Making Space in Lent

One of Father Thomas Hopko’s maxims for Life in Christ, is ‘Do nothing for someone else that they could or should do for themselves’. In our world of individualism this sounds like a recipe for ignoring other people, but it is not. It is rather a check on our own ‘self importance’ – which is such that we all too readily fill any vacant space, fill any silence, obliterate any sense that We are not the centre of the universe. This ‘itching’ to live other people’s lives for them, this inability to stay within our own space is a sign of the deep seated anxiety which besets our age.

The Modern world is one which we have created for ourselves and thus if we do not keep ‘hard at it’, ‘beavering away’ (although that is to be unfair to beavers which only make one lodge for themselves), Working to ‘keep things going’, then everything would fall apart.

Having eradicated God from our consciousness we believe utterly in our own self importance, for that is all that is left, and so the stronger amongst us fill the space and take over the lives of the weaker (As Nietzsche amongst others predicted of a world stripped bare of the Worship of the living God).

We see this in the famous 80:20 rule. 80 percent of the work is done by 20 percent of the people. We (the 20 percent) mutter about those who ‘do not pull their weight’ but we are ‘whining compulsive ‘Marthas’’ overspilling our bounds. Less than gentle we take from others the small tasks given for them and them alone to do, and then complain that they should come and help us!

Our lives are actually quite small. Not many of us are more than 2m tall, or weigh more than 90 kilos . . . or so. This is the space that is given to us – but we have lost sense of the givenness of our boundedness – and thus many are deprived of life – either around us for we have spilled into their space or in the wider world, for in our anxiety driven consumption we have stolen their space from them.

It is hard to look out at the world and believe that really ‘we all need to work harder, to do more’, as the ‘natural world’ falls apart around us under the stress of our unboundedness.

Jesus is ‘gentle and humble in heart’. Put another way, he is very small. [We have a tendency to dwell on God’s Greatness, but He is at the same time humble beyond our imagining – the mightiest mountain has the very deepest roots]
Gentleness and humility do not fill other peoples’ space. So we could follow his example and learn to be small, learn to be our selves. Perhaps meditate upon the nature of Love as expressed in 1 Corinthians 13 – do you See how self-effacing Love is . . . ?

Yet in another way we ARE vast beyond imagination. As St Paul reminds us ‘your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit’. Lenten disciplines call us to small acts – to live with an open hand to all who ask for alms; restrain our bodily appetites – Come to our own space; and therein to pray. A world filled with compulsive work is prayerless. We are too busy to pray, to tired with ‘keeping it all going’. Of course we have little need of prayer for we are all ‘doing it for our selves’ keeping the world we have made in our own image going . . .
Yet we have all the space we need in which to pray, for if the Holy Spirit still dwells within us, if we have not driven the humble one from our lives with our own self importance, then the space for prayer within us, these Temples of our bodies, is infinitely large.

When we begin to see the illusory nature of what we call the Modern world and Behold the world as it truly is, as God’s, we realise that we do not need to overspill our lives, indeed that that is a grasping blasphemy, for in Truth All is Gift.
We can come back to our senses. We can leave others to the small work that is theirs as we do the small work which is ours. We need only be still, and Christ in us will do the rest . . . which of course brings us back to where we began . . .

Sermon on Stewardship

Sermon for Sunday 13th September 2015

James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

‘ . . .as those who will give an account’
Dangerous Faith

Anglicanism has more than its fair share of peculiarities, hardly surprising for a church which had its genesis in the determination of a King to marry whomsoever he wanted at a time of religious upheaval in the 16th Century.
But for the purposes of today, when we are considering Stewardship, I want to think about our Anglican posture of prayer. Not because I want everyone to pray that more money will come in – but because our posture in prayer says something about how we relate to God, and not only in theory. We are embodied, and what we do with our bodies affects our faith as much as our faith affects what we do with our bodies. You may like to spend time praying adopting different positions – pay attention to how it changes the disposition of your heart and mind . . .

So how does being Anglican affect our posture in prayer? Well, the fact is that by and large our way of praying is rather odd –  for historically and indeed until recently, pretty uniformly, Anglicans kneel to pray. OK so some more modern types sit – itself unusual historically, after all, only the relatively wealthy could afford to put seats into their churches – or adopt the shampoo position, which is sort of half way between sitting and kneeling whilst massaging your follicles, but as the prayer book repeatedly says – ‘the people all kneeling . . .’.

Whereas the way to pray most commonly observed and practised, and that of our Jewish forebears also, is that we pray Standing up! I’ll come to standing up in a minute, but why are Anglicans different? Well as far as we can tell it was because in the feudal times out of which the Church of England grew – one knelt before one’s lord and master, and so transferring that practise it seemed right and proper to kneel before God – but I suggest that that is not helpful. Not least because it leaves us entirely with a sense that we are supplicants in prayer, which is only a very small part of the story.
Our primary relationship to God is not one of begging. And certainly if we consider what it is to be a Steward, then begging isn’t primarily what we are about. For God in Christ has so dignified his people that he calls them to be Stewards of all that He has created, and in that dignity to Stand before him.

In the book of Job – after Job has poured out all his complaints, the LORD confronts Job with the words – ‘gird up your loins like a man and I will question you, and you shall declare to me.’ For 35 chapters Job has sat in the dust and pondered his plight, and now the LORD appears with the command – get up from the dust – face me like a man! Gird up your loins is a way of saying – get ready for hard labour – get ready for battle! ‘I will question you, and you shall declare to me.’ God invites Job to debate face to face. Astonishingly, God treats the human as in a sense an equal – and expects us not to cower but to Stand before Him. So we learn to speak with God as it were ‘Face to Face’ Standing. If you wish to enter into a deeper apprehension of your life before God, Standing to pray makes a huge difference – After all – is not God Present??!

Now at this point you may be asking – WHAT has this got to do with Stewardship??? Surely you need to be talking about how we need to be giving more etc. etc. etc. Or give us guidelines – or something.
Well I’m not . . . The Christian Life is not one in which we are spoon fed. God in Christ has forgiven us our sins and set us free from Sin. We don’t have to sin. God in Christ through the gift of the Spirit has taken us up from the dust and set us on our feet – he offers his Life to us that we might obey his commandments and do them – to love our neighbour as ourself, to love God with all we have and all we are. God treats us like responsible adults. ‘This is the way, walk in it . . .’

For example, as we have thought about over the last few weeks – when the wealthy young man comes to Jesus, Jesus tells him it like it is – he treats him as a responsible human being. This is the deal – sell your possessions give the money to the poor, then come follow me . . . over and over again Jesus says things that treat us not like infants, but adults. And sadly and too often, we seek to evade Jesus Word to us – the Word that gives Life . . .
So the parable to the talents, the man going on a journey  puts all his wealth in the hands of his servants . . . As the Psalmist says ‘The Earth is the LORD’s and everything in it’ Everything belongs to God – he puts it into the hands of the human. Let us make man in our own image, ‘according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’Each of the stewards is held responsible – it is the one who tries to squirm away, who seeks to evade his responsibilities who finds himself in the mire. As Jesus said – when the invitation to the Kingdom came, ‘one after another began to make his excuses . . .’ The call into the Kingdom is a fearful call for it is at once a call to our true dignity and therefore Responsibility as human beings – not by the deceitful standards of the World, but by the Command of the One who created the heavens and the Earth . . . our stewardship is not calculated to win us the admiration of society, but God’s Well Done, Good and faithful steward

When we are baptised into the Life of the Church – the time for excuses is over. Yes we may sin, and for that we confess our sins one to another that we might be healed – but no excuses now. God in Raising Christ from the dead has set us up on our feet – our Life, our very Existence is now Face to Face with the Living God, and thus as the Scriptures continually tell us – we must give an account . . . Baptism is not into some life where we are as it were held in cossetted existence, no it is a passage into Life before God, It is an awakening to the true reality of our lives and our Life Together – in all its Glory and all its Fear of the LORD.

Those who are called by the church to teach should know this accountability well, for we are called on me to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, and no other gospel. Not to as it were to try and find easy ways around the words of Jesus, but to face up to them for ourselves and to declare them to God’s people. As St Paul says ‘Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!’ It’s of course tempting to say – God help me if I don’t, but it is to God that the preacher is responsible!!! There is no other defence!!! As James puts it in his epistle we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. Yet it is not only the ordained who are given the capacity for speech. Perhaps in no greater way does God give over Stewardship to man than in conferring upon him the terrifying power of speech?? As Paul says, Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And what terrifying responsibility – for as James tells us, the ongue is like the rudder of a ship – small but guiding and directing its course – our Speech creates worlds for Good or Ill – and it forms us also. As Jesus puts it I tell you, on the day of judgement you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.’
It is no wonder that James exhorts us – ‘be slow to speak’ – for we will have to give an account of our stewardship of the Divine Gift of speech. And Peter is reminded of that in the most forceful of terms. Responding to the words of Jesus hastily he says the first thing that comes out of his mouth. And Jesus treats his words with full seriousness – ‘Get behind me Satan!!’ As I have said before, our Life in Christ is a matter of LIfe and Death, to dare to call oneself Christian is to take the responsibility for our Life that he places into our hands

Jesus summons to Life could not be more serious “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” To follow Christ – to die to oneself is to be set free in Radical Responsibility. It is to live with the Command of God as our only guide. No rules no regulations, certainly no careful calculations. One of the insights I had about myself on Sabbatical was a tendency to try and be calculating in my Life before God. The only response to the Life of God is Yes, or No. There are no %ages. It is all or nothing. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Simply all we have comes from God – and we are to use it for HIs Glory – the Glory of the One we Love – according to our unique abilities – to Love God with all we have and all we are, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.
That is our Life – it is the meaning of our Existence. To be a steward of that which God has given us is to live with this Life giving Command before our eyes, day in and day out. It is to live knowing that we shall all have to give an account – it is to understand that nothing we have is ours, even our very lives, but everything belongs to our Father, as we ourselves are his Precious possession.

We are HIs precious possession – it is because we belong to Him in Jesus, that we have life; because we belong to Him in Jesus that we are set free to live in true Responsibility for our LIves. It is our sense of the reality or otherwise of our relationship before God in Jesus Christ which marks out how we respond to that. Whether, knowing Him and Loving Him we dare stand before Him, Rejoicing in Him and boldly stepping out in Life in His Name. Or, not knowing him, hearing words about giving an account with terror and fear

It’s not my place to tell anyone how much to give – or to what – but an obligation is placed on me to remind us that God in Jesus Christ has radically saved us and brought us into the kingdom of his Son, He has given us his life, breathing the Holy Spirit into each one of us, lifting us from the dust of death and setting us on our feet – facing Him moment by moment and day by day. Our Life is before God, and we will have to give an account to God of how we have used all he has put into our hands – so let us respond not with fear and excuses, with self serving calculation, but  – with cheerfulness – indeed as St Paul puts it in the Greek with Hilaritos – as Children of our Father bestowing gifts upon the righteous and the unrighteous – with Joy and Gladness in all of our Stewarding of the Good Gifts he has bestowed upon us.
For in truth all of us are accountable before God for what we have done with that which is his . . . Not taking responsibility before God for all he has placed into our hands is to deny the very Life he has given us – but let us not hide in the shadows of excuses and fear, but walk fully in the Light of the Life of Christ, so that on the last day when he shall come to judge the Earth, we may rejoice at his coming and Stand before Him, as we have learned to do. Rejoicing Always, Praying without Ceasing, and giving thanks in all circumstances – for this is God’s will for us in Christ Jesus.

Prayer for the day

O most merciful God and Father, we commend ourselves and all that we have to Thine Almighty hands, and pray Thee to preserve us by Thy good Spirit from all sin, misfortune and grief of heart.
Give us the Spirit of grace and prayer, that we may have a consoling trust in Thy love, and that our sighs and petitions may be acceptable in Thy sight.
Give us the Spirit of faith to kindle a bright flame of true and blessed faith in our hearts, that we may have a living knowledge of salvation, and our whole life may be a thankoffering for the mercies we have received. A give us the Spirit of live, that we may experience the sweetness of Thy love towards us, and also love Thee in return; and render our obedience not from constraint like slaves, but with the willing and joyful hearts of children. Amen

Gottrfried Arnold, 1697

‘go into your room, and close the door’

For all the talk that people are increasingly spiritual, which from the point of view of Christian faith is neither here nor there, it is evident both statistically and in the reality of church life, that we pray less than ever before.

There is something about prayer which goes entirely contrary to the Spirit of this Age. Of course it also went against each and every previous zeitgeist, but it is this age that has seen such precipitate decline in prayer (along with public worship, generosity in giving alms and of course fasting as a central discipline of the the faith).

Jesus counsel on prayer, in Matthew 6 should really be seen not as a simple instruction, but rather as a disposition of the Life that is eternal – that from our perspective, it is hidden.

This is something which our age, perhaps above all others cannot bear. From every corner, we are exhorted to be ‘Out there’, to ‘Express ourselves’. Through Twitter and Facebook, through talk shows, and endless opinion polls – we are ‘extroverted’. Our own sense that our lives are of Significance, indeed of Ultimate significance is remorselessly fed and so we ‘put ourselves out there in many ways’ . . . and yes that does include blogging.

But this apparent ‘excuvatus’, is no more or less than the massive projection of ourselves, the paradoxical evidence that we are ‘incurvatus se’, turned in ourselves, self obsessed, thinking that our lives are of such interest to others that we must detail them for the sake of our ‘friends’.

Jesus is frequently, conversely, hiding – the source of his life is not himself – public exposure is shunned – rather He is Revealed. He goes secretly to the feast after his brethren have exhorted him to ‘‘Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.’

“No one who wants to be widely known acts in secret.” In our age it is the height of wisdom – and it is Revealed in scripture as unbelief.

We are exhorted by Paul, to pray continually – it is the call to the inner room – the call which Orients us to the Truth that our Life is no longer our own, but His. Insofar as it is Seen, it is Revealed, it does not need to be paraded. Indeed it is not ours to parade.

To go into our room and close the door is The disposition of Life.

If we are to know Life in ourselves and the church, this is perhaps The Lesson we most need to learn.

You have to laugh . . .

As some of you may be aware, I am on retreat at present and largely withdrawn from the ‘interweb’ until Easter, but I couldn’t resist sharing the following

Sat in the sun with a light Sunday lunch, I was once more falling prey to ceaseless internal dialogue – when as occasionally happens, I came to my senses and realised what I was doing.

Choosing to spend the time rather being consciously in God’s presence, I unthinkingly put down my beer . . .

Funny how we are unconsciously conditioned about what is right and proper when we are in God’s presence – I laughed long and hard and raised my glass in the presence of the one who not only loves me but likes me and wasn’t in the slightest bit bothered that I was enjoying a beer with him.

Radio Free Babylon have a regular feature, ‘Coffee with Jesus’ – well, I’ve just had a beer with Him – and it was OK

[Actually the beer was pretty rubbish, but I couldn’t fault the Company 🙂 ]


Through the Bible in a Year – February 6th

The Scheme for January and February can be found here

Job 30-32; Acts 12:1- 13:12; Psalm 46-47

The church continues to grow despite at times fierce persecution – and in the midst of it there is a powerful sense of the community of the believers, powerfully engaged together in the mission of God.

James, one of the Boanerges is put to the sword. Herod seeing it gains him kudos with some of the people throws Peter into prison for good measure. And we read of how the church prays fervently for him. But their prayers are shown to be rooted not in some deluded sense that they have as it were found the key – as if prayer was magic. When miraculously Peter is released from prison [A contemporary story of God’s acting thus can be found in this book], the church do not believe it can be true – yet all the same they have been praying fervently. So their joy is multiplied.

What is clear is that we do not see the whole picture – that we pray for the Good but it is not always forthcoming. The point is not that we try to figure this out, as if prayer was a formula, but that together we pray.

They are given direction by the Spirit, but still enter fully into the work through fasting and prayer, and the work flourishes. When as the people of God we act as we are, the body of Christ, fasting and praying, worshipping and mourning, Together, we touch the edge of his hem. For most of us however in the modern western church, our questions about unanswered prayers are rarely those of the whole body. Our faith has become radically individualised.