Sunday, 29 January 2017

Building in despair

The Christian life is not an easy one.  More often than not churches, parishes and individuals all feel as if there is no hope and are flapping their arms in despair.  We can only see the darkness around us and not the light that is Christ. Like a Zen master we often stand around berating and striking our followers to bring them to experience the light of Christ as we become frustrated with the apparent lack of understanding being shown. Or else we fall back to erudite words to inspire and bring hope which only bring fleeting highs in a place of overwhelming darkness.  We believe these highs to be the real deal and like an addictive drug continue to seek them rather than Christ's light.  Paul writing to the Corinthians points out in his hymn to the cross the foundation of our lives (1 Cor. 1.18-31) whilst Matthew's Gospel shows us how (Matt. 5.1-12).  However, in a single verse of pure poetry Micah spells out the essential attitude (Micah 6.8).

In Paul's first letter to the Corinthians there are some amazing pieces of rhetoric that reflects deep thought and understanding.  In his hymn to the cross, Paul uses an understanding of both the Jewish faith and the Greek funeral oratory system of his era.  In linking them within this passage he cuts through the ties of ethnicity that create division and seeks to build a magnificent edifice on the weakest foundation of the world at that time, a man crucified on a cross. In our day to day misunderstandings and our fears can we like Paul and the Corinthians lay our differences aside and start to build?  The foundation, just as in Paul's time, is a foundation not of strength but of weakness.  The Christian faith has been battered by the tides of rationality and a culture that sees only profit for profit's sake.  If we think clearly about these things we are in a position that is no worse and no greater than found in Corinth. Paul's oratory appeals to both intellectuals and those who are faith believers not because they are beaten at their own game but because Christ offers a fresh approach.  It is like being given two options both of which mean death and suddenly finding a new path that is inconsistent with everything that has been thought possible before.  The cross turns everything upside down.

Is it possible to build on a weak foundation in the midst of nothing?

Christ gives us a way to live that life at the beginning of the classically named Sermon on the Mount at the beginning of chapter 5 of Matthew's Gospel.  The Beatitudes are perhaps at first glance somewhat unusual and topsy turvy. The poor are blessed, the sorrowful are blessed as are the hungry, the gentle and the peacemakers.  A far cry from reality one would think and does this mean that we have to become these extreme low end, despised people. Can't we be rich and free from hunger?  Our rational and interpretive scholarly minds try to finagle our way out, putting spin on to interpretation so that we can be at ease.  Yet, as Christians these are our living instructions these are our way of building on the weak foundation of the cross. Just to give some examples as to our own interpretive slant to these instructions.  Instructions, if you will, given not to erudite learned people but to the poor and the hardworking women and men of rural society.  Who are the sorrowful? What are they sorrowful for?  We automatically, I think, start with those who are mourning death but perhaps they are sorrowing / mourning something else entirely.  Perhaps the mourning is not death but the recognition of sin and wrongdoing and so we are mourning what we have / have not done as a people?  In recognition comes understanding and an ability to stand in hope for our lives as we turn away from sin to embrace Christ.  In doing so we build our lives centred on God and so we become blessed by God.  We begin to think in terms of others and so seek after righteousness, more rightly translated as a just community. This becomes an action that is lived out into the world around us.

Micah sums this all up in the simplicity of one verse describing what God wants from us as we grow into his presence and take on a Christlike personna.  We begin to give to God a contrite heart as we walk with a humbleness (poverty of heart) before God seeking to do justice and mercy with the loyalty expected by those who have formed a covenant with God, as we have through our baptism.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Called to follow - What or who?

Each person follows a call from God in their lives.  The disciples were just people who heard the call on their lives through the words of Christ (Matt 4.18-20). Who were they, these disciples who we revere?  The answer is simple they are you and me.  They were no special person on an individual basis they were simple honest hard working fishermen.  They heard God call through the call of Christ and they lived in the hope of that call for the rest of their lives.  They were as human as you and I in everything that they did.  They had their doubts, their fears, their times of hardship and pain.  They lived in an age when such things were more accepted but no less real as now.  Yet, they are now revered by us as the first responders to God's will and word.

In our present day we also are called but we need to consider very carefully as to what or whom is calling?  I am certain that if I asked everyone in a congregation or who is Christian that they will say either God or Jesus or Christ.  I live in hope that this is true, I live in faith that this is so.  Yet, my question is always the same: Am I? Are you?  Even as I write this I need to question myself each day to ask that question.  Why do we doubt this or rather why do I doubt this?  It is only in doubt that I can begin to see the reality of that call on my life.  It is only in doubt and suffering that I can begin to answer that call on my life.  If we cannot forsake our certainties for a moment and question our beliefs how can we know that our beliefs are certain?

Look at Paul's thoughts and words as he writes to the Corinthians.  Paul writing to a divided Church urges upon them the unity that comes with the call of God.  Paul understands that each of us is led by our own inner convictions and sometimes those inner convictions lead us away from what Christ asks of us.  We are filled with what we believe to be true to God's word and then all of a sudden we find ourselves adrift, apparently without any form of anchor on stormy seas.  It is only when we determine God's call on our lives when we feel the calmness return. In not listening to the quiet inner voice we hear only our own thoughts and our own plans.  In this we are playing politics.  This game is played throughout our lives particularly when we believe that we are called to something and are following someone/ something.  Every parish, diocese, denomination and country play this game.  We actually all play this game through out our lives as we seek to fulfill our 'call'.  It is only when we begin to understand our own doubts and fears that we begin to understand what it means to be called by God.

Are we following God into the unknown?

No person truly called into God's service is certain, we are all hesitant when a call comes, we all laugh in that calls face.  It is only when we have been beaten over the head or kicked in the rear that we begin to understand that God is actually calling us into a ministry, not our ministry, not my ministry but God's ministry.  I do not believe the Gospel tells the whole story about the call of the disciples.  I suspect that there was a great deal of cursin, cussing and bad language before the disciples followed.  We respond only after we have resisted.  If someone says to me that they have been called to be a Bishop then I have my doubts.  If someone turns away and says 'no not me', I would be more inclined to start seriously looking at the person.  If a person says "I have a plan and it is going to work" and are adamant, I would start really looking at alternatives.  I would start listening to God's and for God's call.  I am sure that the person's plan is probably a good one and would succeed for a time but God's plan succeeds for a long time not 'for a time'.  It may be simple and we may doubt it will work but I often find that God works the way God wants to work, by calling coarse mouthed fisherman and not eloquent politicians.  So who are we called by in our lives? Is it our own wants or is it truly God's call? Do we follow or do we fill ourselves with our own plans?

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Are we looking or are we accepting?

John's Gospel has Christ asking the two disciples of John the Baptist 'What are you looking for?' with what appears to be a non-sequitur response 'Where are you staying?' (Jn 1.38). A question answered with a question with no real answer from the disciples.  Yet the question remains and is something for us to consider today and within the context of our own society.  I am not in my usual place today as I consider this question but am removed from the flow of society around me and yet I am still connected to the Church and the concerns of the Body of Christ. In being apart we can perhaps bring to mind this question and focus on it more readily than if we were in our normal place.

The question posed is: what are you looking for? In life we are constantly looking for something to fulfill our needs.  If we were to answer this question then our answers would probably revolve around our needs and those perhaps of our families.  The you is personal it creeps into the spaces  of our need and highlights them to our mind.  We think of our housing, our work circumstances, our children, our social standing, etc.  We would consider these as our needs; we would think that perhaps these are the things we are looking for to fulfill our lives in the modern world.  What about the question in terms of our religiosity, our faith, our denomination / church / community in which we worship? Here we conceive of our mission in the world, our ministry to each other and those who are less fortunate.  We look at those less fortunate, the orphan, the widow, the exile, the immigrant and stranger; we designate an other who is not of us to whom we are called to bring our faith, our God, our ways of doing things to achieve fulfillment and the end of our desire.  Is this then what we seek, the perfect way to bring the Gospel to all people throughout the earth in fulfillment of God's commandment?  Is this the answer to Christ's question?

The incipient disciples answer strangely with an alternate question; where are you staying?  This appears to be a frivolous question in response to Christ. Let us come and see where your living, that's what we are looking for.  Just to see where this person is living, a cave, a hovel, a palace.  No great desires for food or fancy goods.  No desires for peace in the world or a community of love and acceptance.  This is really odd to seek a place of abode.Yet, if we look at it purposely and with deeper understanding is this not the absolute answer to Christ's question to us.  If we are truly looking for something within our own faith and religious journey is it not just this to find Christ's abode.  We are not looking for a trivial house or palace or campsite in the wilderness we are seeking where Christ is living.  we are looking for signs of Christ's presence in ourselves and in those around us as a community.  It is the presence of God in Christ that is our daily task to find and worship; to become a part of and not to become excluded from.

Christ does not abide in a building but in a community

In going out into the world as part of our faith journey we are perpetually sent to find Christ's abode.  Christ shows his disciples where he lives through the scriptures and in our hearts as we interact with the people of the world.  In discovering where Christ's abode is we are discovering the end of the question that Christ asks us.  In finding Christ we are in finding that which we are seeking for fulfillment.  We often misinterpret what we are looking for to find fulfillment as we have been taught to find it within the auspices of modern society and life. Only when we truly discover what it is that we are looking for is when we truly find the hope of Christ in our lives.  We accept what we think we want without looking further as our needs are surface orientated.  Christian's seek for a deeper foundation that brings hope to a community.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Playing favourites

As we come out from the season of Christmas into the New Year what are we expecting and what do we wish for in terms of our Christian and faith journey? and are these the same?  This is perhaps a question that we do not often put to ourselves and indeed we automatically assume that they are the same.  The initiation of our faith and Christian journey is in baptism and on this last day of the Christmas season we celebrate the baptism of Christ by John. In doing so we could perhaps see this as indicating the complete connection between the two events.  Yet, our baptism is the baptism in Christ who has died whereas Christ's baptism is the baptism of John who was re-initiating the covenant of God in the hearts of those who came to him.  Indeed John sought Christ's baptism (Matt 3.14).  Christ's own journey into God's presence begins here with John's baptism as it is Christ who sees and Christ who hears (Matt. 3.16-17), a journey that drives him into the desert places.  A drive outwards not inwards, not simply into the desert but also eventually into society.  Towards God in community not simply and only inwards towards God in solitude.

Let our faith journeys be lights in the world.

The community of the people of God are given a sign of hope in the coming of God's servant (Is. 42. 1-7).  A hope that extends not just to Israel as God's chosen people, but to 'all nations' (Is. 42.1b).  This is a journey that is extended away from the personal into the community of the world no matter where that belief in God is found.  This is perhaps the one thing that we tend to forget in our exuberance of bringing the Good News to the world.  We focus on baptising everyone rather than bringing the Good News.  Jesus asks for baptism, the child's parents ask for baptism of the child, the confirmation candidate asks for their confirmation.  We are commissioned by God to go out into the world.  The world came to Christ in the Magi and Christ went into the world to give and proclaim the good news.  Our focus is and always should be the demonstration and proclamation in all we do as to what the good news is rather than on proclaiming our spiritual journey.  Christ's spiritual journey drives him out away from the crowds but his proclamation of the good news and God's Kingdom drives him into community.

We are reminded of this outward pull by Peter in Acts as he to comes to the realisation that God is not confined to the rules of man but to the compassion of God for all people (Acts 10.34).  Our faith journey is our discovery of God within ourselves while our Christian journey drives us into community accepting all as part of God.  It is in this realisation that we find the hope of God's kingdom.  In proclaiming our faith we need to involve ourselves with all people not just with those who are 'christian'.  We misunderstand our role in God's Kingdom when we look just to bring our personal views into fruition.  It is God who enables those who want Baptism to come to God and ask as part of their spiritual journey.  As Christians we are called to set the example that will enable those not baptised to seek baptism not play favourites.  If we do not set that example how can we expect people to come to God and choose that commitment.  If we are unable to do God's works of justice, righteousness and peace in the community how do we expect people to see God?  In another place in scripture the disciples say that they should stop someone, who is not a part of them, who is doing good works but Christ says if they are not against us they are with us. Can we deny those who are not baptised their right to do what God has asked for in doing God's work perhaps they are closer to god then we are on our own journey.  We are asked to grow both as Christians and within our personal spiritual journey towards God, this may not be quite the same thing.  Let us bring hope not build divisions. cultivate love and not destroy in hatred.  Christ went into the world and s also should we.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Three gifts of welcome

We are always using our imaginations to determine our understanding of the three gifts from the 'wise men'.  We are told that the three 'gold, frankincense and myrrh' (Matt 2.11b) represent power / Majesty / Kingship; priestly ministry / mystery / spirituality; Death / Finality / sorrow.  Indeed all of these things are present in these gifts.  We have always associated gold with the trappings of power either through gold crowns or through wealth. incense is associated with things spiritual whether as a Buddhist or as a Catholic.  Myrrh is not something we associate with much nowadays other than a rather expensive resin found and harvested in the Yemen and East Africa.  It is associated with death through its use in embalming but otherwise is a gum resin incense similar to frankincense.  So what is the distinctiveness of these gifts today, especially when we contemplate the welcome of a new child of God through baptism?  Do they only have relevance for us because the 'wise men' gave them to Christ or do they have relevance for all newborns?  I would suggest, that just as for Christ, these gifts are as appropriate for any newborn coming into the human family.  They remind us of those things that are part of our normal lives or should be if we lived as whole human beings.

The three gifts. Do we acknowledge them in our lives?

Gold is a reflection of power and authority.  We automatically see this in terms of political or physical power / authority but is this what we are really made for as part of God's creation or is this what we have made of God's creation for ourselves?  We only see things in our own manner and in our own vision not in the vision of God.  Power for us is power over but power with love is power with.  The symbol of power is just that a symbol, it does not tell us what power, we make an assumption as to the power that matters.  In welcoming new life into the church family we need to remind ourselves that the Christian has power.  Not power over but power with. as a child is brought up within the Christian faith its Godparents and parents and other friends need to remind the child that the power of love is a power that is used with not over others.  Once we start using power over others we start using people and things.  We treat others as objects not as people, we begin to be blind to God's image and replace that with a image of ourselves and our wants.  In a child we have hope of a better future; a future that is balanced by power used wisely with others for the benefit of all.

So how about frankincense we know that Christ has become our high priest, our spiritual leader, how can frankincense have any meaning for us?  If we are to live whole lives than we must also live lives which encompass the whole.  In our modern pragmatic society we have lost an understanding of the mystical and the spiritual.  We have lost the wonder that comes with this most unpragmatic side of life.  This gift reminds us that to be whole we need to use our imaginations and our spiritual sides.  We lose something of ourselves every time we deny our dreams and our spiritual yearnings.  We are diminished people as a result as we look down upon those who have a flamboyant and interesting life style choices.  We see them as being somewhat different and so fear or ridicule them.  Yet, we are made to be spiritual, to develop our understanding of the mystical and God as we are made in God's image.  We need to teach our children to be whole, to accept the fantastical, spiritual, and wonder in their lives.  In this way they become complete and bring hope into our dull lives.

Myrrh reminds us of the one thing we seem to shy away from and not mention.  Death is a part of life.  Without death we cannot have life for it is in death that we find new life.  Yet, the one thing we do not speak about with our children is the presence of death in our lives.  It is only when we confront death that we begin not to fear death.  The gift of myrrh to our children is the gift of understanding the presence of death in our lives and being able to embrace this without fear.  In our fear of our mortality we create the abnormalities of life which protect us from death but also prevent us from experiencing the hope and the joy that comes with resurrection.  If we cannot allow things to die we are preventing and denying the possibility of hope in hew life. Christ teaches us that death is the pathway to resurrection life.  We who are resurrection people need to understand and embrace the fact that all things die.  Only through death do we come to the hope of resurrection.