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.