Monday, November 29, 2010

The persistence of what we must still call faith…

The best metaphor for our world of today is astronauts speeding through the cosmos, but with their life-supporting capsule pierced by a meteorite fragment. But the Church resembles Mary and Joseph travelling from Egypt to Nazareth on a donkey, holding in their arms the weakness and poverty of the Child Jesus: God incarnate.

Carlo Caretto, The God Who Comes, with thanks to inward/outward

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

Our waiting is what the world calls weakness. The world wants action, decisiveness, assertiveness, alacrity—these are the strengths it admires and nurtures, demands.

Our Lord was hidden in his mother’s womb for 9 long months, and then hidden, as Caretto tells us, in her arms all that long and vulnerable journey into exile in Egypt. His early life, back in Nazareth, was hidden among sawdust and stacked planks, down some dusty unrecorded narrow street.

Our life in Advent is hidden in the darkness of unknowing, our eyes turned to the pain in which we are, by our plain createdness, hopelessly implicated. Or it would be hopeless, were it not for the rumour of prophecy, the persistence of what we must still call faith…

Friday, November 26, 2010

Keep hoping…

More Kristene Mueller. I simply can’t stop listening to that woman’s voice:

There is a love hidden inside your borders
Just waiting to be free, just waiting to be free.
There is a hope hidden inside your borders
Just waiting to be realized, just waiting to be realized…

Sometimes the hope hurts more deeply than its absence.

Trust. Fear. Worship.

It’s a week now since I last saw Ruby, my little fluffy tortoiseshell cat. Hard to keep the balance between grief and hope, trust and imagination. I’ve done all that I know to do—asked around, put up posters, activated her microchip, and called and called, alone and with company…

And I’ve prayed, continually. Waking up in the night to pray often leads into long prayer for all the lost and wandering, for the hurt and bewildered of every race and species, for the seemingly endless pain of this broken world. Christ’s mercy is our only refuge, his making all things new the only light on our horizon (Romans 8:18-27).

Ruby’s sister Ftifa and uncle Griffin haven’t been looking for her, or obviously grieving, though they have both been spending rather more time indoors than they had, and both sleep on my bed most of the night.

A friend’s daughter posted a beautiful song by Kristene Mueller on Facebook this morning, and it brought together so much of God’s way with us in times like this. We cannot but worship, despite our fear. Listen, carefully, to the whole song:

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Truth, freedom and gratitude…

Re-reading yesterday’s post, I was struck by a sentence from Victoria Boyson’s article: “Our thankful heart will produce an honest and accurate view of God.”

We I wonder how many others, like me, carry within us a curious little seed of doubt, that would have us sometimes wonder if all we know of God is not wishful thinking, so kind of illusion of the heart? Yet 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)

This morning I attended, for the first time, the regular Saturday prayer meeting at my new church. Someone quoted these words of Jesus’ there, and they’ve been on the edge of my mind ever since.

It is God’s longing for us that we should know him, and that we should know his blessings as his, as in some way a glimpse of who he actually is. When Jesus healed ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19) on the border between Samaria and Galilee, only one turned back to give thanks to God, and Jesus said to him, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?… Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica, “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) and to the Colossians he wrote, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” (Colossians 2:6-7)

It seems to be that as we live in Christ, as we try to follow him, and depend on him for healing and forgiveness when we fail, that we know who he really is. Every time I hear that remark of Jesus’ from John 8, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”, I can’t get over the fact that Jesus didn’t say, “Learn the truth, and the truth will set you free” or even, “Confess the truth, and the truth will set you free.” He said, “If you hold to my teachings… you will know the truth…”

“Our thankful heart will produce an honest and accurate view of God.” It does seem that way.

CS Lewis wrote somewhere, that “If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.”

While we’re on the subject of Lewis, that great scholar and apologist of the last century whose life is commemorated in the Episcopal Church calendar on Monday (though curiously not in our Church of England Calendar, when we remember St. Cecilia only) I can’t help but remember his book about the death of his wife, Joy Davidman Gresham, and of the process of his grieving. If I am tempted to be what a dear friend of mine calls “precious” about the potentially confessional side of this blog, I should remember that deeply personal, agonisingly raw piece of confessional literature from a man I admire, even love, as much as any writer I have read! Perhaps others may even be helped by what I may write here, in some small reflection, perhaps, of the way I have been helped by A Grief Observed.

Friday, November 19, 2010

What to do with blessings...

The other day I wrote that I was having difficulty knowing what to do with blessings, having grown so close to God during some of the most difficult times.

I keep remembering the children of Israel in the Old Testament, who learned (sort of) to trust God in the bad times, but who wandered away after false Gods and loose living when the good times came.

Thinking it over, I remembered reading a remarkable recent article by Victoria Boyson, where she discusses just this question.

"Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). A person with a thankful heart is a person of great power. A thankful heart is a victorious heart, which sees victory in the face of defeat.

In the course of battle, we can often get frustrated and find ourselves wrestling with God instead of contending the mountains in our lives. Through our frustration we end up rebuking God, instead of rebuking principalities and powers. We can get caught in the cycle of complaint with God concerning how long it is taking Him to meet our need; instead of thanking Him for all that He has already done for us. Our unhappiness can keep us continually seeking explanations from God, instead of thanking Him for the mountains He has already moved and the seas that He has parted to get us this far.

How soon we lose sight of all the miracles He has performed to bring us the victories we have already been given. While waiting for God to do the "big" thing for us, we forget to be thankful for the little victories along the way. I believe the small blessings we receive from God are a special test of our heart; He wants to know if we will be thankful even for the smallest gift.

On the other hand, Satan wants us to become dissatisfied with the victories God has given us, for a dissatisfied heart is easy for him to manipulate.  When we are frustrated, he can get us to do and say things we would not otherwise and attitudes can develop that hurt our faith. Jealousy and selfish ambition are both rooted in an ungrateful, dissatisfied heart. For a dissatisfied heart is like a hunger that is never filled, or a fire that never dies out. If we allow it, it will eat away at the enjoyment we find in this life...

Our thankful heart will produce an honest and accurate view of God. We will see that He alone holds the world in the palm of His hand, and that He alone is the creator of all things. As this awesome God blesses us everyday, we simply need to take the time to renew our minds by thinking of the blessings and victories He has given us. When we do this, we enlarge our capacity to believe in Him to do even greater things, and then we will trust Him more and lean more on the power and authority He has given us...

Victoria Boyson, 'A Heart of Thanksgiving'

If giving thanks to God even in the bad times opens the door to God's blessings, how much more will we be able to trust God if we can remains thankful in his blessings? After all, they are his blessings, not ours, and in offering them to him in our thankfulness, we are, in the words of the liturgy, giving him of his own.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

My grace is sufficient for you…

My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Prayer clarifies our hope and intentions. It helps us discover our true aspirations, the pangs we ignore, the longings we forget. It is an act of self-purification... It teaches us what to aspire to, implants in us the ideals we ought to cherish. Prayer is an invitation to God to intervene in our lives, to let God’s will prevail in our affairs; it is the opening of a window to God in our will, an effort to make God the Lord of our soul. We submit our interests to God's concern, and seek to be allied with what is ultimately right.

Abraham Joshua Heschel

Prayer simplifies things. When all around us, within and without, is desperately complicated, ambiguous and contradictory, prayer is one thing. Contemplative prayer, in whichever way, is very close to Jesus’ “one thing needed” (Luke 10:42). What is surprising, always, is how hard it is to remember this—to turn to prayer first, rather than as a last resort. We are so deeply marked by that original sin of wanting to “be like God” (Genesis 3:5) that we turn first to our own strength, cunning, experience, and to God last of all. Perhaps that’s why Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…” (Matthew 5:3) Only those whose internal resources are spent and drained—or who through long discipline have learned their own emptiness—are open enough to receive from God his limitless blessing, his endless strength. As the Lord said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

It’s quite remarkable, looking back over the past few years’ extraordinary difficulties, just how close God has been to me at those times when I have had nothing left. I have actually seen for myself what Paul meant when he wrote, “That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10)

We are called to “imitate Christ” as Thomas à Kempis put it. It is surely at the Cross that we see most clearly where this is likely to lead. Jesus did warn us (Matthew 16:24, among other references) and it is here that we come closest to him, as he drew close to us in that appalling act of redemption.

In all this God has blessed me in ways I couldn’t possibly have imagined, and often these days I just don’t know what to do with all the blessings! That, as much as anything, has been the reason I’ve been so quiet here. Maybe I shall have to share some more of this, loath though I am to go in for “confessional blogging…” Because it really is strangest thing. Why is it so hard to learn that God is good, to learn to trust that, to learn that there is such a thing as plain, honest joy, at the end of it all?

Monday, November 08, 2010

There’s No One Like You…

Charismatic songwriters are often criticised by traditionalists, and by the more grimly reformed of worshippers, for writing “God is my girlfriend” songs: songs of intimacy and longing, like Eddie Espinosa’s There’s No One Like You:

There’s no one like you my Lord
No one could take your place
My heart beats to worship you
I live just to seek your face
There’s no one like you my Lord
No one can take your place
There’s no one like you my Lord, no one like you…

I can’t help but think that this criticism is based in a very short-sighted kind of mystical illiteracy. Richard Rohr writes:

Any true experience of the Holy gives one the experience of being secretly chosen, invited, and loved. Surely that is why bride and bridegroom, invitations, and wedding banquets are Jesus' most common metaphors for eternal life… This is religion at its best and highest and truest. The mystics know themselves to be completely safe and completely accepted at ever-deeper levels of trust, exposure, and embrace. It is a spiral that goes ever deeper and closer. How different than the normal fear of hell or punishment, which keeps us on the far edge of the only dance there is…

Mysticism begins when the totally transcendent image of God starts to recede; and there's a deepening sense of God as immanent, present, here, now, within me. Augustine's line was "God is more intimate to me than I am to myself” or “more me than I am myself." St. Catherine of Genoa shouted it in the streets, "My deepest me is God!"

So you must overcome the gap to know—and then Someone Else is doing the knowing through you. God is no longer "out there."  At this point, it's not like one has a new relationship with God; it's like one has a whole new God! “God himself is my counsellor, and at night my innermost being instructs me,” says the Psalmist (16:7).

The mystics are those who are let in on this secret mystery of God's love affair with all souls, and recognize the simultaneous love affair with the individual soul—as if it were the only one God loves. It's absolutely our unique affair, and that sets the whole thing on a different and deeper ground than mere organized religion can ever achieve by itself…

We have put our emphasis on trying to love God, which is probably a good way to start—although we do not have a clue how to do that.  What I consistently find in the mystics is an overwhelming experience of how God has loved them.  God is the initiator, God is the doer, God is the one who seduces us.  All we can do is respond in kind, and exactly as Meister Eckhart said, “The love by which we love God is the very same love with which God has first loved us.”

The mystics' overwhelming experience is this full body blow of the Divine loving them, the Divine radically accepting them.  And the rest of their life is trying to verbalize that, and invariably finding ways to give that love back through forms of service, compassion and non-stop worship.  But none of this is to earn God's love; it's always and only to return God's love.  Love is repaid by love alone.

This is neither selfish nor solipsistic. Francis of Assisi was simultaneously one of the greatest of mystics and one of the greatest of evangelists. His paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer illustrates perfectly the blend of prayer and action, contemplation and evangelism, that characterised the man throughout his short life:

Our Father: Creator, Redeemer, Saviour and Comforter.

In Heaven: In the angels and the saints. You give them light so that they may have knowledge, because You are light. You inflame them so that they may love, because You are love. You live continually in them so that they may be happy, because You are the supreme good, the eternal good, and it is from You all good comes and without You there is no good.

Hallowed be your name: May our knowledge of You become ever clearer, so that we may realise the breadth of Your blessings, the extent of Your promises, the height of Your majesty and the depth of Your judgements.

Your kingdom come: So that You may reign in us by Your grace and bring us to Your kingdom, where we shall see You clearly, love You perfectly, be happy in Your company and enjoy You for ever.

Your will be done, on Earth as in Heaven: That we may love You with our whole heart by always thinking of You; with our whole mind by directing our whole intention towards You and seeking Your glory in everything; and with all our strength by spending all our energies and affections of soul and body in the service of Your love alone. And may we love our neighbour as ourselves, encouraging them all to love You as best we can, rejoicing at the good fortune of others, just as if it were our own, and sympathising with their misfortunes, while giving offence to no one.

Give us today our daily bread: Your own beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to remind us of the love He showed for us and to help us to understand and appreciate it and everything that He did or said or suffered.

And forgive us our sins: In Your infinite mercy, and by the power of the passion of Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, together with the merits and the intercession of the Blessèd Virgin Mary and all the saints.

As we forgive those who sin against us: And if we do not forgive perfectly, make us forgive perfectly, so that we may truly love our enemies for love of You and pray fervently to You for them, returning no one evil for evil, anxious only to serve everybody in you.

Lead us not into temptation: Hidden or obvious, sudden or unforeseen.

But deliver us from evil: Present, past or future. Amen.

God is love. John the Evangelist wrote to his people (1 John 4:7-18):

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

How can we know this love, and not sing of it? Eddie Espinosa’s beautiful lyric sums it up for me. Here it is in full:

        There’s no one like you my Lord
        No one could take your place
        My heart beats to worship you
        I live just to seek your face
        There’s no one like you my Lord
        No one can take your place
        There’s no one like you my Lord, no one like you

        You are my God, you’re everything to me
        There’s no one like you my Lord, no one like you
        You are my God, you’re everything to me
        There’s no one like you my Lord, no one like you

        There’s no one like you my Lord
        No one can take your place
        I long for your presence Lord
        To serve you is my reward
        There’s no one like you my Lord
        No one can take your place
        There’s no one like you my Lord, no one like you.

        (Copyright © 1987 Mercy/Vineyard Publishing. All rights reserved.)