Thursday, December 31, 2009

A blessed New Year?

Now when [Jesus] saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 
    and he began to teach them, saying:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. 
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.

Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

(Matthew 5:1-12)

Now, as we stand—well, here in the UK we do—some are already there—on the threshold of the second decade of a new century, can we hear what Jesus is saying?

I find it actually quite hard, living here in England in winter, with the Christmas lights still glowing warmly through the dark evening from ordinary houses along the village streets, to hear Jesus’ voice clearly myself. His words here are as contrary to the spirit of our culture as they were to the spirit of Roman-occupied Galilee. Jesus’ blessings are for those whom a society like ours, or like the Romans’ or the Temple leaders’, consider least blessed, and least deserving of blessings.

Even within the context of each of our own lives, Jesus is calling blessed those times when we have felt, or seemed, least fortunate. The times when we have been poor in spirit, emptied out, feeling we have nothing to give; the times when we have not been able to stand up for ourselves; the times when we have not had the heart any longer for the main chance, the business advantage; when we have felt least dynamic, least thrusting, least competitive. These, says Jesus, are the truly blessed times, the times when we have drawn closest to our Saviour.

So often we have felt out of step with all that our society holds up as worthy of reward. Our hearts have been broken for the homeless, the defenceless, the hungry, when society demands our allegiance to the bottom line; we have longed for justice when society requires profitability. Yes, Jesus says, your unease is my unease—your feelings of being out of step with the world are true, prophetic perceptions, not suspicious signs of weakness.

If we act like this, speak like this, we will come in for some of the persecution Jesus himself suffered. Don’t worry, though, says Jesus—this too is one of my peculiar blessings. This too is the gate into the Kingdom of God, the true, the enduring Kingdom. This is the way home…

Monday, December 28, 2009

Good news for the New Year…

Dr Barbara M. Orlowski’s remarkable book, Spiritual Abuse Recovery: Dynamic Research on Finding a Place of Wholeness, has recently been published by Wipf and Stock. You can order a copy direct from Barb by emailing her at I really would encourage any of you who have been touched in any way by this terrible experience to read Barb’s healing, encouraging book, full of the mercy and the justice of Christ…

From the publisher’s website:

What factors contribute to active Christians in ministry leaving their church and becoming exiting statistics? Every year dedicated Christian people leave churches because of spiritual abuse. The stories of people who left their home church because of a negative and hurtful experience paint a picture of a widespread occurrence which beckons consideration by church leaders and church congregants alike.

Spiritual abuse, the misuse of spiritual authority to maltreat followers in the Christian Church, is a complex issue. This book shows how people processed their grief after experiencing spiritual abuse in their local church and how they rediscovered spiritual harmony. Their spiritual journey shows how one may grow through this devastating experience.

This book offers a thoughtful look at the topic of spiritual recovery from clergy abuse through the eyes of those who have experienced it. It invites church leaders to consider this very real dysfunction in the Church today and aims to demonstrate a path forward to greater freedom in Christ after a season of disillusionment with church leadership.

“In an age of increasing calls for strong church leadership, this book is a gift to church leaders and those who have been severely hurt and abused in our churches. Through careful research and an insider’s perspective, Barb has opened up both pathways for healing from church abuse and insights for leadership to ensure that potential future abuse is stopped.”—Alan Jamieson, author of A Churchless Faith

“What we refer to as spiritual abuse was a concern for Jesus in his earthly ministry and it is a common problem today. It is, therefore, surprising that more attention is not given to it by today’s Christian community. Barb Orlowski, however, does take it seriously as she offers insight into the causes of bad church experiences and how to recover from them. Her counsel alerts people to the dangers of spiritual abuse, and if leaders hear her, they will be less likely to become part of the problem… I encourage you to read it”—Ken Blue, author of Healing Spiritual Abuse

“Dr. Orlowski’s research has provided a balance for various perspectives on the experience of woundedness. She listens to the voices of the wounded and lets them inform us of their reality of feeling disappointment and disenfranchisement, tragedy and turbulence in the Church… For recovery, Dr. Orlowski gives an excellent starting point—the voice of the wounded—and follows that with the grace of God demonstrated through hearing the voice of God and basing recovery on the Word of God.”—Kirk E. Farnsworth, author of Wounded Workers

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Nearly there…

Life is unpredictable. We can be happy one day and sad the next, healthy one day and sick the next, rich one day and poor the next, alive one day and dead the next. So who is there to hold on to? Who is there to feel secure with? Who is there to trust at all times?

Only Jesus, the Christ. He is our Lord, our shepherd, our rock, our stronghold, our refuge, our brother, our guide, and our friend. He came from God to be with us. He died for us, he was raised from the dead to open for us the way to God, and he is seated at God's right hand to welcome us home. With Paul, we must be certain that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39).

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

Our waiting is almost over. In no time at all, God will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away. (Revelation 21:4) It won’t seem long at all. Sister Death will brush our eyelids with her kiss, and we will wake to a new dawn. We mustn’t fret about it, not for ourselves, however much our hearts may break for our sisters and brothers, human and animal, who still suffer (Romans 8:22-25). “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)

Even so, come, Lord Jesus! Come!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Rescue

Dietrich Bonhoeffer compared our Advent waiting for the coming of Christ at Christmas to the waiting of a miner trapped underground. The miner is totally alert, totally absorbed in listening for every blow and every footfall of his rescuers making their way toward him. Can you imagine, Bonhoeffer wonders, that the miner ever thought of anything “other than the approaching liberation from the moment he heard the first tapping against the rock?” Advent is like that. “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:28).

Bonhoeffer writes:

It is already knocking at the door, don’t you hear it? It is breaking open its way through the rubble and hard rock of your life and heart. Christ is breaking open his way to you. He wants to again soften your heart, which has become hard… he calls to us that he is coming and that he will rescue us from the prison of our existence, from fear, guilt, and loneliness…

The only question is: Will we let redemption come to us or will we resist it? Will we let ourselves be pulled into this movement coming down from heaven to earth or will we refuse to have anything to do with it? Either with us or without us, Christmas will come. It is up to each individual to decide what it will be.

This picture, The Rescue, is by Jan Oliver, a contemporary painter of retablos living in Pueblo, Colorado. It’s one of the most moving portrayals of St. Francis of Assisi I’ve seen, since it so clearly captures his total identification with Christ’s mercy for all of creation. I just love Jan’s work, and I’d urge you to click on her name and check out her excellent website for yourself.



Gabrielle, for introducing me to Jan’s work
Jay, for the original Bonhoeffer Advent meditation

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Be silent…

God cannot leave things empty; that would be to contradict his own nature and justice. Therefore, you must be silent. Then the Word of this birth can be spoken in you and you will be able to hear him. But be certain of this: if you try to speak then He must be silent. There is no better way of serving the Word than in being silent and listening. So if you come out of yourself completely, God will wholly enter in; to the degree you come out, to that degree will he enter, neither more nor less.

Johannes Tauler, c. 1300 – 15 June 1361 (h/t to Desert Year)

The resurrection of Jesus was a hidden event… Only those whom he called by name, with whom he broke bread, and to whom he spoke words of peace were aware of what happened. Still, it was this hidden event that freed humanity from the shackles of death. (Henri Nouwen)

There are the last few days before Christmas, and a strong silence flows under even the slightly frantic preparations in church. I don’t know how it feels from the inside, as it were, but there often seems to me to be a sort of stillness about women in the last days of their pregnancy—a kind of inward listening that is very beautiful to see. We are with Mary in those last days now, and it would be good to be a little like Zechariah was with his Elizabeth, lost in the silence of the angel, wordless in the House of God.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The fullness of time…

Jesus came in the fullness of time. He will come again in the fullness of time. Wherever Jesus, the Christ, is the time is brought to its fullness.

We often experience our time as empty. We hope that tomorrow, next week, next month or next year the real things will happen. But sometimes we experience the fullness of time. That is when it seems that time stands still, that past, present, and future become one; that everything is present where we are; and that God, we, and all that is have come together in total unity. This is the experience of God’s time. “When the completion of the time came [that is: in the fullness of time], God sent his Son, born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4), and in the fullness of time God will “bring everything together under Christ, as head, everything in the heavens and everything on earth” (Ephesians 1:10). It is in the fullness of time that we meet God.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

I love this sense of “the fullness of time”. We are made creatures of time: our own lives are shreds of time itself, and even our coming to birth is measured, like Jesus’, in nine increasingly interminable months from our conception.

Oh God, teach us to number our days in the Light of Christ only!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

God is always choosing people…

Think of the many, many stories about God choosing people. There’s Moses, Abraham and Sarah; there is David, Jeremiah, Gideon, Samuel, Jonah and Isaiah. There is Israel itself. Much later there’s Peter and Paul, and, most especially Mary.

God is always choosing people. First impressions aside, God is not primarily choosing them for a role or a task, although it might appear that way. God is really choosing them to be God’s self in this world, each in a unique situation.  If they allow themselves to experience being chosen, being a beloved, being somehow God’s presence in the world, they invariably communicate that same chosenness to others.  And thus the Mystery passes on from age to age.

Richard Rohr, adapted from Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, pp. 42–43

I don’t know about you, but for me, the problem is in believing that God would call someone like me. I long for him, long to walk closely with him, long to love with his love and breathe with his Spirit—but so often I miss it, miss his call, because I can’t believe that I could be his self in the world, despite his promises (John 17:20-26) to us all. But we are all called to pass on the Mystery. That’s the meaning of evangelism—passing on the mysterious Good News of Christ’s coming among us, of the opening of the door to unquenchable life. It happens not because of what we say—though that may at times be a vehicle for it—but because of who we let Christ be in us, and whom we let him love in and through, us.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Good news to the poor...

Keep your eyes on the prince of peace, the one who doesn't cling to his divine power; the one who refuses to turn stones into bread, jump from great heights and rule with great power; the one who says, "Blessed are the poor, the gentle, those who mourn, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and those who are persecuted in the cause of uprightness" (see Matt. 5:3-11); the one who touches the lame, the crippled, and the blind; the one who speaks words of forgiveness and encouragement; the one who dies alone, rejected and despised. Keep your eyes on him who becomes poor with the poor, weak with the weak, and who is rejected with the rejected. He is the source of all peace.

Where is this peace to be found? The answer is clear. In weakness. First of all, in our own weakness, in those places of our hearts where we feel most broken, most insecure, most in agony, most afraid. Why there? Because there our familiar ways of controlling our world are being stripped away; there we are called to let go from doing much, thinking much, and relying on our self-sufficiency. Right there where we are weakest the peace which is not of this world is hidden.

Henri Nouwen, Adam's Story: The Peace That Is Not Of This World © The Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust.
 Our only peace is in the grace of God, in the heart of his mercy, which is always for the weak and the broken (Isaiah 61:1-4) for as the Lord said to Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Waiting in the peace of God....

Are the great visions of the ultimate peace among all people and the ultimate harmony of all creation just utopian fairy tales? No, they are not! They correspond to the deepest longings of the human heart and point to the truth waiting to be revealed beyond all lies and deceptions. These visions nurture our souls and strengthen our hearts. They offer us hope when we are close to despair, courage when we are tempted to give up on life, and trust when suspicion seems the more logical attitude. (Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey)
[The] upsetting of our inner life is essential to spiritual growth, because without it we remain comfortably at rest in more or less illusory ideas of what spiritual perfection really is... There is no spiritual life without persistent struggle and interior conflict. (Thomas Merton, Life and Holiness)
Years ago, when I was a young monk, I knew a nun who was also young and quite new in her order. She was going through a time of confusion and perplexity, as young monks and nuns do, and went to talk to their chaplain, an elderly and very kind man, and laid out her dilemma: "People come here and talk about how peaceful it is, how serene the sisters are and what a place of holiness this is" she said: "I know the reality of our life, and it doesn't look or feel like that to me. The life isn't like that. We aren't like that. I never know what to say." And he replied: "Ah yes, but you see, the peace isn't for you. The peace really is here, and all the rest of it is too. But it's meant for them, not for you." (Br. Bede Thomas Mudge OHC)
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (Jesus, John 14:27)

From the point of view of the world, the "struggle and interior conflict" of the spiritual life often looks like serenity and peace; and the peace that Jesus leaves with us often looks like poverty and persecution (Matthew 10:17-23). We live in paradox and contradiction. As Christians that is our calling, but in Advent it is acutely visible. These contradictions are not for us to solve: we are called merely to wait: "But you must return to your God; maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always." (Hosea 12:6)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

All Creation Cries to You…

When we think of oceans and mountains, forests and deserts, trees, plants and animals, the sun, the moon, the stars, and all the galaxies, as God's creation, waiting eagerly to be “liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Roman 8:21), we can only stand in awe of God's majesty and God’s all-embracing plan of salvation. It is not just we, human beings, who wait for salvation in the midst of our suffering; all of creation groans and moans with us longing to reach its full freedom (ibid. v.26).

In this way we are indeed brothers and sisters not only of all other men and women in the world but also of all that surrounds us. Yes, we have to love the fields full of wheat, the snow-capped mountains, the roaring seas, the wild and tame animals, the huge redwoods, and the little daisies. Everything in creation belongs, with us, to the large family of God.

All of creation belongs together in the arms of its Creator. The final vision is that not only will all men and women recognise that they are brothers and sisters called to live in unity but all members of God's creation will come together in complete harmony. Jesus the Christ came to realise that vision. Long before he was born, the prophet Isaiah saw it:

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.

The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.

The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest.

They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

(Isaiah 11:6-9)

We must keep this vision alive.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey
[NB I have taken the liberty of replacing the Bible passages with the NIV translation rather than the unidentified one used my Nouwen.]

Advent is not just about waiting for Christmas: it is about justice and liberty, about the coming of the Kingdom, the triumph of the mercy of Christ . As Francis of Assisi saw so very clearly, God’s mercy in Christ extends to all creation, and so our prayer and our longing for mercy and justice must encompass all creation too.

[Title of this post courtesy of Marty Sampson]

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

On earth as in Heaven…

Our final homecoming involves not just ourselves and our fellow human beings but all of creation. The full freedom of the children of God is to be shared by the whole earth, and our complete renewal in the resurrection includes the renewal of the universe. That is the great vision of God's redeeming work through Christ.

Paul sees the whole created order as a woman groaning in labour, waiting eagerly to give birth to a new life. He writes: “It was not for its own purposes that creation had frustration imposed on it, but for the purposes of him who imposed it—with the intention that the whole creation itself might be freed from its slavery to corruption and brought into the same glorious freedom as the children of God” (Romans 8:20-21). All that God has created will be lifted up into God's glory.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

I love this passage from Romans. A renewed mankind in a still broken creation would not be possible, or bearable. Only like this can the Kingdom come, on earth as in Heaven…

Monday, December 07, 2009

What’s the worst that can happen?

One thing we know for sure about our God: Our God is a God of the living, not of the dead. God is life. God is love. God is beauty. God is goodness. God is truth. God doesn’t want us to die. God wants us to live. Our God, who loves us from eternity to eternity, wants to give us life for eternity.

When that life was interrupted by our unwillingness to give our full yes to God’s love, God sent Jesus to be with us and to say that great yes in our name and thus restore us to eternal life. So let’s not be afraid of death. There is no cruel boss, vengeful enemy, or cruel tyrant waiting to destroy us - only a loving, always forgiving God, eager to welcome us home.

from Henri J.M. Nouwen’s Bread for the Journey.

In this dark time of year, when each day is shorter than the one before, and it seems as though the night is closing in, it is easy to fall prey to the enemy’s hints of dissolution, of being forever lost in winter. But, as I mentioned the other day, we Christians know the end of the story. We are not lost: as Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no-one can snatch them out of my Father's hand.” (John 10:27-29)

This is why it so vital that we keep our hearts and our minds open to the Gospel—why we need always to study God’s Word, and not let ourselves be distracted by the petty disagreements Christians have had since the first disciples argued about who was greatest (Mark 9:33-37). There is no other way. The Good News is simply the Gospel of the Son of God, Jesus Christ: “Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Empty Heart…

The Annunciation story (Luke 1:26-38) is the crescendo point of the theme of total grace and gift. Did you ever notice that Mary does not say she’s “not worthy”? She just asks for clarification. She only asks “How” because that might ask something more of her. She never asks if, whether or why!

That is quite extraordinary and reveals her egolessness. She becomes the archetype of perfect receptivity. It takes the entire Bible to work up to one perfect vessel that knows how to say an unquestioning yes to an utterly free gift.

Richard Rohr, adapted from Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, pp. 31-32

How lovely is your dwelling-place, O LORD Almighty!

My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.

Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young—a place near your altar, O LORD Almighty, my King and my God.

Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you.

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.

As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools.

They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.

Hear my prayer, O LORD God Almighty; listen to me, O God of Jacob.

Look upon our shield, O God; look with favour on your anointed one.

Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.

For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favour and honour; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless.

O LORD Almighty, blessed is the man who trusts in you.

Psalm 84

Even so, come, Lord Jesus! Our hearts are empty, restless till they find rest in you.

[Final sentence paraphrases St. Augustine, from The Confessions]

Friday, December 04, 2009


You say, I choose the appointed time; it is I who judge uprightly.
When the earth and all its people quake, it is I who hold its pillars firm…
No-one from the east or the west or from the desert can exalt a man.
But it is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another.

Psalm 75:1-2, 6-7

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.
Put on the full armour of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes.
And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.

Ephesians 6: 10-11, 18

Lord, all things begin and end in you. Outside these windows the dark seems endless, the paths wiped away by night and rain. But your Word is our lamp, the constant light by which we see each step, one by one, and only one by only one; the place that holds despite the dark, the cold rain, and the far-off sound of fear.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

We would not have it so…

Hasten, O God, to save me; O LORD, come quickly to help me. 
May those who seek my life be put to shame and confusion; may all who desire my ruin be turned back in disgrace.
May those who say to me, Aha! Aha! turn back because of their shame.
But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation always say, Let God be exalted!
Yet I am poor and needy; come quickly to me, O God. You are my help and my deliverer; O LORD, do not delay.

Psalm 70

Yes, LORD, walking in the way of your laws, we wait for you; your name and renown are the desire of our hearts.
My soul yearns for you in the night; in the morning my spirit longs for you. When your judgments come upon the earth, the people of the world learn righteousness.

Isaiah 26:8-9

Lord, the night is strange with unquietness—what our hearts seek is hidden by shifting cloud and the memory of what we had hoped to forget. Have mercy, holiest God, on our unbelief. We would not have it so, but our chilled hands slip on the icy rail, and our numb feet cannot find the ladder’s rungs.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

We know the end of the story…

I will sacrifice a freewill offering to you; I will praise your name, O LORD, for it is good.
    For he has delivered me from all my troubles…

Psalm 54:6-7a

Ultimately, it will be OK. As CS Lewis said somewhere, we know the end of the story. For the time is coming, closer every day, when we shall hear the voice of God, saying:

Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

Revelation 21:3-4

We have only wait, and watch. Keep on watching. Watch God’s word, eyes open in the dark, for “…we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (2 Peter 1:19)

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Waiting for God…

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.

Isaiah 64:4 (NIV)

We are waiting here amid darkness and confusion, and all we hear are reports of terrors, and predictions of worse. There are times, increasingly, when we feel we cannot pray, because we simply can’t imagine what to ask God to do, or else we feel we cannot pray to a God who would leave us in such a place.

And yet we haven’t been left. God is with us, Emmanuel—he came on that first Christmas, as we will celebrate in only a few weeks’ time, and he has never left us; soon he will be back in glory. Jesus himself promised, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:16-18)

We needn’t know how to pray. God knows how we feel. As Paul explained, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” (Romans 8:26)

Monday, November 30, 2009

Calling to the Watchmen…

Our waiting is always shaped by alertness to the Word. It is waiting in the knowledge that someone wants to address us. The question is, are we home? Are we at our address, ready to respond to the doorbell? We need to wait together, to keep each other at home spiritually, so that when the Word comes it can become flesh in us. That is why the Book of God is always in the midst of those who gather. We read the Word so that the Word can become flesh and have a whole new life in us.

Henri J.M. Nouwen, Finding My Way Home, p. 107, The Crossroad Publishing Company

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path…

My eyes fail, looking for your salvation, looking for your righteous promise.

Psalm 119:105, 123 (NIV)

Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. Ezekiel 33:7 (NIV)

The watchman opens the gate for [the Shepherd], and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. John 10:3,4 (NIV)

What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’ Jesus, in Mark 13:37 (NIV)

The humility, love, and joy which mark the lives of us as Tertiaries are all God-given graces. They can never be obtained by human effort. They are gifts of the Holy Spirit. The purpose of Christ is to work miracles through people who are willing to be emptied of self and to surrender to Him. We then become channels of grace through whom His mighty work is done.

The Principles TSSF, Day 30

God is not calling us, in Advent, to take up arms or to make plans. He is simply calling us to wait, empty, and to watch. There will be signs all right, but the time is not yet. Just watch: watch the signs—above all, watch for God’s Word.

[title with thanks to Steve Mitchinson]

Only trust is enough…

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, O LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death;
my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me.

Psalm 13 (NIV)

Advent seems to be a time when God calls us to look unflinchingly into the dark places of the world and of our hearts, making no excuses for its darkness, nor any attempt to illuminate it with our own pale torch-beams of thought. Only trust is enough. Only faith will, ultimately, prove strong enough to see us through. Worship is one of the few things there are that has the depth to express, to make real among us, that faith.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Uttered in the darkness…

Daily Reading for November 29 • The First Sunday of Advent

“Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light. . . .”

The year begins with a bleak, eerie prayer, uttered in the darkness. The darkness terrifies us. It is no ordinary darkness. The scientists speak of a darkness that has no form or movement or will because it has no existence; it is neither good nor bad because it is nothing at all, the mere absence of light. But this is not the darkness of the scientists. This is a different kind of darkness, an energetic, aggressive malevolence seeking to envelop and consume us. In this darkness the seeds of self-will sprout and grow; they strangle what is left of our health. Cut off from light, we grow accustomed to the darkness; damp, stale air fills our lungs. We have stopped resisting the darkness. Perhaps it is normal, inevitable. Perhaps it is simply the way things are.

But God, I know that it need not be so. The darkness has not yet claimed every corner, and I can still dream of a different place and time. We all dream of it. We dream of a garden where we walk with you in the light of day, of a time of contentment with you and all your creatures. The dream is distant but clear. We long for it, as for a blessing remembered from long ago, from before we had succumbed to the works of darkness.

We would cast away the works of darkness, O God, but we lack the strength. And so we pray to you: “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light.” We are helpless; the power to cast away the works of darkness must come from outside ourselves. It must come from you, O God. We beg for your grace, the power that you give to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armour of light. That is what we pray for, O God—grace to begin again.

From A Gracious Rain: A Devotional Commentary on the Prayers of the Church Year by Richard H. Schmidt. Copyright © 2008. Used by permission of Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with thanks to Vicki K Black

I will try to blog through this Advent, since it seems to me to be an Advent which, for many different reasons, some public, some not, is of particular significance. We have heard a rumour of grace, but around us is all darkness. We walk at night, in fog; and we have heard the sea echoing somewhere far below us.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Why are we waiting?

Waiting for Christ’s second coming and waiting for the resurrection are one and the same. The second coming is the coming of the risen Christ, raising our mortal bodies with him in the glory of God. Jesus’ resurrection and ours are central to our faith. Our resurrection is as intimately related to the resurrection of Jesus as our belovedness is related to the belovedness of Jesus. Paul is very adamant on this point. He says: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ cannot have been raised either, and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is without substance, and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:13-14).

Indeed, our waiting is for the risen Christ to lift us up with him in the eternal life with God. It is from the perspective of Jesus' resurrection and our own that his life and ours derive their full significance. “If our hope in Christ has been for this life only,” Paul says, “we are of all people the most pitiable” (1 Corinthians 15:18). We don’t need to be pitied, because as followers of Jesus we can look far beyond the limits of our short life on earth and trust that nothing we are living now in our body will go to waste.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

In Advent we take nothing for granted and we rely wholly and solely on God’s promise to be birthed anew in our imaginations, ready for the next phase of our journey in discipleship and mission. So now we pause and come to a stop. Nothing moves. Silence descends… we can hear the soft, quiet sounds of longing all around and beyond us and discern the far-off cries of need echoing across the night sky. It is good to stop and wait. Only then can the way ahead become clear.

Dave Perry, ‘Signalling Advent

There is disclosed in Jesus a free activity of God which culminates in the surrender of freedom, in the handing over of Himself, in a willed transition to passion. Jesus destines Himself, by His own will, to wait upon the decisions and deeds of men: He works, one might say, towards a climax in which He must wait. If the truth of God is disclosed and the glory of God is manifest in Jesus, then the truth of God must be this, and the glory of God must appear in this—that God so initiates and acts that he destines Himself to enter into passion, to wait and to receive.

WH Vanstone, The Stature of Waiting, p.94

Monday, November 23, 2009

The great commandment...

The great commandment is not "Thou shalt be right."  Instead, the great commandment is, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself."  Just stay inside of the Great Compassion, the Great Stream, the Great River of Divine Love.  Don’t push that river, just stay in it, and you know what?  You are already there!

All that is needed is surrender and gratitude.  Our job is simply to thank God for being part of it all, and allow it to happen.  The many burdens we carry are not just ours. We are in this together. The sin that comes up in us is not just our sin; it is the sin of the world.  The joy that comes up in us is not just our personal joy; it is the joy of all creation.  We are in this together as the living Body of God.

All we can do is accept and give thanks.

Richard Rohr, adapted from Everything Belongs, pp. 89-90

It's important that we don't interpret this as quietism, a philosophy of "Don't do anything and it will all come right in the end." Acceptance and thanksgiving, especially under the hardest of circumstances, are anything but easy options!

We so easily forget that it isn't down to us to make it all come right, not even by praying for the right things. We don't know what "the right things" are (Romans 8:26) - we cannot even imagine the mind of God in bringing about the liberation of creation (Romans 8:20-24), but we can pray as Jesus taught us, "Your Kingdom come, your will be done..." and we can pray the words of the Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner" knowing that, as Rohr says, "The sin that comes up in us is not just our sin; it is the sin of the world." Knowing that, consciously identifying with the sin and the pain and the brokenness of the world, is probably the hardest, yet probably the most redemptive, of all acts of prayer. And it can only be done through a love that loves God above all, and our fellow creatures as our very selves (Matthew 22:37-40)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Planting trees…

When does planting a tree become a revolutionary act – and unleash an army of gunmen who want to shoot you dead? The answer to this question lies in the unlikely story of Wangari Maathai.

She was born on the floor of a mud hut with no water or electricity in the middle of rural Kenya, in the place where human beings took their first steps. There was no money but there was at least lush green rainforest and cool, clear drinking water. But Maathai watched as the life-preserving landscape of her childhood was hacked down. The forests were felled, the soils dried up, and the rivers died, so a corrupt and distant clique could profit. She started a movement to begin to make the land green again—and in the process she went to prison, nearly died, toppled a dictator, transformed how African women saw themselves, and won a Nobel Prize…

The Independent – with thanks to Nick Page

Read the rest, and realise that there is hope, so long as we support people like Wangari with our prayers.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009 the Name

Ministry is acting in the Name of Jesus. When all our actions are in the Name, they will bear fruit for eternal life. To act in the Name of Jesus, however, doesn't mean to act as a representative of Jesus or his spokesperson. It means to act in an intimate communion with him. The Name is like a house, a tent, a dwelling. To act in the Name of Jesus, therefore, means to act from the place where we are united with Jesus in love. To the question "Where are you?" we should be able to answer, "I am in the Name." Then, whatever we do cannot be other than ministry because it will always be Jesus himself who acts in and through us. The final question for all who minister is "Are you in the Name of Jesus?" When we can say yes to that, all of our lives will be ministry.

from Henri J.M. Nouwen's Bread for the Journey

On  Monday night Rhona, our Vicar, and David Baldwin, Vicar of our neighbouring Parishes of the Lulworths, Winfrith Newburgh and Chaldon, led an excellent workshop, attended by people from across our Deanery, on leading intercessions in church, entitled "Teach us to pray".

One of the things we looked at was the structure of a collect, how it addresses God (as Father, Son or Holy Spirit) by name and attributes, contains a petition or request, with a result or reason ("so that...") for it, and a conclusion, often in the form "through Jesus Christ our Lord", or a longer doxology.

It struck me then, as it has struck me before in fact, that prayer in the Name of Jesus, even public prayer, is very different from simply asking for a list of stuff, and then tacking " Jesus' Name" on the end. Nouwen says this far better than I could - to paraphrase him, "To pray in the Name of Jesus, therefore, means to pray from the place where we are united with Jesus in love." How else can we pray in faith, except from that "place where we are united with Jesus in love"?

Monday, November 16, 2009

A merciful heart...

Love unites all, whether created or uncreated. The heart of God, the heart of all creation, and our own hearts become one in love. That's what all the great mystics have been trying to tell us through the ages. Benedict, Francis, Hildegard of Bingen, Hadewijch of Brabant, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Dag Hammarskjold, Thomas Merton, and many others, all in their own ways and their own languages, have witnessed to the unifying power of the divine love. All of them, however, spoke with a knowledge that came to them not through intellectual arguments but through contemplative prayer. The Spirit of Jesus allowed them to see the heart of God, the heart of the universe, and their own hearts as one. It is in the heart of God that we can come to the full realisation of the unity of all that is, created and uncreated.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

It is in the presence of this unity that the intercessory dimension, so often overlooked in recent contemplative literature, is to be found. Contemplative prayer is not at all the same thing as the common Western misunderstanding of Eastern mysticism - a inward-looking, self-regarding means to personal peace, or personal development. Peace and growth may well result from contemplative prayer, but that is not what it is about.

Contemplative prayer, in the Christian practice, is the bringing of this "unifying power of the divine love"  through the heart of the one praying, into a suffering, broken creation. It is done in the love of Christ which, by the Holy Spirit, lives in the heart of the person praying; it is being simultaneously present to God and to the suffering of "all that is made" (Julian of Norwich) that breaks open the heart of the contemplative so that she or he cannot ignore the least pain or wound in any living thing.

I have quoted him before, but St. Isaac of Nineveh, writing in the 7th century AD, summed this up better than anyone:

An elder was once asked, "What is a merciful heart?" He replied:

"It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation.

For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns with without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God."

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Brother Wolf and Sister Water—a coda

Living a spiritual life makes our little, fearful hearts as wide as the universe, because the Spirit of Jesus dwelling within us embraces the whole of creation. Jesus is the Word, through whom the universe has been created. As Paul says: “In him were created all things in heaven and on earth: everything visible and everything invisible—all things were created through him and for him—in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17). Therefore when Jesus lives within us through his Spirit, our hearts embrace not only all people but all of creation. Love casts out all fear and gathers in all that belongs to God.

Prayer, which is breathing with the Spirit of Jesus, leads us to this immense knowledge.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

Brother Wolf and Sister Water

Raccoon Dogs

The picture shows a pair of Tanuki,  Raccoon Dogs, a species who suffer worse than most from the global fur trade, especially on Chinese fur farms, where there are no animal welfare regulations at all in force.

St. Bonaventure, building on Francis’ personal love of nature and the Incarnation of Jesus, saw the "traces" or "footprints" of God in all things. The whole world was also the “incarnation” of the God mystery, and the very “Body of God.” Jesus was the microcosm of the cosmos, the hologram of the whole, as it were! (See Colossians 1:15-20.)

The "journey of the mind to God,” as Bonaventure put it, was to learn how to see the unity of all being, how to listen for the partially hidden God, and how to honour the footprints that were everywhere evident once you could see.

The result was a life of gratitude and reverence, non-consumption, and simple joy—while still living a busy life in the world! These were the hallmarks of Franciscan spirituality.

Richard Rohr, adapted from Radical Grace: Daily Meditations, p. 172
(Source: “To Be and to Let Be,” from Catholic Charismatic)

When we realise, as St. Bonaventure did, the oneness of all creation. we come to see that we cannot see ourselves over against creation, as though it was a possession of ours to use or abuse according to our whim. Adam was put into the garden to take care of it (Genesis 2:15) not to pillage it.

We are all connected, we humans, by our common status as creatures; but so is the rest of creation connected to us, and we to the rest of creation. St. Francis saw this. He addressed the wolf of Gubbio as brother; in The Canticle of the Creatures he addresses the sun, the wind and the fire as his brothers; the moon, the water and the earth as his sisters. If the creatures, animals, vegetables and minerals alike, are our sisters and brothers, should we not care for them gently, helping them to be truly what God has made them to be?

This unity is also the ground of our praying: we pray as one with the whole broken, suffering creation, for we know “that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21 NIV)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Here be dragons—quite a new kind of poverty…

I believe profoundly in the necessity of surrender, but I don’t think we can chart its course ahead of time.   Our own private salvation projects seldom do the job.  Surrender is something that is done to us, more than something we do ourselves.

In Joseph Campbell’s book on the hero’s journey, he says that the only way to be a hero is to prepare and be ready for when the moment comes.  You might say that is the point of all spirituality.

Someone else must determine the timing, the circumstances, the shape of the ordeal.  None of us can engineer our own transformation—or it would not be transformation at all, but merely cosmetic surgery to make us “think well of ourselves.”

You can’t choose ahead of time which dragon you’ll slay or how you will slay it.  It will probably slay you.  So just make sure you are well-practiced in dying.

Richard Rohr, adapted from Near Occasions of Grace, p. 112

Bear with me, please. I hadn’t intended to write this tonight, but I stumbled across this passage from Richard Rohr, and it started to write itself. This is not going to be easy to put into words, and I may stumble around a bit looking for ones that seem at all adequate. I’m mayn’t make it.

One of the things I’ve come to learn, since the beginning of this extraordinary year, is just this. I could sense God’s call to another level of surrender, something far more profound than I’d encountered before. I did do my best to surrender to what I believed I was being called to—a more disciplined life of prayer, a more rigorous use of the time God gives to me—but it didn’t work at all. That wasn’t it.

I couldn't choose my dragon. It chose me. The marriage to which I’d given everything I knew how to give, the love on which I’d staked all that I’d achieved by the age of 40, was swept away in a moment. And even then, circumstances prevented me from “moving on” as they say, kept us living in the same house.

None of the rules applied any more. The old certainties were gone, and yet the shifting days would not allow new ones to take root. A new, strange and even beautiful comradeship had to evolve, bit by messy bit, out of what had been a marriage.

This is quite a new kind of poverty. No sort of self-determination has held, every anchor has dragged. It seems almost a cliché to say it, but God has truly been my only refuge—God himself, and not any means of apprehending him, no form of worship. Habits and presumptions have not stood this test. Only God is good. Out of his goodness strange flowers have sprung up: forgiveness, affection, compassion, a new sort of love that expects nothing, and finds itself given unimagined riches.

Where is all this going? I honestly don’t know. The next week will bring a deeper change, as Jan returns to the USA. And then? If I knew I’d have something to hold on to, I’d have some small savings against utter poverty—and it seems that isn’t God’s plan. St. Francis called his followers to live sine proprio, without possessing. Plans, foresight, precautions: these are possessions it seems I must learn to live without. It is an odd kind of freedom.

Two quotes from Paul’s letters seem to get closer than most things:

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20 NIV)

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Corinthians 3:17 NIV)

Another kind of poverty: Gerry Straub’s ‘Rejected Love’

Freedom is a gift of God’s love.

God has deliberately exposed himself
to the perils of our rebelliousness.

God’s love is constantly rejected
and yet God continues to love.

God’s omnipotence has a self-imposed impotence.
God cannot force humans to love.
We can thwart the fulfilment of creation
by excluding God from it.
We have been given extraordinary freedom.

God gives us the freedom to reject Him;
and it is that very freedom
which allows us to love God.

Gerry Straub

I have taken the liberty of posting this from Gerry Straub as part of my indefinite series on poverty… just seemed to fit so well with what I’ve been thinking!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Truth, freedom, comfort and glory!

People in the developed world have been trained in power and performance principles, but not at all in a spirituality of imperfection, detachment, letting go, and least of all any kind of surrender.  It sounds like losing, and we do not like that. (Yet we worship a God figure, Jesus, who is clearly losing by every criterion imaginable.) The Gospel is often non-understandable to the common mind, unless one has meditated long and hard on the message of the cross.

Surrender, to Western or comfortable people, sounds like losing when it’s actually accessing a deeper, broader sense of the self which is already content and totally abundant.  We would call it the “true self” or who-you-are-in-God.

Once you move your identity to that level of deep inner Contentment and draw life from that deeper Abundance, why would you ever again settle for a scarcity model for life—“I’m not enough, this is not enough, I do not have enough”?  In God and in grace, you are overwhelmed by more-than-enoughness!

What looked initially like losing becomes the ultimate finding.

Richard Rohr, adapted from The Little Way

When you look at it like this, poverty is the most comfortable place to live. As St. Francis discovered, Lady Poverty is the most faithful of lovers. Truly I have never been happier than at those times in my life when I have had least. The absence of anxiety, the sheer freedom—my shoulders relax, my head lifts. I’m sure my whole expression must change. No wonder people who meet people who truly live as our Lord suggested feel that they’ve somehow encountered God, if this is what my little experience feels like to me!

The Good News is freedom. The truth really does set you free. No wonder “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Romans 8:19, 21 NRSV) for “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

This is our hope. This is the ground of our prayer and the land on which we walk. Could any inheritance be more glorious than ours? Run, leap into the air, yell like a fool—for Christ has died, and Christ has risen, and “the Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance”, but he is coming. He will make all things new. And we get to be a part of that? Hallelujah!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Just read it, now…

The Messenger
by Mary Oliver

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over how it is
that we live forever.

from Thirst, Bloodaxe Books, 2007 (in the UK)
With thanks to Jan of Yearning for God

Monday, November 09, 2009

Poverty in humility…

Every day he humbles himself just as he did when he came from his heavenly throne (Wisdom 18:15) into the Virgin’s womb; every day he comes to us and lets us see him in abjection, when he descends from the bosom of the Father into the hands of the priest at the altar. He shows himself to us in this sacred bread just as he once appeared to his apostles in real flesh. With their own eyes they saw only his flesh, but they believed that he was God, because they contemplated him with the eyes of the spirit. We, too, with our own eyes, see only bread and wine, but we must see further and firmly believe that this is his most holy Body and Blood, living and true. In this way our Lord remains continually with his followers, as he promised, “Behold, I am with you all days, even unto the consummation of the world (Mt. 28:20).”

St. Francis of Assisi. With thanks to Little Scribe.

Many Christians have gone through years of religious education and church services and have never trustfully surrendered to Jesus or to God or to any “Higher Power.”   Like all of us, they are still trying to steer and control the ship themselves.

But why would we entrust ourselves to Someone that we do not know, or that we do not know is inherently good, or we are not sure is even on our side?  It is the Holy Spirit, the inner Paraclete (“Defence Attorney”) who prompts us to trust beyond ourselves, who teaches us that God is good, and that God is more for us than we are for ourselves.

In fact, God is the only one we can surrender to without losing ourselves.  But you have to try it to know it.

Richard Rohr, adapted from The Great Themes of Scripture

Poverty is like this. Poverty means, ultimately, the giving up of power. It is the poverty of Christ in Philippians 2:6-8 (NIV) “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!”

I seem to be being taught a very little practical lesson in this myself today. I had planned to go to Hilfield Friary this week; at the end of last week I came down with a horrible cold. I’ve been pampering myself all I can, but it just won’t go, and with my chronically bad chest I just don’t think I dare risk inflicting myself on the brothers in this state! So I shall have to continue with my enforced home retreat.

It’s silly little things like this that bring home to me our innate poverty as human beings more forcibly than the big, life-changing events. Somehow even in the grimmest of the big events, there’s a little place for the self to cast itself as a player—even if only in a bit part—in a big drama. Not being able to go away to see my spiritual director for a few days’ quiet, and being stuck at home with a stuffed-up head and a nasty cough, amounts to so little a thing that even my ego can’t find anything there to inflate itself with, and so I find myself strangely grateful.

The living and glorious God isn’t too proud to use snot and self-pity to explain to me my own poverty… “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.” (Romans 8:28 NIV) And I do love him so!

Saturday, November 07, 2009

An aside on the nature of prayer…

And when I mention that I needed to pray, I am referring to prayer in what I understand to be its most essential, simple and rudimentary reality, as a relationship in which the authentic (or, one could say, original) identity of a person is affirmed by the Word of God. Prayer, as I mean it, has its integrity in recall of the event of one’s own creation in the Word of God.  Prayer, in this significance, is distinguished from the vulgar or profane connotations that have, unhappily, accrued to the term. Prayer, for instance, has nothing, as such, to do with utterance, language, posture, ceremony or pharisaical style and tradition. Prayer is not ‘talking’ with God, to God, or about God. It is not asking God for anything whatsoever. It is not bargaining with God. It has no similarity to conjuring, fantasizing, sentimental indulgence, or superstitious practice. It is not motivational therapy…

More definitely, prayer is not personal in the sense of a private transaction occurring in a void, disconnected with everyone and everything else, but it is so personal that it reveals (I have chosen this verb conscientiously) every connection with everyone and everything else in the whole of Creation throughout time. A person in the estate of prayer is identified in relation to Alpha and Omega to the inception of everything and to the fulfilment of everything (cf. Romans 1:20, 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, Revelation 22:12). In prayer, the initiative belongs to the Word of God, acting to identify, or to reiterate the identity of, the one who prays.

…Prayer, in quintessence, therefore, is a political action—an audacious one, at that—bridging the gap between immediate realities and ultimate hope, between ethics and eschatology, between the world as it is and the Kingdom which is vouchsafed.

A Simplicity of Faith: My Experience in Mourning by William Stringfellow, 1982, pp. 67,68. (With thanks to Hugh Valentine)

The final loss…

The Church is called to announce the Good News of Jesus to all people and all nations. Besides the many works of mercy by which the Church must make Jesus’ love visible, it must also joyfully announce the great mystery of God's salvation through the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The story of Jesus is to be proclaimed and celebrated. Some will hear and rejoice, some will remain indifferent, some will become hostile. The story of Jesus will not always be accepted, but it must be told.

We who know the story and try to live it out, have the joyful task of telling it to others. When our words rise from hearts full of love and gratitude, they will bear fruit, whether we can see this or not.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

There is a darkness that we are all led into by our own stupidity, by our own selfishness, blindness, or by just living out of the false self. And there is a darkness that I believe God leads us through for our own enlightenment. In both cases, we have to walk through these dark periods by brutal honesty, confessions, surrenders, letting go, forgiveness, and often by some necessary restitution, apology or healing ritual. I still hear of Vietnam vets who feel they must go back to Vietnam and help some Vietnamese children to be healed.

Different vocabularies would have called these acts of repentance, penance, mortification, dying to self, or ego stripping. By any account it is major surgery and surely feels like dying (although it also feels like immense liberation). We need help and comfort during these times. We must let ourselves be led by God and also by others. But how can we know the light if we’ve never walked through the darkness?

Richard Rohr, from Hope Against Darkness, pp. 165, 173

I honestly believe that the process Rohr describes is what Jesus was describing when he spoke of taking up one’s cross to follow him, of losing one’s life in order to save it (Luke 9:23-24). This loss of ourselves is true poverty. We speak of “making losses” in business, we speak of losing friends, losing social standing; but these are mere shadows, pre-echoes, of this final loss.

Only when we have faithfully followed our Saviour on the way of the Cross will we have any witness to bring to others. If we have not done this, we shall have nothing to say.

I think in our own time, as in any other probably, too few people realise just what we are called to as Christians. It is far too easy to stop and merely enjoy the social, musical, companionable, comforting aspects of church (good and lovely as they are) and miss the heart of the matter. I think this is what Jesus was getting at when he said, “…small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:14 NIV) This is anything but elitist. All are called to follow Jesus; it is only our own reluctance to walk through the darkness of confession and surrender that holds us back from finding the way to life. May our Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us sinners, truly…

Friday, November 06, 2009

How to be a missionary church…

There is a tendency to think about poverty, suffering, and pain as realities that happen primarily or even exclusively at the bottom of our Church. We seldom think of our leaders as poor. Still, there is great poverty, deep loneliness, painful isolation, real depression, and much emotional suffering at the top of our Church.

We need the courage to acknowledge the suffering of the leaders of our Church—its ministers, priests, bishops, and popes—and include them in this fellowship of the weak. When we are not distracted by the power, wealth, and success of those who offer leadership, we will soon discover their powerlessness, poverty, and failures and feel free to reach out to them with the same compassion we want to give to those at the bottom. In God’s eyes there is no distance between bottom and top. There shouldn't be in our eyes either…

There are more people on this planet outside the Church than inside it. Millions have been baptised, millions have not. Millions participate in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, but millions do not.

The Church as the body of Christ, as Christ living in the world, has a larger task than to support, nurture, and guide its own members. It is also called to be a witness for the love of God made visible in Jesus. Before his death Jesus prayed for his followers, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). Part of the essence of being the Church is being a living witness for Christ in the world…

How does the Church witness to Christ in the world? First and foremost by giving visibility to Jesus’ love for the poor and the weak. In a world so hungry for healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, and most of all unconditional love, the Church must alleviate that hunger through its ministry. Wherever we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the lonely, listen to those who are rejected, and bring unity and peace to those who are divided, we proclaim the living Christ, whether we speak about him or not.

It is important that whatever we do and wherever we go, we remain in the Name of Jesus, who sent us. Outside his Name our ministry will lose its divine energy.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

Nouwen points out something here that was self-evident not only in Jesus’ own ministry, but also in St. Francis’. Jesus, whom the disciples rightly called Teacher and Lord (John 13:13) had nowhere to lay his head (Luke 9:58); Francis, the founder of arguably the best-known religious order in the history of the Christian church, died lying on the bare ground, covered only by a borrowed habit.

Church leaders who feel that wealth and power are somehow owed to them, in line with the leaders of secular pursuits, who take pride in comfortable houses and personalised number-plates, would do well to think this through. Equally, though, we in the laity who ask the impossible of our leaders, who expect to own a share in their every waking minute, would do well to remember that they too are “in this fellowship of the weak”.

It it only by ministering to the poor as the poor, as Jesus and Francis did, that we will ever be an effective witness to our Lord and Saviour. When we are prepared to be truly a “church without walls,” without the walls of privilege, social standing, comfortable wealth, then we will see the Kingdom come, on earth as it is in Heaven!

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The poor are the centre of the Church…

The poor are the centre of the Church. But who are the poor? At first we might think of people who are not like us: people who live in slums, people who go to soup kitchens, people who sleep on the streets, people in prisons, mental hospitals, and nursing homes. But the poor can be very close. They can be in our own families, churches or workplaces. Even closer, the poor can be ourselves, who feel unloved, rejected, ignored, or abused.

It is precisely when we see and experience poverty—whether far away, close by, or in our own hearts—that we need to become the Church; that is hold hands as brothers and sisters, confess our own brokenness and need, forgive one another, heal one another's wounds, and gather around the table of Jesus for the breaking of the bread. Thus, as the poor we recognise Jesus, who became poor for us…

When we claim our own poverty and connect our poverty with the poverty of our brothers and sisters, we become the Church of the poor, which is the Church of Jesus. Solidarity is essential for the Church of the poor . Both pain and joy must be shared. As one body we will experience deeply one another’s agonies as well as one another’s ecstasies. As Paul says: “If one part is hurt, all the parts share its pain. And if one part is honoured, all the parts share its joy” (1 Corinthians 12:26).

Often we might prefer not to be part of the body because it makes us feel the pain of others so intensely. Every time we love others deeply we feel their pain deeply. However, joy is hidden in the pain. When we share the pain we also will share the joy.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

Yet again, I’m reminded that the heart of prayer, especially contemplative prayer, lies in this identification, this suffering-with (compassion) that Jesus leads us into, if only we will listen to him, if only we will follow where he leads us, and not turn away. Our brother Francis knew this: that was why he embraced poverty as the love of his life, the outer destitution only a mirror for the absolute inner poverty, the oneness with all who suffer, human and otherwise. Only in this way can we become wellsprings (or at least drainpipes) for the mercy of Christ to flow into the world’s pain.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The love of Poverty…

The most honoured parts of the body are not the head or the hands, which lead and control. The most important parts are the least presentable parts. That’s the mystery of the Church. As a people called out of oppression to freedom, we must recognize that it is the weakest among us—the elderly, the small children, the handicapped, the mentally ill, the hungry and sick—who form the real centre. Paul says, “It is the parts of the body which we consider least dignified, that we surround with the greatest dignity” (1 Corinthians 12:23).

The Church as the people of God can truly embody of the living Christ among us only when the poor remain its most treasured part. Care for the poor, therefore, is much more than Christian charity. It is the essence of being the body of Christ…

Like every human organization the Church is constantly in danger of corruption. As soon as power and wealth come to the Church, manipulation, exploitation, misuse of influence, and outright corruption are not far away.

How do we prevent corruption in the Church? The answer is clear: by focusing on the poor. The poor make the Church faithful to its vocation. When the Church is no longer a church for the poor, it loses its spiritual identity. It gets caught up in disagreements, jealousy, power games, and pettiness. Paul says, “God has composed the body so that greater dignity is given to the parts which were without it, and so that there may not be disagreements inside the body but each part may be equally concerned for all the others” (1 Corinthians 12:24-25). This is the true vision. The poor are given to the Church so that the Church as the body of Christ can be and remain a place of mutual concern, love, and peace.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

St. Francis saw this so clearly: it was only by “focusing” on the poor to the extent that he embraced their poverty for himself, embraced it as closely as a lover, that he was able—without, at least to begin with, even realising what he was doing—to cleanse the corruption that threatened to destroy the Church in his day.

But how do we, in our own time, come anywhere close to this? I have always wondered how we might truly follow this part of our vocation as Tertiaries. The Third Order of the Society of St. Francis was founded by Francis himself in order to provide a way to live as radical Christians in the world, rather than by walking away from it. As the Principles state (Day 4): “When Saint Francis encouraged the formation of The Third Order he recognised that many are called to serve God in the spirit of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience in everyday life (rather than in a literal acceptance of these principles as in the vows of the Brothers and Sisters of the First and Second Orders). The rule of The Third Order is intended to enable us in the duties and conditions of daily living, and for us to carry them out in this spirit.”

This is all very good; but where, in our own lives, does the rubber hit the road? It would be so easy to fudge the call to simplicity, or to let it stand as a merely external exercise. Where is the reckless love Francis had for his Lady Poverty?

Richard Rohr has some thoughts:

God calls all of us to take the demanding and liberating path of our own inner truth (John 8:31-32) [Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (NIV)]—and that means taking responsibility for everything that’s in us: for what pleases us and for what we’re ashamed of, for the rich person inside us and for the poor one too. Francis of Assisi called this forgiving the leper within us and Therese of Lisieux called it “The Little Way.” It is always the way of courage and utter trust, recognizing both light and shadow within us.

If we learn to honour and claim our inner inheritance, we will grant others the same divine donation. If we learn to love the poor one within us, we’ll discover that we have room for compassion for all “outsiders” too, because we now know that we are all the same. Human solidarity now comes naturally.

Those who have enough space within them to embrace every part of their own soul can receive the fully human and fully divine Christ. And the good news is that Christ himself will lead us on this path.

Adapted from Simplicity, p. 174-175

I confess that I’m really quite excited about Rohr’s words here. If the discipline of interior prayer can lead us directly into the love of inner—and ultimately outer—poverty, then at last we have a handle on our calling, and a real understanding of why prayer is so central to our vocation. Certainly my own experience seems to be bearing out all that Rohr says.

I’ll try and write more on this as it (hopefully!) becomes clearer…

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Little Way…

God calls all of us to take the demanding and liberating path of our own inner truth (John 8:31-32)—and that means taking responsibility for everything that’s in us: for what pleases us and for what we’re ashamed of, for the rich person inside us and for the poor one too. Francis of Assisi called this forgiving the leper within us and Therese of Lisieux called it “The Little Way.” It is always the way of courage and utter trust, recognizing both light and shadow within us.

If we learn to honour and claim our inner inheritance, we will grant others the same divine donation. If we learn to love the poor one within us, we’ll discover that we have room for compassion for all “outsiders” too, because we now know that we are all the same. Human solidarity now comes naturally.

Those who have enough space within them to embrace every part of their own soul can receive the fully human and fully divine Christ. And the good news is that Christ himself will lead us on this path.

Richard Rohr, adapted from Simplicity, p. 174-175

I love this sense that we are all outsiders, in the end. If we see ourselves truly, we will realise that we “fit” only in what Rohr calls our “inner inheritance”—the way God has “prepared for us to walk in”.

I think part of the reason I find this so exciting is that it resonates deeply with two concepts that fascinated me when I was young, the Tao of the Chinese philosophers Lao Tzu, Lieh Tzu and Chuang Tzu, and Colin Wilson's idea of The Outsider. Yet somehow although they allowed me to see where the deep longing I felt almost continuously might be located, they couldn’t help me actually to find what I might be longing for.

It wasn’t until my own conversion between the ages of 30 and 31 that I began to find what they had been calling out to me through the fog: that all our times are in God’s hand, all our ways carved into the very being of us, and we have only to trust that the God who made us made us this way advisedly, and accept ourselves, as he accepts us in Christ, with open arms. In doing that, our arms are open to all without question, for in the end we are all little, and we sleep, and love, and weep, all alike.

“If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (Jesus said this, John 8:31-32 NIV)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bible Sunday

The rich young man in Mark 10:17-22 isn't personally a bad guy; he's simply a normal part of the system in which he's stuck. Thus Jesus calls him to distance himself, or even separate himself from it for his own liberation. Most people are not personally bad or evil, but they are often a part of structures that make it impossible for them to see correctly or wisely. Personal blindness and structural blindness are two different things, although they often overlap.

"Jesus said, 'You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor.' At that saying, the man's countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions." We can tell that he is personally a good man from Jesus’ response to him: the text says, "He looked intently at him and loved him."

When Jesus challenges people, he usually does not call them personally evil or malevolent. Instead he points to the fact that they’re structurally blind, that they can’t see from their present vantage point. Thus he tells them they have to change positions (tax collectors, rich people, people trapped in victimhood, etc.) because otherwise they will never learn to see. Up to now, we have largely addressed evil on a personal level with rather poor results. Jesus addresses evil by also critiquing the invisible loyalty systems which demand most of our allegiance.

Richard Rohr, adapted from Simplicity, p. 139

I sometimes think this is what we are up against in our churches. We believe, we worship, but like the rich young man in the Gospel account, we don't accept the consequences of Jesus' challenge to the systems that undergird our lives.

Today is Bible Sunday. As the writer to the Hebrews says (4:12 NIV), "the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart." If we are to be able to receive the gift of eternal life, of freedom now, from Jesus, we have to approach and accept the Bible as more than just a collection of interesting old stories and poems, as more than a liturgical ornament that fits between the collect and the sermon: it is the Word of God, with all the beauty and all the terror that that should convey.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Luther said this...

I seem to be in a Lutherish kind of a mood today. Maggi Dawn just reminded me of one of my very favourite Martin Luther quotes:
I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God. Music drives away the Devil and makes people gay; they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance, and the like. Next after theology, I give to music the highest place and the greatest honour.
Yes! - preach it, Brother Martin!

Loving the Church...

Loving the Church often seems close to impossible. Still, we must keep reminding ourselves that all people in the Church - whether powerful or powerless, conservative or progressive, tolerant or fanatic - belong to that long line of witnesses moving through this valley of tears, singing songs of praise and thanksgiving, listening to the voice of their Lord, and eating together from the bread that keeps multiplying as it is shared. When we remember that, we may be able to say, "I love the Church, and I am glad to belong to it."

Loving the Church is our sacred duty. Without a true love for the Church, we cannot live in it in joy and peace. And without a true love for the Church, we cannot call people to it.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

I thought this was a good chaser for my last two posts!

A foot in both camps...

It seems to me that the emerging church is emerging because people are finding the ability to have a grateful foot in both camps - one in the Tradition (the mother church) along with another foot inside of a support group that parallels, deepens, broadens, grounds, and personalizes the traditional message. But you don't throw out the traditional message, or you have to keep rebuilding the infrastructure or creating a superstructure all over again.

The emerging church becomes an accountability system for the Tradition, which is needed to keep us honest and not just lost in words. This is a new kind of reformation in which we don't react, we don't rebel, we don't start from zero again. You can't start a spiritual reformation by spinning wheels, particularly not angry wheels. You have to be for something - totally - or it is not religion.

And so the appropriate questions are: What are you in love with? What do you believe in? What is the heaven that you have already discovered? What good thing do you need to share? This is the only work of soul.

Richard Rohr, adapted from the CAC webcast, Nov. 8, 2008: “What is The Emerging Church?

This is a deeply Franciscan point of view that Rohr is expressing. St. Francis himself, born into a period when the church of his day was not in a good state, wasted no time in criticising either its leadership or its laity, but simply got on with following the Christ he loved as closely as he possibly could, collecting around him those who caught his vision of a truly radical life according to the actual Biblical teachings of Jesus, and lived in the fullness of the Holy Spirit. In doing so, he did far more to rebuild the church than any of its critics and rebels like Frederick II.

In our day most of us cannot, or do not, aspire to Francis' purity of vision - but we can be faithful to the leading of the Holy Spirit; we can go back to the Gospels and fall in love again with the Son of the Living God who died to save us, and by whose mercy we have been set free; and we can try our honest best to live in the Light of Christ regardless of what may be said of us by those who are embarrassed by the truth.

I love this sense of having a foot in both camps. I simply cannot live any other way myself. I know there are plenty of friends of mine who find this habit slightly difficult. Some of my evangelical / charismatic friends find my devotion to our Lady, my (very) high view of the Eucharist, and so forth, deeply peculiar if not downright suspect. On the other hand, I have Anglo-Catholic friends who not only cannot understand my taste in worship music, but who find my (very) high view of the role of the Holy Spirit in the church in general and in prayer ministry in particular, deeply peculiar if not downright suspect. I don't think either group of friends readily understands the depth of my devotion to God's Word.

I can't help that. Here I stand, as Martin Luther is reported to have once said, and I can do no other. Actually I think it is terribly important that, like Brother Francis before us, we adamantly refuse to be recruited by any camp in opposition to any other. We have good precedent. Throughout the four Gospels we can find accounts of Jesus refusing to be recruited by the Pharisees, the Zealots, or anyone else who would gladly have called him "one of us", slipping away through the crowd anytime anyone tried to make him king (John 6:15).

We must keep a foot firmly, I'm coming to believe, in both camps - and we must, gently but firmly, resist anyone who tells us that our views are internally contradictory, mutually incompatible, or any of that. We must go our own way, or rather Jesus' way, even when it costs us, as it cost him, dearly.