Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Infant baptism - and the Old Testament

Infant baptism is seen as problematical for certain parts of the worldwide church on the basis that it seems to introduce a mechanical view of salvation that precludes the need for faith. The argument - probably massively oversimplified - is that when a child is baptized the inference seems to be that that child is then 'saved'. The power given to the church through the sacrament conveys all that is needed for that person's Christian life and from then on in all he or she has to do is attend church, receive the sacrament of Holy Communion on a regular basis, pray and try to lead a good life, accepting on trust the teachings of the Church about doctrine etc.. And even if those things are not done, because that child has the 'mark of Christ' on its life then that is sufficient to ensure that they will not be lost at the end. As I say that is a massive over-simplification of how infant baptism is viewed in certain quarters and although it is a bit of a parody of how sacramentalists view baptism, there is enough of an element of truth to make us stop and think a little about the case against infant baptism if that is implied by what is done.

In looking at this issue I want to step back as it were and try and look at the subject from a different angle. Although it is by no means universally recognised, infant baptism appears to have its roots in the Old Testament practice of circumcision which from the beginning included children, albeit male children. In Genesis 17 we find this:

"When Abram was ninety nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, "I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and you will greatly increase your numbers." (verses 1-2) then later, "This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you must be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner - those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any circumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant." (verses 10-14)

There are a number of things in that passage that are worth thinking about:
1. Despite the fact that only male children were to be circumcised on the eighth day, from the very beginning children were included in the covenant. Although Abram was commended for his faith (Romans 4:9) yet, it seems, children who were too young to demonstrate faith in any way, were still included in the covenant. On what basis? On the basis of God's grace.
2. This grace was all encompassing and included those who were brought into Abram's household whether they were of his race or not, anticipating things to come - see Galatians 3:28 "There is neitherr Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female..."
3. One of the arguments - albeit from silence - for the baptism of infants is found in the New Testament references to 'household' baptisms (see 1 Corinthians 1:16; Acts 16:33; etc). Isn't there a precedence for this here in Genesis. In fact the text actually makes a point of explaining what precisely can be found in a typical household of those days (and New Testament days) i.e. those born as well as bought (slaves).
4. Circumcision was about inclusion first (see Genesis 17:14 - last verse) and faith later.

As we move on through the Old Testament we find that circumcision is not enough in and of itself as God still calls his people to put their faith in him and demonstrate that faith through obedience. (See Deuteronomy 10:16 and the whole of Chapter 11) But even with the danger of that being ignored God still insists on including people first before they are old enough to have any say in whether they believe or not.

The question next is why. Why does He do that? One of the reasons we would want to ask that, I suspetc, is because we want things to be much more neat and tidy than that. Why does He not make it much more straightforward? For example why not just accept those those who believe and show in some obvious way that they are devout and worthy Jews and then have them circumcised when they have proved it. Why start with something that at the very least may possibly mislead folk into thinking that circumcision is enough in and of itself?

And that thinking, I believe, spills over into the thinking of those who insist on adult baptism only. It is much more neat and tidy and straightforward. A person comes along, shows signs that they are converted - they believe, read their bibles, come to church and demonstate that God has given them the gift of life - THEN baptize them as a sign of what God has done in bringing them through death and into life. They have died with Christ and been raised with Christ and baptism is a symbol of that change of status. Wouldn't that be much neater and tidier?

But God does not do neat and tidy or predictable. He refuses to be put into any kind of box no matter how pretty the package or the ribbons that bind it. God acts in and through and sometimes beyond the things He has shown us. Baptism, like circumcision is not tidy, its messy, but it's God being messy and seeking to include rather than exclude. It's as if He is saying "I want to include you in what I am doing in my saving work. If you want to abandon Me then that's your decision. But until you do I want you onboard, here, next to Me. How about it." As someone once put it: "With Anglicans (and other paedobaptists i.e. those who baptise infants) you are 'in' until you are 'out'. With baptists (and other anabaptists i.e. those who only baptise adults) you are 'out' until you are 'in'." Messy I know but still, I believe, God's way of doing things.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Infant baptism - from convention to conviction

Infant baptism continues to persist in our culture despite the slow dismantling of that mighty and centuries long edifice called Christendom. Christendom was created when a country or state or empire adopted Christianity as its official religion and when the Church moved from the margins of society to its centre. That may be an over-simplified understanding of something that is/was much more complex and involved than that, but it provides a kind of basis for what I will say next.

Within Christendom the baptism of infants became an accepted practice and anyone who wanted to be considered a part of 'Christian' society - whether they believed or not - would have their child 'christened' when they reached a certain age. Again this may be an over-simplification of something that has its roots deep in the New Testament, but with the establishment of the Christendom model infant baptism degenerated into mere convention, something that needed to be done, or should be done, because everybody did it or it was 'expected' of you. That is not to say that there weren't many who genuinely believed or indeed did it for the best of reasons. But as time went on and the tide of Christian Faith began to leave the shores of state and empire, convention continued and conviction died.

We, in the twenty-first century are witnessing the death-throes of Christendom. We may baulk at the demise of Sunday as the day of rest or the down-grading of Christianity as THE religion of Britain, but the fact is Christianity no longer occupies the corridors of power and therefore no longer has much of a say in these matters.

But some conventions continue to live on and whether people invoke 'tradition' - meaning, in the negative sense of the word something that has always been done for no apparent reason - or familial habit - my parents or grandparents did it - some things persist. And one of those is the baptism or christening of infants.

When I interview parents or parent (usually the mother) and ask them why they want their child baptized there are a number of different answers given ranging from the bizarre - "it will drive the devil out" to the ridiculous - "it will protect him from illness" although it must be said they are in the minority. In between these two extremes there is the vague "I don't know, it seems right" which I can work with ; the conventional "I was 'done' as a baby; and the reluctant "my mother or grandmother said I should".

Sadly in most cases - I would even say the vast majority - there seems to be very little openness or will to explore the real meaning of infant baptism beyond a few hasty, and usually repeatedly rearranged, meetings. First contact is usually in terms of "I'd like to book a date to have my child christened" followed closely by "I'd like July the 3rd on a Sunday afternoon at three." When asked why that time and date the usual answer is because it coincides with an anniversary or some sort and three O'clock will allow them time for pictures before a reception in a local restaurant or pub. When told that I could not possibly make that date and I don't normally arrange baptisms before meetng and preparing the parents I am either contacted by an irate grandparent citing the practice of a previous or now retired clergyman or they try another more responsive Vicar.

I don't mean to be cynical. The above is merely my experience of the past twenty years. But it represents my struggle to address the whole issue and try and make sense of why people still persist in having their child 'done' when they don't understand, and don't seem to want to understand, what 'done' means.

In the next few posts I will attempt to probe this further. But for now let me underline one thing. I believe in the baptism of infants. I have not always done, in fact there was time when I was convinced that the only legitimate way of baptising a person was as an adult and by full immersion. But I have changed my mind and in the next few posts I will try and explain why.

Friday, 15 May 2009

The borderlands of belief

Talking to people is part of my calling. Whether it is a bereaved family, someone wanting to get married, have their child baptized, or casual chats at special events. What I find fascinating about all of this is just how interested people are, still, about life, death and the supernatural. The sad thing however is that it appears that either people (meaning in some cases clergy) aren't listening to them or are not prepared to give them any sort of an answer to the questions these things raise.

Now this may be down to ignorance or a lack of resources or even a fear that they don't know enough to say anything. I understand that. When I came out of theological college I thought I had all the answers to all sorts of questions. The problem however, I soon discovered, was that folk weren't asking the questions I had learnt the answers for! They were not particularly bothered with who wrote Mark's gospel or whether the filioque should be included or excluded from the Nicene Creed. They were, and are, more concerned in the first place about what happened to dad when he died or what did I think about near death experiences or is there a heaven and what is it like, or did I believe in ghosts? That's not to say that questions about science and faith, or whether the Bible is true, or were there really such people as Adam and Eve, did not matter to them. They do. But people generally are not in that place yet. Instead they are concerned with the immediate - the things that affect their lives. The other questions are there, but that comes later. For now what do I think about angels, coincidences or strange happenings in the dead of night?

In years past I would have muttered something or tried to yank the conversation around to a topic I was more familiar or comfortable with. Now however, with the growing number of such conversations about the weird and wonderful, I find myself beginning to ask the same sort of questions.

For example over the last six months or so there have been a flurry of calls from people who would not normally be seen dead inside a church (or maybe that's the ONLY way they would be seen in one) calling me or my fellow clergy up asking us to come and investigate odd occurences. For example the appearance of apparitions, cold-spots in centrally heated houses, or strange noises or moving objects. I have - with another clergyman - visited such places, prayed, thrown holy water and blessed rooms in a bid to stop these things. Amazingly each time it has worked. But what I have experienced is only the tip of a very large iceberg and if someone feels sufficiently relaxed in my company to speak about it, it is surprising how many people have experienced similar things. So time and involvement has made me more open to listening to those who wish to share their stories and I am beginning to slowly understand where God fits in with all of this.

A few years ago Philip Yancey a Christian author and journalist wrote a book called "Rumours of another world". It is subtitled "for those on the borders of belief". This is what he writes in his 'note' at the beginning of the book:

"I wrote this book for people who live in the borderlands of belief... In matters of faith, many people occupy the borderlands. Some give church and Christians a wide berth yet still linger in the borderlands because they cannot set aside the feeling that there must be a spiritual reality out there. Maybe an epiphany of beauty or a sense of longing gives a nudge towards something that must exist beyond the everyday routine of life - but what? Big issues - career change, the birth of a child, the death of a loved one - raise questions with no easy answers. Is there a God? A life after death? Is religious faith only a crutch, or a path to something authentic?"

Those I talk to occupy these "borderlands of belief". As the tide of Christianity has gone out in the West they have lost their faith and the ability to speak its language. But they use other words and other pictures to try and capture what it is they long for but cannot tie down. They repeat these stories of supernatural encounters as a way of articulating their desire for what is behind it all. They have glimpsed it - or Him - but they are unsure as to how to progress. They are left with the story but they cannot grasp its meaning. We must listen to them, hear them out, and help them listen to the God who is speaking their language. It may not be ours, but we must learn it if we are to help.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Woe to him who is alone

You don’t have to be a Christian long before you realise that Christians fall and fail as much as anyone. Having God on (and by) our side is no guarantee that we will float through life on a cloud of perfection, protected from the big bad world and the “sin that so easily entangles” (Hebrews 12.1) Which is why I was much heartened by a conversation between a man and a monk. The man asked the monk: “Tell me what is it that you do in the monastery?” The monk replied: “I fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up again.”

What a wonderful answer particularly to those who think that becoming a monk is about running away from the world and hiding away in a monastery. Monks fail as do all Christians. But what makes their (and our) lives different to everyone else is that we are not alone. There are others who will help us up:

9 Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work:
10 If one falls down, his friend can help him up.
But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!
11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?
12 Though one may be overpowered,
two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. “ Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

For the monk (and the Christian) there are others who will help and support him as he falls and gets up. They are his brothers in Christ. And binding them all together is the third strand – God.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Henry Vaughan

Wales is known as the Land of Song. It is also a land of poetry and the land of Henry Vaughan (1621-1695). Vaughan was born in 1621 to Thomas Vaughan and Denise Morgan in Newton-upon-Usk in Breconshire, Wales. In 1638, it is assumed, he entered Oxford University with his twin brother Thomas who gained fame as a hermetic philosopher and alchemist. In 1640 Vaughan left Oxford to study law in London for two years. His studies were interrupted by the Civil War in which Vaughan briefly took the King’s side. He is thought to have served on the Royalist side in South Wales sometime around 1645. Vaughan returned to Breconshire in 1642 as secretary to Judge Lloyd, and later began to practice medicine. By 1646 he had probably married Catherine Wise with whom he was to have a son and three daughters. He is considered one of the major Metaphysical Poets whose works ponder one’s personal relationship to God. After the death of his first wife, Vaughan married her sister Elizabeth possibly in 1655. Vaughan had another son, and three more daughters by his second wife. He died on April 23, 1695, and was buried in Llansantffraed churchyard. One of my favourite poems is Peace and I find it hard to read aloud without tears coming to my eyes. Here it is.

My soul, there is a country,
Far beyond the stars,
Where stands a wing├Ęd sentry,
All skillful in the wars.
There, above noise and danger,
Sweet Peace sits crowned with smiles,
And One born in a manger
Commands the beauteous files.
He is thy gracious Friend
And (O my soul, awake!)
Did in pure love descend,
To die here for thy sake.
If thou canst get but thither,
There grows the flower of peace,
The rose that cannot wither,
Thy fortress, and thy ease.
Leave, then, thy foolish ranges;
For none can thee secure
But One, who never changes,
Thy God, thy Life, thy Cure.

Practising the presence

Re-reading Brother Lawrence again (see last blog) excites me because it is all so do-able. He brings spirituality down to ground level when for many it is is so often perceived as something so beyond us that only the Saints seem able to attain it. There is something very symbolic in the way St. Simeon Stylites (A.D. 390-459) attains sainthood by spending 37 years on top of a 15 metre high pillar because wonderful as it is, and saintly as Simeon is, he sets sainthood out of the reach of the ordinary man and woman. Yet surely this is what the incarnation is meant to set within our reach – sainthood – and people like Brother Lawrence bring us, and it, back to earth. Here is what Joyce Huggett writes about practicing the presence of God, no doubt inspired by Brother Lawrence: “…practising the presence of God simply means to be attentive, however momentarily, or the truth of Acts 17:27-28, that God is never far away from any of us. ….it is an awareness and an in-tune-ness with his loving presence. God..transmits message at all times – messages of unending love. To connect ourselves to this love, we need only fine-tune our hearts and minds to be aware of it.”
Joyce Hugget: Finding God in the Fast Lane

Brother Lawrence

Brother Lawrence was a lay brother in a Carmelite monastery who is today most commonly remembered for the closeness of his relationship to God as recorded in the classic Christian text “The Practice of the Presence of God.” It’s a wonderful and deceptively simple approach to Christian discipleship and below is an outline of his Way of following Jesus

1. Always be aware of God’s presence by talking with him throughout the day.
2. Give yourself totally to God in both temporal and spiritual affairs. Our only happiness should come from doing God’s will.
3. Be faithful, even in dry periods. It is in those dry spells that God tests our love for him.
4. Always be guided by love. Be content doing even the smallest chore if you can do it for the love of God.
5. Form the habit of continually conversing with God, telling Him everything that is happening.
6. Whenever considering doing some good deed, always consult God e.g. “Lord, I will never be able to do this/that if you don’t help me.
7. Whenever you confess it to God tell him: “I can do nothing better without you. Please keep me from falling and correct the mistakes I make.”

Ancient wisdom

Amongst my current reading material – I have several books on the boil – is a little book called “The Wisdom of Saint Isaac the Syrian” translated by Sebastian Brock. Its a distillation of the wise sayings of a seventh century hermit of the Assyrian Church (he is also known as St.Isaac of Ninevah) who is undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment. This book is just a kind of taster for those wanting to dip their toes in the clear water of his teachings (excuse the mixed metaphors) and a recommended read. Here are a few of his sayings to whet your appetite:

“If God is slow in answering your request, or if you ask but do not promptly receive anything, do not be upset, for you are not wiser than God.”

“The ladder to the Kingdom is hidden within you, and within your soul. Dive down into your self, away from sin, and there you will find the steps by which you can ascend.”

“Make sure you see to small things, lest otherwise you may push aside important ones.”

And one of my favourites – because it challenges me:

“The knowledge of God does not reside in a body that loves comfort.”

Ouch!

The book is a mere 20 pages long but it is subject indexed and if you go through Amazon you can get it second hand next to nothing.

Counsels on the spiritual life

St. Ignatius of Loyola loved it so much that he read a chapter a day and Christians from a wide variety of backgrounds considered it one of the great spiritual classics of all time. We are talking about “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas a Kempis. In the introduction of the edition I have the writer to the introduction makes this claim: “After the Bible itself, no other work can compare with its profound wisdom, clarity of thought, and converting power.” That’s quite a claim but one which I can certainly vouch for having read it off and on – though sadly more off than on – for the past 26 years. Here is Chapter 1 from Book one called “Counsels on the spiritual life.”

‘He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness,’ says Our Lord. (John 8:12). In these words Christ counsels us to follow His life and way if we desire true enlightenment and freedom from all blindness of heart. (Mark 3:5) Let the life of Jesus Christ, then, be our first consideration..

The teaching of Jesus far transcends al the teachings of the Saints, and whosoever has His spirit will discover concealed in it heavenly manna. (Rev 2:17) But many people, although they often hear the Gospel, feel little desire to follow it, because they lack the spirit of Christ. (Romans 8:9) Whoever desires to understand and take delight in the words of Christ must strive to conform his whole life to Him.

Of what use is it to discourse learnedly on the Trinity, if you lack humility and therefore displease the Trinity? Lofty words do not make a man just or holy; but a good life makes him dear to God. I would far rather feel contrition than be able to define it. If you knew the whole Bible by heart, and all the teachings of the philosophers, how would this help you without the grace and love of God? ‘Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity,’ (Ecclesiastes 1verse two) except to love God and serve Him alone. (Deuteronomy 6:13) And this is supreme wisdom – to despise the world, and draw daily nearer the kingdom of heaven.

It is vanity to solicit honours, or to raise oneself to high station. It is vanity to be a slave to bodily desires, (Galatians 5:16) and to crave for things which bring certain retribution. It is vanity to wish for long life, if you care little for a good life. It is vanity to give thought only to this present life, and to care nothing for the life to come. It is vanity to love things that so swiftly pass away, and not to hasten onwards to that place where everlasting joy abides.

Keep constantly in mind the saying, ‘The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.’ (Ecclesiastes 1:8) Strive to withdraw your heart from the love of visible things, and direct your affections to things invisible. For those who follow only their natural inclinations defile their conscience, and lose the grace of God.”

God needs us to pray

How important is prayer? Is it something we need to do for our own salvation or for the benefit of our relationship with God? Does God in any way need our prayers? Here is something written by Dr E. Stanley-Jones (1884-1973) a Methodist missionary and theologian which I find very thought-provoking and encouraging:

“In prayer you align yourselves to the purpose and power of God, and He is able to do things through you that He couldn’t do otherwise. For this is an open universe, where some things are left open, contingent upon our doing them. If we do not do them, they will never be done. For God has left certain things open to prayer – things which will never be done except as we pray.”

Stanley-Jones’ words are worth pondering, especially if prayer – intercessory prayer – is low down on your list of priorities. If what he says is true then why isn’t prayer at the top rather than the bottom of our church agendas? Why isn’t prayer something WE do more as Christ-followers?

Measuring your spiritual health

One way of measuring the spiritual health of any church is not to count the number of people in the pews, but the number of people on their knees. How many pray and pray daily for the needs of the kingdom? That is the question. I came across this very challenging quote by Bishop R.C.Ryle a nineteenth century anglican Bishop from England:

“Tell me what a man’s prayers are, and i will soon tell you the state of his soul. Prayer is the spiritual pulse. By this the spiritual health may be tested. Oh let us keep an eye continually upon our private devotions.”

Prayer of Columba 521-597

O Lord, grant us that love which can never die,
which will enkindle our lamps
but not extinguish them,
so that they may shine in us
and bring light to others.
Most dear Saviour,
enkindle our lamps that they may shine
forever in your temple.
May we receive unquenchable light
from you so that our darkness
will be illuminated
and the darkness of the world will be made less. Amen.

Worship

“The end we ought to propose for ourselves is to become, in this life, the most perfect worshippers of God we can possibly be, as we hope to be through all eternity.”
Brother Lawrence





A fresh start

(Written January 2nd 2008). Repentance is, I suspect, at the root of what we call a New Year’s resolution, this universal need to make a sort of break with past bad habits or wrong directions in order to forge a new and better life in the forthcoming year. The problem however is that these resolutions depend heavily on our own resolve and we know how weak that can be. Making a fresh start with God, however, is different. Here we rely and lean on Him rather than ourselves. Here we pray and hand over to Him the need to change. Which brings me back to the word “repent”. Although it does mean to change direction or to change one’s mind, it implies that this is not wholly down to us but relies very much on a partnership with God with him doing the hardest bit – changing us! A picture may help. Outside the Vicarage is a very busy road, where traffic is non-stop. Crossing it is very hazardous for adults but for little children it is well nigh impossible. The other day as I was waiting in my car for a gap in the traffic to dart out in order to turn left, I watched as a father took the hand of his young son – about four of five years old – and lead him safely across the road. That safe passage relied on two things. First on the Father who had to look both ways and keep a firm hold of his son’s little hand until they reached the other side. And second on the son co-operating and trusting the father, allowing him to hold his hand and guide him across. The two working together afforded them a safe crossing. That is a picture of repentance where we walk hand in hand with God negotiating the change we and He have agreed on together. As I begin a New Year I start with the determination to walk with him hand in hand all the way, trusting Him to change me and guide me in the “right pathways for His name’s sake.” (Psalm 23)

The flow of time

Already its January 10th and time is skimming away from under me! As I contemplate where the last eight days have gone I am reminded of what I used to hear my parents say as they complained about how busy their lives were, “I don’t know where the time has gone?” It’s as if someone has sneeked in behind them when their backs were turned and pick-pocketed a few hours without their knowledge.

Another thing I remember them saying was how time went faster as they grew older. Certainly that seems to square with my experience as January 2nd has jumped to January 10th in no time. But that can’t be literally true. Time is constant for everyone and down to age, otherwise a parent would be preparing dinner for their child only to find out that they were expecting breakfast two days ago!

It is not time, it is busyness, or preoccupation with life and living that gives the impression that time is flying by. Time proceeds at an even pace but what we DO with it and IN it is the determining factor as to whether it goes slow or fast. When we were youngsters we had less worries, less responsibilities and therefore less things to think about. Time therefore appeared slow because there was less to preoccupy our thinking. As we got older and started work, courting, getting married, having children, buying a house etc. then the number of things we had to deal with multiplied and time, accordingly, picked up pace. It accelerated because we did. And so this surprise I feel at ‘losing’ eight days is really down to me being overly busy. At this rate I will be retired before I know it, and wondering where the time went!

But the point of this reflection is not to explain galloping time or bemoan the fact that it seems to be slipping away at a rate of knots, it is to ask the very important question, “have I wasted any?” Or “was it used well?” The Bible has some interesting things to say about time, but the one that strikes me is what St. Paul has to say in his Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 5 verse 15-16. “Look carefully then how you walk”, he writes, “not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of time, because the days are evil.” (E.S.V) The New King James Version translates the same passage: “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. “

I like them both. The first because it tells me to take care how I live and use my time. It’s the difference between being someone who is wise and someone who is foolish. So it prompts me to stop once in a while and ask myself if I am being responsible, under God, in the way I use the time He has given me. In the context it almost seems to suggest that evil has a close association with rush.

I remember something from Richard Foster’s marvelous book “Celebration of Discipline” in the chapter on meditation. He quotes from Jung who once wrote: “Hurry is not of the devil, it is the devil.” The point he is making is that rush and hurry are prime tools of the devil with which he can work evil, making us waste our time, causing us to crowd God out, because we have no time for Him.

But I also like the other translation because there is this suggestion that we can somehow reclaim time, that with God’s help we can redeem it. “I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten.” God promises his people in Joel 2:25. There is a sense in which God can almost turn back the clock and give you back what you have lost.

So losing time or wasting time or helplessly watching it flow like a rushing river past your eyes may well be our experience as we get older and more busy, but it doesn’t have to continue like that. We can, with God’s help, slow things down, redeem the time lost and make better use of what He has given us. (Written January 10th 2008)

Unlocking prayer

“Why pray?” is a huge question and one which can’t be answered in a simple blog. However a common and honest response would be “because I need something.” If we read the teachings of Jesus this seems to be the general direction of what he is saying and encouraging in the gospels. For example in Luke: “Ask, and it will be given to you” (Luke chapter 11 verse 9), and similarly in John chapter 15 verse 7: “Ask whatever you wish, and it will be given to you.” Such teachings , read in isolation from their surrounding contexts, were responsible for galvanizing my early attempts at prayer after my conversion to Christ in August 1981. And, if my rather selective memory serves me right, there were lots of answers to prayer along the way. But as I read more of Jesus’ teachings and look at them not as a cache full of promises but as a means of deepening my understanding of God and growing into relationship with Him, I see things differently. The aim of prayer is not a means of getting things from God – although He graciously answers so many ill-intentioned and misdirected prayers nonetheless – but rather a means of getting to know Him better, of somehow climbing into His mind and seeing things – me, the world, God etc- from a wholly new perspective. I think it was Richard Foster (again) who said: “The key to prayer is to get hold of God not the answer.”

This comes across as we start to read the surrounding passages containing Jesus’ above promises. So in the Luke passage Jesus talks about the need to pray to God as our Father (verses 2 and 13), and in John about prayers being made in the context of a relationship with Jesus whose closeness is that of a vine with a branch.

Asking God for things, for help etc. therefore takes on a different dimension. God has a face, so to speak, and is a real person (the most real of persons) rather than a slot machine or an anonymous servant. Moreover in relating to Him as such we find that it no longer becomes just a case of asking Him for something we need, but wondering if He has a take on what we are requesting. This is why Jesus interposes the notion of God’s will being done, and His Kingdom coming as in the Lord’s prayer. Both are meant as necessary reminders that there is a bigger picture and our praying is a means of involving us in it’s painting.

The Lord's Prayer - God's gift to us

The so-called ‘Lord’s Prayer’ is, if you think about it, the only prayer God has directly given us to pray. When Jesus was asked by his disciples “Lord, teach us to pray..” his response was: “When you pray, say…” and then gave them the words of the prayer. Because it’s the only instance in the Bible I can think of (I am ready to be corrected) where God has actually given us such a prayer then that surely invests it with much greater significance than we perhaps imagined. It also elevates it above mere repetition because it reveals within it the kind of priorities that marked Jesus’ prayer life. We often read of Jesus going off into some lonely place to pray, whether a mountain or a grove of olive trees. But what, we sometimes ask, did he pray about and for? Here is the answer. In this special prayer, this gift from God to us, Jesus outlines the things on his heart (and therefore God’s) and passes them on to us. Just think for a moment of the kind of things it contains:

He asks us to address God as our Father in heaven. That is how Jesus knew him. “And i will ask the Father, and he will give you another counsellor..” (John 14:16). In fact, as he tells the disciples earlier, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) He tells the disciples to “hallow” His name. In John 17:1 Jesus prays: “Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.” He tells them to pray that his Kingdom will come and his will be done: From the start of his ministry Jesus preached that the Kingdom of heaven was at hand (Matthew 4:17). And in the Garden of Gethsemane he put his own immediate needs second to God’s when he prayed: “Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39) As you follow through the prayer line by line you can see instances in Jesus’ life where all the petitions reflect the kinds of prayers and priorities he made in his life and now passes on to us, as his disciples -Christ-bearers – to pray and make our own.

I have read many a book on prayer both to help boost my own prayer-life and help those who come to me and ask me how to pray. I have used many different patterns and ‘methods’ of praying which have been useful over the years. But none of them has been as all-encompassing and comprehensive as the Lord’s Prayer. And no wonder, as it contains all the things we should pray and which jesus prayed himself. It’s his gift to us, and one of his most precious, because it gives us a glimpse into the prayer-life of Jesus himself, the master of prayer.

Capturing the moment

It’s been a rather lacklustre day. The sky outside is almost uniformly grey except for some lighter and darker shades of the same colour. A watery and rather dull sun is trying to peek through wherever there’s a gap. I am joined here in the dining room by two animals. One is a rather large dun coloured cat affectionately known as “the Rat”. He is lying flat out on a large cushion in front of the radiator (which is on) making a low moaning noise which I take to be snoring. Alongside is Jack our black and white dog. He is licking his genitalia in a rather absent-minded kind of way a bit like you or I would scratch an eyebrow or absent mindedly straighten a tie. Why do they do that? I must try and google it sometime although what would you put? Dog, genitalia, lick? Might be interesting or, more likely, vulgar. I shall resist the low-level temptation to try.

We are not the only life in the building – a Vicarage – right now. Laughing her way (she is watching a cartoon on Sky) through sniffs and swallows is my fifteen year old daughter Ruth. She is home suffering from the very same cold she very generously gave to me earlier in the week. For the past two days we have both been laid up as we ran the rapids of a rather large volume of phlegm and other debris which has flowed with alarming regularity from our chests and noses. Where does all that come from? What is it? I resist another urge to google for an answer. Some things are best left out there on the ether.

Its been a rather lazy day. This morning I emerged from a fitful sleep, had a cup of tea followed by a bowl of branflakes and watched some mind-numbing morning TV. Later I read Morning Prayer and watched Ironman on my desktop, pausing halfway to make a cup of coffee. All this was interspersed with texts and phone calls from my wife Hazel and my son Ben who currently lives in Brighton. This in turn was followed by a cup of Earl Grey and a few slices of homemade fruitcake as I opened this blog.

All of these are the moments which collectively make up my day and, strung together, make up my life. They are rather odd building blocks aren’t they? I mean what do they build and what are they meant to achieve? Are they important events and do they contribute anything to the great scheme of things? I don’t know. All I do know is that they represent a part of my life lived and gone. I wonder what ‘the Rat’ is dreaming about? (Written December 4 2008)

Isaiah and the 'art' of preaching

Today I am thinking about my Sunday sermon. It will (possibly) be based on a text from the prophet Isaiah who was active about 745-680 BC. According to Jewish and Christian tradition he was the son of Amoz from the tribe of Judah and was the nephew of King Amaziah. In the Orthodox Liturgical calendar he is commemorated on May 9th which is the day before my birthday. All the Old Testament writers are remembered as saints in the Orthodox Church and some (all?) have a special day on which to remember them. So before you say happy birthday to me perhaps you will whisper one to Isaiah the day before.

People sometimes ask what makes me decide which text to preach on? As there are usually several texts to chose from, how do I know which one God wants me to use? Some are under the impression that it’s a ’simple’ process by which we – meaning priests, ministers and pastors etc – ‘hear’ a voice from God directing us what to say. “And the message for today is…” kind of thing. They assume that being men of God this is as natural to us as knowing how to mend a broken pipe is to a plumber! I must admit that would be great as it would remove the doubts I (too often) get as to whether I was in fact properly ‘tuned in’ to the Almighty when I sat down of a Friday to ponder what to say.

Others imagine a more mysterious process by which after prayer and fasting or all-night vigil, or maybe through meditation or even a dream, God communicates what He wants me to deliver. Unfortunately (or fortunately) it’s much more prosaic and mundane than either of the above. I merely go through the passages for that particular Sunday and use the one that ‘jumps out’ at me in some way. I then pray asking God to guide me and then sit down and read, reflect and write out (excuse the preacher’s alliteration) what the passage means, using illustrations to draw out the meaning and an application to put it into practice. Whether it ‘works’ or not is something I always wonder about – not without a little self-recrimination – but, when my faith is up to it, I am happy to leave it all in God’s very capable hands. If He can take a little clay and make a man, He can take something far less promising and make a sermon that will ’speak’ to the appropriate (and humble) person on the listening end.

Actually I am making it sound really easy and something anyone can do – and maybe they can. But we must be careful not rule out the much larger picture. The sermon is prepared and given within the context of a life that has been set aside to serve God – no matter how imperfectly, and I mean imperfectly. Also it’s meant for a congregation to whom God has – I believe – appointed me to lead and guide on the spiirtual path. Plus there’s the whole thing about Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit to lead his Church into all truth, a promise made to a bunch of rather unpromising disciples just before his betrayal when every single one of them fled. And the fact is that I do pray every day in some form or another, so its not as if the lines of communication are closed until the day I prepare my sermon. Add to all that my desire to do God’s will and my congregation’s (assumed) desire to listen and learn, and what you get is something a bit more than just me in my study straining to produce another message to get me through another Sunday.

So mystery solved (or deepened). God cannot be restricted to a prayer or an hour with the Bible or constrained to construe a sermon within the narrow parameters of a rather specific means of guidance. He is always at work – as Jesus reminded his hearers – before, during and after my sermon-writing time because getting the message across is not just about the moment, its about all the moments put together flowing in a God-ward and God-ordained direction. So I will sit with Isaiah and God as the three of us collaborate together on what it is that needs to be said this forthcoming Sunday, safe in the knowledge that God, in some way, is in it all.

Lost virtue

Now there’s a word that has gone out of fashion -virtue. My online dictionary defines virtue as: “the quality of doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong. ” Traditionally there are seven virtues consisting of a combination of the four cardinal Virtues and the three Theological virtues. They are as follows:

Cardinal virtues
Prudence, which is “proper judgment of reasons for action with regard to appropriateness of context.”
Justice, which is “proper judgment regarding individual human interests, rights and desserts.
Temperance (or restraint), which is “practicing self-control, abstention, and moderation.
Courage (or fortitude), which is “forbearance, Endurance and ability to confront fear and uncertainty, or intimidation.”

Theological virtues
Faith, which is “steadfastness in belief”
Hope, which is “expectation of good”
Love (or charity), which is “selfless, unconditional and voluntary loving-kindness.

The pursuit of virtue is co-terminus with the pursuit of God as the following sayings from one of the Desert Fathers demonstrate:

Abba Isidore of Pelusia once said: “Prize the virtues and do not be the slave of glory; for the former are immortal, while the latter soon fades.” The same abba also said: “Many desire virtue, but fear to go forward in the way that leads to it, while others consider that virtue does not even exist. So it is necessary to persuade the former to give up their sloth, and teach the others what virtue really is.” He also said: “Vice takes men away from God and separates them from one another. So we must turn from it quickly and pursue virtue, which leads to God and unites us with one another. Now the definition of virtue and of philosophy is: simplicity with prudence.” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers trans by Benedicta Ward SLG).

Virtue is out of fashion today. We see this in the fact that it is rarely if ever used both in everyday conversation, in the newspapers or, indeed, anywhere else. However, as Isidore reminds us, it is virtue that “leads to God and unites us with one another”. It unifies our society and brings us closer to the One from whom we came. But the opposite, he reminds us, is also true: “Vice (the absence of virtue or its opposite) takes men away from God and separates them from one another”. Looking at society today I can only conclude that this ancient saint is right. Vice abounds and needs no definition while virtue continues anonymous and in need of a rediscovery.

Saturday football

It’s 10.15 AM and I have just finished breakfast. There is movement along the landing, between one of the bedrooms and the bathroom as Hannah gets ready for her job in Shoezone, a rather downmarket shoe shop in Swansea. Hannah is better (or worse) than any alarm clock on Saturday morning because she never walks without stomping, never opens a door without crashing it shut and never steps into the shower without somehow making it sound as if a large burly man was trying to squeeze through a rather narrow but cluttered space.

Alternatively Ruth, our youngest, comes a close second, with her radio/cd player blasting out Michael Jackson’s ‘Killer’ or her loud conversations with one of her friends (who must be deaf) about arrangements for their Saturday trip to Town.

It’s Saturday, and Saturday in the Williams household means only one thing – football (or to any Americans who may be reading this – soccer). It’s a day when we either go and watch our favourite team the ‘Swans’ – the nickname of Swansea City Football Club – at the Liberty Stadium, or if they are playing away, listen in on the radio. Either side of that main event we watch just about any other football match we can find on Sky, because football – any football – is something we have come to love.

It has not always been this way. For years Saturdays have come and gone. They have been days of easing down before the rigours of the Sunday rush when the most we would do was visit one of our parents, done a little shopping or just generally taken it easy. But one day everything changed. Hazel ’saw the light’.

I, personally, have always followed the Swans over the years, and even if I was too busy or far away to actually go and see them regularly, I would always check the results every Saturday and keep an eye on their progress (or regress). This however got much more serious for both Hazel and myself when over two years ago we decided we go and see the Swans play in their brand new 20,000 seater stadium at the Liberty. Hazel had never been to a live match before and was curious to see what it would be like and besides it was Ben’s birthday and a chance to go with him to see his favourite team. We could not have picked a better day. It was a bright September Saturday afternoon, the sun was ablaze in a cloudless blue sky and the Swans were playing their second or third match of the season. The place was packed and the atmosphere sparked with expectation. We were not disappointed. Swans put seven past a rather lacklustre Bristol City prompting the club to sack their manager a few days later, and Hazel was well and truly hooked.

One of my favourite stories in the New Testament is the conversion of St.Paul on the road to Damascus. What a story. One minute he was after the blood of Christians, approving of the murder of St. Stephen and arresting just about any of ‘The Way’ he could lay his hands on and the next he was telling anyone who would listen how Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah and Son of God. It was a complete turn around, a one-point turn, and for many years became for me a kind of model of Christian conversion that I longed to see in my own ministry (although I failed to realise at the time that it is actually the exception rather than the rule).

What happened to Paul in Christian terms happened to my wife in football terms. That day in the Liberty was her ‘Damascus Road’. Not only did we go on and see every other Swansea City home game for that season but the following year we bought a season ticket each and we have done so ever since. Our new foudn enthusiasm did not end there. We have bought dvd’s of their more outsanding games, treated ourselves to supporter’s scarves and other accoutrements and regularly check the clubs’ various websites to see what the latest news was. Once I even spent several hours queuing up for the players to sign the club calendar so I could surprise Hazel for Christmas. And the ‘magnificent obsession’ does not end there. All this has had the knock on effect of us watching just about any football match that comes on the television even minor league matches. It has also resulted in Hazel developing an understanding of the minutiae of the game even to the point of understanding the notoriously difficult ‘off-side’ rule. I was in awe of the change that had occurred.

What caused this turn around? What was responsible for such a transformation? Was it the atmosphere of the occasion, the weather or the score? I am sure it helped in some way as it all conspired to make something truly memorable and enjoyable. Like any true’ conversion’ the test would come when the skies were grey and rain-soaked, the atmosphere poor and we lose at home. Hazel passed with flying colours and just kept going. Her ‘conversion’ was the genuine article.

Was it some need or lack in her life which going to watch football filled? Was there a space or ‘football shaped’ hole in her life that needed filling? Maybe, as there were few things we would do together other than Church, shopping or occasional (and I mean occasional) trips or meals out.

Was it some kind of revelation or insight into something previously hidden that afternoon as we watched twenty four men chase a white ball around on a green blanket of grass watched by 18,000 chanting onlookers? Maybe. What else could have accounted for such a turn around in a life which, until then, faced in a competely opposite direction?

Whatever the cause, in the end, like St. Paul, it’s one of those wonderfully profound mysteries where everything seems to come together, coalesce and conspire to take an individual from one ‘place’ to another, where joy pours in to where joy was not before and life takes on another meaning or direction. It was certainly that for us. Now we do something that brings us closer together, and whether it was God or an inspired Swansea perfomance, or both, I don’t really care. The fact is that life on Saturdays will never be the same but something we now both look forward to doing and enjoying together.

2.47 AM

Can’t sleep. This is becoming a regular occurence, but not an annoying one. I have come to the conclusion that as much as I like – and need – sleep, there is something I like about being downstairs, in the silence, sipping a cup of herbal tea (with honey) and either just being still in a dimly lit room drinking in the noislessness or adding another post to my blog. I suppose it’s the nearest thing I have to a desert, here in bustling Swansea. Encountering the starkness of the night is the city’s equivalent to those barren wastes where Jesus and the saints retreated in order to advance in their walk with God. I need that too. It’s my escape from the insanity of restless busyness which every day threatens to drown me with its endless demands. So I like the night – it’s somewhere to run to and hide. Somewhere to re-charge my batteries and re-connect with God, myself and that silent centre within. (Written December 9th 2008)

Learning from your mistakes

“We all learn from our mistakes” they say, but what ‘they’ don’t tell you is how long that process can take. I say this because I am still learning how to grow a parish and like all growing there are pains involved. For example how do you know what to do to be doing what God wants? For a time – well for the last twenty years – I thought it was all about stepping out in faith, you know like Abram who left his country, his people and his father’s household in order to strike out for the Promised Land. (Genesis 12:1-5) So my ministry has been about stepping out in faith left right and centre. Sometimes this has worked but more often than not it hasn’t. But because I have known no other way I have just kep doing it in the vain hope that something will ‘give’ along the line. Well it hasn’t and so I have had to stop and trudge wearily back to the proverbial drawing board and finally ask why. It’s taken me several months but I think I know the answer.

Going back to the Genesis text I realise I have mis-read it. Abram did not take the initiative. He did not one day decide he was going to step out in faith all on his own in the vague hope that his faith would somehow nudge God into a response. No. God came to him and called him. “The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1). Note the emphasis. God spoke and God promised to show Abram the way. The step of faith by the father of faith was in response to God’s initiative.

We find the same pattern throughout the scriptures. Moses stepping aside to investigate a bush that was burning but not consumed only to be confronted by God who calls him to go and set His people free. (Exodus 3) Joshua given instructions by God to go and take the land (Joshua 1). Mary greeted by an angel who tells her she is carrying the Messiah, God’s Son in her womb and responding in faith “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” (Luke 1:26-38). Jesus telling the disciples to feed the hungry thousands “You give them something to eat.” (Matthew 14:16) And the disciples being told to wait in Jerusalem for the power from on high before going out to the nations to bear witness to him. (Acts 1:4,5)

Time and time again we see God’s people not acting on their own initiative but waiting on God before venturing out on a new challenge. That’s not to say that they did nothing in the meantime. They prayed and they served and they worked. But significant growth and a new movement of God only came when God acted and God’s people responded in faith.

So the lesson I am slowly learning is this. Wait on God and while you wait, work. Only be ready to respond in faith when the time comes. And the best way to be ready is to pray.

A time to live and a time to die

I write this blog having visited my father who is in hospital recovering from an infection. He is in the later stages of dimentia and so only vaguely knows who I am. There was a time about a week ago when we thought he was nearing the end. He had developed a chest infection, was confined to bed and had stopped eating or drinking. He was admitted to hospital in a very poor state and had to be put on a drip. He continued to show no interest in food or drink and slept most of the time. Knowing a little bit about dimentia (I am part time chaplian in a local Mental Health Hospital) I wondered if he had reached that stage in his illness when the eating/drinking reflexes had ceased to work and his mind was finally shutting down. But today he woke when we called and the nurse told us he was responding to the antibiotics and had eaten dinner. He jabbered away during the whole visit and smiled and winked and laughed – at what we don’t know. It was quite a transformation and suddenly there is life again and we are all amazed, puzzled and pleased.

Dad has had several ‘near misses’ over the past year with a couple of admissions to hospital after mini-strokes or a chest infection. Each time he has bounced back although a little weaker each time. He is 92 going on 93 and although there is little real quality to life, he is not ready to go yet. Why is this? When he is unable to recall his wife of 63 years, talk and think coherently, read a book or a newspaper or follow sports or watch a film, why does God keep him here when others die tragically young full of life and vigour with so much to look froward to and do?

I think that like much of life there is a deep mystery here which we cannot fathom and being a CHristian is, to a certain extent, about accepting this and trusting God. What is faith but trusting someone who possesses knowledge and power that you do not have but whose character is one of love and wisdom?

There are possible answers in my own situation which are not the full picture but seem to be lessons I am being taught. For example dad has never been demonstrative and so we have never been close in that sense. However as he jabbers away in bed I find myself stroking his hand or touching his face or tidying his hair. I kiss him before we leave and I smile a lot when he looks at me. There is intimacy now where there was distance. Is that why he is still here so that God has given me a chance to get closer to my father – a kind of healing? I don’t know.

Also in my busy life where I get caught up just doing ‘things’ almost on automatic pilot it does me good to make the trip down the hospital and feel upset and anxious about someone close. It’s a way, I suppose, of being made human again. I can’t protect myself all the time or become so ‘professional’ and self-controlled that I bury feelings and retain a sort of aloofness from the pains and sufferings of others. Of course breaking down at every funeral etc will render me completely incapable of seeing things through – someone has to be in charge – but at the same time it can lead to a kind of robotic subhuman behaviour which is surely not good for the soul.

So visiting dad is a kind of healing. It keeps me reaching out instead of closing off. So there is a “time to live and a time to die” (Ecclesiastes 3:2) but only when whatever needs to be done is done, or a lesson that needs to be learnt is learnt? And of course when God in His infinite wisdom decides, with dad, that it’s time to go. (written originally on February 12th 2009)

Love and laying down the law

One of the tensions I struggle with as a Christian and a parent is the relationship between rules and love. No one likes rules and there is something in us that wants to hit out and react when someone tells us we can’t do something. It’s like the sign that says “Don’t touch, wet paint!” There is something in us that just wants to reach out and do the exact opposite to what the sign says. So when it comes to bringing up children, for example, and we lay down certain rules that we believe will help keep them on the straight and narrow or that will be ‘good’ for them, we are not entirely surprised when they break them or baulk at being confined by a list of don’ts.

And yet how else can we teach them what is right or wrong, or what is harmful and helpful, or what we want them to do in order to avoid the pain that comes from playing with fire or sharp objects? Rules become a means of expressing love, just as God’s ‘rules’ or ‘words’ were meant as an expression of His love.

Okay I know that in some way the Ten are no longer written on stone but on the hearts of the beloved. And we all know (or perhaps we don’t) the Blessed Augustine’s dictum: “Love and do what you will” meaning that if we do love God what we do will not break His laws or His heart. But how else do you help your children if not by laying down guidelines for living that will help them avoid the same mistakes that you made and paid (and are still paying) for? Surely to love is to set boundaries? Not to love is to let them do whatever they want in the hope that they will find out the hard way before it’s too late.

It’s a dilemma I suspect that will never be worked out as long as there are people and as long as there is sin present in this beautiful and blighted world we live in. Every parent is doomed to tread the same path and face the same challenges and fail or succeed in equal measure and discover in the process that there is no magic formula or method that will guarantee success. Maybe that’s why Jesus talks so much about forgiveness and love, because he knows that we will need the both if we are to get through.

So for now there are rules and the certainty that they will be broken from now until the end of time. I am sure God knew that and gave us Ten anyway.

Sleepless in Swansea

This is the second night in a row that I can’t sleep. I don’t know if it is something I ate or drank or whether this is something that every 52 year old might as well get used to because this is what will occur on a more regular basis from now on in? One blessing is that this is one of the few ‘free’ moments I seem to have to write my blog, so “every cloud…”

What does fascinate me however about these nocturnal forays downstairs is how sharp my mind is and will be tomorrow too. Okay half way through the day I will need some kind of slap across the face or something to stimulate my digestive system, but generally I know I will be on top form mentally. Another side effect (benefit?) is that I get more emotionally tuned in to things. I mean that things move me more. I relate on a deeper level to the tragedy on the TV news or I find myself able to so empathize with a bereaved person so that I am on the verge of mingling my tears with theirs.

I know it does smack of some kind of loss of control and anyone reading this can be forgiven for thinking that maybe I am on the verge of some sort of breakdown. But a sleepless night does have its benefits, although I would not choose to remain awake like this and certainly not on a regular basis.

Which brings me to the subject of the spiritual disciplines. In the gospels Jesus several times calls on his disciples to “watch and pray” (Matthew 26:41; Mark 14:38). Jesus himself would spend time with God at all kinds of unearthly hours. In 2 Corinthians 6:5 Paul refers to something called “watching” which I take to be a kind of abstinence, not of eating or drinking, but of sleeping, in order to spend time in prayer. So maybe this is God nudging me awake to spend some time with Him that I could not afford in the day. Maybe it’s a call to “Come away…and rest a while” with Him (Mark 6:31) in His presence? If that’s the case then I am glad to be here, awake, banging the keys with God looking over my shoulder. Just me and Him and the dark hovering behind the bright computer screen on my desk.

The democratization of morality

In the absence of God, who decides whether a thing is right or wrong? Take sex outside of marriage, for example. Christians would agree that it is wrong and potentially destructive, undermining marriage and opening the door to unwanted preganancies etc. But times have changed and now society has decided that it is no longer taboo but actually perfectly acceptable. It has voted with its feet – or some other part of its anatomy – and collectively decided that we no longer need to view it as wrong. Morality therefore has become democratized. Because the majority are in favour, any conflicting – i.e. Christian - view is demonized as moralizing. A decision has been made, the votes cast, and sex before marriage is officially ‘in’. (Note: for many it has always been ‘in’ but never in such a publicly approving way).

But there are huge problems with this approach because something (or someone) is fuelling this this way of thinking. Someone is persuading the majority that this is okay and the way forward. They, the public, are not uninformed, so who is informing them? Who or what is driving this forward?

Also there is a danger that if enough people think it is good then bad is turned on its head and evil is the new ‘good’ so to speak. Which reminds me of a passage from Isaiah: “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” Isaiah 5:20. Isn’t that what has happened in Germany in the last world war. Somehow a whole nation was persuaded into thinking that getting rid of the Jews was a ‘good thing’ and that their presence was somehow evil. So thousands of blind eyes were turned as Hitler set about their extermination.

So the way things are going I am getting increasingly worried. Today it is sex before marriage, yesterday it was abortion on demand, what will tomorrow bring?

Friday, 8 May 2009

Praying with heart and mind

The Jews said that the first requirement of prayer was ‘kavvanah’. The Hebrew word referred to the way in which the mind and heart should be fixed on God. It is highly likely that when Jesus prayed he was absorbed in this form of self forgetful contemplation. In other words, he paid sustained and loving attention to the Father who loved him in such an incomprehensible manner that it couldn’t be expressed in words. Jesus basked in the light of that love and poured out his daily concerns in a trusting way to the Lord.”
Fr Pat Collins: Prayer in Practice

Ancient wisdom

Amongst my current reading material – I have several books on the boil – is a little book called “The Wisdom of Saint Isaac the Syrian” translated by Sebastian Brock. Its a distillation of the wise sayings of a seventh century hermit of the Assyrian Church (he is also known as St.Isaac of Ninevah) who is undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment. This book is just a kind of taster for those wanting to dip their toes in the clear water of his teachings (excuse the mixed metaphors) and a recommended read. Here are a few of his sayings to whet your appetite:

“If God is slow in answering your request, or if you ask but do not promptly receive anything, do not be upset, for you are not wiser than God.”

“The ladder to the Kingdom is hidden within you, and within your soul. Dive down into your self, away from sin, and there you will find the steps by which you can ascend.”

“Make sure you see to small things, lest otherwise you may push aside important ones.”

And one of my favourites – because it challenges me:

“The knowledge of God does not reside in a body that loves comfort.”

Ouch!

The book is a mere 20 pages long but it is subject indexed and if you go through Amazon you can get it second hand next to nothing.

True martyrdom

How often are Muslim extremist terrorists referred to as ‘martyrs’? Below however is a true martyr who, rather than deny his faith, died at the hands of cowards.

Ragheed Aziz Ganni, priest: born Mosul, Iraq 20 January 1972; ordained priest 2001; died Mosul 3 June 2007.

Ragheed Ganni, a Chaldean Catholic priest, had just finished celebrating Sunday evening Mass in the Holy Spirit parish in the northern Iraqi town of Mosul when gunmen stopped his car. Before opening fire on him and his three deacons (one of them his cousin), the killers demanded their conversion to Islam. They then shot the four repeatedly.

Although the first Catholic priest to be killed since 2003, Ganni was by no means the first Christian leader in Iraq to be targeted for execution. As the Islamist intolerance of Christians rose steadily in recent years and months, Ganni had several times been on the receiving end of threats and attacks. His church had most recently been bombed on 27 May. The three deacons had decided to accompany him to and from his church in a vain attempt to protect him.

Listening to God

Still on this head versus heart theme I came across this little article which invites us to encounter God through the Bible by using our hearts rather than our heads. Interestingly I was introduced to this way of Bible study through two books which I have read recently – although ‘read’ is perhaps overstating it a little, perhaps ‘forage’ would be a better word. The books are Jan Johnson’s “Savoring God’s Word” published by Navpress and “Too deep for words” by Thelma Hall and published by Paulist Press. Navpress is a firm of predominantly evangelical publishers and Paulist Press is predominantly Roman Catholic. Both meet here in the middle in bringing us a way of reading which is as old as Christianity and is much needed today in our very wordy and head-centred church. Both are excellent reads and brilliant resources for going further and deeper in encountering God through His word, surely the primary aim of all scripture reading.

Anyway here is the article. Just a brief intro to whet your appetite:

Oh, how I love your law!
It is my meditation all day long. Psalm 119:97.

There are two ways, broadly speaking, we can read the Bible: ‘Bible study’ and lectio divina. In Bible study we mainly use our head; in lectio divina, our heart. Bible study is reading the Bible for doctrine; lectio divina is reading the Bible for holiness. Bible study may degenerate into purely ‘reading for information’; lectio divina is ‘reading for transformat- ion’. In Bible study there is a tendency to be over the Word, as a critic of the Bible text; in lectio divina we are under the Word: it becomes our critic! Lectio divina is a Latin phrase from the 4th or 5th centuries which means, literally, ’sacred reading’. It involves ‘reading, meditating, praying’ or, in Latin, lectio, meditatio, oratio.

Margaret Hebblethwaite (Finding God in All Things, Collins: Fount Paperbacks, 1987/1990) writes: ‘Choose a passage from Scripture… Read it slowly and reverently… This is the lectio. As you come to a phrase that touches you in some way, stop, repeat it over and over. Let [these words] sink into your subconscious. This is the meditatio… ‘When you have dwelt on the phrase for a while, let prayer arise out of you… In some way you gather up what is going on within you and direct it towards God in prayer. This is the oratio.’ (pp. 92 ff).

Lord, help me to use both heart and head in reading your Word in Scripture: may I be transformed as well as informed by it. Amen.

PS. There is another stage to the process of reading called ‘Contemplatio’ but I think Margaret Hebblethwaite is just giving us an introduction and saving that stage for the more practised student

Becoming Fire

Christianity has become much too cerebral in many ways. It’s all head and very little heart, at least in that part of the Anglican Church I serve in, the Church in Wales. But Christianity is not an idea its life. It’s not just a sensible, logical or intellectually satisfying concept, its a falling in love, head over heels, with God.

I write this, in some sense, for myself, because for many years – too many to mention – the Christian faith has been too often about the development of an idea rather than an encounter with a person. I have fallen for the outer trappings of faith rather than the inner reality, experienced mystically through prayer and the sacraments.When Moses stepped aside to see the bush that was burning, he was initially fascinated with how the branches were burning but not being consumed. However it was not the bush and the non-combustible properties of its parts that, in the end, changed his life and the life of his people forever, it was the reality that was within, beyond and above the fire. That’s why I love the following story from the lives of the desert fathers:

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’

Abba Lot did everything right, everything expected of a monk or hermit. He said the office, prayed, fasted, meditated and tried to live out his life in a God-pleasing way. But he discovered somewhere along the way that that was not enough for him. He sensed that there was still something more or even something missing, and he wanted it.

We can all relate to God in this way and be good Christian people, living out the faith as a mixture of religious rules and self-discipline, but as with Abba Lot we sense, if we are open to it, that there is more. A lot more. In fact the greater part of what the Christian faith is, has all along, been missing.

So Abba Lot visits Abba Joseph and asks him, for us: “What else can I do?” Abba Joseph’s answer, complete with visual aid, is that if we want the fulness of God, God has to have the fulness of us. If we want this somethinig more, we must come to that place where God consumes us in our waking, sleeping, thinking, praying and living. Sure he wants our head and our intellects, but that is only a part of the total.

I too want to become fire. I don’t want to play at being a Christian, I want to be one. I don’t want to live out of my intellect, I want to live out of my heart as well. I don’t want luke warm, I want hot. I don’t want just a snippet of God, I want as much as I can bear. I don’t just want the bush, I want the fire.

Who threw out the bin bags?

Recently I have been struggling with the whole concept of hell and separation from God as punishment for us rejecting Him. I struggle with that on so many different levels. How can God punish us? What sort of God is it that makes these rules,and, if we then break them, will then consign us into a place of despair and abandonement? (There are lots of other questions too about being ‘judged’ in time and then punished for eternity etc but that’s one for later). As I was thinking about these issues two things happened which have helped me ‘deal’ with this.

First, I read a superb book by Kallistos Ware compiled from his own lectures and addresses. It is called “The Inner Kingdom”. In the last chapter he asks the question: “Dare we hope for the salvation of all?” As a bishop he adheres to the teachings of the church about hell etc (although not a literal place of fire etc) but asks the question as he wrestles with the whole notion of punishment. In the chapter he quotes with approval two great writers St. Isaac of Ninevah and C.S.Lewis who both say the same thing only coming at it from slightly different angles. First St. Isaac. Bishop Kallistos writes:

“In his (St. Isaac’s) view, the real torment in hell consists not in burning by material fire, nor in any physical pain, but in the pangs of conscience that a person suffers on realizing that he or she has rejected the love of God. “

He then quotes from St. Isaac these words:

“Also I say that even those who are scourged in hell are tormented with the scourgings of love.

The scourges that result from love – that is, scourges of those who have become aware that they have sinned against love – are harder and more bitter than the torments that there are.

It is wrong to imagine that the sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God…[But] the power of love works in two ways: it torments thsoe who have sinned, just as happens among friends here on earth; but to those who have observed its duties, love gives delight.”

Kallistos continues: “When I first came across this passage as a student more than forty years ago, I said to myself: That is the only view of hell that makes any sense to me. God is love, St. Isaac tells us, and this divine love is unchanging and inexhaustible. God’s love is everywhere and embraces everything: “If I go down to hell, Thou art there also” (Psalm 139:8). Thus even those in hell are not cut off from the love of God. Love acts, however, in a twofold way: it is joy to those who accept it but torture to those who shut it out.” (pp.207-208)

He then goes on to quote C.S. Lewis from his book “The Great Divorce”. He writes: “…those in hell are self-enslaved, self-imprisoned. Ultimately states C.S.Lewis:

“there are only two kinds of people…thsoe who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell….The doors of Hell are locked on the inside.”

The second thing that happened was I heard the story of a boy whose bedroom was such a mess that his father feared for his health. Not only was there the usual piles of dirty and discarded clothes and empty cd cases, with the cd’s themselves scattered across the by now almost invisible carpet, but there were items of decaying food and half eaten burgers down the side of the unmade bed. At his wits end the father gave his son an ultimatum. Unless he cleared his bedroom and binned the food he would put all the contents in black bin bags and leave them out for the refuse collector. The son ignored the warning despite the grace of several extra days added to the deadline, and so the father ransacked the room and put everything into ten black bags and left them outside ready to be taken away. The son was furious with his father and refused to speak to him for days. Eventually things got back to normal and there was a marked improvement in the state of the boys bedroom.

But here’s the point. Who threw out the bin bags? The answer may seem straight forward – it was the father. He collected the rubbish, bagged it and put out to be collected. But it could also be argued the other way round, that the boy ignored the clear warnings and the extra days of grace the father allowed before he acted, and through his inaction suffered the consequences. In effect he put out his own bags.

Isn’t what happens at the end of life a little like that. Not so much God acting as our refusing to act. The punishment is there, sure, but not as some great act of retribution but as a consequence of our refusal to heed the warnings. God loves us as the father loved the son, but ultimately He will not force us to act. Hell to me is like that. Not a place for the disobedient but the ultimate destination for those who, through their own choice, chose it over and against God.

Pleasing men or God

One of my personal weaknesses – there’s a list and its growing – is I like to be liked. I hate to be ill thought of or not accepted. I want, no need, people to think well of me. It is something that is, I suspect, common to all of us to a greater or lesser degree, but with some it is usually counterbalanced by a less insecure personality or one of greater self-confidence. With me however there is just this fear of rejection which makes any kind of confrontation a very costly exercise, usually leading to some sort of compromise further along the line.

Early on in my Christian walk someone, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, was able to spot this weakness and gave me a verse from Galatians which has forever haunted me to this day: “Am I now trying to please men or God. If I were still trying to please men I would not be a servant of Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 1:10 – I didn’t need to look it up). Fear of men/people is a real stumbling block not only if we want to lead a church like Paul (and me), but if we want to get anywhere in our Christian walk. It is a real hindrance to maturity and one which we (I) must battle to the end. I love this quote from the Fathers which, I believe, drives the nail further in:

“A brother came to Abba Macarius and said to him: “Abba, give me an edifying word on how to be saved!” The elder said to him: “Go to the cemetary and revile the dead.” The brother went, reviled them threw stones at them. When he returned he told the elder what had happened. The elder aske him: “And did they say nothing to you?” “Nothing,” he replied. The elder told him: “Tomorrow go back and praise them.” The brother went and praised the dead, saying: “Apostles, saints, righteous ones!” Then he went to the elder and said: “I praised them just as you told me to.” The elder asked him: “And did they not answer anything?” The brother said: “Nothing.” The elder told him: “You see how much you reviled them and they said nothing, and how much you praised them and they said nothing to you. So you, if you wish to be saved, be like the dead and do not think about the insults of people, nor the praises of people, and you can be saved.”

The battle lines then are clearly drawn, if we want to follow Jesus we must first pick up the cross – the means to putting someone to death – and then deny ourselves. (Matthew 16:24-25) We cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:19-24) for, warns Jesus, we will either hate the one and love the other. ‘I’ must not come in the way of following Jesus as my master. In fact ‘I’ can become a major stumbling block to my own salvation. If I try and save my life I will lose it, but if I lose my life for Jesus and the gospel, I will find it. Hence Abba Macarius’ advice to “be like the dead”, dying to self through taking up the cross ( the means to putting my ego to death) and then following Jesus.

So pleasing myself is out. In the list of priorities ‘I’ must slip further down. It’s God at the top and me at the bottom. There is no other way to salvation and wholeness.

Thy Kingdom Come 2017