Archive for 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
Bear with me… Listen to what theologian and naturalist Annie Dillard has to say about experiencing a total eclipse:
“… I heard screams. People on all the hillsides, including, I think, myself, screamed when the black body of the moon detached from the sky and rolled over the sun. But something else was happening at that same instant, and it was this which made us scream. … The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves at 1800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed—1800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight—you only saw the edge. It rolled across the land at 1800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like a plague behind it. We saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit…
This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorised speeds. How could anything moving so fast not crash …
Less than two minutes later, when the sun emerged, the trailing edge of the shadow cone sped away … coursed down our hill and raced eastward over the plain. … At once the yellow light made the sky blue again. The real world began there. I remember now; we all hurried away. We were born and bored at a stroke. We rushed down the hill. We found our car. We never looked back. It was a general vamoose, and an odd one, for when we left the hill, the sun was still partially eclipsed—a sight rare enough, and one which, in itself, we would probably have driven five hours to see. But enough is enough. One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief.”
Enough is enough. Isn’t that the question Clare and all her kind put to the church, and put to us? How much is enough? Aren’t we all torn somewhere between “All I want is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection” and “what do we get for leaving everything to follow you?”
Like an eclipse, Clare’s life … passes before us, unveiling the always present fullness of emptiness … and leaving us wondering—what would be enough for us? What could be real enough, rich enough, ripe enough to seduce us—we who are born and bored at a stroke—seduce us to live, like Clare, face to face with the beauty and glory of Jesus—and not hurry away with a sigh of relief?
August 11th, 2003
Readings like the first one put you in a dilemma. They don’t sit easily—at least I hope they don’t sit easily—with what experience and personal history has taught us each about God and our relationship with God. I hope we each know God well enough to have got beyond the fear of opening our mouths lest God press the smite button and blast us to kingdom come.
But who am I kidding—I’m as bad as anyone for forgetting the God I love, the God who loves me, and worshipping instead Miriam’s violent God. It’s always a failure of memory and a failure of trust.
Staying with God—the real God—is like walking on water. All it takes is trust but can you imagine anything more improbable? It takes trust of a tremendous order to put your feet on breaking waves and expect to walk. And yet Peter does.
It takes a fathomless faith to believe that God really is trustworthy when we are assailed from all sides by evil, impostor Gods always sounding so plausible. And yet a lot of the time I do so believe.
But then both Peter and I feel the force of the wind, fright takes us, and down we go—Peter into the wet and I into the dark. But … the hand is always there to lift us back up, Jesus’ hand, familiar and firm, to raise us back where we belong.
What am I saying? Only this: it takes trust to believe God is good, and that trust is always tested by our fear of a vengeful God. We always go under but we are never left alone to sink.
And just in case that all seems like a downhill story of failure after failure—as though we were always getting it wronger and wronger—notice something about this story. When the story begins the only thing the disciples can make of Jesus is that he is some kind of ghost but after Peter’s unwanted baptism they can make an amazing affirmation of faith: ‘Truly’, they say, ‘truly you are the Son of God’.
We learn by sinking. We know God better after doubt swallows trust for a while. Faith grows best when we lose sight of it. And the hand we grasp grows more familiar each time we drown.
August 5th, 2003
Four hundred and thirty years. Four hundred and thirty years to the day. That’s a big anniversary. Something worth celebrating. The day Israel’s God brings the people out of bondage, liberates them from oppression, and sets them free from all that has diminished them and diminished their hopes. It’s a new beginning. But it’s a beginning made in haste, with no time for looking back, no time for dallying, no time even for bread to rise.
Not even time to realise what had happened. Certainly no time to sing. The song we heard, we sang, is the canticle Moses and the people sing later, when their freedom is sealed at the Red Sea. But right now they are too busy leaving, to sing. Singing is for later when they look back and follow their freedom to a particular time and place.
And I dare say that many of them would have turned right round and headed back for the comfort of their chains if they’d guessed the road that freedom was opening up for them as they hurried that day from Rameses.
Because isn’t that the reality of all our lives? Looking back we can mark the day, the hour, when the gift of freedom was laid like a yoke on our shoulders. “That’s when it happened”, we can say. But even at the same time we know that the giving and the receiving of our liberation was in some ways the least of it. Accepting freedom is a life long labour. Living it daily. Living free. Not choosing chains again when every day they are offered. Like the woman in the gospel healed after 18 years of being bent double—every morning after she faced the choice to stand up straight or bow down again.
Our freedom is a life-long labour. A choice repeated each morning, each hour, each breath. When it first steals upon us, our freedom can feel a fragile thing—a reed already broken, a flame on the verge of going out. It needs to be nurtured, nourished, sheltered.
That’s what God is always doing—nurturing and sheltering the flickering flame of your freedom. I think it is all God does. God doesn’t brawl or rage or shout. You won’t hear God shouting in the street about your shortcomings—or even whispering them in your ear. God’s one activity is to lead the truth to victory within you. And the hallmark of that is a gentleness of touch. God never breaks the crushed reed. God never puts out the smoldering wick.
July 19th, 2003
I’ve long believed that doubt is a virtue and that certainty, when it offers itself, is almost certainly an illusion.
Our great glory as human beings is that we are fallible and we know it; we make mistakes about as often as we draw breath, and that’s no bad thing so long as we remember to celebrate the fact. The one bad thing is to deny doubt, to forget fallibility.
Consider the certain of this world, the despots, dictators, and demagogues untroubled by doubt. They turn their back on doubt’s blessings because, above all, they seek doubt’s enemy and opposite: power, the power to control, the power to hide their fear, the power not to change.
Thomas stands at the very opposite pole as the patron saint of humility. He knows how easily we get it wrong and he knows how important it is to get this one thing right. ‘I will not believe until I see, until I touch.’
And God honours his humility with his own body. ‘Come and touch me’ says Jesus. ‘Feel these wounds, recognise me, trust me.’ And Thomas, blessed by doubt, is the one among them to grasp what all the others, in their certainty, have not seen: ‘My God’, he says, ‘My God’.
If we are lucky we bring all kinds of doubt with us on retreat: uncertainties, humilities, little wounds in our belief. Yet when we touch them with gentle honesty, God’s own body draws near and becomes really real to us. There is a wounded hand to hold, a living face to explore, and a body of knowledge to discover inch by inch. God can claim us and change us and bring us back, with him, to life.
July 3rd, 2003