Saturday, 31 July 2010

Baptism and touch

"People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them." (Mark 10:13-16)

Whenever I have to prepare a short sermon for a service of infant baptism I find myself continually drawn to the above passage from Mark. First, because it talks about children. Second, because it is about Jesus' relationship with them. And third, because those with little or no contact with the Church or its teachings see baptism as a kind of 'blessing with water'. Here then is what I said at the last baptism I took as I tried to use the reading as a starting point to talk about the Christian life.

"Christians believe that that same Jesus mentioned in our passage from Mark's Gospel, is alive and with us today. In fact He promises us that where two or three gather together in His Name there He will be in their midst. This is because as Christians we believe that Jesus, who was crucified and rose again, is the Son of God, one with God His Father.

So this account by St Mark not only tells us what happened 2000 years ago but also reminds us that this same Jesus who welcomed children then, is the same Jesus who is with us today as we bring Ava to God in baptism.

And it is here He comes to touch and bless Ava through the waters of baptism giving her something of His love just as He did with the children in St Mark's gospel.

But if we look at what Jesus says, there is more. That while it is good to be 'touched' by God He means it to be more than a once and for all experience of Him. He wants it to the the start of a relationship with Him.

My eldest daughter Sarah is 28 and training as a nurse in Bristol. You would never think that when she was born she weighed little more than a bag of sugar. She was 11 weeks premature and spent 8 weeks in an incubator connected to all kinds of tubes an alarms. But even though she had to remain enclosed in this small plastic container for most of the time, we as parents were encouraged to touch her as much as possible and when she was strong enough, to take her out and hold her and feed her ourselves. It was important to create a bond between the child and parents which would help create a nurturing and loving relationship between us. One 'touch' leading to many many more.

That us exactly what God wants for Ava and for us. He wants one touch to be followed by many - leading to a developing and deepening relationship with Him. Which is what Jesus means when He goes on in this passage to talk about the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is another way of saying that God wants us to enter and sustain a relationship with Him as our heavenly Parent so that He may be able to continue to love and sustain us throughout this life and into eternity. He wants to create a bond with us that will mean He will not remain a stranger to us but will become what He is - real and substantial - our God.

To walk with God then we must become like like children, believing and trusting in Him. And He has given us a family to belong to to help and encourage us - it's called the Church.

So baptism is God's first touch of many. By God's grace and with your help, may there be many, many more.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Sitting in stillness

"Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to His teaching." Luke 10:39

The phrase “sat at the Lord’s feet” is a rabbinic phrase meaning to be a disciple, and a disciple is one who hangs on every word that their Master says, even committing his sayings to memory before trying to live out that teaching in practical ways. Not too far fetched to consider that when Luke came to write his gospel, he may well have incorporated some of the things Mary had learnt while sitting at the feet of Jesus.

But there is more here. Listening to Jesus’ teaching and committing it to memory is one thing, but in order to do that, to absorb the words allowing them to sink deep into mind and heart, there needs to be silence accompanied by the discipline of dealing with those things that invade that silence when the body is still.

The ancient Fathers see in Mary a model for all Christians as they seek the way of salvation. For them and for Christians up until the 16th century salvation was not a moment or a decision, but a life committed to seeking God.

So we find Arsenius a 4th century desert Father who while working as tutor to the Emperor Theodosius’ princes Arcadius & Honorius praying: “Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.” As he waits for the answer to his prayer he hears a voice telling him: “Arsenius, flee from the world and you will be saved.” So Arsenius takes the command literally and sails secretly from Rome to Alexandria where he withdraws to a solitary life in the desert. Here he again prays the same prayer: “Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.” Again he hears a voice this time telling him: “Arsenius, flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the sources of sinlessness.”

Here he learns the truths of the scriptures that salvation is found when we stop doing and start listening. When we still our minds and confront who we are under the spotlight of God’s loving gaze. “In returning and rest you shall be saved, writes Isaiah 1000 years earlier, “in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” Isaiah 30;15

Are you a Christian Atheist?

I came across this very challenging article the other day about something called 'Christian Atheism'. It was written by Pastor Craig Groeschel who describes himself as a "recovering Christian atheist".  All his life he considered himself a Christian but, he admits, he didn't always live as if God existed. It's a struggle he's had both as a layman and as a pastor, of one of the fastest growing and largest churches in the country. And it's a struggle he wants to help millions of so-called Christians to overcome. Christian atheists are everywhere, he writes in his newly released book, The Christian Atheist. They attend church and seminaries and some even read their Bibles everyday.

"Many of us look the part," he writes. "Or we think we're Christian because, you know, it's not like we're Buddhists. We believe in God, but our lives don't reflect who he really is."

Groeschel introduced Christian atheism a few years ago in a sermon series titled Practical Atheist. The way Christian atheism plays out, he preached at that time, is: "I believe in God but I want to do whatever the heck I want to do. I want enough of God to keep me out of hell and enough of God to get me into heaven but I don't want so much of God that it makes me change my lifestyle because at its root I believe in God but I do not fear Him."

The series had a big impact on his listeners and more than 2,100 people ended up giving their lives to Christ. Groeschel is hoping that that more people in the pews, the Easter and Christmas Christians, the cultural Christians, and those who simply believe in God but live an atheist lifestyle can shed their hypocrisy and see that there is a better way to live.

Groeschel was born into a "Christian" family. They would go to church when convenient, donate goods to food drives and pray before meals. But that was the extent of it, he says. He knew about God and believed in God but he didn't know God. Even the demons believe in God, he notes. So, obviously there is more to the whole Christian thing than just believing in God, he says. It wasn't until college when he read the New Testament books of Romans and Ephesians and discovered salvation was by God's grace alone that he transformed from a Christian atheist into a Christian. "For the first time in my life, I believed in God and began to live like he is real," Groeschel writes.

As a transformed believer, he became more than a fanatic and began "collecting converts to Christianity like Michael Phelps collects gold medals". He went into ministry at the age of 23 and though his love for ministry burned hotter, his passion for Christ cooled. "My mission had become a job," he recalls. Again, he began falling into Christian atheism and by the age of 25, he was a "full-time pastor and a part-time follower of Christ".

Some of the symptoms of Christian atheism are illustrated in his past life but there are also symptoms that may be difficult to recognise, especially by those who are infected, Groeschel points out. Believing in God but pursuing happiness at any cost is one of them. To the Christian atheist, the pursuit of happiness gives license to sin. And happiness to them is based on the things in this world rather than God's kingdom. Moreover, "to the Christian atheist, the holy God of the universe is quietly transformed into a cosmic soda machine. If we give enough money, or pray the right prayer, or live the right way, God must deliver and do what we ask." Pursuing happiness seems like the right thing to do, but Groeschel stresses, "God doesn't want us to be happy."

"God doesn't want us to be happy because God wants us to be blessed," he explains. "When we believe the things of this world will provide happiness, we're settling for a counterfeit," he says. "The happiness of this world is based on fickle happenings, but the blessings of God transcend the things this world offers."
Other symptoms include believing in God but not being certain that He loves you, not really knowing Him, not believing in prayer, not thinking He's fair, not thinking you can change, trusting more in money, worrying all the time, shunning the church, and not sharing your faith. "I believe one of the main reasons people don't share their faith in Christ is that they don't really believe in hell," Groeschel offers. "Many of us are out of touch with the genuine urgency." "If we really believed in heaven and hell – and we sincerely cared – wouldn't our actions be transformed?"

Groeschel calls Christians to believe in God and Christ's Gospel enough to give your life to it. Anything less, he says, doesn't seem like real Christianity to him.

In the context of what Groeschel says these words of Wilbur Rees seem appropriate:  "I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please, not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don't want enough of him to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant. I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please."

Baptism in the Spirit

I came across this article whilst surfing the web:

"My first encounters with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal were all negative. I found the earliest meetings in Washington DC in 1967, under the room where I lived at the Catholic University of America, noisy, emotional, and very disturbing of my work, sleep and peace. I definitely did not like the charismatic renewal. Having transferred to Rome to teach at the Pontifical Gregorian University, my superiors assigned me for several months to open and close the doors of a university building on Sunday afternoons for the first charismatic group in Italy, or at least one of the very first. My Sundays were ruined. I opened and shut the doors in bad humour, and did not attend the meetings, not even for a minute. As a result of my rudeness, the entire group prayed that I would receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit and join the group.

In the summer of 1975 at a small meeting in the state of New York, in a retreat house that just happened to be a charismatic retreat house, I felt an interior urge, forceful almost to the point of violence, to ask the heads of the retreat house to pray over me. And so: I received the Holy Spirit, the gift of tongues, some charisms, a profound inner healing and immense joy. It changed my life permanently.

Results of prayer vary

My experience has taught me that the principal mission of the charismatic renewal, and of each group and of each community in particular, is to offer the possibility to as many people as they can, a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the so-called Baptism in the Holy Spirit. However, since it is the Lord and not we who pour out the Spirit, the results of our prayer vary. Some people seem to receive nothing; others at first seem to receive little or nothing and then find themselves receiving much. Others immediately feel the results of the prayer and know that they have received great things from God and that their lives have changed forever.

Jesus is the One who baptizes in His Spirit. And so I have witnessed baptisms in the Holy Spirit often when we have prayed over people in prayer groups and retreats and charismatic conferences. I have seen many spontaneous baptisms in the Spirit and I have known of baptisms in the Holy Spirit that have taken place in personal prayer, at Mass, and in other unusual situations.

Different contexts in which Baptism in the Spirit can be offered.

It seems to me that the principal mission of any part of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal is to offer the prayer for the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. This can be done in the context of a seminar, the seminar can take place over a period of weeks, or even months as in the case of a group that meets monthly. Or the seminar can take place in a short retreat, even in a one-day retreat. Or at a charismatic conference.

The charismatic renewal is not an institution, not an organization primarily, nor even a group of organizations. It is a movement of the Spirit. Not a movement of people nor of their leaders. Not a planned programme. The charismatic renewal is an outpouring of grace, and the main grace is the baptism in the Holy Spirit. It does depend on the Lord. But we need to cooperate by offering the possibility of a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit to everyone who has not yet received a real baptism in the Spirit. Yes, Jesus baptizes in His Spirit, and he does it how and where and when He wants to. But we need to set things up, to pray over people, and first to give them some sort of preparation however brief and rudimentary.

We can pray over people

In many places, and not only in the more developed nations, the charismatic renewal is limping badly, diminishing in numbers and in the power of the Holy Spirit, and even dying. In those many places, in spite of moribund prayer groups and lacklustre leadership there is hope. Hope in the Lord. We can pray over people. We can advertise by asking pastors to announce seminars to receive a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit, with dates and times and telephone numbers and where they will take place, by placing posters in churches and other places, and by telling people and encouraging them to come and receive great graces. We can leave the rest up to the Lord.

Relying on Jesus and not on ourselves

What do we have to be afraid of? Of a “revolving door” prayer group where people make the seminar, get prayed over and vanish? There is nothing wrong with the revolving door. Those people who do not remain in the group or in the community have had the experience of receiving the Holy Spirit; they have changed, they will not be the same. And there will be others. Are we afraid of our own incompetence in giving the seminar?

We are all incompetent; it is part of our charm and the key to relying on Jesus and not on ourselves. We have nothing to be afraid of except this; not doing what the Lord calls us to do. “Jesus Christ’s entire mission is summed up in this: to baptize us in the Holy Spirit…” (Pope Benedict XV1, Osservatore Romano, January 26th 2008). Jesus has been revealed as the One who has come to baptize humanity in the Holy Spirit” (Pope Benedict XV1, homily on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord). Pope Benedict makes it clear that this wonderful grace is for everyone. Our calling in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal is to be channels for the Lord – living it, proclaiming it and ministering it.” (Charles Whitehead, Goodnews, March 2008)"

Fr Bob Faricy SJ has been a speaker and a writer about the Catholic Charismatic Renewal for over 30 years.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Haunted by a text

Having read the Bible over and over for a period of about 29-30 years, not only in my own private prayer times but as a priest with a parish, certain texts seem to follow me round more than others. They pop up first thing in the morning or as I slip into sleep at night, or they surface when I am asking God questions about something that is on my mind.

One of those texts is John 15:5 "...apart from me you can do nothing." The context is Jesus talking about the relationship between a branch and the vine and how the branch is utterly dependant on the vine for its life. Christ is the vine and the follower of Christ, the one in whom dwells the Holy Spirit, is the branch. No connection between the two - no flow of life and energy - no fruitfulness or life.

It seems such a simple illustration and a simple message but it is one which I forget so quickly and so easily. So sometimes I will rant at God asking why this idea has not worked or why I can't seem to shake some besetting sin and up pops the verse "apart from me you can do nothing" as if it was some silent companion walking quietly by my side that suddenly made himself known. The truth then dawns on me like a light in a dark room and for the next several days I do all I can to keep in constant touch with the vine which is Jesus. I have my regular quiet times, chat with God in the car, pray before each visit and ask for God's guidance and wisdom before each decision.

But then life picks up pace and demands begin to swamp my little boat and suddenly - well actually gradually - I am down again because I am struggling with things and feeling that I am tackling all my problems on my own. So I offload onto God and complain about why the Christian life doesn't seem to work. That is until once again "the verse", or a close cousin, pops up again and nudges me out of my stupor. By a close cousin I mean a connected verse. Take for example Psalm 1:3. In this verse it says of the person who meditates on God's Law day and night that he "is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers." And this time Christ is not the vine but the water, and the verse sends me back to its close relative, John 15:5, and here I am again re-learning the lessons of previous encounters with God. This 'haunting' is God the Holy Spirit gently and patiently reminding me of what He taught me not once, but many times before. I am haunted by the text, His voice, and one day I will remember.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Still more on repetition

The following is from another blog on the subject of repetition (click here for the website)

"I’ve developed a preference for liturgical worship, a far cry from my ‘rock-concert’ evangelical beginnings. But nobody seems to understand why. Well, there are reasons I left the rock concert, and there are reasons I stayed in the liturgy. These are the reasons I stayed:

The bible is read all the time, and shows up in every part of worship. Sermons are short, so even if they’re terrible, there’s plenty of solid teaching in just the prayers and readings. And the lectionary is set so that the scriptures are central. Speakers can’t focus on whatever they want; they focus on Jesus.

Reading a script as if the entire worship is a complex, worshipful dramatic production. Non-liturgical Christians often seem to believe that saying the same thing every week, and saying it together is stifling, dry or somehow sinful. But how is it any different from the songs you sing in the rock concert every week? And reading scripted creeds, confessions and prayer responses together eliminates any ego in the equation. Every Christian is equal, we are announcing our faith, confessing our sings, talking to and worshipping God in true unity.

I said true unity. Every worshipper isn’t doing whatever they want to do. We worship in unity, with all free to worship God free from the effects of the human ego. In the rock concert church, attention-seekers really get into it, distractions are the norm, and anyone who doesn’t jump/clap/dance for the Lord is bombed with guilt. The church is worshiping in unity, free from ego, in an ordered and disciplined, biblical and orthodox fashion.
Liturgy feels no need to be like the world, unlike the rock concert. It isn’t hip. It isn’t seeker-friendly. It’s not adapting the world to God’s uses. It has no worldly equivalent – it is Christ’s alone.

Everything outside of the sermon is scripted. I just want to hear the bible, encouragement and prayers that don’t drag on with repetitions. I am tired of hearing preachers constantly talk, tired of humorous comments and unnecessary asides designed to fill the hour. I don’t want to hear tongues unless it’s interpreted. In the liturgy, every word is weighted with meaning. Every thing you say or hear has value, is an act of worship. Language is sanctified for worship in liturgy, where contemporary services often conform to the world’s use of language.

I’m told that liturgy is stale, stifling, that repetition yields faithless zombies, that the lack of freedom in worship indicates that there is no worship at all. Worship isn’t just singing, it’s anything you do that glorifies God. Writing here, is worship. Reading your bible, or a book about theology, talking to someone, thinking about the Lord, doing well in your chosen area of study, creating something beautiful, are all acts of worship. I’m sure there are plenty of ‘faithless zombies’ simply turning up to the rock concert because they always have, tuning out in sermons and worshipping without heart. And as for ‘a lack of freedom’ – since when was doing whatever you wanted an act of worship?

Liturgy certainly isn’t the only form of worship, but I believe it’s one that is Christ-focused and pure, which is more than I can say for my life-long experience of the rock concert.

I am Damian Caruana, and I love liturgy."

Vain repetition?

It is often argued that liturgy is "vain repetition". Good liturgy is indeed repetitive, just as the Lord's Prayer is repetitive. Liturgy that is constantly changed and innovated, is more than a bother, it actually hinders our access into God's presence. Innovated liturgy forces us to focus on the words rather than the meaning. Liturgy that is well-known frees the worshiper to focus on the meaning of the words. They are released from the book. Church members faced with constant changes to their liturgy would be better off with a free-style worship form where they can just listen to the minister praying rather than try to follow the words and get the responses right. Even worse, many believers today are forced to focus on a blurry and ever-shaking overhead projection. They would be better off closing their eyes.
   
Constant repetition serves to free the worshiper from the actual words of the liturgy. They become familiar with the words, what is said and where it is said, and are then able to focus on the meaning of the words. This then leads to a personalizing of that meaning. Each element of the liturgy can then be used as a platform from which to personally approach Christ.

The Lord's Prayer best illustrates liturgical methodology. To get the most out of the Lord's Prayer it is best to consider each phrase in its own right, drawing out its meaning and then personalizing it. So "forgive us our sins" becomes "forgive me for my constant failure to faithfully serve you Lord, and in particular..............." Once the prayer is known off by heart and its meaning understood, the worshiper is able to use each phrase for personalized intercession. The mind simply locks onto the phrase and runs with it. So then, when each element of a liturgical service is remembered and understood, it is possible for the worshiper to pack their approach to Christ with a full range of personalized adoration, and to do that in unison with their fellow believers.

The repetition of each element of a liturgical service also enables children and those with limited intelligence, to participate at their level and to slowly develop their depth of understanding and involvement. Thus liturgy affirms our unity in Christ: there is neither old nor young, wise nor foolish.

For a meaningful involvement in a liturgical service we need to know off by heart the elements of the service and be willing to use the sense of each element to personalize our approach to the throne of grace.

Repetition in liturgy

The following is from the blog 21st Century Christian  (click here) written by a Presbyterian Christian. I was so struck by it - it addresses some of the issues I am thinking about - that I wanted to include it here:

Repetition in liturgy has a bad reputation. Yet that’s the way we learn. Saying responses week after week, the creed, familiar prayers and singing the hymns we love over and over are ways we fill our memories with basic theology. Someone once said that if the truth be known, we learn theology from the hymns we sing. I’d add, we are taught by the whole liturgy as well.

So, like it or not, there must be a certain amount of repetition in our worship. Some forms of dialogue regularly appear, for example, “The Lord be with you.”/”And also with you.” Verses of Scripture show up again and again as calls to worship or introductions to prayers. The Apostles’ Creed and other affirmations repeatedly express belief. Classic prayers are repeated from time to time and serve as models for personal prayer beyond corporate worship. Hymns and other music, of course, have a powerful cumulative impact on worshippers.

The problem is, however, that repetition can go stale very quickly and turn to mere rote. It’s easy for congregations to say the Lord’s Prayer just as they’ve said it for years without much thought—they put it on liturgical cruise-control and coast through it. This can happen with much of the liturgy. It can even happen with familiar hymns that are just “gotten through” without a lot of feeling.

Changing things constantly or bringing on everything new all the time doesn’t help. Liturgy can be flooded with “the latest and greatest,” to the end that there is little to file in the memory. There is not sufficient repetition to learn it.

I wonder when I go into a church and there is a hymnal with some 600-plus hymns, and next to it a supplemental book with another 300 songs, while on the pew is a notebook with another 50 or so congregational favorites. That approaches 1000 musical pieces available to the pew-sitter. The congregation will either focus on a relatively small number, or try to do them all and no one will really absorb any single song.

There was a time when church school children learned, even memorized parts of the liturgy in preparation for the times they worshipped with their parents. They were even taught hymns sung in the church service. I don’t think memorization and teaching of liturgy happens much any more.

So saying prayers and singing songs again and again is how we learn. Repetition plants things in our memories. Still, there is the danger of dullness, over-familiarity, routine, boredom.

One way to avoid the deadliness of rote is for the leaders, lay and clergy and musicians, to do the liturgy with feeling. I’ve heard many worship leaders, including clergy, read prayers with inflection patterns that numb the listeners’ brains. Even when leading a unison prayer, the leader should speak loudly enough with meaning so everyone else is prompted to say it with meaning as well.

When liturgy sticks in the memory of the worshipper, it can make a great difference. Here are to real-life examples.

I went to a nursing home the other day to see a woman with Alzheimer’s disease. She was not able to communicate much to me, but her daughter was there and we spoke at some length. The daughter told me that her mother was a life-long active church member, teaching Sunday school, working with deacons, and most of all singing in the church choirs. Singing gospel music and hymns of the Methodist tradition was her greatest joy. Her daughter told me that while her mother was unable to do anything to care for herself because of the Alzheimer’s, she could still sing the old songs, and she would sing every last verse. Alzheimer’s, devastating as it was for her, it could not overwhelm her songs. I thought immediately of the wonderful old hymn, “How Can I Keep From Singing?”

My other example has to do with a conversation I had with a man after church one morning many years ago. He’d asked to speak to me in private. “It’s about that Charge you give to the congregation every week,” he said. He was referring to:
Go out into the world in peace;
have courage;
hold on to what is good;
return no one evil for evil;
strengthen the fainthearted;
support the weak, and help the suffering;
honor all people;
love and serve the Lord,
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.
“Well,” he went on, “a few months ago one of my co-workers did something that undermined a project I was responsible for. And this past week I had a chance to get even with him, and I was poised to do so. But then I heard those words in my mind, ‘return no one evil for evil,’ and I held back.” With tears in his eyes, he said, “I couldn’t do it. Thanks for continually reminding me. It stuck with me.”

Repetition in liturgy allows us to reclaim some of the treasures of the past, the great prayers and hymns that have moved hearts and minds and lives in obedient service of Jesus Christ for generations, and can shape our lives, even our behavior still today.

What are the pieces of liturgy that you see worthy of repetition? What hymns deserve to be sung again and again?

Friday, 16 July 2010

Returning the compliment

Recently a member of my family was lent a book comparing Christianity with Islam from a muslim viewpoint. I suspect, I don't know, that this was in response to a question that was asked about the differences between the two. I quickly flicked through the pages and discovered that the book highlighted the differences between the best of Islam and some of the worst of Christianity. For example one passage talked about how Christians believe you should stone a woman if she committed adultery. This was taken from a passage from the Old Testament Deuteronomy 22:21 which does indeed call for this kind of punishment. But in the fullest revelation of God that we find in Jesus this law has been overturned and in a passage from John's Gospel where some men bring a woman caught in adultery to Jesus, He tells them plainly "Let him who is without sin caste the first stone" to which they all responded by shamefully walking away (John 8:1-11). Jesus then turns to the woman and says: "Woman, here are they? Has no one condemned you?...Go now and leave your life of sin." The passage accurately portrays the beauty and forgiveness of the Jesus we follow and serve. He would not stone the woman and neither would we or any Christian. So with all due respect to whoever wrote the book making these comparisons they have not accurately portrayed the Christian message.

So in the interests of redressing the balance may I point any muslim reading this blog towards this online course which explains the Christian faith in the hope that they may see what it is we believe. Click here and you will be taken there.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Homosexual orientation - keeping an open mind

Eastenders tonight (13th July 2010) raised again the whole question of homosexual orientation and whether it is genetically inherited or not and can be 'reversed'. In this episode Sayed is having counselling to help him overcome his homosexual feelings towards Christian, something that Christian is very critical of as he believes that you can't change something that is natural to you. And the whole tenor of the writing is that he is right, homosexuals are born that way and it is wrong to think you can change. But is that true? As a Christian people immediately think I have already made up my mind on this one and in many people's eyes Christian=homophobic anyway. But I try to keep an open mind having friends who are 'gay' - one of whom died over 15 years ago - and I really struggle to straddle the two worlds of acceptance on the one hand, and faithfulness to the Biblical revelation on the other. I certainly don't think either 'side' portraying the other as homophobic or 'deviant' is helpful although when you feel hurt you reach for the nearest weapon to hit back against your opponent.

In the interests of keeping the debate open I offer the following article as food for thought. I offer no judgement on what is written, I include it here merely as something to consider. It certainly seems to suggest that the whole issue of sexual orientation and whether it can be 'corrected' or not - that is if it is wrong - is still an open question:

(May 9, 2001) The psychiatrist who led the team that deleted homosexuality from the diagnostic manual in 1973, now says homosexuality may sometimes be changeable. His provocative new study drew worldwide media attention at the American Psychiatric Association's annual conference on May 9th.

Dr. Robert L. Spitzer's study was funded by his department's research unit. He is Professor of Psychiatry and Chief of Biometrics at Columbia University. "Like most psychiatrists," says Dr. Spitzer, "I thought that homosexual behavior could be resisted--but that no one could really change their sexual orientation. I now believe that's untrue--some people can and do change."

Most mental-health associations have recently issued warnings about therapy to change sexual orientation. Homosexual fantasies and feelings can be renounced or resisted, most clinicians agree--but not transformed. But in a panel discussion at the annual A.P.A. meeting, Spitzer released the evidence for his conclusions. He reported interviewing 200 subjects (143 men and 57 women) who were willing to describe their sexual and emotional histories, including their self-reported shift from gay to straight.

Dr. Spitzer is best recognized in psychiatric history for his scientific role in 1973--he led the team that investigated whether homosexuality should be removed from the psychiatric manual. He drew bitter criticism during that historic event from psychoanalysts who sought to retain homosexuality among the list of disorders. Since then, Dr. Spitzer had been convinced that sexual orientation is unchangeable.

But on the opening day of the American Psychiatric Association's annual conference two years ago--in 1999--he was drawn to a group of ex-gays staging a demonstration at the entrance to the conference building. The picketers were objecting to the A.P.A.'s recent resolution discouraging therapy to change homosexuality to heterosexuality. They carried placards saying, "Homosexuals Can Change--We Did--Ask Us!" Others said, "Don't Affirm Me into a Lifestyle that was Killing Me Physically and Spiritually," and "The APA Has Betrayed America with Politically Correct Science."

Some of the psychiatrists tore up the literature handed out to them by the protesters. But others stopped to offer the protestors a few quiet words of encouragement. Dr. Spitzer was skeptical, but he decided to find out for himself if sexual orientation was changeable. He developed a 45-minute telephone interview which he personally admistered to all the subjects. Most had been referred to him by The National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality and by Exodus, a ministry for homosexual strugglers. To be eligible for the study, the subjects had to experience a significant shift from homosexual to heterosexual attraction which had lasted for at least five years.

Most of the subjects said their religious faith was very important in their lives, and about three-quarters of the men and half of the women had been heterosexually married by the time of the study. Most had sought change because a gay lifestyle had been emotionally unsatisfying. Many had been disturbed by promiscuity, stormy relationships, a conflict with their religious values, and the desire to be (or to stay) heterosexually married.

Typically, the effort to change did not produce significant results for the first two years. Subjects said they were helped by examining their family and childhood experiences, and understanding how those factors might have contributed to their gender identity and sexual orientation. Same-sex mentoring relationships, behavior-therapy techniques and group therapy were also mentioned as particularly helpful.

To the researchers' surprise, good heterosexual functioning was reportedly achieved by 67% of the men who had rarely or never felt any opposite-sex attraction before the change process. Nearly all the subjects said they now feel more masculine (in the case of men) or more feminine (women).

"Contrary to conventioned wisdom," Spitzer concluded, "some highly motivated individuals, using a variety of change efforts, can make substantial change in multiple indicators of sexual orientation, and achieve good heterosexual functioning."

He added that change from homosexual to heterosexual is not usually a matter of "either/or," but exists on a continuum--that is, a diminishing of homosexuality and an expansion of heterosexual potential that is exhibited in widely varying degrees.

But, Dr. Spitzer said, his findings suggest that complete change--cessation of all homosexual fantasies and attractions (which is generally considered an unrealistic goal in most therapies) is probably quite uncommon. Still, when subjects did not actually change sexual orientation--for example, their change had been one of behavioural control and self-identity, but no significant shift in attractions--they still reported an improvement in overall emotional health and functioning.

This study is believed to be the most detailed investigation of sexual orientation change to date, in that it assessed a variety of homosexual indicators. Previous studies have usually assessed only one or two dimensions of sexual orientation, such as behavior and attraction. The assessment tool was developed with the assistance of New York psychiatrist Dr. Richard C. Friedman.

Dr. Spitzer used a structured interview so that others could know exactly what questions were asked, and what response choices were offered to the subjects. The full data file is now available to other researchers, including tape-recordings of about a third of the interviews, which (with the subjects' permission and without any reference to their names) can be listened to by investigators who wish to carry such research further.

He expressed his gratitude to the National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), and to the ex-gay ministry Exodus, "without which this study would not have been possible."

American Psychiatric Association president Daniel Borenstein was asked by the Washington Post to comment on the recent Spitzer study. "There are a group of people who think all homosexual behavior must be changed...and they try to impose their values [on gay men and lesbians}, which is inappropriate," he said.

Dr. Spitzer agreed that this study should not be used to justify coercion. Nor should it be used as an argument for the denial of civil rights. "But patients should have the right," Spitzer stated, "to explore their heterosexual potential."

Discipline

Discipline is a word that many shy away from today. I don't know the reason. Maybe because it has become synonymous with some forms of abuse, or maybe because it is associated with a kind of gruelling, soulless, mechanical and repetitious form of exercise which though necessary and 'good' for us, nevertheless sounds joyless and unpleasant. Whatever the reason the idea has so many negative connotations that people avoid it like the plague.

And yet it is inextricably connected to not only the word, but the concept of "discipleship". The disciples of Jesus were early apprentices who were willing to take on the various disciplines allocated to them by their Master, seeing in their practice a way of not only keeping close to their Lord but of experiencing His promises of life in all its fullness.

The disciplines included reading and meditating on the Scriptures, prayer, fasting etc. Thinking about the Scriptures in particular I have tried to maintain the discipline of reading through both Old and New Testaments once per year. Some years I have failed miserably and tried to justify my failure on the basis that I was either being too legalistic about the exercise or taking too much time getting through the process rather than homing in on the texts in more detail.  Although the latter reason is a legitimate concern and centring down on a text or even a word is necessary and even fundamental to getting to grips with what it is really saying or, better, what God is saying through it, there is still something very satisfying in covering the whole span of God's story and getting to grips with the total narrative rather than just bits of it.

I have found that despite the fact that large swathes of the Bible don't always register all of the time, the words do mysteriously 'lodge' in my mind - or deeper - and pop up in the most unexpected places and the most appropriate moments when I need them most. It is as if reading somehow consigns the text into an inner filing system only to be quickly sorted and accessed by the Holy Spirit at the right time.

And this is not the only benefit from reading the whole text through once a year. I find that reading brings me into contact with God  and draws me into His presence much like an intimate conversation engages two lovers and connects them at some deeper level. And even the discipline of taking the time to sit down and read becomes in and of itself, a kind of offering to God which says "this is important to me because these words are Yours."

So may I encourage anyone reading this blog to read the Scriptures and to make it a daily discipline, a holy habit, that will, over time and in unseen ways, deepn your relationship with God.

Monday, 12 July 2010

The Lord's Prayer 4

9. Then forasmuch as it comes to pass that we sin even after the washing of regeneration, He, showing His love to man to be great even in this case, commands us for the remission of our sins to come unto God who loves man, and thus to say,

"Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors."
Seest thou surpassing mercy? After taking away so great evils, and after the unspeakable greatness of His gift, if men sin again, He counts them such as may be forgiven. For that this prayer belongs to believers, is taught us both by the laws of the church, and by the beginning of the prayer. For the uninitiated could not call God Father. If then the prayer belongs to believers, and they pray, entreating that sins may be forgiven them, it is clear that not even after the laver is the profit of repentance taken away. Since, had He not meant to signify this, He would not have made a law that we should so pray. Now He who both brings sins to remembrance, and bids us ask forgiveness, and teaches how we may obtain remission and so makes the way easy; it is perfectly clear that He introduced this rule of supplication, as knowing, and signifying, that it is possible even after the font to wash ourselves from our offenses; by reminding us of our sins, persuading us to be modest; by the command to forgive others, setting us free from all revengeful passion; while by promising in return for this to pardon us also, He holds out good hopes, and instructs us to have high views concerning the unspeakable mercy of God toward man.

But what we should most observe is this, that whereas in each of the clauses He had made mention of the whole of virtue, and in this way had included also the forgetfulness of injuries (for so, that "His name be hallowed," is the exactness of a perfect conversation; and that "His will be done," declares the same thing again: and to be able to call God "Father," is the profession of a blameless life; in all which things had been comprehended also the duty of remitting our anger against them that have transgressed): still He was not satisfied with these, but meaning to signify how earnest He is in the matter, He sets it down also in particular, and after the prayer, He makes mention of no other commandment than this, saying thus:

"For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you."
So that the beginning is of us, and we ourselves have control over the judgment that is to be passed upon us. For in order that no one, even of the senseless, might have any complaint to make, either great or small, when brought to judgment; on thee, who art to give account, He causes the sentence to depend; and "in what way soever thou hast judged for thyself, [861] in the same," saith He, "do I also judge thee." And if thou forgive thy fellow servant, thou shalt obtain the same favor from me; though indeed the one be not equal to the other. For thou forgivest in thy need, but God, having need of none: thou, thy fellow slave; God, His slave: thou liable to unnumbered charges; God, being without sin. But yet even thus doth He show forth His lovingkindness towards man.

Since He might indeed, even without this, forgive thee all thine offenses; but He wills thee hereby also to receive a benefit; affording thee on all sides innumerable occasions of gentleness and love to man, casting out what is brutish in thee, and quenching wrath, and in all ways cementing thee to him who is thine own member.
For what canst thou have to say? that thou hast wrongfully endured some ill of thy neighbor? (For these only are trespasses, since if it be done with justice, the act is not a trespass.) But thou too art drawing near to receive forgiveness for such things, and for much greater. And even before the forgiveness, thou hast received no small gift, in being taught to have a human soul, and in being trained to all gentleness. And herewith a great reward shall also be laid up for thee elsewhere, even to be called to account for none of thine offenses.
What sort of punishment then do we not deserve, when after having received the privilege, we betray our salvation? And how shall we claim to be heard in the rest of our matters, if we will not, in those which depend on us, spare our own selves?

10. "And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from the evil one: for Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen."
Here He teaches us plainly our own vileness, and quells our pride, instructing us to deprecate all conflicts, instead of rushing upon them. For so both our victory will be more glorious, and the devil's overthrow more to be derided. I mean, that as when we are dragged forth, we must stand nobly; so when we are not summoned, we should be quiet, and wait for the time of conflict; that we may show both freedom from vainglory, and nobleness of spirit.

And He here calls the devil "the wicked one," commanding us to wage against him a war that knows no truce, and implying that he is not such by nature. For wickedness is not of those things that are from nature, but of them that are added by our own choice. And he is so called pre-eminently, by reason of the excess of his wickedness, and because he, in no respect injured by us, wages against us implacable war. Wherefore neither said He, "deliver us from the wicked ones," but, "from the wicked one;" instructing us in no case to entertain displeasure against our neighbors, for what wrongs soever we may suffer at their hands, but to transfer our enmity from these to him, as being himself the cause of all our wrongs.

Having then made us anxious as before conflict, by putting us in mind of the enemy, and having cut away from us all our remissness; He again encourages and raises our spirits, by bringing to our remembrance the King under whom we are arrayed, and signifying Him to be more powerful than all. "For Thine," saith He, "is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory."

Doth it not then follow, that if His be the kingdom, we should fear no one, since there can be none to withstand, and divide the empire with him. For when He saith, "Thine is the kingdom," He sets before us even him, who is warring against us, brought into subjection, though he seem to oppose, God for a while permitting it. For in truth he too is among God's servants, though of the degraded class, and those guilty of offense; and he would not dare set upon any of his fellow servants, had he not first received license from above. And why say I, "his fellow servants?" Not even against swine did he venture any outrage, until He Himself allowed him; nor against flocks, nor herds, until he had received permission from above.

"And the power," saith He. Therefore, manifold as thy weakness may be, thou mayest of right be confident, having such a one to reign over thee, who is able fully to accomplish all, and that with ease, even by thee.
"And the glory, for ever. Amen." Thus He not only frees thee from the dangers that are approaching thee, but can make thee also glorious and illustrious. For as His power is great, so also is His glory unspeakable, and they are all boundless, and no end of them. Seest thou how He hath by every means anointed His Champion, and hath framed Him to be full of confidence?
John Chrysostom (c.347-407): Homily 19 on St. Matthew's Gospel.

The Lord's Prayer 3

"Thy will be done in earth, as it is in Heaven."
Behold a most excellent train of thought! in that He bade us indeed long for the things to come, and hasten towards that sojourn; and, till that may be, even while we abide here, so long to be earnest in showing forth the same conversation as those above. For ye must long, saith He, for heaven, and the things in heaven; however, even before heaven, He hath bidden us make the earth a heaven and do and say all things, even while we are continuing in it, as having our conversation there; insomuch that these too should be objects of our prayer to the Lord. For there is nothing to hinder our reaching the perfection of the powers above, because we inhabit the earth; but it is possible even while abiding here, to do all, as though already placed on high. What He saith therefore is this: "As there all things are done without hindrance, and the angels are not partly obedient and partly disobedient, but in all things yield and obey (for He saith, `Mighty in strength, performing His word'); so vouchsafe that we men may not do Thy will by halves, but perform all things as Thou willest."

Seest thou how He hath taught us also to be modest, by making it clear that virtue is not of our endeavors only, but also of the grace from above? And again, He hath enjoined each one of us, who pray, to take upon himself the care of the whole world. For He did not at all say, "Thy will be done" in me, or in us, but everywhere on the earth; so that error may be destroyed, and truth implanted, and all wickedness cast out, and virtue return, and no difference in this respect be henceforth between heaven and earth. "For if this come to pass," saith He, "there will be no difference between things below and above, separated as they are in nature; the earth exhibiting to us another set of angels."

8. "Give us this day our daily bread."
What is "daily bread"? That for one day.
For because He had said thus, "Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven," but was discoursing to men encompassed with flesh, and subject to the necessities of nature, and incapable of the same impassibility with the angels:--while He enjoins the commands to be practised by us also, even as they perform them; He condescends likewise, in what follows, to the infirmity of our nature. Thus, "perfection of conduct," saith He, "I require as great, not however freedom from passions; no, for the tyranny of nature permits it not: for it requires necessary food." But mark, I pray thee, how even in things that are bodily, that which is spiritual abounds. For it is neither for riches, nor for delicate living, nor for costly raiment, nor for any other such thing, but for bread only, that He hath commanded us to make our prayer. And for "daily bread," so as not to "take thought for the morrow." Because of this He added, "daily bread," that is, bread for one day.
And not even with this expression is He satisfied, but adds another too afterwards, saying, "Give us this day;" so that we may not, beyond this, wear ourselves out with the care of the following day. For that day, the interval before which thou knowest not whether thou shalt see, wherefore dost thou submit to its cares?

This, as He proceeded, he enjoined also more fully, saying, "Take no thought for the morrow." He would have us be on every hand unencumbered and winged for flight, yielding just so much to nature as the compulsion of necessity requires of us.
John Chrysostom (c.347-407): Homily 19 on St. Matthew's Gospel.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

The Lord's Prayer 2

“Hallowed be Thy name.”
The prayer that is worthy of him who calls God Father is the prayer which asks nothing before the glory of His Father, but to account all things secondary to the work of praising Him.

For “hallowed” is glorified. For His own glory He has complete, and ever continuing the same, but He commands him who prays to seek that He may be glorified also by our life. Which very thing He had said before likewise, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
Yea, and the seraphim too, giving glory, said on this wise, “Holy, holy, holy” (Is. 6:3; Rev. 4:8). So that “hallowed” means this, viz. “glorified.”
In other words, “vouchsafe,” says he, “that we may live so purely, that through us all may glorify Thee”. Which thing again appertains unto perfect self-control, to present to all a life so irreprehensible, that every one of the beholders may offer to the Lord the praise due to Him for this.

“Thy kingdom come.”
And this again is the language of a right-minded child, not to be riveted to things that are seen, neither to account things present some great matter; but to hasten unto our Father, and to long for the things to come. And this springs out of a good conscience, and a soul set free from things that are on earth. This, for instance, Paul himself was longing after every day: wherefore he also said, that “even we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan, waiting for an adoption, the redemption of our body” (Rom. 8:23). For he who hath this fondness can neither be puffed up by the good things of this life, nor abashed by its sorrows; but as though dwelling in the very heavens, is freed from each sort of irregularity.
John Chrysostom (c.347-407) Homily 19 on St. Matthew's Gospel

The Lord's Prayer 1

I seem to be spending a lot of time in the Lord's Prayer at the moment so when I came across this sermon by one of the greatest preachers of the Christian Church, John Chrysostom, nicknamed "Golden Mouth" then I had to include it in my blog.

“After this manner, therefore, pray ye,” says He: “Our Father, which art in heaven.” See how He straightway stirred up the hearer, and reminded him of all God’s bounty in the beginning. For he who calls God Father, by him both remission of sins, and taking away of punishment, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption, and adoption, and inheritance, and brotherhood with the Only-Begotten, and the supply of the Spirit, are acknowledged in this single title. For one cannot call God Father, without having attained to all those blessings. Doubly, therefore, doth He awaken their spirit, both by the dignity of Him who is called on, and by the greatness of the benefits which they have enjoyed.

But when He says, “in Heaven,” He speaks not this as shutting up God there, but as withdrawing him who is praying from earth, and fixing him in the high places, and in the dwellings above.
He teaches, moreover, to make our prayer common, in behalf of our brethren also. For He says not, “my Father, which art in Heaven,” but, “our Father,” offering up his supplications for the body in common, and nowhere looking to his own, but everywhere to his neighbour’s good.
And by this He at once takes away hatred, and quells pride, and casts out envy, and brings in the mother of all good things, even charity, and exterminates the inequality of human things, and shows how far the equality reaches between the king and the poor man, if at least in those things which are greatest and most indispensable, we are all of us fellows.

For what harm comes of our kindred below, when in that which is on high we are all of us knit together, and no one hath aught more than another; neither the rich more than the poor, nor the master than the servant, neither the ruler than the subject, nor the king than the common soldier, nor the philosopher than the barbarian, nor the skillful than the unlearned?
For to all hath He given one nobility, having vouchsafed to be called the Father of all alike.
John Chrysostom (c.347-407): Homily 19 on St. Matthew's Gospel.

Thy Kingdom Come 2017