot on the map between Poole and Weymouth. The centre it is not. Yet even years ago, Jan and I were certain that the Lord was calling us here, and that certainty has only grown in the intervening time.
It is very easy, when one reads of the things going on in the church nationally and internationally, the big festivals, the major inner-city evangelism programmes, the National Centre for This and the International Forum for Something Else, to feel a bit irrelevant, as though God had far better things to do than pay much attention to Wool.
Dr Niringiye is right, though. Jesus was from Nazareth, much to Nathaniel's disgust. The Lord's Anointed never was crowned King of the Jews. The closest he got was an ironic label on the Cross where he died, outside the city walls, and when he rose again on the third day, disbelief and rumours. The beginning of the baby church's cross-cultural push, without which it might (had God allowed it) have remained an obscure Jewish sect in the footnotes of history, was in Antioch, not in Jerusalem. St Francis (with the exception of some notable journeys) and St Clare spent all their lives in and around Assisi, not in Rome. Martin Luther, the child of obscure country folk, lived and worked his whole adult life in Wittenberg, not in Paris or Berlin.
The cosmos swung on the pivot of Bethlehem, 2000-odd years ago, far away from the might of Rome or the conceit of Jerusalem, and it was a bunch of tatty local shepherds who brought the first worship to the Saviour of the World. Even now, we don't know their names.
It is not for us to try and assess the importance of what God calls us to do, or where he calls us to serve. Our only answer is the answer Jesus gave to Peter in John 21, "...what is that to you? Follow me!"
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The good rabbi explains that there are spiritual lessons we can all learn from such an unfortunately common present-day annoyance, a virus infection in one's computer. He notes three:
1) We are all connected.
I am sitting at my computer and all's well, until an old friend on the other side of the world gets a virus in his computer. Because my name appears in his address book, I become a victim as the virus enters his computer and sends itself to his entire list. So, I get the virus just because he did.
In a similar way, we each have souls all over the world to whom we are connected. Every soul has a soul family, a group of souls that come from the same soul root. When I am down, I can drag my soul brothers and sisters down with me. And if I am inspired, I may shoot a sudden burst of inspiration to someone on the other side of the world.
2) No act is insignificant.
When I see a strange email in my inbox, I have a choice to make. With one click I can delete it and avoid the inconvenience of an infected computer. But a click on the attachment, even by accident, can cause an avalanche of destruction. It was just one little click, but the results were enormous.
So often, it's little acts that are the most powerful. A friendly word to a stranger or a phone call to a friend just to say hello can impact someone's life in ways we can't imagine.
3) One person can change the world.
Every virus starts with one idiot. Someone somewhere has nothing better to do than engage in virtual vandalism. One person's destructive plan can affect millions the world over.
We sometimes feel that our petty little lives are insignificant in the whole scheme of things. In such a vast universe, what difference do I make? The computer virus teaches us that no matter how small we feel, each one of us has the power to change the world. And if so much damage can take such little effort, how much healing and positive energy can be created if we put our minds and hearts to it.
(I hope IsraelNationalNews doesn't mind my quoting this article - I can't find a copyright policy on their site!)
This article reminds me of the quotes from Thomas Merton and Br Ramon SSF I mentioned in my post Why the Jesus Prayer (and all contemplative prayer) matters... It really isn't possible, spiritually, to look at things, let alone people, in isolation. Why I do, what I say, what I pray, does matter. It's not "my own business". Nothing is. We none of us act, think or even dream alone. We are deeply and intimately connected on the most fundamental, ontological level.
As Br Ramon puts it,
the believer lives as a human being in solidarity with all other human beings, and with the animal creation, together with the whole created order (the cosmos). All this is drawn into and affected by the Prayer. One person's prayers send out vibrations and reverberations that increase the power of the divine Love in the cosmos.
Praying the Jesus Prayer by Br Ramon SSF (Basingstoke: Marshall Pickering, 1988) Page 26.
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Life consists in learning to live on one's own, spontaneous, freewheeling: to do this one must recognize what is one's own - be familiar and at home with oneself. This means basically learning who one is, and learning what one has to offer to the contemporary world, and then learning how to make that offering valid.
The purpose of education is to show us how to define ourselves authentically and spontaneously in relation to our world - not to impose a prefabricated definition of the world, still less an arbitrary definition of ourselves as individuals. The world is made up of the people who are fully alive in it: that is, of the people who can be themselves in it and can enter into a living and fruitful relationship with each other in it. The world is, therefore, more real in proportion as the people in it are able to be more fully and more humanly alive: that is to say, better able to make a lucid and conscious use of their freedom. Basically, this freedom must consist first of all in the capacity to choose their own lives, to find themselves on the deepest possible level. A superficial freedom to wander aimlessly here and there, to taste this or that, to make a choice of distractions … is simply a sham. It claims to be a freedom of "choice" when it has evaded the basic task of discovering who it is that chooses. It is not free because it is unwilling to face the risk of self-discovery.
Thomas Merton. "Learning to Live" in Love and Living. Edited by Naomi Burton Stone and Brother Patrick Hart. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979: 3-4.
It's a curious thing that freedom is best found within discipline, just as love is best found within commitment. To the outsider, these things seem paradoxical, unreasonable, but in God's economy they work, in the same, sane way as losing one's life allows one to keep it forever, whereas attempting to preserve it at all costs is fatal (Luke 17:33; John 12:25).
I often think that the freest people I know live within religious communities, under vows, as Merton did. Brother Ramon SSF, a man after St Francis' own heart if ever there was one, once said, "It may mean... that the believer now lives on two levels of paradox - the outward life seeming to exhibit weakness and physical mortality, while the inward life is more and more possessed by the mystery and fire of God's love." (Franciscan Spirituality, SPCK 1994, pp.175-176)
Br Ramon then goes on to quote a passage I love from Gregory of Nyssa, and one which truly sums up what I understand freedom in the end to be - I'll quote it in full:
The idea of epektasis is that the perfect spiritual man is not one who has 'arrived' at a high degree of moral perfection and contemplative knowledge of God. Rather, he is a man who, having attained a high measure, presses on in pursuit of still purer, more vital experience of God's light and truth. The perfect man is the man who is ever moving forward, deeper into the mystery of God. Heaven itself, in this view, consists in an eternal progress into the love and light and life of God, where each fulfillment contains in itself the impulse to further exploration.
(Bamberger Continuum 7.2, 1968, p. 294)
I wonder if CS Lewis had been reading Gregory of Nyssa before he wrote that marvellous passage at the end of The Last Battle:
...but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before. (pp. 173-4.)
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Sparked by a TV programme about the years following World War II, I started looking into how things were in Britain in the year I was born. The overall picture was pretty grim: the country was in the midst of an anticlimactic depression, rationing was still in place, and the activities of black-market gangs (the "spivs") were all too reminiscent of the inner-city drug gangs that cause such pain to the police in our own day.
As I looked into that time a little further, more and more parallels kept appearing between then and now. The sense of impending social disintegration, the apparent impotence of the police in the face of both organised crime and individual violence, the prevalence of firearms and firearm-related incidents (so many soldiers had brought their guns home from the war - even my upright uncle had a service revolver and ammo in his desk), the use of edged weapons to intimidate and wound (the cutthroat razor was the weapon of choice - see Brighton Rock).
Yet the country recovered; on the face of it, it was Clement Atlee's programme of Nationalisation, Aneurin Bevan's cradle-to-grave Welfare State, and the foundation of the National Health Service that helped pull us back from the brink of chaos.
But what was the Church doing? I can find little direct evidence of the current of Christian life in the late 40's and early 50's. Archbishop William Temple had died in office not long after D-Day, and Geoffrey Fisher had taken his place. But what were people praying? How did the ordinary Christian see things developing? What was the Church's stance on the situation, officially and privately? I don't even recall much from CS Lewis, very active through all that period (he published Miracles in 1947, and Mere Christianity in '52) in the way of direct social or prophetic commentary. Evelyn Underhill and Charles Williams, both of whom might have had something interesting to say on the subject, were both dead by 1945. I can't ask either of my parents, nor their sisters or brothers, since all died in between the 70's and the early 90's.
I shall continue to explore, and I'll post anything worth posting. In the meantime, if anyone reading this knows anything about the spiritual dimensions of this strange and troubled period in British history, I'd be more than grateful if they'd point me in the right direction!
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Jesus used them, CS Lewis used them, and now Matt Summerfield of Crusaders is at it.
I don't know why, since I am one of the world's very least DIY oriented people, and I've never built anything more architectural than a website in my life, but I find these building analogies oddly compelling.
Matt's contention is that, just as we can often pass a building site for months, and not know what on earth is meant to be being built, there being nothing but big holes in the ground and messy heaps of mud and materials, so it is with our lives. God has the architect's drawings - he is the architect - but all we can see is the incomprehensible mess.
I guess I'm even less of a tapestry maker than I am a builder, but there's another analogy I find perhaps almost more compelling than this one. It's the back of the tapestry analogy. You've probably heard this one before, but one of the nicest expositions comes in a post in Waiter Rant's blog:
My thoughts drift back to a time when my godfather and I were in a museum. We’re looking at a medieval tapestry. He’s intently studying the back of it. Puzzled I join him.
“What do you see here?” he asks me.
The back of the tapestry is rough and frayed; betraying the handiwork of the person who made it. The colors are mottled and muted. There’s a lot of darkness.
“A mess,” I reply.
“Yes,” he smiles. “I like looking at the back of the tapestry because it’s a lot like real life. A mess. It makes no sense, there seems to be no order or beauty.”
Then, his arms on my shoulders, he moves me to the front of the tapestry. I look at it. Undimmed by the centuries - it’s gorgeous.
“But every once in a while God gives you a glimpse of the other side and it all begins to make sense.” he says gently.
I’m silent. I know something important has happened but I’m too young to understand.
I look at my godfather. He’s a Byzantine Catholic priest. With his beard and flowing robes he really looks like an Obi-Wan – except he’s the real thing.
“No one is unimportant. We all play a part in designing life’s tapestry. You never know what your effect on people is going to be. When you think the world is ugly, makes no sense, remember there is always another side. If you’re lucky God will grant you a peek.”
“Uh-huh” I nod.
“Remember life is beautiful – even when you can’t always see it.”
You see what he's getting at? It just doesn't make sense - how often do we hear that, even from fellow Christians, all too often from ourselves...? But it's not supposed to make sense, any more than a mucky clay pit is supposed to look like a beautiful building, or the back of a tapestry is meant to look like the front. Whay does it have to be like that? God knows. He really does. One day, he'll let us see the front properly, with the lights on. Till then, we'll just have to keep on walking past the building site and wondering what on earth all that filthy mess is supposed to be about.
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I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7:15-20)
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:5-10)
Paul has put his finger on it here! How frail and contradictory we all are, and how much in need of forgiveness and mercy. Truly there is not one among us who is free from this.
It's not so much that we commit individual sins (though of course we do, all too often!) but that our hearts are inclined always away from God, unless we allow the Spirit continually to re-align us. It's this, rather than any silliness with hair shirts, that is meant by "The Way of Repentance" (see Irma Zaleski's wonderful book of the same title) It sounds fearful and slightly strange, especially to 21st century people, but actually it's gentle and clean, a way of freedom and grace.
I know I do keep on about the Jesus Prayer, but its quiet insistence, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner," is just exactly the healing balm the broken heart (Psalm 51:17) is crying for - Jesus is "gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." (Matthew 11:29)
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In the beginning, our heavenly Father created us for Himself and He greatly delighted in His creation. He meant for us to be His family and He loved us so much. However, Satan was perverted by His sick jealousy of man and sought to destroy what God loved. He twisted the words of God and lied to mankind in order to devour them.
How the Father mourned the loss of His dear ones that He cherished; how He wept over them. And how Satan used them to hurt God more and more by driving them to sin, then using their sin to torment them all the while "claiming" ownership of them. How it wounded the Father's heart each time His beloved would chose to sin and be driven farther from Him.
Here is the miracle of love: to discover that all creation is one, flung out into space by a God who is a Father, and that if you present yourself to it as he does - unarmed and full of peace - creation will recognize you and meet you with a smile.He also wrote this about prayer:
I, Francis (Orbis 1982)
as long as we pray only when and how we want to, our life of prayer is bound to be unreal. It will run in fits and starts. The slightest upset - even a toothache - will be enough to destroy the whole edifice of our prayer life.
You must strip your prayers... You must simplify, de-intellectualize. Put yourself in front of Jesus as a poor man: not with any big ideas, but with living faith. Remain motionless in an act of love before the Father. Don't try to reach God with your understanding; that is impossible. Reach him in love; that is possible.
taken from Michael L. Gaudoin-Parker The Real Presence through the Ages (Alba House)
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbour as yourself."
"Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place?" [Psalm 24:3] There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead - as if innocence had ever been - and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and involved. But there is no one but us. There never has been.
Holy the Firm (HarperCollins 1977, 1984)