Thursday, 25 December 2014

on learning to say ‘It is sufficient’

Christmas Day 2014

It is an odd sort of gift, a baby. Not even particularly entertaining. All a newborn does is demand to be nursed and kept clean. Who wouldn't rather have something precious and sparkly, or playful and fun, for Christmas. No, a newborn baby just lies there sleeping or wailing or sucking.

For parents who have known the joy of a new birth, I wonder if it is not the anticipation of who the child will become that is so captivating. The promise of a life about to bloom, a personality ready to unfold in the coming years. The universal look of all babies slowly morphs into distinctive and individual features, unique and recognisable faces and bodies. We nurture our babies to see what will become of them and, most treasured of all perhaps, hold out in hope for a loving relationship that will bond us together for life.

As we look at this baby, lying in a manger, we invest in him the hope of the story that we know will unfold over the coming 30-odd years of his life. But if we just take this moment at face value, all there is to see is a baby. What are we to make of this left-field and quirky intervention by God in the affairs of humanity?

It tells us something about how divine power is exercised. God exercises power by becoming powerless. ‘It’s a birth story,’ writes Giles Fraser, ‘at one with what would become the central message of Jesus’ teaching: the first will be last and the last first.’

And it is only when we learn to embrace powerlessness that we can give up our delusions of grandeur, our posturing and clambering for position in life. Whether we seek influence over our family, our colleagues, a bigger segment of market share or to be a player on a political stage, power is seductive, egging us on to secure for ourselves as much control over others, or our own circumstances, as possible.

Yet as spiritual leaders of many faiths have taught, real power comes from mastering contentment in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. The hunger for more is never satisfied, it is only when we learn to be content with what we have that we are consoled.

When the Christ-child leaves the glory of heaven and begins life as a refugee, sheltering in an animal shed, God makes no attempt to control humanity or establish a power base. Instead he offers himself up to us in a gift of pure love.

A story like this has an enduring appeal for us because we recognise the truth of its inverted power. So, too, when we learn a Pope has given up his palace to live in a boarding house, or that an Archbishop buys his shoes in a charity shop: we warm to them because we know their actions run counter to our own instincts. Perhaps a part of us yearns to possess the kind of contentment that is satisfied with such simplicity.

The austerity that is blighting so many lives today — forcing hundreds of thousands to go to foodbanks for handouts for example — has its roots in an economic culture unable to understand the concept of sufficiency. Whether it be City bonuses, tax-dodging corporations or celebrities, or powerful politicians insulated from the reality of poverty by the multi-million pound trust funds they inherited, there has never been a better time for Britain to learn the spirituality of sufficiency.

The powerlessness of the Christ-child also reminds us of what is wrong with much religion.

We live in a world where, this year alone, we have seen the damage done by religious fundamentalists who terrorise others in their bid to grab power. It may be extremist Islamists in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere who are in the headlines just now, but Christianity has its own equally bad history of abuses and terrorism.

Jesus, the adult, had much to say about self-serving religious leadership which cherished dogma above compassion.

In Britain today there is no shortage of Christians who try to manipulate and coerce others into their brand of faith. Attempts to gain control over the lives of others has no place in the Christmas story, because the gift of a newborn in a borrowed crib asserts that for God power is found through self-giving love and not through force. Grace is a gift, not a guilt-trip. And, as St Paul wrote in one of his letters, ‘God's grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.’ (2 Corinthians 12.9)

As we enjoy the festivities of the Christmas season I hope we can learn the truth of the mantra, ‘It is sufficient,’ and relinquish the quest for more, accepting instead the invitation to discover the contentment that comes from saying ‘I have enough.’

I hope that whatever this Christmas Day brings you, you will discover it to be sufficient and I wish you a very happy day.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

on praying unselfishly

Year B | Advent 4

2 Samuel 7. 1-11, 16; Psalm 89.1-4,19-26; Romans 16.25-end; Luke 1.26-38

Mary, the mother of Jesus — or, if your prefer, the Blessed Virgin Mary — is a figure who has divided Christians for centuries. For some, she has a special place in their faith, worthy of veneration and a noble recipient of their prayers. For others she is indicative of all that was wrong with pre-Reformation Christianity, clinging more to suspect tradition than Biblical truth.

I grew up in the latter tradition, a Protestant in the highly sectarian culture of the West of Scotland where anything that distinguished us from Roman Catholics was fiercely and proudly clung on to. Distancing ourselves from Maryology was one such totem.

I came to learn to love Mary through studying Latin American Liberation Theology at college. For poor and oppressed South American women in a male-dominated society, Mary stands out as a female role model of faithfulness to a God with a heart for social justice.

The words of her great hymn of praise, the Magnificat, used around the world daily as part of the service of evening prayer, gives voice to her understanding of God's preferential option for the poor:
God has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53)

Her personal strength in the face of suffering, and her conviction that God will establish a reign of justice, have sustained the faith of generations of poor women in South America and beyond.

Today's gospel reading reminds us of another of Mary's remarkable attributes — her willingness to offer herself up to God. She receives the remarkable news that she is to bear a son with, initially, some confusion, before displaying remarkable self-giving.

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

Mary stands as an example of what it means to make ourselves available to God. Her prayer is that God's will be done through her.

This is also something we say when we recite the Lord's Prayer. 'Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.' This is how Jesus taught us to pray. And yet, somehow, perhaps our prayers have a tendency to try and bend God to our will. 'Dear Lord, please do this, that or the other.' We sometimes seek more to draw God into our hopes and desires, than to open ourselves up to understanding what it is that God desires of us. 'Let it be with me according to your word.'

Our Advent theme of prayer was introduced a few weeks ago by Rodney Elton. In his sermon he quoted the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams who has written that:

'... prayer is letting Jesus pray in you, and beginning that lengthy and often very tough process by which our selfish thoughts and ideals and hopes are gradually aligned with his eternal action.' (Rowan Williams, Being Christian, SPCK 2014)

Just as Mary demonstrated, prayer is about opening ourselves up to God, so that the Holy Spirit can work in us and draw us into the mission that Christ seeks to fulfil through us. We make ourselves available, just as Mary did on learning that she was to bring the Christ-child into the world. We relinquish our earthly worries and ambitions and instead offer ourselves to God. In the words of the old hymn, 'Spirit of the living God fall afresh on me. Break me, melt me, mould me, fill me.'

'Our prayer is that we may be made one with the will and the action of Jesus.' (Rowan Williams, ibid.)

This isn't to say that we shouldn't pray for the needs of the world, or people we know who are ill or in trouble. To do so is to join Jesus in carrying the pain of the world 'into the heart of God.' (Rowan Williams, ibid.)

But if our prayer is about God's will being done on earth, we need to make sure our prayers are not simply located in our own anxieties or selfishness, but that we have truly centred ourselves on being receptive to God's Spirit working in us.

The power of prayer lies in our willingness to make ourselves available to God. 'When we have a share in God's power then we can go and do miracles... You can go and do miracles like forgiving your neighbours, and giving your property away to the poor, because that is how God exercises power. And if we are having a share in God's power, that is where our share will lead.' (Rowan Williams, ibid.)

We see from this that it is important to understand the direction of our prayers. Prayer is not about bombarding God with our demands, but taking time to tune ourselves into the divine and get on the same wavelength. Prayer is powerful when it is rooted in the will of God, and is an expression of the prayers of Christ within us.

This is why I have learned to love Mary — she blazes a trail, as a disadvantaged peasant woman in a patriarchal society under foreign occupation. It is hard to see where the power is in that. But Mary shares in the power of God by setting her own agenda to one side and offering herself up to join in with the divine plan. 'Let it be with me according to your word.'

Thursday, 11 December 2014

on practising gratitude

Year B | Advent 3

Isaiah 61.1-4,8-11; Canticle: Magnificat; 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24; John 1.6-8,19-28

The third Sunday in Advent is also known as Gaudete Sunday, which comes from the Latin word for rejoice. Now Advent is, on the whole, a penitential season. It is a time when we remember that there is much that is wrong with the world, as well as the things that are far from perfect in our own lives. Our worship reflects this sombre tone. We don't sing the Gloria during Advent. No flowers adorn the church. The mood is one of longing for the coming of Christ and a new era where justice and peace will prevail.

Lest this all begins to feel a bit heavy, Gaudete Sunday comes along just in time to lighten things. We are encouraged to bring some celebration into this season of hopeful longing. The candle on our Advent Wreath, as well the vestments and hangings, are rose coloured, evoking in the midst of winter the colours and warmth of summer.

The message of Gaudete Sunday is this: that while there are always challenges facing us, concerns that worry us, or troubles that dog us we mustn't forget to be thankful. Gaudete Sunday reminds us to weave gratitude into whatever we are going through in life.

The apostle Paul wrote to the early church in Thessalonica, ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit.’ (1 Thessalonians 5.16-19)

However we relate to God in our daily life, whatever our practise and habit of prayer, giving thanks must be the foundation of it. This is how we nurture the Spirit of God within us, and keep ourselves ready to do the work of Christ.

If we are constantly grumbling, or the only time we pray is to ask God for something, then it becomes harder to maintain a spirituality that sustains us. Prayer becomes self-serving: all about me and not much about God, other than as a divine Santa Claus to fulfil my wishes provided I've been good. But when our prayers begin in thanksgiving we reorientate our minds towards the love that God pours on us. We count our blessings and reframe how we see our lives. There is something about being in a thankful state of mind that is motivating and energising.

Practising gratitude is a key strand of Christian Spirituality, and indeed of many other faiths. Psychologists tell us that practising gratitude is good for our health and wellbeing, as well as for our relationships. Why wouldn't it be? Being around joyful people is so much better for us than listening to those who constantly carp and complain.

For us, our prayers of thanksgiving are a way of joining in with the eternal song of praise, adding our chorus to the heavenly hosts. This is how we weave earthly living into eternal life.

How, then, do we follow Paul's instruction to pray without ceasing? Christians have developed a number of approaches to this, but I want to highlight just one.

500 years ago St Ignatius of Loyola developed a set of spiritual exercises that have, over the centuries, helped many Christians deepen their relationship with God.

One such exercise is called the Examen, a contemplative practice for use morning and evening. And it starts with gratitude.
‘You recall the good things that happened to you during the day, and you give thanks for any “benefits”... Ignatius meant “benefits” in the broadest possible sense. Obvious things would include any good news, a tender moment with a [loved one], finishing an important project at work. But also less obvious things: the surprising sight of sunlight on the pavement in the middle of a bleak midwinter's day, the taste of a ham-and-cheese sandwich you had for lunch, satisfaction at the end of a tiring day spent caring for your children. For Ignatius many things—no matter how seemingly inconsequential—are occasions for gratitude. You recall them and you “relish” or “savour” them, as he would say.’ [James Martin SJ, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, Harper Collins 2010]

This conscious effort to acknowledge our daily benefits before God, can have a very powerful effect. When I practise the Examen I find myself looking out for things in the course of the day that I can bring to mind later. It becomes a kind of unceasing prayer. And it is a very powerful antidote to my usual habit of stock-taking all the little irritations and hiccups that one encounters in the day. In the same way that grumbling about life's little difficulties inflates and makes us more aware and obsessed with them, practising gratitude begins to build a continual awareness of all goodness and love of which God is the source. The light of Christ within us blazes more brightly. It is the very opposite of the Spirit being quenched.

Paul's advice to rejoice always and give thanks in all circumstances wasn't directed at individuals. He was writing to a church to instruct them on their life together as a community of faith.
‘They are all to rejoice. And when? Not at a particular time, nor only in good times, but always. They are to pray always. They are to give thanks not just for the good things that happen to them, but “in all circumstances.”’ [Lucy Lind Hogan,]

Recognising that some things in life bring us desolation rather than consolation—not least the mistakes we've made or the moments where we let ourselves down—is also part of the Examen. But it always begins with seeking God's grace and practising gratitude.

We do this in our worship, of course. The celebration of Holy Communion is one great act, no just of remembrance, but of thanksgiving to God for the reconciliation brought to us through the cross of Christ.

But I don't believe for a moment that Paul was thinking about formal services of worship when he instructed the Thessalonians to rejoice always and give thanks in all circumstances. This is for all our common life together. The conversations we have over coffee after church; the deliberations of our meetings; the way we work together to organise events and activities. Our conduct should be conditioned by ceaseless gratitude rather than endless grumbling.

Like us, the church in Thessalonica had their worries. But Paul does not want their collective life together to be shaped by their anxiety, but rather a commonly held spirit of thanksgiving to God for all the goodness and love that they receive. So too, us. Paul's words ring down through the centuries as true and as clear as the day he wrote them, for it is a message we need to hold onto now as much as ever.

‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.’

For a description on how to use the Examen click here
For a simple book about the Examen try Sleeping With Bread by Linn, Linn & Linn.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

on finding refreshment in the wilderness

Year B | Advent 2

Isaiah 40.1-11; Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13*; 2 Peter 3.8-15a; Mark 1.1-8

I wonder if you have ever been to a desert. The Sahara, for example, or the Kalahari, the Mojave perhaps, or Dungeness. Yes, Dungeness, a little spit of shingle covered land in South-East Kent which is Britain's only official desert — a place so barren and dry that it is incapable of sustaining much life. (Click here for some pictures)

It is a strange and beautiful place, next to the sea, with few buildings apart from some fisherman's shacks, a pub and a nuclear power station.

A number of years ago the film-maker Derek Jarman bought a cottage there and surrounded it with a garden. In the desert. But this was not what you might typically expect of a garden — he had found objects washed up on the shoreline and arranged them to create beautiful sculptures and features. Driftwood and rusting pieces of machinery were assembled into pleasing and mysterious forms. Where no one would have imagined a garden possible, Jarman used his imagination and creativity to establish something distinctive and surprising. He was open to the possibility of something for which others would have held out little hope.

The Bible is full of stories about the desert. The wilderness was never far from people of the Old and New Testaments, and many profound spiritual experiences took place there. Yet it is a hostile and forbidding place. One can only survive in the desert with real know-how, a willingness to let go of life's little comforts, and to know with certainty what personal resources you can fall back on in order to survive. Life in the desert is stripped back to its bare essentials.

Much of Jesus ministry took place in the wilderness — a place of arid hopelessness where peopled blossomed, transformed by his healing and his teaching. It was in the desert, where little food was available, that 4000 people feasted together against all expectations.

Some of the early Christians chose to go and live in the desert as a way of purifying their faith, adopting an extreme asceticism to help discipline themselves in living a holy life. The tradition of religious life found today in monasteries around the world began in the desert, and the wisdom-rich writings of the Desert Fathers continue to inspire and guide Christians today.

During the four Sundays in Advent this year each sermon is reflecting on an aspect of prayer. So what can the desert teach us about how to pray?

There are times in life which can feel a bit like a wilderness — lonely and desolate times, where there is not much joy or encouragement. A period of ill-health, perhaps, or depression, a bereavement, or the loss of meaningful occupation. We do not feel full of life at such times, but rather somewhat diminished, and it can be hard to find the energy or motivation to make the most of each day.

Spiritually, too, there may be times when we feel far from God, uncertain perhaps about the assurances that our faith offers us. Faith itself might feel more of a burden than a help. Such experiences are not new to believers, and the Bible is full of times when God's followers keenly felt a loss of hope.

But again and again scripture reminds us of God's faithfulness and the hope that is offered when we trust God. The service of Morning Prayer in Advent includes a wonderful passage from Isaiah chapter 35, with its image of God bringing new life to the wilderness moments in our lives:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

Sometimes it is when our lives are pared back to the bare essentials, the periods when we are in the desert, that the clutter of life clears away and allows us to see God and ourselves more honestly. We have to drop our pretences in the desert, just surviving takes all we've got. We let go of our delusions and see our lives as they really are, precarious, fragile and time-limited. God offers to accompany us through such times, provided we are open to experiencing the divine presence.

The desert is a silent place, away from all the cacophony and chatter of life. In this stillness it is easier for us to hear the Spirit say to us, ‘Be still and know that I am God.’

This is why one of the great traditions of prayer is silence. Perhaps just for twenty minutes a day, we can take ourselves off to our room, close the door, and say nothing. We empty our mind of its distractions, rest in God and put ourselves in touch with the ground of our being. It is in recreating the silence and simplicity of the wilderness that we are better able to listen out for what God might be saying to us. No long list of requests or demands, no reciting or reading any prayers. Simply taking ourselves into the desert to wait on God.

Here, God wells up within us, a fountain of living water to refresh the parched and desolate parts of our life. Rowan Williams writes:

Prayer is not about feeling good. It is not about results, or about being pleased with yourself; it is just what God does in you when you are close to Jesus... The Spirit wells and surges up towards God the Father. [Rowan Williams, Being Christian, SPCK 2014]

Christian life is full of waiting, and the season of Advent reminds us how to hope when we are in the desert. Prayer requires patience. As the second epistle of St Peter says, ‘While you are waiting... strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.’ (2 Peter 3.14-15)

It is out of the desert that we hear the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’ Mark's gospel begins in the barrenness and silence of the desert. The hope that God promises is not voiced by the religious scholars of the day, or the temple elite in the holy city of Jerusalem. It is the voice of a weirdo we hear, dressed in camel skins and surviving on a diet of insects and honey. When we enter the stillness of silent prayer and contemplation, the voice of God can come from surprising places. We must prepare for the unexpected.

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming the coming of Christ to heal the world of its desolation, to bring to our life waters breaking forth in the wilderness, streams in the desert.

It is in our patterns and discipline of prayer that the water of life bubbles up to refresh and renew us. I pray that you might know it this Advent, and find for yourselves a garden in the wilderness.


For help with silent prayer click here to download a handout. Or read Stephen Cottrell's excellent short book Do Nothing To Change Your Life.