Posted by: davidmwilmot | March 19, 2017

The Thirsty Church: The Church that asks the `God` Question

If you are familiar with the Old Service of Matins in the Book of Common Prayer you will have recognised our Psalm this morning. Psalm 95 – otherwise referred to as `The Venite` – is a recognisable invitation to sing out God`s praises at the beginning of our worship.

“O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us heartily rejoice in the rock of our salvation”. (Psalm 95.1)

What`s always amused me, however, (and it`s actually our habit here in Troutbeck) is that we tend only to sing the first seven verses of this Psalm. And I have to say, (and I`m only the Vicar!) I`m really not sure how we have come upon this particular practice.

What I find intriguing that it`s in verse eight that the tone of the Psalm swiftly changes. In other words, from the opening verses filled with praise we suddenly turn to something rather different: because the bit we don’t sing begins…..

“O that today you would listen to his voice: ‘Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, on that day at Massah in the wilderness, ‘When your forebears tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my works. (Psalm 95.8-9)

Now, this obscure observation about Matins is hardly the kind of thing that keeps you up at night I`m sure and if you brought it up at a party I`m equally sure people would begin to give you a wide berth…. “Have you noticed we only sing the first seven verses of the Venite…” shock horror! But for our purposes this morning I think there is something here worth looking at here.

Firstly, I think it`s the genius of this particular Psalm that manages to hold together both these words of sublime praise as well as recalling what is evidently a record of the complete opposite… The account of a time when as the people of God, we really let ourselves down.There`s something which is so `true to who we are` contained in these few verses. I mean, this is a Psalm which at one and the same time reminds us of our high calling … whilst also managing to keep our feet very much on the ground.

And then secondly, I think this brings home one of the important themes of Lent- which doesn`t often get too much attention…. Which is that of our `collective` sin. What I mean is that the story referred to at the end this Psalm confronts us with our collective attempts to live as if God is not God. This matters because Lent is traditionally the time for welcoming newcomers into the faith. That we have some way to go to make this more of a theme of our common life tells its own story…. But the underlying point is that during Lent as well as examining our individual life and conduct we also `fess up` to our collective imperfection… And all newcomers are therefore under no illusion that when it comes to fidelity to God our collective record leaves much to be desired!

And this is, as I say, is brought home (as you perhaps noticed) because that second part of the Psalm is a re-telling of the events we heard about in our Old Testament Reading this morning. There before us, is one particular example of our infidelity … We heard about the thirsty Israelites groaning in the wilderness (Exodus 17.1-7).

Now the best way to approach a passage such as this is plain and simply to allow ourselves to be drawn into it. We`re asked to see ourselves as part of it. We`re asked to see these escapees from slavery in Egypt as our kith and kin… And then to reflect on how very good we are at demonstrating the family resemblance; at showing ourselves to be `chips off the old block`. Not least because (as should be evident) our behaviour before the Lord is no different from theirs, is it? We have the same high calling… and yet we exhibit the same degree of infidelity… But what especially do we learn?

Well the first and most important thing is what we might call the `Fidelity of God`. Israel is out there in the wilderness and the Lord does indeed give them the water they need- the means to sustain them on the way to all that he promised. And we shouldn`t make light of this.

But what the second half of the Psalm and the reading point out however, is the degree of moaning that preceded it: the in-fidelity of the people. At the heart of it all, is how what me might call the `water` question (“We`re thirsty”) eventually turns into what we might call, the `God` question (“Is the Lord among us or not?”). And what`s interesting to me is that the people don`t immediately ask the God question at all.

Firstly we`re told, “The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ (Exodus 17.2) And then secondly, “the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’ (Exodus 17.3) It`s all very bitter.

But what we need to grasp is that first target was Moses. They looked on him as the guilty party… He was the one who should give them water…. And for some unaccountable reason they saw him as the one responsible for bringing them out of Egypt in the first place. As far as they were concerned it was `The Moses question` that was at issue. But this is where we stand back and we marvel at his wisdom. They`re all having a go at him… and yes, he`s knocked back on his heels by the ferocity of it all but Moses refuses to take it personally. He stands there and says, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?”. In other words, they`d singled him out as the one to blame….. but Moses asked the `God question` and he knew that what was really going on was between them and the Lord. Basically he turns the whole thing into prayer.

It`s not an easy prayer by any means: “Moses cried out to the LORD, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’ (Exodus 17.4) But, trying to put it in simple terms, it seems that the real `collective` sin of the Israelites was their forgetfulness. Yes, they were in the wilderness (it was difficult) but they forgot that this challenging period was only part of a much bigger story in which God worked out his good purposes for them. And so, in pointing at Moses as their apparent `liberator` they demonstrated just how far they`d lost their sense of being caught up in God`s story.

Secondly, in calling on Moses for water we see how they`d lowered their horizons completely. By effectively saying that their escape from Egypt was the result of good political moves by Moses or a stroke of good fortune… effectively setting aside any sense of their divine calling and purpose… the only resources they could expect in their troubles would be what their `all too fallible` leader, Moses could provide. In other words, if their great escape wasn`t a `Godly` thing… they could hardly expect `godly resources for the journey.

A few moments ago I suggested that we should allow ourselves to be drawn into this story… to see it as ours….and ourselves as `chips off the old block` and prone to the same `collective sin`. And my point is that this is exactly what happens when for example, we think or speak of ourselves (the Church) as if it were just another social construction; something that we create; something that we `do` or are responsible for. When like the Israelites we forget that our origins are in what God has done in Christ we can`t help but think and act as if “It all depends on us”… and consequently, the only means of coping is our own resourcefulness.

And so, just as Moses got it in the neck we find our own scapegoats. General Synod? The House of Bishop`s? (Yours truly!) Yes, fallible, unprofitable servants all… And this is how it will stay until we learn to turn the water question (“We`re thirsty in these difficult days”) into the God question (“He has called us and he is faithful”).

To put it another way, while ever we fail to grasp (amazing though it might seem) that we have `divine appointment` we`ll just continue to try to cope under our own strength and fail to draw on the resources the Lord wishes to give… The `Living water` of which Jesus spoke. (John 4)

And this is why, during Lent, we place so much store on reminding ourselves of our Baptism. Here`s another connection with that Exodus story: You see, like the people of Israel going through the Red Sea we are those who have come through the water; the waters of Baptism. This is the Lord`s doing; it`s the sign of our liberation and our divine appointment. The promise is that the one “who has begun this good work will bring it to completion”. (Philippians 1.6) But Baptism is also a call (as I colloquially put it) to continually ask `The God Question`. Not only to recognise this divine appointment but to live in the strength HE gives. As Rowan Williams says: “When we pray (basically, when we ask the God question) we are at our strongest- because we have surrendered the false notion that we are facing a problem as God and instead find the blessing of facing it under God”.

Posted by: davidmwilmot | March 12, 2017

Born again? So much easier to be a `Spiritual Person`.

Over the years I think I`ve learned to live with a low level sense of irritation at the way Jesus telling us that we must be `born again` or `born from above` has been effectively hijacked. I think I`m just a bit cross that this incredibly important teaching has on the one hand, been distorted by foolish people who want to separate Christians into sheep and goats: into those who have been `born again` as opposed to those who apparently haven`t. Whilst others find a rather dubious security in being able to parade themselves as having had a particular (and even profound) experience which they then say we ALL have to have if we are to regarded as proper Christians.

What I`m saying is that this passage (John 3.1-17) has been commandeered to support these two spurious agendas with the consequence that as soon as we hear it some of us just switch off and consign this passage as `belonging to the loony part of the family` and consequently, what Jesus really wants to tell us doesn`t get a hearing. So, let`s begin by getting this straight; both of these positions are simply nonsense, not to say immature but if that`s true then where do we begin? Well, let`s look at what Jesus actually says.

The point of being `born again` or `born from above` -being open to this work of God- is categorically NOT about becoming a better class of Christian or so that we can parade our spiritual pedigree… If you look at verse three and verse five you`ll see Jesus says we need to be born again so that we can `see` or `enter` the Kingdom of Heaven.

So, in this conversation with Nicodemus the subject that Jesus is dealing with is his favourite theme: The Kingdom… what the world looks like when God is allowed to be God….. What it looks like when God has first place in our home, our personal relationships, our work, our finances… and dare I say it our Church. Jesus is telling Nicodemus… (one of the religious high-ups who should really know better) that in Him and his ministry, something is going on; a process is in train which is so radical, so different, so counter to anything he had imagined that in faith terms he needed to go right back to the beginning. In other words, poor Nicodemus is so steeped in an old and outmoded way of thinking that he`ll never `get it` without help from outside… `from above`.

I was going to say that the best way of putting this is to think of Jesus speaking of something akin to our discovery that the world is round rather than flat… I mean, once you see that everything changes…. But maybe something a bit more dynamic would be better…? I mean, think of the difference made by the discovery of electricity!

You see, again what`s at stake is not the `sprucing up` of Christians so that we can feel a bit `holier than thou`… Neither is the Lord interested in giving us rather enjoyable religious feelings…! No, his agenda is far bigger than US… he`s in the business of re-creating a world.

So, sit down and read John`s Gospel and you`ll see that this is at the heart of what`s going on. Remember, he begins with, “In the beginning was the Word…” (John 1.1) John takes us right back to the creation story in the Book of Genesis… “In the beginning, God created…” (Gen 1) And then, notice that he concludes his account in a garden…. (John 21) We hear of a weeping woman by a garden tomb. A place of death…. just like the garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis… now becomes the place where life is restored”. This is great stuff!

And again, in that resurrection story Jesus gives the Holy Spirit to the disciples and says, “As the Father has sent me so I send you”. (John 21) And we learn the purpose of Christian life is not so that we can accumulate enough Brownie points so that we can `get` to some distant heaven. It`s the other way around.

No, we are we are those who have been drawn by the reconciling love of Christ on the cross… We have received the forgiveness of our sin… And now as those who are born again, (indwelt by the Holy Spirit) we are called to live in the here and now in anticipation of God completing his re-creating work. Being `born again` is about having your life re-shaped so that you will reveal to others what it looks like when God is allowed to be God. The Church; the community of the `born again` exists to demonstrate (in the here and now) to the world what God has in store when he brings all things to completion.

Rowan Williams in the Book we`ve been reading for Lent sums it up by saying that we are those who learn to be “a place in the world where the act of God can come alive”. (Williams: Being Disciples SPCK 2016. p18)

So, I think the reason for my angst towards those who for example, turn `born again` into a badge superiority is firstly their diminished vision of what Christ is doing (it`s not just about US) and secondly, I think it`s their lack humility towards what I`m calling the `process` that has been set in train. I mean, all too often the sheer `uncontrollability` of the Holy Spirit (about which Jesus speaks in that passage), seems to be disregarded in favour of an assumption that we can as it were conjure up, `the God effect` at will; dole out the God experience… give people a thrill. But it isn`t like that.

And the offshoot of this arrogance is that when we speak to others about Jesus or the Christian way we kind of assume that folk are bound to get it if only we explain it better, package it in a more entertaining way or shout more loudly… But it doesn`t work like that either…. Because it`s a work of God.

In Chapter twelve of John`s Gospel, Jesus says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, (I) will draw all people to myself”. (John 12.32) He`s referring of course to His cross. Perhaps one of the few things I have in common with St. Paul is the capacity to be tetchy. And I recall how a somewhat tetchy St. Paul once resolved to speak only of “Christ and him crucified”. (1 Corinthians 2.2) Because He knew from bitter experience that you can beg, plead, cajole and flatter all you like but it`s through the telling of this, the story of his being `lifted up` that Christ does his work; it`s through this that the transformation of life begins.

Lent is a season for us to renew our acquaintance with that most wonderful tale… and to be renewed in our vocation to be bearers of his love and his way of being human in the world. You were signed on the forehead on Ash Wednesday with a cross for this very reason. You were marked out as one who is being born into the way of Christ… a self-giving and a `cross-shaped` way.

My guess is that it`s because we`re uncomfortable with this (and we know that it won`t really `sell`) that we try to market the faith as a `born again experience` or a way of being able to think of ourselves as `a spiritual person` instead. But candidly, we run the risk of falling foul of the Trades Descriptions Act. Being `born again`, being `born from above`… joining in the vanguard of a new creation…. Going back to the beginning and learning that all that we thought about being a human was wrong…. Dying to our self-centred ways and allowing the Lord to re-shape and re-form us is not a prospectus that sells many seats in church… But that`s the deal; that`s the message we are called to bear; that`s the shape of life we`re called to live… and let the wind of the Spirit do the rest.

Posted by: davidmwilmot | March 5, 2017

How do you save a world? Lent 1. The Temptations

There`s a wonderful moment in the Television series `Outnumbered` (BBC TV) where a Vicar attends a wedding reception and he finds himself placed on a table with a very precocious little boy… And while they`re eating the little boy takes the opportunity to corner the Vicar with all manner of questions ….And at one point he says: “So Pilate put Jesus on a cross… well why didn`t Jesus just Zap him?” It`s the kind of scene that brings the likes of me out in cold sweat… but it`s not a million miles away from the kind of question I`ve heard from many an adult…..We look at the presence of so much evil in the world and we want to know, “Why does God allow it?…” We say, “Why doesn`t he DO something?”

Now, having raised questions like this all clergy are obliged to say something rather slippery like, “We`re in the presence of a great mystery here” and of course that`s but any attempt to then go on to provide some kind of answer almost inevitably descends into a few well-meaning platitudes. I sincerely don`t want to do that this morning…. And I`m not being at all slippery when I say that I don`t think that as Christians we are actually in the business of finding `answers` to these often painful questions anyway. No, my guess is that our tradition actually teaches us how to live with these questions rather than answer them…..So how do we do that?

Well firstly, I think we have to recognise our humility. It would be easy (as I`ve often done) to lift out the old quotation:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts”. (Isaiah 55.8)

and attempt to leave it at that; and you can call this a platitude if you like. But I think we need to remember that this isn`t a text that`s designed to shut down debate or questioning ….. No, it sets the scene. it`s simply about realising our limits.

Then, secondly, one little exercise (for Lent) that you might like to try is to read the little book of Ecclesiastes.

You see this is where we discover something of the great breadth of material in Scripture. Ecclesiastes, for instance is full of the kind of speculation; and the questions “why?” that we tend to ask on a daily basis… And the simple point is that it`s there “IN Scripture” is really important. In other words, it`s very presence tells us that questions such as these are not out of bounds or alien to the way faith but actually part of it. So, when you read that little book you can`t help thinking that compared to our Jewish forbears we are a very timid people. You see, they didn`t run away from these questions.. No, they became the very subject matter of their praying….. In other words, “This is the stuff we should be praying about”. We`re invited to take these knotty issues out of the intellectual sphere and bring them to worship.

Take another example, when was the last time you sat and read the Book of Lamentations? (I`m really not joking!)

The writer speaks to the Lord and says:

“Why have you forgotten us completely? Why have you forsaken us these many days? Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old—unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure”. (Lamentations 5.20-22)

I`ve lost count of the times people have apologised because they prayed like this…. And I`ve often wondered why? Why can`t we pray like this?… in this `gutsy` way?…. And I`ve often wondered, why do we hardly if ever get to use this kind of thing on a Sunday morning? Why aren`t more of our prayers framed as questions like this? Or even as protest like this?

It seems odd to say it but although it`s not always pleasant to have a good old rant we do need to ask “who taught us to believe that this kind of candour is `out of bounds` or a sign we`ve gone astray?”… When all the while our Jewish ancestors saw this as part of what it was like to be one of the people of God…..?

So first of all it helps to realise that questions are OK … Secondly, we`re allowed to have a good old rant ….. But then thirdly, here`s the rub… It helps to listen out for a reply. It helps, in other words, to become more familiar with how our God chooses to go about his business…. How he actually deals with these things that trouble us so much. This, I think is where this morning`s Gospel reading helps us.

In this desert time we call the `Temptations` (Matthew 4.1-11) Jesus is pondering on Israel`s failure to reflect the loving purposes of God to the creation…. To be a blessing. And in all the things which the tester lays before him we hear echoes of Israel`s their disobedience in the wilderness (their hunger, their protest, their idolatry). And what seems to be at stake is; in the light of Jesus`s Baptism, ….where he is declared “Son of God” …….how will he go about being the new Israel? By what means will Jesus go about restoring the creation? Putting it almost simplistically, Jesus is offered three short-cuts…. Three relatively straightforward paths…. They`re the equivalent of `Zapping` Pontius Pilate!

So the tester says, in effect, “Come on Jesus, Do something relevant (meet the peoples` needs). Do something exciting and gain everyone`s attention (make yourself popular)…and then, throw your weight about (Show them you`re in control).

These were the wholly plausible ways forward with which Jesus was presented but he stood back… and took a different way. Why does this matter?

Well, let`s remember that Jesus was far from being a stranger to the questions that we ask.…. For him, the presence of evil was no `academic` matter. He was born under one of the most brutal regimes the world has ever known…. But he is quite clear that you don`t reflect the life of God to the world by using the world`s methods and short-cuts. This is the point.

Because the end doesn`t justify the means. The means we use ARE the message….. And we see from the replies that Jesus gives to the tester that the means he chooses are a waiting on the Word of God; abandonment to his providence and a single-minded devotion. In other words, he turned his back on being relevant, popular and powerful.

And if we listen carefully, this is the direction his Spirit will take us. Our living in the world and seeking to reflect his light will take the same shape and form. The great sadness is that we have a track-record of resisting this. I mean, do I really need to spell out what happens when Christians fail to listen to Jesus?

The tester says, “Command these stones to become loaves of bread”. But when meeting immediate physical needs becomes the priority we all become consumers of God. “Throw yourself off the pinnacle”. But when what`s spectacular takes precedence we package Jesus as a commodity to entertain and amuse. And as for “fall down and worship me”, well even the military know the importance of taking the longer way of trying to as they put it “win hearts and minds”. But for generations the Church`s reputation for colluding with power and controlling people has been less than admirable.

Yes, we all have questions about why some things happen and where God`s providence might be in some of the heart rending things we see or experience. Asking those questions and praying (even protesting) with these things is part of the way forward. But becoming more familiar with the ways of God is equally important. Putting it bluntly… how do you go about saving a world?

Well, what we learn this morning is that Jesus rejected the short-cuts… of meeting everybody`s needs; keeping them entertained and throwing his weight around. Instead, he took the long, painful and patient way of the cross. More of that in the weeks to come.

For now, this is where the Lenten season points us. I`m suggesting that Lent is a season of training in which our instinct for the short-cut is challenged and we`re inducted in the same way of the cross. The first step is often learning to pause and recognise the temptation for what it is. Remember to look out for the short-cuts. So, for example, this Lent might be a chance for us to reflect on how many of our relationships are all about us meeting others` needs? That is to say, `pleasing people`? How many of our relationships are about, as it were doing the spectacular thing…. about seeking or needing approval or attention? How many of our relationships are founded on a need to be in control of others?

These are the kind of tensions we face at work and at home and we need to pray with them. Our response… the degree to which we are prone to taking these short cuts is an indication of how in tune we are with how our God goes about saving a world.

 

Posted by: davidmwilmot | February 26, 2017

Let`s take back control: Facing our illusions

Back in the 1980`s the actor Bob Hoskins appeared in an Advert for British Gas. He played a London gangland boss who was a bit of a bully…. And his catch phrase was, “Don’t you just love being in control?” Perhaps you might remember it? Back then it caught the mood of the time… And in much the same way the political slogan “Let`s take back control” seems to have fired up a lot of nationalistic sentiment in recent months.

Now, what fascinates me is the way slogans and catch phrases like these have a way of resonating and striking a chord with us and my own sophisticated theory about the popularity of, “Let`s take back control” is that it owes quite a lot to a deep-seated sense that many things we once took for granted and which gave us a sense that we `had` some control have in recent times, somehow disappeared. And all of this has been made worse because back in the 1980`s we were indeed encouraged to believe that `having control`; self-determination and all the rest was among the highest of virtues we could aspire to.

So, perhaps, “Let`s take back control” resonates with many people these days because the fallacy in our conditioning is now coming to light and a lot of cultural and spiritual chickens are coming home to roost? Perhaps we`ve begun to realise that we never were `in control` anyway….?

In our Gospel reading this morning we`re told that “Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves” (Matthew 17.1). And I want to suggest that among the many things that are going on in this passage… we`re given an insight into how we might begin to pray with this sense that things are not under our control…

But the first thing to note about this reading is what`s missing… For some unaccountable reason the editors of our lectionary missed off the first three words of Matthew Chapter seventeen. It actually begins: “Six days later… Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John …..” Now this isn`t me splitting hairs. Those three little words, `Six days later`, tell us that something has just happened. Those three little words are the bridge with what`s gone before… in other words, there`s a connection that we need to make.

And so when we read what`s gone before we see that (putting it simply), Jesus has just told his disciples that he`s on his way to Jerusalem for what we have come to call his `Passion`.

Jesus would, we`re told, “Undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And (then, notice) Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’

But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ (Matthew 16.21-23)

And then (just to make things worse) Jesus told them: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16.24)

My point is that Jesus has told them that he is about to lead them into uncharted territory… Jesus presents them with a scenario and a future they really hadn`t anticipated and over which they had no control at all… And this is the background to what happens next. I mean, whatever happened on that mountain; on that occasion we call “the Transfiguration”, it has something to do with bringing all of this home to them (and to us).

Because essentially, the Transfiguration has something to do with helping the disciples see that they were being drawn into something far bigger than they had imagined …. into processes over which they would have no control.. but in which they would play a part.

Now, of course, the Transfiguration is a moment that is laced with symbolism… not least the appearance of Moses and Elijah; which demonstrate that Jesus comes as the fulfilment of something that has been going on for a long time. In other words, Jesus will bring to completion all that the Lord promised through them….

And it`s almost as if Peter understands this bit… and so he rather pathetically wants to control it all by (metaphorically) capturing the moment on his smart-phone…. ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ But the disciples become a bit wobbly and anxious when they heard that voice: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ (Matthew 17.5) Peter was all very well-intentioned ……but totally out of his depth, wasn`t he?

And I think we know what this is about…. For example, those of us who had the temerity to stand up and say we think we`re called to ordained ministry soon learn we had no idea what we were thinking or where it would lead. And how often the same is true of a Marriage… We look on at those idealistic young couples and kindly think `They`ll learn`! And then there are the young parents who have no idea of how life-changing it will be to bring a new person into the world….. These are things you can`t legislate for; you can`t prepare for or anticipate… This is LIFE… and you can`t control it.

And my point is that there`s something in this Gospel passage which is telling us that the way of faith is very similar. We have to come to this same kind of realisation before we`ll understand what Christ is up to. This week marks the beginning of Lent. Of course, we`re quite free to let our lives go on just as before, with the same old assumptions, illusions and attitudes.

But over the coming weeks we`re being given an invitation to turn our thoughts to the journey Christ made to Jerusalem and the cross… and the events surrounding what we call his `Passion`. You see, those who bear the name Christian are called to go with him… To see ourselves as rather like those disciples on the mountain. In following Christ we launch into uncharted territory… Into a future we could never have anticipated and over which we will have no control at all…

As William Vanstone says: “The word `Passion` doesn`t mean exclusively or even primarily `pain`; it means dependence, exposure, waiting, being no longer in control of one`s own situation”. But the point is that over the coming weeks, as we enter into all that Christ endured we are invited to see that He is perhaps closest to us…. and we to him …..in those moments of passion. He is perhaps closest to us…. and we to him when rather than running away from our frailty into some illusion of control we embrace it, accept its truth and find the Lord there with us. It`s in moments like that, that Christ comes to us, as he did to the disciples. We`re told, “Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’”

 

Posted by: davidmwilmot | February 19, 2017

“Make something happen!”: The restless spirit

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine drew my attention to a job advertisement. A parish was looking for a new Vicar and he said, “I`d love to apply for this place but just look at what they say”. And sure enough, there at the bottom of the page were the words, “We want someone who`ll make things happen”.

Now the advertisement didn`t say what these `things` might be. Presumably it meant `anything`; as long as some-thing should happen. It was quite difficult to fathom. To begin with I wondered if it was perhaps a sign of panic or maybe this was a parish that was a bit restless; longing for the novel, the entertaining or different. But then rather sarcastically, I remembered that the caricature of many a parish is actually the desire to have it both ways… I mean: Make something happen but don`t change anything!

Anyway, whatever was going on, my friend didn`t apply for the post and in the meantime, those words have stayed with me. And the longer I reflect on them the more I`m convinced that they betray a basic misunderstanding of not just what Christian Ministry is about (what a Vicar is for) but more especially it gets what we might call `Christian spirituality` entirely the wrong way around.

In the final verse of our New Testament reading last week St. Paul told us, “For we are God’s servants, working together; (and) you are God’s field, God’s building”.(1 Corinthians 3:9) Elsewhere he tells us that we are “God`s work of art” (Ephesians 2.10) In other words, the accent is not on US but on what the Lord God is doing and the things that HE makes happen…. We are mere collaborators… we join in. And the thing that`s already happening is what Christ calls `the Kingdom`… the reign of God coming into being “on earth as in the heavens”. It`s this that Christ is talking about when he tells us all those parables isn`t it?

You see the parables are not just amusing little tales for children… they are invitations to look below the surface of things (again) to get a handle what`s already happening. So often in the scriptures the Lord says to us “Behold!” Look! And time and again Jesus calls us to be those who have “Ears to hear”. (Luke 8.8)

It strikes me as almost perverse that we should choose and prefer the ways of anxiety and control as opposed to patience and trust… but it seems that we always want evidence. We crave signs that something, anything is happening. Rather like the child who keeps digging up the seeds in the plant pot to see if anything`s growing…. We want to force the Lord`s hand; we`ll manufacture something; anything that looks as though something is happening.

If you have a rather `activist` spirit of course, this is the point where we want to protest that this is verging on what`s called `Quietism`; the spiritual equivalent of justifying doing nothing by saying “well, something is bound to turn up”. Others would say that it`s a failure to use our God-given talents as Jesus recommends in one of his more memorable parables. But I say again, we don`t make something happen… we are those who join in with what is already happening. And we can only make the `Godly` contribution at the right time and in the right way when we have cultivated that inner patience; and when we have become those whom the prophet Jeremiah says: “Have stood in the council of the Lord, so as to see and to hear his word” (Jeremiah 23.18)

I once called on an old lady who had on her mantelpiece a little card which read “Only a deep adoring silence can truly know God”. Quite so. This is where it begins. But where does this lead us? Well this morning`s Gospel reading places us at the feet of the Lord listening to what we call his Sermon on the Mount.

We had another ten verses of it this morning… and (as an aside) know I`ve often been tempted to read the whole thing out one Sunday morning… and then listen out for the complaints about the preacher! Well he did go on a bit, didn`t he?

But in these few verses, and indeed the whole sermon it does seem to me that we`re given some pretty clear guidance as to how to get in touch with what`s really happening… with the inbreaking of God`s reign on earth. And just as you sometimes hear people say “You`re on the right or the wrong side of history” (you`re either in tune with the way things are going, or not) if you want to get a handle on what the Lord God is doing and on where the momentum of his in-breaking kingdom lies, then just look at the words of our Gospel.

You see according to Christ, the Kingdom happens to you when you don`t resist evil; but instead take the way of non-violent generosity. The Kingdom happens to you when you refuse to withdraw into hate but love your enemies and pray for those with whom you are at odds. The Kingdom happens to you when you cross the boundaries others take for granted so as to welcome the strangers, feed the hungry and care for the sick. This is how you put yourself in touch with what the Lord God is doing. It really isn`t rocket science. If you want to really see something happen…. If you want a serious engagement with Christ then try doing as he says. Refuse to rationalise or make excuses for the teaching he gives in this Sermon… just do it.

It was G.K. Chesterton who once said that “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried”. And I`ve often looked at the Sermon on the Mount and thought there`s a distinct sense of “After you!” when it comes to Jesus` teaching. It`s as if we all stand back looking for one of us to go ahead and try these risky and subversive things out… “Love your enemies…? Oh, after you! No, after you!”

It seems we`d much rather wait around and admire from a distance the likes of a Francis of Assisi or a Mother Teresa and declare it all impossible for mortals such as us; …… forgetting that the only difference between them and us was their willingness to take Christ at his word.

O, and one other thing. It`s there in verse forty-five. We obey because we want to be quote, “children of (our) Father in heaven” (Matthew 5.45). “for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous”. We want to be chips off the old block… we want to be perfect as he is perfect. And this is when you start to see things happen. This is when you start to see the presence of the Kingdom; the new regime which Christ has set in train through his life death and resurrection.

You see the big question for the church today… and for congregations such as ours is not, “How can we be (what`s called) Missional?”. It`s not “How can we do more exciting things to get the numbers up?”… No in the end the only question that matters is, “How can we be more like God?”

In other words, how can we be the kind of people who reflect something of his lavish goodness, mercy and generosity to those around us… And especially to those beyond our comfortable social circle and income bracket and those who (by our humble estimation) least deserve it! It all begins here… in the quality of our common life… and in this common meal to which we, yes even we are invited.. We who are among those whom we might say, least deserve it.

As Bishop Tom Wright often says, “the significant thing about Jesus is that he didn`t give us a theory but a meal…” In other words, he majors on practical examples of what he means by the kingdom. Here is a visible sign of what God is doing… drawing together a disparate bunch such as us and labouring to form us into those he is proud to call his `body`. This is awesome stuff. Because, when Jesus says “Do this in remembrance of me” he`s not just talking about gathering for a meal such as this…. He saying let his self-giving, bridge building action give shape to our life together and the life we lead throughout the week. Do this and open your eyes. Do this and you`ll begin to see what`s happening.

Posted by: davidmwilmot | February 5, 2017

The University of Life- and the Mind of Christ

Like many of his generation my father did his National Service (as it was called) in the Royal Air Force. He used to tell the story of how one day someone stole his towel. When he complained to the officer in charge he was told, “Well go and steal someone else`s then”. I suppose we`ve all come across examples of home-spun wisdom like that. Maybe like me you`ll recall hearing parents say to their crying children… “Well if he hit you… go and hit Him back” and so on….

It`s interesting that after a while we come to make a bit of a virtue out of this kind of thing by referring to it as the `University of life`; we wear the badge of experience and endurance with a certain amount of pride because after all we`ve learned the tricks of how to negotiate life`s challenges.

And attitudes like this are reinforced somewhat by the culture we live in. What I mean is that we learn to relate to one another by following the collective cultural wisdom. One example is the way in which, back in the 1980`s the mechanism that was called the free Market became so prominent.

Ever since then it seems that our attitudes and the way we relate to one another have to a large extent been formed by what are `market values`. There`s hardly any sphere of life that hasn`t been touched by this ideology. We`re now all referred to as `customers` aren`t we… A word which implies that some kind of `transaction` has taken place even when money isn`t involved. Again, measurement and cost-effectiveness are the kind of things we nowadays take for granted and we have begun to use them as moral benchmarks.

Even in our own primary school (a primary school no less!) one of the desired outcomes of education is that a child should be on the way to `Economic Well-being`; we`re told that we should be able to detect the `Value added` to the pupil as a consequence of their attending the school. Again, the point is that these words, these `monetary` words are in subtle ways forming our understanding of education.

A similar phenomenon is the way we have somewhat uncritically and unthinkingly adopted `business models` of relating to one another… Its language is everywhere isn`t it? Personnel (which used to mean `people`) has morphed into `human resources` This change of words is descriptive of how human beings are to be thought of; as serving some bigger mechanism. And the word `management` appears in every other sentence.

So it`s no surprise then that the great heroes of the day; (at least that`s how many like to think of themselves) are the so-called `captains` of industry. I don`t for a moment decry the abilities of many and the wealth they have created. I`m pointing to the cultural position they hold; and the mores they live by…. which in many subtle and not so subtle ways have come to provide the cultural lens through which we so easily observe the world and map out our part in it. This is especially true of our young people. I mean, if I hear one more child tell me that they are keen to achieve their `goals` I think I`m going to weep.

But this particular lens, this way of seeing the world is of course entirely false. These mantras drawn from the university of hard knocks or adapted from a market driven view of the world might help us cope but they won`t lead to human flourishing…. On the contrary, this is what St. Paul has in mind when he tells us this morning of `human wisdom`.

And his big alternative is also there in that letter to the Church in Corinth. Paul says “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified”. (1 Cor. 2.2) Elsewhere he refers to Christ as “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor.1.24) and he`s essentially telling us that Christ has become for him the only true lens through which to view the world and map his part in it.

You see Christ and his cross is a wisdom that also has the capacity to form and shape our ways of relating to one another and our behaviour. It forms and shapes us in ways that demonstrate that we as Christian people have a different centre… and a different allegiance.

And Paul is quite clear that such a different way of living in the world, such an alternative; putting on what he refers to as `the mind of Christ` (1 Cor. 2.16) (and let`s not beat around the bush) is entirely stupid in the eyes of anyone who cares to watch what we get up to. But he stands his ground and says: “We have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God”. (1 Cor.2.12) So, how does this come about?

I mean, if we`re going to leave behind pragmatic responses such as “You hit me, I hit you”; “You scratch my back, I`ll scratch yours”… And if we`re not to be sucked into a money driven culture which to coin the phrase knows `the cost of everything and the value of nothing`.. then what does this alternative look like? Well let me make two observations;

Firstly, notice again that Paul says: “We have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God”. My point is that we can`t get away from the conclusion that we are talking here about the transforming work of God. You can try paddling your own canoe through life if you want; but that is in itself (as Paul put it) to receive the `spirit of the world`…… it`s an attempt live by worldly wisdom (“I did it my way`).

But Jesus offers a very different challenge in this morning`s Gospel reading. He sets the bar very high….. He says, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5.20) Jesus knows that the biggest problem with worldly wisdom is that it always has its limits. Such is it`s confusion we might note that person who is lauded as someone who would `do anything for anyone` is at one and the same time quite content to steal someone else`s towel when theirs had gone missing.

You see worldly wisdom is a short cut. The one thing it can`t deal with is what motivates and drives us; it can`t change how we think. The world doesn`t understand all that peculiar stuff about turning the other cheek, loving your enemies, going the extra mile, forgiving seventy-times-seven and all the rest. But living out these challenging teachings IS part of what Christ has in mind for his people…. These are not nice sentiments or vague ideals and what`s needed is a work of God… It`s what a colleague of mine called `Heart surgery`.

Or to put it another way, some years ago, I remember a Bishop speaking with some children about the difference Jesus makes and he told them simply… “It`s about being made clean on the inside”. This is both the challenge and the gift of Christ.

Secondly, as I say, Paul seems to be pointing us to the cross. He says: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2.2). He seems to be saying that something begins to happen when you refuse to look at the world and your place in it through the lens of either home-spun wisdom or market ideology… and instead look at the cross. So, what pointers for living do we find there?

Well Paul provides a purple passage in his letter to the Philippians. He wants to change their behaviour towards one another… And he says: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others”. That`s all fair and reasonable you might think: But it`s not about being nice to one another- so much as extraordinarily nice to one another! `Christ-like` to one another.

No, their model should be Christ and his cross…. He says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. (Philippians 2.4-8)

My annual invitation to think very seriously about sitting in front of the cross particularly on Good Friday, seems to get earlier every year. But the point is that something happens when you gaze on the cross. You begin to see your life; you begin to have your life re-shaped when you see all things through the lens of the cross.

We will reflect on the cross quite a lot during Lent.  You`ll be signed with it on Ash Wednesday… You`ll receive your Palm Cross some weeks later. We`ll set up a cross here on Good Friday….

Why? Because these things remind us that what distinguishes the Christian, what distinguishes the Church is living a life that is cross-shaped. We live a life that is formed, not by pragmatism; by whatever I need to get by or so as to get ahead of the next person. We live a life that is formed not by home-spun wisdom or the prevailing culture but by Christ and his way of reflecting the life of God.

You are a Christian… you are HIS…“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2.5)

 

Some while ago I was asked if I would conduct what amounted to a sort of `Memorial service`. That was of course, perfectly OK until I was told… well, “But we want a sort of `hybrid` service really… not especially religious”. I`m actually starting to get quite a lot of this and I`m not moaning or belittling it in any way; I mean, the level of understanding that people have about faith is often pretty low and confused.

No, the difficulty I have… (besides an aversion to being considered as the go-to person when you have a vaguely religious project….) is that when you try to explain that actually one represents a very particular tradition (ie: Christianity) some people`s automatic response is to accuse you of intolerance or inflexibility and so you have to tread very carefully. And my particular misgiving, if I could put it like that, is the way that on these sorts of occasions you often find texts from Scripture being used in a `hybrid` sort of way. That is to say, passages from `our Bible` (let`s tell it like it is) are often lifted out of their context so as to fulfil a purpose and convey a meaning for which they weren`t actually intended.

One typical example is 1 Corinthians 13 – where St. Paul offers his reflections on love. It`s frequently heard at weddings; which is fair enough… but I`ve often had requests to edit the passage so that it sounds… shall we say, a bit more romantic! In other words, rather than be challenged and questioned by its actual meaning… we want to impose our own upon it.

Another text which springs to mind and another victim of this `hybrid` approach is this morning`s Gospel Reading…. what are called the `Beatitudes`. (Matthew 5.1-12) These wonderful verses, when you lift them out of their context… Oh yes, and embellish them with the beauty of the King James Version of the Bible very quickly come to resemble little more than `poetry`… They come across as wonderfully fine sentiments and ancient wisdom… Not that we necessarily understand it mind! And they fit the bill because they sound so…. `spiritual`.

And so it goes… and this of course is not just a miss-use of the text it`s also an abuse of Christ himself. Because in this hybrid context Jesus assumes the mantle of a fine religious teacher…. Set alongside several others we might want to mention….. something a little less than the son of God. The upshot is that your Memorial Service or whatever it is can then carry the meaning you want it to have… And it has the tone and character which typifies so much of what we might call `civic` religion …by which one means, somewhat bland, sentimental, intellectually and spiritually confused and most certainly and importantly, inoffensive….

OK, that`s my `rant` over with but what I`m driving at is that there has always been a tendency to look at the Sermon on the Mount and in particular the Beatitudes in this sort of way. Come to think of it, it`s similar to the way we treat the Ten Commandments. We like to think of them as somewhat timeless ethical principles which are applicable and adaptable to any human circumstances…. We lift them out of Scripture all the while forgetting that they are words which reflect a specific community`s relationship with the Lord and they`re inseparable from a life lived in obedience to him; because they are `the people of God`. In other words, they don`t really make sense unless you bow the knee to the God of Israel.

And again, the same thing happens when we separate the beatitudes off from the wider teaching and purpose of Christ…. When you treat them as some kind of pretty religious text alongside others Jesus quickly becomes simply the pedlar of timeless ethical principles… a shadow of himself. So this means that if we`re going to understand the Beatitudes…. And more importantly `live them` then we`re going to have to see them as all of a piece with his wider teaching about the in-breaking of what he calls the Kingdom of God.

You have to remember that Jesus is talking about a whole new way of being a world…! It really doesn`t get bigger than that. And I want to suggest that there are two particular ways in which to get hold of what Christ is saying in this most beautiful and memorable passage.

Firstly, I think we`re talking about God`s blessing on the un-blessable. Again, Christ is announcing the inbreaking of God`s reign… and the point is that the `Blessings` of this Kingdom are available to ALL; whatever their circumstance or condition. So the `poor in Spirit…` and the others who get mentioned are `blessed` not because they are poor in spirit and so on… but because the Kingdom is available EVEN to the poor in spirit. So Christ is not teaching us HOW to get blessed (as if we need to work up a bit of meekness today!). We`re not being instructed to do anything and neither is he describing any particular condition that is especially pleasing to God. No, he`s using contemporary examples…. many of which we recognise; and saying “Yes, even THESE are the blessed of God”.

So even we, irrespective of what we think of ourselves (or how others assess us) are the `Blessed of God`… Because God`s heavens are opened to us. So your homework for today is to go home and write some beatitudes yourself. Where would you begin I wonder? “Blessed are the unemployed… Blessed are the overemployed… Blessed are those who get pregnant too much… Blessed are those who can`t get pregnant at all…” “Blessed are the fat, the thin…. Blessed are the smelly, the bewildered and forgetful….” It`s a list that goes on and which, yes, contradicts OUR understanding of blessedness. But if you can think of anyone you wouldn`t include on the list then you haven`t understood what Christ is saying about the in-breaking grace of God. Again, His blessing is for the un-bless-able… Heaven is open to those we would perhaps naturally exclude.

The second way of getting hold of Christ`s teaching is to see the Beatitudes as what I want to call `the shape of Christian life`- call it discipleship, if you want. It`s often seemed to me that the kind of qualities Christ speaks of are the kind of things you see happening in the life of the one who seeks to follow Christ… In other words, you spend time in his company and this is the kind of person you become …….almost in spite of yourself.

What I mean is that for example, far from being spiritually competent and superior your actual experience is the opposite- poverty of Spirit. As John the Baptist said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3.30) There`s nothing here to flatter our pride! And so you learn what it is to mourn for your lost innocence… and to weep over the way the world is going. You wrestle with and find yourself called to exercise mercy… or become a peacemaker and so on.

It`s almost as if Christ is holding up a sort of brochure description of what lies in wait for those who come with him…. We don`t like it I think because so many of them have the tinge of what we naturally consider `God-forsakenness` but on the contrary; in these things (when this is your experience) he is probably never closer… and that`s the point. As a picture to take away with you I would invite you to ponder the Old Testament Reading this morning…. We heard about the rogue Jacob. He was on the run from defrauding his brother and he fell asleep by the roadside with a stone for a pillow.

Jacob has a dream of the Heavens opening and we`re told, “Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’” (Gen 28.16-17) Just notice those words…. ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’

I want to suggest that these words sum up our condition perfectly. The Lord is IN this place, this life, this experience…. It`s THIS place, this life, this experience that is the gate of heaven… but in my blindness I don`t see it. In my restless running on to the next thing I miss it. But the Beatitudes teach us that God is where you are right now. You don`t need to be somewhere else… You don`t need to BE anyone else. Where you ARE is the doorway to heaven (the presence of God).

YOU are the Blessed of God…. You may need to move on from some particularly difficult circumstance but don`t think that by doing so you will get any closer to him nor he to you. YOU are the Blessed of God…. Whatever you think of yourself and no matter how others feel about you… It`s just rather challenging that Jesus thinks those `others` that we don`t like very much are also blessed. And it`s hard to be told that what we regard as `downward` mobility is actually `just the way it is` for authentic faith. But I guess we`ll just have to get used to it.

Posted by: davidmwilmot | January 22, 2017

`Missional Anxiety` and the gift of Patience

“Are we nearly there yet?” It`s the question often heard from the back seat of the car during one of those journeys that seem to take forever.…..In my experience it ranks alongside going into the kitchen and asking, “Mum, what`s for tea?” And you get the reply ”Wait and see!”. I don`t know about you but I was always being told that waiting was good for me…. But it didn`t seem so at the time and I really didn`t like being told “Patience is a virtue”. But things change and I`ve been thinking that those are four words you rarely hear these days. It`s almost as if virtue is to be found in quite the opposite. People will compliment themselves on NOT having to be patient.

So often it would seem that sharp elbows are the order of the day; “Oh, I haven’t got time for that”… we say…. and irritation or lack of patience for instance, behind the wheel of the car seems endemic. We`re even accustomed to the experience of what`s called `trolley-rage` as the supermarket queue becomes ever more competitive and impatient. So much for the British enjoying a good queue! No, today`s virtue, if that`s what we should call it is in having sufficient clout so that we don`t have to be patient.

Beneath it all we would rather congratulate ourselves on our ability to get in first, to have it all right now; at a time and a place that`s convenient for me. Never mind that those `others` (usually the less well-off) will have to wait; because they can`t influence things in their favour…. For them, `patience` is enforced; it`s a fact of life. And to cap it all (so that we don`t appear to brazen!) I suspect that being impatient is rather like consumerism… We like to think of it as someone else`s problem. Mostly we`re keen to convince ourselves that although we have our `moments` we`re on the whole pretty reasonable people.

And so it goes… But if you were a Christian in the first couple of centuries you would think rather differently. Putting it very simply Patience is what made the Christian stand out in those days and I want to suggest it`s ready to make a comeback.No, in those days Patience would have been pretty high on your list of things you really had to wrestle with….. because as one Christian writer put it, “It is the virtue which is peculiarly ours`. (St Gregory)

It is after all, as Scripture tells us, one of the gifts which the Holy Spirit brings into the life of the Christian (Gal 5.22) and in his famous passage to the Corinthians St. Paul begins by saying “Love is patient…and kind” (1 Cor 13.1) but for the early church it was simply the paramount virtue…. THE thing you looked for in a Christian.

You see, the first Christians took the Gospel of Matthew, and in particular the Sermon on the Mount, very seriously indeed. They saw it as their calling to quite literally `embody` the teaching of Jesus. (Matthew 7.21) So if you weren`t `doing` what he taught you then you were frankly missing the point. Jesus taught us: ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.

So this is why Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage wrote, “We do not speak great things but we live them” and the Church of his day took up the challenge of making their faith visible and tangible to others… of seeking an integrity in their way of life…. and who can say this isn`t needed today? But why would they focus on patience?

Well firstly, because patience reveals the character and nature of God. When Jesus told us, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” remember the reason he gave….? It was “So that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous”. (Matthew 5.43-45) In other words, the God whom we worship patiently endures the ungrateful and greedy and hopes patiently to draw them to himself….. So by our patience we`re reveal ourselves to be a `chip off the old block`.

Secondly, they recalled that in his dealings with the people of Israel, the Lord had never been in a hurry. On the contrary His commitment and his desire for them is always unhurried and unstoppable… This patience is clearly seen in the life and ministry of Christ who took a totally different path from that of power and control and force. And so again, when this God calls and forms a people, what matters is that we embody and reflect something of this in our character and behaviour. The early church of course, was in a state of almost constant persecution and so they had ample opportunity to exercise patience with their accusers, slanderers and torturers. The point is that patience became instinctive. But again, how about us?

They drew strength from the Lord`s promise to `inscribe his laws on our hearts`. So, when they heard Jesus say, “Do not kill… love your neighbour as yourself… and to the one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also” they instinctively did it. They were instinctively non-violent. Their patience meant that for example, they would come to terms with their adversary rather than take the speedy route of killing them….

You see, in all of this they teach us that patience gives the believer freedom… I mean how many of our angst-ridden moments each day are really like that because we think we need to be in control? But the patient Christian doesn`t have to force or manipulate anything; we don`t have to rush because we move at the Lord`s pace and we have no concern for the future or the present incompleteness of things because God is patiently working his purposes out.

The impatient spirit regards this as a recipe for doing nothing… but that misses the point. The call to patience is an invitation to live with the truth that we can`t see things in their totality… and there are Godly things going on which we do not control or fully understand. As Pope Francis says “We are impatient, anxious to see the whole picture but God lets us see things slowly, quietly. The Church has to learn how to wait”.

And this is what Christ shows us when he so often frames the life of the Kingdom of God using horticultural or botanical pictures. He speaks of seeds growing secretly, of farmers sowing in the hope of growth… and yes, of huge yields but again, it`s growth that calls for patience and a degree of insight which we so often don`t have the patience to cultivate….

I mean, parents here know what it`s like to watch our offspring make all manner of choices about which we may have misgivings… We know how hard patience can be. It`s good then to reflect on how patient the Lord is with us. How patient he is with our refusal to see that patience puts everything on a bigger horizon… helps us to discern what matters eternally…. And creates space for different processes to come into play.

This is why patience is the hallmark of mission. Because patience gives the non-believer freedom as well. Freedom from our attempts to compel or harass or convert them! The freedom to respond or not to the Lord`s patient still small voice…

But this is where what I often refer to as `Missional Anxiety` comes into play. Our im-patience leads to a desire for the quick fix. We haven`t got the time or patience to discern or wait for `God`s moment` with a person…. Or for what used to be called “the cure of souls”. That`s another phrase you don`t hear very much today. But the question we might like to ponder is: “If the first Christians are right then what does a Patient Church (or indeed a patient Christian) look like?”

I`m putting all of this before us not just as another exhortation… “The Vicar says we need to be more patient!” and so on. That might be true but I hope it`s more than that….I mean this is serious stuff. Hardly a day goes by without us hearing some angst-ridden conversation about the pace of life. All around us people are obsessed by articles about lifestyle and so on. Think of our children and grandchildren; far from being allowed to grow and play they are being impatiently driven and coached within an inch of their lives! Impatient with our elderly we hide them out of sight or encourage them to take the quick way out by visiting a clinic in Switzerland.

People ARE looking for an alternative…. But too often the alternatives placed before them … and often the ones they are inclined to choose are frankly dross…. Attempts to cope in an impatient world. It`s just sticking plaster really. People ARE looking for an alternative…. But all too often they don`t think WE can offer one. And all the while, the first Christians would say that patience is the secret of being a truly alternative community for the world.

They would say that this is the secret of being missional… of getting caught up in God`s patient mission. Basically because such an alternative is very attractive….. So all of this calls, I would suggest for a listening to ourselves and a serious contemplation of the utter patience of God with you…. (with us) What would it be like to be formed and re-shaped by that so as to become a chip off the old block?

Pray for the grace of patience…

Posted by: davidmwilmot | January 16, 2017

What can you tell me about Jesus?

One of the things I`m often privileged to do is to speak with some of those people who for a range of often fascinating reasons have a sense that the Lord might be calling them to serve in the Ordained Ministry… and to perhaps become a Vicar. This is always a very rewarding and often stretching thing to do. But right at the beginning I always say to these folks, very simply, “What would you like to tell me about Jesus?”.

I want this morning to ask how YOU would respond to that invitation? Not because there might be some expectation that you would like to start wearing a strange collar or indeed funny frocks….! But because it has always seemed to me that this is just one of those fundamental questions and the answer we give tells us a great deal about whether we really `get it` as far as faith is concerned.

It might be easiest to begin with some basic factual stuff like, “Well, he was born in Bethlehem” or “He died on Good Friday” and so on. But what might be far more interesting (and what I would actually be looking for) is what you have discovered about him? What you have come to know about him from your everyday experience? Your everyday interaction with him? In other words… “What`s he LIKE?”

Now, let me say at the outset, I`m not really very comfortable with that phrase which is often bandied about where people talk of having quote, “A personal relationship” with Jesus. Not because there isn`t some truth in it. but because it seems a bit too buttoned-down; a bit too neat and tidy for my liking. I mean, I have `personal` relationships with a lot of people but even the most intimate of them have a distinct sense of space about them; a sense of “There`s much more to discover here”.

But having said that there`s I don`t think we can avoid the fact that the Gospel writers (and especially St. John) regard the Christian faith as somehow being drawn into what we might call “friendship” with Jesus. I want to suggest that this is how the stories about Jesus and his disciples tend to `work` for us. On the one hand the disciples act as a model for us to follow… and on the other their encounters with Jesus and the accounts of what it was like being in his company are there to help us spot the signs of his presence with us in the here and now.

This I think, is why the Gospel reading we`ve just heard is so important and helpful. (John 1.29-42) Today we heard about John the Baptist. John, of course knows the correct theology…. He calls Jesus, “The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”…. He can tell you ABOUT Jesus….

But notice, things get really interesting when he starts to describe in some detail how that theological truth was fleshed out; how it was all brought home to him as he actually met up with Jesus. It`s quite a simple point really. He moves from the theory to the personal and this I`m suggesting is the journey we all have to make.

One way of getting hold of this is to use your imagination a little. You see I sense that quite candidly, a lot depends on how far we`ve allowed our imagination to be switched off or whether we will allow ourselves to be drawn into `Bible moments` like these.

Think of that moment where …. `Jesus turns and looks at these young men following him and he says: “What are you looking for?” SO much depends on whether we`re willing to allow questions like that (and there are SO many of them in the Gospels!) to as it were leap off the page and speak directly to US. If we would just take a moment to register what happens (inside) when you imagine yourself as it were `trolling` along after him and he turns and says to you ….. “What are you looking for?”

Like the first disciples you say, “Where are you staying?” or “How can I find you?” But what then does it do to your understanding of faith when you find yourself mixed up with a God who says, “Well, come and See”? In other words, “I have so much more to show you….”

What does it feel like to live with a God who`s permanent demeanour is one of `invitation`; invitation into his company- invitation into the fullness of life? Because THIS I would suggest is what we find in Jesus. That`s what this Gospel passage teaches us about authentic faith.

The snag, I would humbly suggest, is that this often DOESN`T happen for us because we`ve been poorly taught or again, because our imagination has been switched off. The upshot is that a lot of us are effectively what we call `Theists` rather than `Christians`. What I mean by that is that we might assent to the idea of `God` but when you unpack that what you mostly discover is a certain distance; a working assumption that I just have to get on with it and maybe I can call on divine assistance when required…. A sort of heavenly version of the AA! (Other roadside assistance companies are available)

So what you end up with is a life tinged with a sort of `tentative` optimism that as so many folk say, “I just hope there`s someone looking down on me”. An outlook which for the Christian, is just plain wrong on so many levels. I mean as a description of faith it barely gets past the starting blocks.

And it`s fundamentally wrong because essentially we haven`t allowed ourselves to be overtaken by the sheer wonder and excitement in John the Baptist`s voice…. We`re told, “He exclaimed, `Look, here is the lamb of God!`” John the Baptist does his job… He points us to Jesus…

Again, switch on your imagination….. This Gospel passage invites us to see OURSELVES as those two disciples who “Heard him say this… and followed Jesus”. Then to see OURSELVES as those who have had him ask us about our true desires; and as those who are being invited to keep company with him.

That`s it isn`t it…? Just reflect for a moment on that delightful little scene. “They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon”. (John 1.39) Afternoon tea with Jesus…..!

For those young men, it was of course, just a beginning… They would follow him all the way to the cross and beyond….. But it`s a beginning (it`s a journey) we ALL need to make. It begins when you move from vague theism to encounter with the God who is `with us` in Christ Jesus.

So, “What would you tell me about Jesus?” What have you learned in all these years from keeping company with him? Pray with that today.

The thing to remember is that this isn`t a question designed to induce guilt over what you haven`t discovered… It`s an invitation to discover more. An invitation to let faith begin in the right place… with Jesus; and then each day keep company with him… to the Cross and beyond.

Posted by: davidmwilmot | December 13, 2016

Disappointed in God: misplaced expectations

I`ve been in several conversations recently where I`ve had to listen as someone has made all manner of disparaging remarks about their husband or wife…. Attempting to diffuse the unpleasantness I couldn`t help saying “Well, you wouldn`t have said that on your wedding day, would you?” … and we all know that the answer is “Of course not” …Again, you try to be light-hearted about it all but from the tone of their comments you begin to wonder what they ever saw in one another!

Now, perhaps it`s just a matter of the years taking the shine off things… but deep down I wonder if it boils down to a matter of miss-placed expectations. And this is why I`m often suggesting to young couples that reflecting together on what they expect of one another and their future life is a good thing to do… It`s not just so as to avoid disappointment! This, it seems to me is a very good exercise in mutual self-awareness …

And paradoxically, this why tensions can often be good…. Because they`re moments when many misplaced expectations can come to light and be dealt with. After all the world tells us that “Love is blind” but we know this is a lie. It`s `infatuation` that is blind… because love is only really possible when the truth is present and when all the illusions are dispensed with. So, maturing in love means being open to discovering much more about yourself and the other.

And what I`m saying is that basically it`s the `much more` (the richness and the uniqueness of the other) that gets obscured by the assumptions and expectations that we bring to the party. Those assumptions and expectations about our wife, husband or friend which again, frequently prove to be unwarranted or unreasonable…. I`m not really talking about those huge matters like the bride who rang me a few weeks after the wedding to tell me that her new husband hadn`t told her about the twenty thousand pounds` worth of debt that he was in…No, it`s often the smaller things that get in the way. The things like …. “Of course, he`ll do all the DIY in the house… I mean, My Dad did!” … or “Of course she`ll be great at housekeeping… just like my Mum was” …

In other words, it`s the failure to check out this mundane kind of baggage, the unwarranted assumptions which (if they don`t lead a couple to the divorce courts) most often breed what we might call a sort of `undercurrent` of dissatisfaction or disappointment… And we see a steady slide from… “I was so sure he was Mr. Right… I was convinced she was the one for me… “to “But I never bargained for this…. I`d better trade them in for a better model…” Or “After all these years, I suppose I`ll just have to `make do`….” And all the while the invitation is there to drop our assumptions and get to know something of the one you have REALLY married….

Now, I don`t want to make light of any of this I just want to use this as a way of illustrating something else that I observe in quite a few people: An undercurrent of dissatisfaction or disappointment ……with God.

It`s John the Baptist who acts as our Biblical example of this. In this morning`s Gospel reading he is languishing in prison because he had the temerity to question King Herod`s morals. Herod had married his brother`s wife… and John didn`t mince his words…. But there from his prison cell John sends messengers to Jesus with a question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11.3)

And to some extent this is surprising. We`re left thinking…. “What happened to that high point of Jesus`s Baptism where nobody could be in any doubt about who Jesus is and what would be his vocation…?”. Because there in prison; (now the wedding celebrations are over!) John was beginning to re-examine his assumptions about Jesus. It looks very much as though John had heard something. We`re not told precisely what this was but it was clearly a bit of gossip about Jesus that worried John…. and whatever it was it didn`t fit in with what John expected of Jesus.

It might have had something to do with the contrast people themselves drew between the `hair shirt` ministry of John and the Jesus they all accused of being a bit of a `party-animal`. Perhaps Jesus`s different approach left John feeling betrayed? I mean, when we have assumptions and expectations about others their unpredicted behaviour seems a bit like that doesn`t it? (“After all I`ve done for you!” we say).

Well, in those kind of situations, what`s needed is some personal contact rather than gossip. We need a chance to clear the air and put the record straight. And this, within limits is what John tries to do. “Are you the one…?” he asks through his disciples. And the honesty of the question gives Jesus the opportunity to put John straight. Jesus has a word for John…. A word in which he invites him to see things differently.

And here`s the thing. In the same way, Jesus has a word for us but often we don`t get it because we`re effectively imprisoned by our undercurrent of dissatisfaction or disappointment with God. Part of the problem is that we haven`t realised how far (like John) we`re operating on `hearsay` notions of God rather than a first-hand encounter with him. Many of us, I would suggest, have never realised that there`s a conversation to be had. Perhaps we`ve never picked up the habit of engaging with the Lord in the Scriptures and through the Psalms…. where people are constantly wrestling with God… and having their illusions and expectations addressed and re-shaped?

We simply don`t draw enough on our Jewish heritage, where for example, in the Book of Genesis, we`re told that Jacob was given the new name `Israel` because he was one who had `strived with God …. ` (Genesis 32.28) Basically, it was a relationship that took effort; and if truth be told, it was an encounter which left him with his hip put out of joint….!

But doesn`t this give us a sense of what engaging with the Lord is like….? Like the couples who give up because they`ve had their first argument, far too many of us think we`re failing in faith because we`re cross with the Lord……! Because we`re perplexed or whatever. But on the contrary, THIS is where it gets interesting!

I mean doesn`t this picture point to the same kind of effort being required of us? Doesn`t this picture invite us to engage with faith with the same kind of passion and rigour and willingness to be stretched? Even if it means allowing the Christ whom we meet in the scriptures to disabuse us of our hearsay assumptions and expectations of him.…. And instead learning to listen with the prospect of being surprised. And this of course is what Jesus offered John.

He asked John`s disciples to report on what they saw. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’ (Matthew 11.4-6) Each of these things Jesus spoke of as evidence of his mission amounted to a description of God`s promise of Jubilee. The point is that they were signs that went beyond the personal repentance John was preaching and embraced national renewal. It was a much bigger vision than John had preached.

You see, whereas John envisaged Jesus pursuing a similar agenda to himself, based on the fiery prophet Elijah… Jesus took up the mantle of Isaiah; the one who spoke of the restoration that would follow the judgement. In other words, there was more to Jesus`s ministry than John had envisaged… And maybe this is our Advent message this morning. Just as our relationships with those nearest to us need shaking up every so often… So too with our faith.

We might like to ask… “How far do we live out of second-hand notions of God… things we`ve heard from others as opposed to first-hand encounter?” What assumptions and expectations do we have of Christ? Does he disappoint us? Do we feel let down by him in any way? What unwarranted assumptions have we been living with….? Let`s take a moment to tell him…. Then imagine what he says to you….

 

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »

Categories