Archive for September, 2003
The trouble with walls, as the angel says, is that they never can be more than provisional. Fix the walls of Jerusalem and she can never contain the unforeseen multitudes of God’s vision. Fix the walls of your heart or mind and God’s own angels will be left in the cold…
Here’s a statement to shake any walls to their foundation. ‘For your part, you must have these words constantly in your mind: The Son of Man is going to be handed over into the power of men.’ … When he calls himself Son of Man, Jesus evokes the glorious, shining figure Daniel prophesied, coming on the clouds, to claim sovereignty over all peoples in an empire will never to be destroyed. There’s good strong walls for you! But no sooner up than down—this Son of Man is going to be handed over into the power of men. Collapse! He’s not just saying, ‘sorry fellers, I’m going to be a failure’. He builds a wall and casts it down in a single breath. No wonder his disciples can’t follow him, no wonder they are afraid to ask.
And all this is at a time when everyone was full of admiration for all he did.
‘But I – it is the Lord who speaks – I will be a wall of fire for Jerusalem all round her, and I will be her glory in her midst.’
What kind of wall? What kind of glory? And what kind of God?
September 27th, 2003
‘Jesus was praying alone in the presence of his disciples’… isn’t that a strange phrase … ‘alone in the presence of his disciples’. There’s a horizontal oddness about it as you try and imagine what the scene would have looked like: Jesus alone yet among his disciples… but there’s a vertical oddness too: how could Jesus, of all people, be alone while in prayer?
So I’ve been thinking that maybe he could … maybe he knew the kind of experience that we are only too often aware of … we are praying but it feels like we are alone. Even on a retreat where, with grace, our sense of presence outweighs and outnumbers our sense of absence – even here we know that sometimes we settle down to pray and there’s no one home, nothing happening, no one listening.
I’ve always presumed Jesus had a permanent connection – sort of spiritual broadband – but today I’m thinking maybe not. Maybe I need to take the incarnation more seriously.
If I’m right, it’s no wonder Jesus rouses himself from his prayers and turns to his friends with a question of identity. ‘Who am I?’
A while ago, before he was Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams wrote a beautiful little article entitled ‘The Body’s Grace’. In it he says that we only come to know who we are as a child of God by seeing ourselves in the eyes of others. We learn we are beloved of God by discovering ourselves beloved by our friends. That’s the body’s grace – to be the place our relationship with God is revealed to us.
People often fret at the end of a retreat that the peace they have found, the stillness, the silence will all be wrecked by the rush and fluster of work and family and community and noise.
St. Ignatius invites people praying the spiritual exercises to begin their prayer each time by considering how God looks at them, how God beholds them. That way all our prayer is rooted in a sense of who we are in the eyes of God.
But we understand the gaze of God, recognise the look on God’s face, because we have seen ourselves in the eyes of many others. We have asked, with Jesus, ‘who do you say that I am?’ and been answered.
Our challenge is not to be on retreat the whole year round, not even to try and hang on to a retreat feeling, but to be like Jesus praying alone among our friends, community, family, and colleagues.
September 26th, 2003
‘Take care how you hear’. Isn’t that a strange thing to say? I guess I don’t usually think of hearing as something I have much choice over. I hear what’s there to be heard. It feels pretty passive to me.
But as soon as I say that I realise its not. Hearing is more than just letting a noise in your ear. Hearing is paying attention to someone. Hearing is understanding what’s being said. Hearing is accepting a communication. Hearing is learning a truth.
Seeing is believing—well so is hearing. To hear is to make a commitment, however tiny. And what we hear is never neutral.
I’m thinking of the constant conversation in our heads between many different voices. I’m thinking about the opinions those voices carry, the claims they make, whether they affirm or condemn, speak the truth or with serpent tongue.
We should take care how we hear.
Do I hear the voice that makes me whole; that speaks of love; that offers the hand of friendship? Or do I prefer the voice of fragmentation, of failure, of regret?
I’m amazed how much time I give to hearing how stupid, alone and hopeless I am when all the time I am aware another voice, strangely familiar, wants me to live, to love, and be free.
And Luke is right: listen to the right voice and to what you have will be given more. Listen to the other and even what you think you have will be taken away. – Take care what you hear!
September 22nd, 2003
Isn’t there a contrast between those two readings? Listen…
Noble, respectable, impeccable, responsible, reliable, moderate, sober, temperate, discreet, courteous—what a list of requirements—how many can you tick off for yourself? How many of Jesus’ disciples could lay claim to those qualities?
You know what the writer is saying—it’s not that it doesn’t make sense to choose someone on those merits—it’s just that good sense doesn’t seem to be the way Jesus chose at all.
To know how Jesus chose you only have to take a look at a word at the heart of today’s gospel—it appears here buried under the weak translation, ‘Jesus felt sorry’. ‘Felt sorry’. Some translators say ‘pity’ and others ‘compassion’ and in some places it’s ‘anger’. It’s an awkward Greek word with the sense of what you feel in your spleen. Jesus feels sorry for the woman—but powerfully, passionately… something convulses his bowels, turns his stomach over—that’s why he puts out his hand and brings a corpse to life.
Luke uses the word in only two other places: he uses it when the prodigal Father can’t help but rush down the road to meet his returning son; and he uses it in the story of the Good Samaritan, where the wrong person is stirred up to do the right thing.
Three events. Three characters who can’t help but act because they have experienced something so powerfully it grabs them in their guts. They experience the need, the pain, the joy, the life, of another human being and feel it like their own—in their innards. It takes a particular kind of weakness to let that happen. A real vulnerability. You don’t learn that vulnerability from a distance. You only learn it through your own pain, your own need, maybe only through failure … when our natural insulation one from another can no longer cope and the barriers go down.
Respectability, responsibility, and reliability aren’t yardsticks to measure ourselves by—instead we should be asking ourselves, ‘does suffering disturb me as much as it disturbs God?’ Because here is our God—vulnerable, disturbed, shaken—more moved by human lives than we ourselves are.
September 16th, 2003
I may be imagining it but I sense a touch of frustration from the writer to the Colossians. How are we to be transformed? How are we to become holy? How are we to be made over in the image of Christ?
The metaphor Paul is using is a stark one: our old life is over—it has died—and now we are alive in Christ. He draws an absolute line between how we were and how we are. The dark line of death. Once we were people of darkness and slavery and now we are alive to light and freedom. Our old life is dead. Simple. Clear-cut.
But of course it’s not. And that’s why he is writing to Colossae anyway. Because, whatever that little death has been for us—a ritual drowning in baptism or the kind of conversion that knocks you off your horse—it clearly hasn’t taken. We are as sinful as ever, as much prone to the influence of the lords of air and darkness as ever we were.
That’s why he’s hammering away about the need to kill everything in us that belongs to our old earthly life. It isn’t dead. It lives in us and strangles the life of the kingdom. As Paul says in Romans—the good we intend to do we do not do—we do not do what we want to do but the very thing we hate.
So what are we to do? How are we to conquer the sin in us? The usual strategy is to strive: to pour all our energy into eradication. To work like hell to kill it all off. Or to feel lousy because we never can. Because we never can. We never have.
No wonder the writer seems frustrated. He can shout till he’s blue in the face, ‘stop that, you’re dead to that’ but it isn’t doing any good.
I think the problem is that he isn’t taking is own metaphor about death seriously enough. The one thing we don’t have to strive for in this life is death. Death needn’t be pursued it comes to us tamely, seeks us out. Death is the big giving-in.
How are we to be transformed? How are we to become holy? Not by succeeding but by failing. Not by striving but by giving in. Not by force but by fragility. Not by grimness but by grace.
‘How happy are you who are poor: yours is the kingdom of God. Happy you who are hungry now: you shall be satisfied. Happy you who weep now: you shall laugh.’
September 10th, 2003
What I want to know is when did Jesus practice? I can understand his ability to teach with authority—I can imagine it all honed and hoarded from years of listening, thinking, living, all that good Jewish disputation, decades of pondering Torah and sitting in lonely places face to face with his God. … That he was ready to teach and preach doesn’t surprise me – but how did he get ready to heal and rebuke demons? When did he practice? How did he practice?
Because the first time must have been quite a challenge, quite a risk. What gets a carpenter to stretch out a rough hand in healing for the first time? How does he feel when it happens? How does he explore the limits and implications of his gift? Does he ever get it wrong?
The one thing I see from these opening stories of Luke’s gospel is that there was no blueprint. The voice that spoke mysteries at his baptism seems to have left Jesus no schedule of grace: day 1, be driven into the desert; day 40, drive out your first demon; day 41, cure a fever; day 86, walk on water.
I see instead a Jesus learning from experience and happenstance. I see a Jesus responding to events and learning from those around him. He stands and reads his manifesto in Nazareth and then, almost through his own prickly defensiveness, irritates his home-crowd into a lynch mob. So he retreats to Capernaum. There he is teaching with authority and making a great impression when an unclean devil shouts out and that provokes his first exorcism. Next thing he’s in Simon’s house and his mother-in-law has a fever. I wonder what would have happened if they hadn’t asked Jesus to do something? But they do and he does and there he is—healing. By sunset he’s besieged with the sick and the mad, friends and neighbours clamouring for a cure – which he finds he can give.
I see him finding his way, discovering his vocation, as one event after another presses him for a response. We see him learning, even from his mistakes.
We see him praying and reflecting too. Out in the early morning alone in a lonely place, working it all out with his God. Speaking, listening, loving. Learning he has to move on. Soon he’ll learn he needs companions. Not much longer and he’ll learn he has enemies too.
John’s Jesus always seems an inch or two off the ground. Mark’s is a mysterious stranger you either follow or fail. But Luke’s Jesus is really just like you or me. He is you or me living alive in the spirit of his baptism. He lives, he lets life teach him, and he responds in a way that changes the world. I wonder what would happen if we did the same?
September 3rd, 2003