Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Turning us loose to pray...

I've just read a wonderful post from Brother Bede Thomas Mudge OHC, on, among other things, the Jesus Prayer. He says:

I finished [the evening] with some suggestions about other uses of the Prayer - to accompany people through the day and through the night, and in praying for others, especially when you don't know what to pray for. Just putting a person in your consciousness and praying over them: "Lord Jesus Christ, Word of God, have mercy" is a wonderful way to intercede, and helps us to turn loose of the manipulative approach to God that troubles many of us when we pray.

Do click over and read the whole post!

Monday, April 27, 2009

A bloggers' charter

Writing can be a true spiritual discipline. Writing can help us to concentrate, to get in touch with the deeper stirrings of our hearts, to clarify our minds, to process confusing emotions, to reflect on our experiences, to give artistic expression to what we are living, and to store significant events in our memories. Writing can also be good for others who might read what we write.

Quite often a difficult, painful, or frustrating day can be "redeemed" by writing about it. By writing we can claim what we have lived and thus integrate it more fully into our journeys. Then writing can become lifesaving for us and sometimes for others too.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

Nouwen could have written this with today's blogging community in mind, I think. Extending "spiritual discipline" a bit can cover all kinds of blogs other than faith blogs... apart from those blogs concentrating on cars, sex or gardening, there seems to be a persistent spiritual element to blogs even from people who would not think of themselves as "spiritual" at all. Maybe there is something about writing, after all, that connects us, willy-nilly, with the things of the spirit. Certainly many poets would agree!

At the risk of offending those who are not Christians who may find their way here via a keyword search, I can't help but feel that all this is somehow connected with the Word. The Greek, as most people know I guess, is Logos, which translates as "reason", "order", "plan", as well as "word". When we use words, we are using things which have meaning and connection beyond what is dreamt of in most of our philosophies, it seems to me. God spoke, and things came to be. What he spoke was the Word, Jesus, through whom all things were made (John 1:3). Jesus' own words were more than just remarks: he said, "Talitha koum!" and the little girl stood up (Mark 5:40ff); he told dead Lazarus to come out, and out he came (John 11.42). He only had to say, "I am!" and a bunch of hardened, well-armed soldiers and Temple guards drew back fell to the ground (John 18:6).

Jesus said once, "I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father." (John 14:12) Why should we wonder that our words, even words in blogs, can be more "powerful and effective" (James 5:16) than we might expect?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Sent...

Each of us has a mission in life. Jesus prays to his Father for his followers, saying: "As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world" (John 17:18).

We seldom realise fully that we are sent to fulfil God-given tasks. We act as if we have to choose how, where, and with whom to live. We act as if we were simply plopped down in creation and have to decide how to entertain ourselves until we die. But we were sent into the world by God, just as Jesus was. Once we start living our lives with that conviction, we will soon know what we were sent to do.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Substitutes for faith...

The affluent are literally possessed by their possessions. Money and the things it can buy stalks the rich countries like a demon. Mammon offers comforts and pleasures to delight the flesh but demands the soul in return. The attachment of Americans to their standard of living has become an addiction. We can’t stop shopping, eating, consuming….

A successful life leads not to love, wisdom and maturity; progress and success in our society is instead based on adding more to one’s pile of possessions. Our natural course is toward a better job, bigger house and richer lifestyle….

Material goods have become substitutes for faith. It’s not that people literally place their cars on the altar; rather, it is the function of these goods in a consumer society. They function as idols, even though most affluent U.S. Christians, like rich Christians throughout history, would deny it.

Jim Wallis, The Call to Conversion (with thanks to Inward/Outward)

And we wonder, sometimes, why the current economic crisis feels like a crisis of faith...

Monday, April 20, 2009

Lightning rods...

In an extraordinary post over on A Minor Friar, Brother Charles says:

Sometimes I think we don't spend enough time reminding ourselves of the direct connection between the creation and the incarnation. When I talk to kids or even adults about creation, they almost always know that God created the heavens and the earth. But they are often stumped when I ask them how God creates, what particular technique God used. Though it's explicit and obvious in the first creation account in Genesis, it's easily missed that God creates through his speech. "God said," "and so it happened."

St. John says as much in the prologue to his gospel, how the world was created through the Word. As Christians we believe that Jesus Christ is that same Word made flesh. The same Word which, when spoken, makes the creation happen is made human in Christ. So God's act of creating the world and the Incarnation of the Word are very closely correlated. I would even dare to say that the world is created so that the Word might become incarnate in it, so that the Word made flesh might die and rise within it in order to communicate to the creation the creative power of the Word.

The Resurrection, then, a recapitulation of the first day of creation when God separated the light from the darkness. This is also part of the reason why we celebrate the Easter season as a "week of weeks." During the whole of the first week we pray in "on this Easter day" in the preface to the Eucharistic Prayer, because the Easter Octave is the "Sunday" in the seven weeks of the season. The Easter season imitates and commemorates both the creation through the Word and the re-creation through the Word made flesh, and reminds us that we are on pilgrimage to a destiny in which these are the same thing.

The gift of rebirth in the Resurrection is for the whole of creation. For God insists on saving the world and pours out upon it the very force of creation itself in the dying and rising of Christ.

This is what lies at the very heart of what I understand about prayer. We do not pray as isolated individuals, crying out our demands to a brazen sky. No, we pray as part of creation, already dead and already raised (Colossians 3:3; Romans 6:8) with Christ: we are lightning rods for "the very force of creation itself" in Christ. We are very like lightning rods in fact, small and insignificant things, dull and spindly, left out in the weather. Yet the Holy Spirit will flow (unhindered if we are poor enough in ourselves) through us, bringing healing and renewal, and the hope of the Resurrection, not only to those we might remember to pray for by name, but to everyone, and every thing, towards whom our hearts are open.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

In the same way, 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. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will. (Romans 8.18-27)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Cross bridge...

He who was also the carpenter's glorious son set up his cross above death's all-consuming jaws, and led the human race into the dwelling place of life. We give glory to you, Lord, who raised up your cross to span the jaws of death like a bridge by which souls might pass from the region of the dead to the land of the living. We give glory to you who put on the body of a single mortal and made it the source of life for every other mortal. You are incontestably alive. Your murderers sowed your living body in the earth as farmers sow grain, but it sprang up and yielded an abundant harvest of people raised from the dead.

Come, then, my brothers and sisters, let us offer our Lord the great and all-embracing sacrifice of our love, pouring out our treasury of hymns and prayers before him who offered his cross in sacrifice to God for the enrichment of us all.

From a sermon of Ephrem of Edessa, Deacon (AD 373) found in Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church, edited by J. Robert Wright. Copyright © 1991, Church Publishing Incorporated, NY, with thanks to Vicki K Black

Freedom!

True freedom is the freedom of the children of God. To reach that freedom requires a lifelong discipline since so much in our world militates against it. The political, economic, social, and even religious powers surrounding us all want to keep us in bondage so that we will obey their commands and be dependent on their rewards.

But the spiritual truth that leads to freedom is the truth that we belong not to the world but to God, whose beloved children we are. By living lives in which we keep returning to that truth in word and deed, we will gradually grow into our true freedom...

When we are spiritually free, we do not have to worry about what to say or do in unexpected, difficult circumstances. When we are not concerned about what others think of us or what we will get for what we do, the right words and actions will emerge from the centre of our beings because the Spirit of God, who makes us children of God and sets us free, will speak and act through us.

Jesus says: "When you are handed over, do not worry about how to speak or what to say; what you are to say will be given to you when the time comes, because it is not you who will be speaking; the Spirit of your Father will be speaking in you" (Matthew 10:19-20).

Let's keep trusting the Spirit of God living within us, so that we can live freely in a world that keeps handing us over to judges and evaluators...

When you are interiorly free you call others to freedom, whether you know it or not. Freedom attracts wherever it appears. A free man or a free woman creates a space where others feel safe and want to dwell. Our world is so full of conditions, demands, requirements, and obligations that we often wonder what is expected of us. But when we meet a truly free person, there are no expectations, only an invitation to reach into ourselves and discover there our own freedom.

Where true inner freedom is, there is God. And where God is, there we want to be.

from Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey.

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." (John 8:31-32)

So much of our lives, it seems to me, are led according to the by now unconscious, internalised, teaching we received from our parents. If we are truly fortunate, this will be the Gospel of Christ - but for so many of us it is not.

I have still, at the age of 60, to struggle daily against expectations built into my whole perception of my own self-worth. I "know", because I was taught it at an age when I was too young to know that there was any other point of view, that love is earned, and may at any time be withdrawn if one fails to meet expectations. I "know" too that one's worth as a person, one's right to exist in another's eyes, only comes at the price of meeting certain targets, of coming up with the goods, both educationally and creatively.

To hear the Gospel, truly to hear it, years after I had first accepted intellectually the truth of our faith, was for me to hear that justification is by faith alone: that there is nothing I could do to earn it, and that nothing I can in my frail humanity fail to do can lose it for me. To read the 8th chapter of Paul's Letter to the Romans properly was one of the greatest liberations in all my life. And yet it was only in trying to live according to what I read in the Gospels that I was able to understand it. Nouwen says, "By living lives in which we keep returning to that truth in word and deed, we will gradually grow into our true freedom..." and I have come to know that he was right!

But, knowing all this, I still have to struggle. For me, the false programming I received as a child acts as one of the "powers" Nouwen refers to, and which Paul describes so movingly in Romans 8:38-39: "For I am convinced 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." I have daily to take up the armour of God (Ephesians 6:10-18) to resist it, to cut it down with the sword of the Spirit, for if I do not, I find that it grows up unbidden again, like brambles, in the background of my sense of who I am.

Nouwen is right when he speaks of "living lives in which we keep returning to that truth [of the Gospels] in word and deed." We do indeed have to "keep returning." Our enemy will not, this side of Glory, allows us to rest in this truth, to appropriate it once for all. But it is right anyway, I think, that we shouldn't. Paul says again, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him..." (Romans 8:28) and here it seems he is doing just that. As long as we remain part of a creation as yet not fully liberated (ibid. 18-25) we will forget, or the bramble re-growth of whatever it is obscures our hearing of the Word that sets us free.

Truly, nothing will ultimately be able to "separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" but in order actually to live our lives in the freedom of that truth, we have to "remain" ("abide" NRSV) in Christ (John 15), living according to his teaching - for it is only then that we will "will know the truth, and the truth will set [us] free." (John 8:32)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Word and the Spirit...

I have been thinking over the last few weeks and months, with an increasing sense of urgency, about the Word. If we are Christians, what distinguishes us as Christians? Where are the roots of our being Christian?

We hear the Word, our hearts receive it, and our wills, by faith, and under grace, respond. But we have to hear the Word.

And yet the Word is at least a most wonderfully complex and subtle amalgam of history, adventure, poetry, song, preaching, prophecy, theology and much else besides; and ultimately, it is Jesus, our Saviour, himself. (John 1:1)

I have sometimes inveighed in this blog against reading the Bible as if it were a set of instructions for some mechanism, applying it like a rulebook for some totalitarian regime. This is plainly foolish, since were that to be the method recommended by the Holy Spirit, the book he inspired and guided would be set out as a rulebook, an unambiguous catalogue of dos and don'ts, and it is about as far from that as you can get. It is full of the grace and mercy of God, and of the complexity and the contradictory nature of the human heart (Romans 7:18-20 ).

Yet the opposite is also true. All religions are not the same. As Christians we are not merely in the position of so many of us in my youth, wandering starry (glassy?) eyed from one faith to another philosophy, from one mantra to another psychedelic substance. We have been given Jesus' teachings, and the Old Testament in whose soil they grew, and which prophesied his coming, and if we follow those teachings, we will know the truth, and that truth will set us free (John 8:31-32).

Confessing Evangelical remarks in a recent post:

The Christian revelation achieves this in at least two ways. First, in the person of Jesus himself: the incarnate Word. Any word about God will inevitably be reductive, giving only "the impression of capturing reality". However, in Jesus we see not a word about God, but the Word who is God. To know God, therefore, is not a matter of hearing and understanding words about God, but about relating to Jesus as the Word...

So we have the Word which washes us, the Word which we eat and drink. Neither of these is less than the Word which we hear with our ears, nor is that Word set aside or superseded. Rather, the sacraments are a means by which our whole person, body and soul, conscious and unconscious (or "pre-conscious" in the case of an infant being baptised), encounters and receives that Word.

In that context, not only are the sacraments a vehicle for the Word, but the Word itself becomes sacramental. The Word that we hear with our ears (or read with our eyes) becomes more than merely a conscious reception of words about Jesus (and hence about God), but a place where we encounter Jesus himself. This is especially true in the reading of Scripture and preaching of the gospel in church. Superficially these can seem to us to be only a conscious hearing of words about Jesus. However, understood sacramentally, it is Jesus himself who speaks to our whole person through them.

All this "cannot be expressed with words, and it cannot be expressed without words"; it can only be received by faith, through the work of the Holy Spirit.

This increasing hunger for God's word, and for a community which lives and prays in its beautiful light (Psalm 119:105) led first Jan, and then me, to search for such things in our own area. We are home at last in a little Baptist church in a nearby village - a young church, planted out of a long-established church in one of the neighbouring seaside towns, full of joy and hope, and of people of every age and background.

I am still a Franciscan, of course: increasingly, I recall Francis and Clare as people who were faithful to the Word and in prayer, who could hold action and contemplation, life according to the Word and the Spirit, in creative tension rather than in opposition. This is exactly where I find myself, and I have to remain true to the call that has brought me here.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

A white silence...

I have not been posting as regularly as I would have liked to, recently. I'll try and write more on why after Easter, but actually these last weeks have also been externally scattered, in a good way, with old friends from across the world and from the other end of the country coming to visit, and to see around our county, and to be shown some of the lovely hidden places of Purbeck!

Barbara, of barefoot towards the light, has a wonderful little post on the Easter Triduum, where she speaks of "withdraw[ing] behind a white silence." I think, as the hours pass on towards Good Friday, that that is the right place for me, too. As Barbara also says, "it is more than called for."

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Empty hands, empty heart...

When someone gives us a watch but we never wear it, the watch is not really received. When someone offers us an idea but we do not respond to it, that idea is not truly received. When someone introduces us to a friend but we ignore him or her, that friend does not feel well received.

Receiving is an art. It means allowing the other to become part of our lives. It means daring to become dependent on the other. It asks for the inner freedom to say: "Without you I wouldn't be who I am." Receiving with the heart is therefore a gesture of humility and love. So many people have been deeply hurt because their gifts were not well received. Let us be good receivers.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

Christianity is precisely a liberation from every rigid legal and religious system. This is asserted with such categorical force by St. Paul that we cease to be Christians the moment our religion becomes slavery to "the Law" rather than a free personal adherence by loving faith to the risen and living Christ: "Do you seek justification by the Law... you are fallen from grace... In fact, in Christ Jesus neither circumcision or its absence is of any avail. What counts is faith that expresses itself in love" (Gal. 5:4, 6).

Thomas Merton. Seasons of Celebration

Do you see the connection? It is the gift of grace, the gift we celebrate with increasing force over these days leading up to Easter, that we must receive with open hands, and an open heart. It's probably a cliché, but our hands cannot receive if they are clenched in possession or defence, and our hearts cannot receive if they are full of stuff. It is the empty hands, the empty heart, that will receive the priceless gift of love that Christ has for us at Easter. It is to the anawim, to the helpless poor, that Jesus was sent, as he described when he quoted from Isaiah 61 at the start of his ministry, as Luke records (4.16-21).
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven...

(Matthew 5.3)