Sunday, 11 February 2018

Confidence in Christ #3: Living under grace as if God really means it

We are loved utterly and completely by God. No strings attached. God loves us not because we are naturally adorable but because it is the nature of God to love. ‘God is love...’ (1 John 4.8)

Grace is the means by which this love is made available. Unlike human love, which so often has to be earned or deemed deserving in some way, grace means that the God of the Bible is simply and utterly besotted with you.

That’s a mind-blowing concept because it is so far removed from the way that humans relate to one another. And that is rather the point. God’s love stands for something that is in stark contrast to the way love is often transacted in human relationships.

The love of God costs nothing, doesn’t have to be earned, you don’t have to compete with anyone to receive it, you are not in a league table of people who are more or less deserving. God simply could not be any more in love with you than is already the case.

Try and sit with that for a moment and allow it to sink in.

All those ways we beat ourselves up for being inadequate in this or that regard; or the way that we can sometimes be secretly quite pleased with ourselves or think we’re better than others. God doesn’t give a hoot about any of that. That’s what grace is.

It is through Jesus that this amazing gift has been shown to us, and all we have to do is take it.

In the Vicarage kitchen is a fruit bowl which is always stocked with good things to eat; apples, bananas, oranges, grapes, all bursting with vitamins, minerals, fibre and natural sweetness. It sits there on the counter inviting me to partake of it, rather than the toaster or the biscuit tin. Whether or not I choose to reach out for an apple, the apples are always there.

Having a well stocked fruit bowl doesn’t make my diet healthy. The vitamins don’t magically find their way into my bloodstreams, simply because I’m in the same room as a tangerine. The availability of healthy nourishment that fruit contains still requires action on my part in order to enjoy the full benefits.

This is what God’s love for us is like, constantly available, inviting us not only to be present to it but to actively partake in it, through prayer, Bible study and Christian service.

St Paul wrote, ‘[The Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Corinthians 12.9, NIV). If we lived as if we believed God really means it - that grace really is enough - what, I wonder, might that look like?

We would, I imagine, be dipping into that bowl of grace every day, enjoying all the delights of knowing that God is alongside us and within us, drawing us closer, and enabling us to be transformed by all the goodness God has to offer.

All the ways we behave towards others to needlessly quell our fears and anxieties, to compete and prove ourselves as deserving, would simply fall away. As the old hymn puts it:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in his wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of his glory and grace.
— Helen Howarth Lemmel (1863-1961)

To live under God’s grace means means putting God at the heart of our consciousness each and every day. When we do this the human desire to feel we’re better than others, or the drive to be more successful than them, the hunger to manipulate and control, or acquire more possessions, and all the rest of it, simply begins to look dull. We are drawn to the light that does not fade, the grace of God that never wants to belittle or put us down but simply offers to welcome us home.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Confidence in Christ #2: Living in Uncertain Times

We live in uncertain times. People mostly have. It’s not difficult to look back on history and see events of greater turbulence than in our own time. Yet even periods of relative calm and stability can contain uncertainty: economic downturns, industrial unrest, health scares, terrorism, rumblings abroad. Someone, somewhere, is always threatening a war which may have consequences for us.

In the midst of this it is natural to feel fearful and anxious.

Whatever has been going on around me in the world, my life — like yours — has had its share of challenges: bereavements, ill-health, struggles with work or challenging relationships. The person of Jesus Christ has been a constant presence throughout my life, but never more so than in difficult times. I have found in him not only a role-model and wisdom teacher, but someone who has rescued me from living down to the worst of myself.

In the film As Good As It Gets, an unlikely romance develops between a bad-tempered and anti-social Jack Nicholson and attractive single mother, Helen Hunt. He lacks the social skills to woo her effectively, and whenever he seems to be making progress he commits a terrible faux pas, and sets back their relationship. Confused by his behaviour, Helen Hunt’s character at one point demands to know why he keeps bothering her. He replies, ‘You make me want to be a better person.’

That’s how I feel about following Jesus. He makes me want to be a better person, to dispense with the patterns of behaviour that spring out of fear and anxiety, to see myself not as the centre of the world but as part of a much bigger story which rests on God.

The beginning of that story is told in the Bible, where the people of God definitely lived in fragile and uncertain times. The 66 books of the Bible cover a period of hundreds and hundreds of years, where we see folk wrestling with the eternal human struggle of whether to live life simply to please themselves, or be shaped as a community centred on God.

When they do well at living as the people of God, they discover stability and security. When they all choose to please themselves and pull in different directions, society breaks down and they become vulnerable to invasion or defeat by the threats around them.

And then Jesus arrives on the scene, showing us that security isn’t only about our outer lives and whether we feel safe, but that in even the most difficult of times, we can feel secure in God within our inner life.

In the years since the stories of Jesus were collected and shared in the gospels, they have inspired and enabled Christians living in the darkest of times to cultivate an inner life centred on God, and find in that the most amazing source of peace and love.

As St Paul wrote, ‘Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God’ (2 Corinthians 3:4, NIV).

Confidence in Christ #1: The Inner Life

There is a part of each of us that is hidden from those around us, and is made up of our thoughts, feelings, memories, hopes, values and beliefs. All these are things that help to make you, you. Let’s call it the ‘inner life.’

Much of life is spent on outward appearances, and the things that other people can easily observe about us. How we look. The way we dress. The work we do. The house we live in. The way our kids turn out. It is easy to become focussed on trying to make everything look good, so that others will think well of us and accept us.

Such outward appearances, however, are not who we are. It is our inner life that determines our real qualities and characteristics. And while it may be hidden, the inner life can make itself known to others by the way we behave and the things we say.

The inner life is complex. Sometimes there is conflict and confusion. We might have thoughts or feelings that we struggle to control. What we think about ourselves may be very different to how others see us.

Yet our inner life is also the place where God resides. Deep within us there is a core of goodness that comes from God, a divine imprint that reminds us that we are a chip off the heavenly block.

Spirituality is the word we use to describe the process of making sense of our inner life and, in particular, how we get in touch with the God who is ‘the ground of our being.’

Some religious people understand this, but others do not. Instead of helping people on their journey to the heart of God, they try to control others, or make themselves look superior, or impose lots of rules and regulations to force others to become someone other than who they truly are.

Jesus understood this problem well, and came to help us find our way back to God. He cuts through the clutter of religious life and teaches us simple truths about God, about his desire for us to enjoy God’s love, and to take delight in passing it on to others. It is a journey that takes us deeper into what it means to be human in the best possible way, discovering the core of goodness within ourselves, not through the force of others or a strict regime of rules, but in the joy of prayerful union with God.

The Christian life is not about outward appearances, nor about clever theological thinking (although I’m very glad we have theologians who help us develop our understanding of God). The Christian life is simply an invitation to follow Jesus who is longing to show us the way to a full and rich inner life, to discover that spiritual wholeness that the Bible calls ‘holy’.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

on seeing God at work in surprising ways

Year A | Trinity 19 | Isaiah 45.1-7

During October we have been thinking about gratitude and generosity — grateful for all that God has given us, and the generosity that springs from such gratitude, mindful that all we have is not ours but comes from God. We simply have stewardship of it.

This outlook is woven deep in the Christian tradition and can have, when we incorporate it into our own way of living, a profound impact on how we choose to use our time, talents and money.

The idea that everything is ultimately in God’s hands is a theme that not only runs through scripture but also in Christian Spirituality during the two millennia since the time of Christ. And it is present in today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah.

The book of Isaiah was not, in fact, written by a single author. Rather it is a collection of writings that are set over quite a wide time period. In our reading today, the author is writing about a period of Biblical history known as the exile, which we’ve explored before. The nation of Judah, having been invaded by the Babylonians, has lost many of its leaders and elite to captivity in Babylon — perhaps as many as 10,000 people.

I had initially thought that I might inject a bit of congregational participation into today’s sermon by asking you to cheer when the Judeans are mentioned, boo for the Babylonians and hiss for their king, Cyrus the Great. I changed my mind about that after getting my hair cut this week...

While the barber was at work he asked me where I came from. I told him, ‘Scotland,’ and asked about him. ‘Iraq,’ he said, ‘from the city of Basra.’ And then he launched into an extraordinary diatribe about Iraq’s long and noble history, its rich culture and ancient mathematical and scientific achievements. ‘For you people, history means the Second World War. You have a very tiny history, it is nothing!’

It’s hard to argue with a man when he’s holding a pair of scissors to your head while simultaneously raging and laughing manically.

The site of the ancient kingdom of Babylon is in modern day Iraq. And my barber (probably now my ex-barber...) does have a point. At a time when the British Isles was still pretty primitive and feudal, the Babylonian empire was far more developed and cultured.

So I’ve gone off the idea of booing for the Babylonians. But if you were Jewish 500-600 years before Christ you would have been all too quick to join in. The invasion of Judah and the city of Jerusalem was a catastrophe for people who understood themselves to be specially blessed by God.

Isaiah 45.1-7 is an extract from a poem hailing Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who was also ruler of the Babylonian empire, as God’s anointed. Bit of pub quiz trivia for you here: Cyrus is the only non-Jewish person in scripture to be described as ‘God’s anointed’, and it would have been scandalous to those Jews being held captive to hear him described in such terms.

Bear with me for a bit more history. In these days every nation had its own set of gods. Wars between countries were seen as a reflection of the battles between deities in the heavens. When you conquered another country, your gods were believed to have defeated the gods of the losing side. After all, what use is a god if it lets your enemy triumph over you?

And that’s certainly a question some of the captured Jews in Babylon would have been asking. In response, the writer of this poem asserts three things:

Firstly, there are not multiple gods battling it out with each other. There is only one God, and that God is the God of everybody, regardless of race, creed or nationality. For anyone other than the Jews that was a mind-blowing idea, because ancient near eastern mythology made their gods in the image of humanity. The trials and tribulations that people experienced on earth were seen to be a reflection of the struggles of their deities.

What sets the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob apart was the assertion that there is just one God. ‘I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God’ (v5). We are made in the image of that God (not vice versa), called to grow into holiness by becoming more godly, reflecting the divine characteristics of love, justice, peace, mercy and grace.

Secondly, the poem tells us that not only does this one God hold the world in the palm of his hand but is able to work through other people, regardless of their race, creed or nationality. When the poet says that Cyrus is anointed by God and will be an agent for good in the world, it turns upside down the expectation of every Jew that Cyrus the Great would somehow be destroyed. In actual fact, his reign was to become stronger and even more powerful, as he enlarged his kingdom to become the biggest empire ever seen in history up to that time.

And then he does the most amazing thing of all: he lets the captured Jews go home.

This is the moment of surprise, where God works through a pagan king to save his people. The message is clear: God does not abandon us. Whatever challenging situations we find ourselves in we are reminded to look for signs that God is at work. And not just to look for the obvious, but to be vigilant and prepared to be surprised by God working in ways we could never imagine.

How do we do this? The question ‘Where is God at work?’ can be a bit overwhelming to think about. But if you replace the word God with ‘goodness’, or ‘love’, it may be easier to find clues. Where is goodness at work in your life today? What are the signs that love is present to you in this moment? When you find the answer to such questions such, there you will find God.

Thirdly, there is another message in this extract of poetry. The writer is effectively saying to Cyrus, ‘God says I will give you many things (subduing kings, opening doors and gates, treasure and riches) so that you may know who I am.’

How much, I wonder, do we seek to know who God really is? In what ways do we give credit to God for all the ways our lives are blessed? You may not be a conquering king, but look at what you do have.

There is no evidence that Cyrus the Great ever acknowledged or understood his success was a gift from God. And that may be the point: if we’re not looking for God then no matter how much is given to us — even the kingdoms, power, and wealth of an emperor — the human ego still easily fails to see God at work. Even sending his son to die at the hands of humanity is not enough to convince many of the love and grace of God.

What additional wonders should we reasonably expect to see from God if we take for granted all that has already been given to us, which we perhaps too easily put down to luck, circumstance, or our own hard work or cleverness?

Julian of Norwich was a 14th century English mystic, who left a much loved written account of her spiritual insights. In one of her writings she reflects on a spiritual experience while contemplating a hazelnut in her hand.

I’m going to finish by reading to you from her great work Revelations of Divine Love. You should have been given a hazelnut when you arrived at church today. I invite to pick it up now and place it in the palm of your hand. Study it for a moment: it’s shape, texture, colour and weight. Does it feel cool or warm, heavy or light?

I saw that [our Lord] is to us everything which is good and comforting for our help. He is our clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces us and shelters us, surrounds us for his love, which is so tender that he may never desert us. And so in this sight I saw that he is everything which is good, as I understand.

And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand….

In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it. But what did I see in it? It is that God is the creator and protector and the lover. For until I am substantially united to him, I can never have perfect rest or true happiness, until, that is, I am so attached to him that there can be no created thing between my God and me.

Mother Julian recognised that cultivating an ability to see God at work in our lives need not come from great success or wealth, nor even an absence of problems. It is when we open up our souls to the divine, that even the smallest and simplest of things, such as a tiny nut, can be a gateway to the eternal, to the truth that God holds us in the palm of his hand.

Such are the treasures of spiritual insight, not found by seeing in the way that the world looks, but by putting our attention in a different place so that we, like Mother Julian, can understand that perfect rest and true happiness comes from prayerful union with God.

Acknowledgement: Revd Dr Callie Plunket-Brewton,, for commentary on Isaiah 45.1-7

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Harvest Thanksgiving
The Parable of the Rich Fool | Luke 12.16-30

John and I were in Kent yesterday and took the dog for a walk along the chalk cliff tops which are a distinctive feature of the coastline in the Dover area. Turning inland we quickly found ourselves on farmland, and took a path between two fields. In the field to our right, little remained of the recent harvest except the straw stubble where the combine harvester had cropped the stems three or four inches above the ground. To the left was a beautifully tilled field already showing the green shoots of the next crop, just peeping above the surface of the earth.

In that moment, between these two fields, the whole cycle of the farmer’s work was visible.

It is easy to take the work of our farmers for granted. City life insulates us from the sights and occasional smells of agriculture. But if you had toast or cereal for breakfast this morning, you have a man or woman with a tractor to thank for it.

We live in a society that too easily takes it blessings for granted, where a sense of entitlement can seem more prevalent than a spirit of gratitude. It is, instead, in the generation who lived through rationing in the 1940s and 50s that I most often find real appreciation for the abundance that many in this country enjoy, while those of us who have never known what it means to go short, let alone hungry, assume it is the norm and have less awareness of how blessed we are.

When we live without gratitude we can quickly lose perspective. Feeling entitled simply feeds a delusion that we somehow always deserve more.

The land of the rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, What should I do for I have no place to store my crops?
— Luke 12.16-17 (NRSV)

Well, perhaps he could have given his surplus to people who really needed it? But as is so often the case with those who have much, the emphasis is instead on how to protect it and prevent others from getting their hands on it.

Jesus poses striking questions with this parable. Do we remember that everything we have comes from God? Do we share from our own abundance rather than storing it up for ourselves — a bulwark, perhaps, against anxiety about our own future needs?

Jesus goes on to say:

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.
— Luke 12.22-23 (NRSV)

His invitation not to worry contrasts with the rich fool’s fear of future scarcity, his hoarding of food for himself. The more he had, the more afraid was he of losing it.

It is hard not to worry. We live in troubling times. Our country’s economy is struggling, meaning many have less than they used to. And some in our community get caught in a trap where it is hard to feed themselves or their family properly. This is where our local Foodbank makes a real difference, and the contribution our congregation has made over the last four years, together with our harvest gifts today, has provided meals for hundreds of people in crisis.

Jesus’ injunction not to worry suggests it is easier to do so when we hold a bigger picture in mind. The birds in the air, the flowers in the park, the turning of the seasons. Allow the beauty and calm of creation to pour balm on troubled souls. Remember that not everything in this world is the consequence of human activity. God’s faithfulness and creative power is present in the works of nature, and from that we can draw strength. And for that, let us give thanks with gratitude for all the blessings we enjoy.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

on lessons for life that a four year old can understand

There is a famous essay by the author and church minister Robert Fulghum, entitled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindgarten. You might want to read a short extract from it before continuing by following this link:

It sounds simple, and it is. Yet, when we look at the world we begin to see that the grown-ups have not mastered the lessons of kindergarten.

Envy; a craving for wealth, power or control; judgementalism towards others; desperation to be liked by others; intolerant of others from whom we are different; the temptation to take what doesn’t belong to us; taking advantage of others to manipulate, oppress or exploit them, and so on.

The Bible has a word for this - sin. But nobody uses the word sin anymore so I prefer the writer Francis Spufford’s alternative - HPtFtU, which stands for ‘the Human Propensity to F*** things Up.’

We get so easily pulled off course from being our best selves by the shiny baubles of desire. The simple rules for living, that even a four year old can grasp, get thrown out the window. Instead, we open our newspapers and switch on the TV, and see the consequences of HPtFtU.

It was into such a world, some 2000 years ago or so, that Jesus Christ stepped with a real message of hope. It doesn’t need to be like this. We don’t need to be driven by the false desires of the world. We don’t need to pretend that we are someone we are not, because we are loved by God just as we are. We don’t need to beat ourselves up about our failures and mistakes, just be honest about them, because we are eternally forgiven.

Christianity is not, despite the best efforts of many, about rules or dogma. It is a spiritual journey towards the heart of God, and in becoming our true self. As Jim Manney SJ has written:

Beneath the love of money, possessions, honour and pride we will find what we really want - like a cook peeling an artichoke to get to its heart, or a sculptor chipping away at marble to find the beautiful form inside.

When we cut through our fakery to find our true selves, then we will discover what we truly desire, and find that this is also what God desires for us.

And this is our hope today when we baptise baby Sebastian: that this will be the start of a journey to discover who he really is. Parents and godparents will, I hope, help him to discern his true self and love him for whoever he turns out to be - just as God already cherishes him.

As his young life unfolds over the coming years we pray that he will find his way in the world, one that is authentic to him and in tune with God’s love for him.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

on examining our daily life

During my sabbatical this summer I discovered a prayer that I have been finding incredibly helpful during personal devotions:

In God’s presence I unwind the past day
Starting from now and looking back, moment by moment.
I gather in all the goodness and light, in gratitude,
I attend to the shadows and what they say to me,
Seeking healing, courage, forgiveness.

Sacred Space: The Prayer Book 2017, The Irish Jesuits

Each part of this prayer is rich in meaning and significance so I want to break it down and look at it bit by bit.

In God’s presence
How do you step, for a time, into the presence of God each day? God is always with us of course, but life easily distracts us so it is beneficial when we take time to consciously attend to God’s presence. Perhaps, like me, you have a mind that constantly chatters away offering a running commentary on the day, on tasks to do, problems to solve, worries to assuage, the people we’ve encountered that rubbed us up the wrong way, and so on. It’s like a radio station inside our heads constantly yakking away and never letting us forget our preoccupations.

Daily prayer enables us to switch channels and tune into God instead, sitting with an awareness of God holding us, the hands of Christ reaching out to us, in the midst of our busy day. And with regular practice it gets easier to switch off Radio Me and tune into God instead. And when this is done consciously, reverently and attentively we begin to feel more in touch with the divine, with the ground of our being.

Like me, you might need a helping hand to tune into God: by reading a passage of scripture, for example, or using a prayer book; by focussing on breathing and stillness to help empty the mind, or to gaze at an icon or image in contemplation. You might find it helps to listen to some sacred music or worship songs, or to pray with a rosary or a holding cross. There is a rich Christian heritage of approaches to prayer to help us step into the presence of God, so don't be afraid to try out different things and discover what works best for you.

I unwind the past day… moment by moment
This prayer invites us to reflect on the last 24 hours. Perhaps that’s something you would prefer to do at bedtime and if that works for you, great. My head is not at its best by the end of the evening but I’ve found this prayer works just as well first thing in the morning.

Whenever one chooses to do it, take time to think over the last day. Starting from this moment, you might imagine in your mind’s eye a film of your day running backwards. Or you may prefer to recall the places you’ve been, the people you’ve encountered, the work you’ve done, and the moments of leisure you’ve enjoyed. Again, the more you do this the easier it becomes.

I gather in all the goodness and light
As you reflect on your day, what are the moments where you have felt most full of life, most energised or blessed? Most loved, even? The wonderful thing about this prayer is that it pushes us to consciously examine our lives, to see the good things that are there, and to name them.

The word gather suggests to me a kind of harvesting. We draw towards ourselves the memory and awareness of all that is good, all that is filled with light, and we hold it close. Don’t let such things go unnoticed or take them for granted, by dwelling only on life’s disappointments and challenges. Use this prayer to help take stock of the things in your life that have nourished and sustained you. And as you do so you’ll discover that, although they won’t go away, problems and concerns gain a new and more balanced perspective. Instead of overwhelming us we can hold them in check, and see them more easily for what they really are.

In gratitude
In what spirit do we undertake this exercise? I gather in all the goodness and light in gratitude.

In Britain today, like much of the world, we have become a nation of consumers, focussed on what we lack rather than what we have. Minds become preoccupied with what's missing in life, on the next thing we must purchase or acquire.

As Christians, we are encouraged to reflect on all God’s gifts to us and give thanks for them, mindful of the joy and gladness that our faith brings us. One of the things we looked at when we ran The Happiness Course earlier this year was how psychologists have identified gratitude as a key skill to master in order to attain a state of contentment, wellbeing and happiness.

Saying thank you, then, isn't simply good manners. It is a way of ensuring we give attention to the things in life that we are blessed with. When we concentrate on what we have to be grateful for, rather than fretting over what we lack, we come closer to experiencing the peace of God, a peace that passes all understanding, and which guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Phillipians 4.7).

I attend to the shadows, and what they say to me
The prayer doesn’t try to avoid the tough things in life, and gives a place to acknowledge that life is challenging. The shadow side of life is not to be ignored.

We all carry within us memories, experiences, and thoughts which are painful and difficult. We sometimes become preoccupied with our anxieties and fears, and act out of them rather than love and hope. We have desires and habits that we know are not always healthy or helpful for us. We find ourselves behaving in ways that we are later ashamed of. One of the ways we gain mastery over ourselves is to acknowledge and understand our brokenness.

We can’t always make sense of the shadow side by ourselves. Sometimes we need a companion to help us - a soul friend, a spiritual guide, perhaps a therapist. And while our shadow side can be a dark and complicated place, we have the assurance that Jesus is with us there also.

This prayer seeks self-knowledge and honesty about ourselves. Fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ can also help with this. Our reading from Matthew’s gospel today (Matthew 18.15-20) reminds us that sometimes those we are in communion with us as fellow Christians can help bring to light some of the dark truths about ourselves, provided we are humble and open enough to hear it.

The language of darkness and light is used a lot in scripture, and St Paul draws on it in Romans. ‘The night is nearly over; the day is almost here, so let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light' (Romans 13.12 NRSV).

Seeking, healing, courage and forgiveness
Where does such self-examination lead us? To act and pray for what we most need for ourselves. Healing for the parts of us that are wounded, not just in our bodies but in our psyche and our souls. Courage to face the challenges ahead as we continue to seek to become like Jesus, and journey towards wholeness. Forgiveness for the times we have got it wrong, knowing the cleansing power of facing up to the reality of ourselves and confident in the knowledge that whatever we have done, whatever pain we carry within us, we are utterly and unshakeably loved by God.