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)