Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Quiet Day : part 3

‘Yahweh & the Seraphim’ Quiet Day: Session Three

The ‘Yahweh & the Seraphim’ Quiet Day at Sunderland Minster took the form of three sessions. Each began with listening to a reflection on a passage from the Bible. This was followed in the first and third session with space to respond individually: in reading the passage and the reflection, praying, journaling, drawing; or looking at the sculpture from different angles, or through coloured lenses, or binoculars. In the second session we took the different approach of group discussion.

The sessions build one on another; depend on simplicity and space; and come with the health warning that they might bring to the surface any manner of things between you and God, including deep things. So the space is to be held as holy ground, and with the possibility to discuss anything with me – as the facilitator – in confidence. As several people expressed an interest but could not attend, now that it has taken place I am posting the reflections, with a link to the Scripture stories they relate to.


Reflection on Isaiah 6

The God who reveals himself at the foot of the mountain. The same God, who conceals himself on the mountain. And now, at last, the Seraphs.

By this time, God has descended the mountain that lies beyond the wilderness, journeyed with his people on their long wanderings in that in-between place, and eventually ascended another mountain – Mount Zion, the ridge above Jerusalem. Here, God allowed Solomon to build him a temple, an anchor-point between earth and heaven. And here, Isaiah finds himself with his feet on earth but his eyes opened to the heavenly realm.

The scale is so vast that the hem of God’s robe fills the earthly temple. All else is beyond sight, beyond imagination. Six-winged Seraphs stand in attendance before him, calling out to one another, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’

The whole earth. Egypt. The wilderness. The Promised Land. The far-off places of future exile.

And Isaiah is undone. He is lost. Before this global glory, he cannot position himself anywhere. He is lost; and so are his people. God’s people.

It is one of the seraphs who approaches him first, just as it was an angel who initially caught Moses’ eye. An intermediary between God and humans. And just as the bush beyond the wilderness blazed with fire without being burned, so the utterly lost Isaiah is touched with fire and not defaced, not erased. Instead, he too is set-apart for a holy purpose.

And like Moses, after the angel, then and only then the voice of God. But this time, God does not address Isaiah directly; instead, Isaiah overhears a conversation God is having with his heavenly council. ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Moses said, ‘Here I am.’ Isaiah says ‘Here am I’ – ‘Here am I; send me!’

Here I am, present before you, God, if somewhat unconvinced. Here am I, available to you, quite convinced if lacking understanding of what will be involved.

Here I am. Here am I. The movement from walking by sight to walking by faith. From revelation into mystery.

God instructs Isaiah what he is to say: declaring, ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Indeed, Isaiah is to facilitate the people’s persistent lack of understanding by means of eyes and ears and minds.

Which begins with Isaiah himself, who cannot comprehend and asks, ‘How long, O Lord?’ How long? Until nothing that stands remains standing.

What is this strange word? Perhaps it is this: not that God does not want to heal his people, but that the way of understanding is not the way by which he has chosen for us to arrive there.

God could have led the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land in two weeks, but chose to take them on a forty-year detour. To whom ought God give account for his reasons?

We have moved from revelation to mystery, and now to the two held in paradox: keep listening, keep looking, for revelation – but don’t mistake it for knowing God. Instead, let it draw you further into the mystery of Love that is God – especially when you are tempted to give in. For no-one was ever healed by what they knew about God, but rather by experiencing God, whose hem alone we might just get to see.


Quiet Day : part 2

‘Yahweh & the Seraphim’ Quiet Day: Session Two

The ‘Yahweh & the Seraphim’ Quiet Day at Sunderland Minster took the form of three sessions. Each began with listening to a reflection on a passage from the Bible. This was followed in the first and third session with space to respond individually: in reading the passage and the reflection, praying, journaling, drawing; or looking at the sculpture from different angles, or through coloured lenses, or binoculars. In the second session we took the different approach of group discussion.

The sessions build one on another; depend on simplicity and space; and come with the health warning that they might bring to the surface any manner of things between you and God, including deep things. So the space is to be held as holy ground, and with the possibility to discuss anything with me – as the facilitator – in confidence. As several people expressed an interest but could not attend, now that it has taken place I am posting the reflections, with a link to the Scripture stories they relate to.


Reflection on Exodus 19 & 20

The first time Moses meets God, it is in blazing light at the foot of the mountain. This time, it is on the mountain itself, in a dense cloud, the mountain wrapped in smoke; and in time, the encounter moves into thick darkness.

The movement is from seen to unseen.

The movement is not from mystery to greater revelation, but from revelation to greater mystery. This is as true for the New Testament, which moves from the Incarnation (seen) to the Ascension (unseen – blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe), as it is for the Old Testament. The purpose is not that we get to know God better, but that we open ourselves more fully to love, growing to trust the God we can only ever know a little, better.

God draws close. But there are limits to how close humans can get to God, and live.

God speaks, and gives words. Words that will be cut into stone, just as the sides of the mountain itself are carved in ridges and gullies, hiding places in which to shelter and outcrops from which to survey the people spread out below, at least when the cloud has lifted.

God cannot be known, only loved. Cannot be possessed, only entered-into. Stepping into the thick darkness, trusting that there will be solid ground beneath your feet. One cannot prove or measure God before putting one’s trust in him.

The words are given for us to enter-into, in trust. They do not, for example, list wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, nor offer any explanation as to why you shall not make wrongful use. Instead, they draw us further into mystery. What might happen, if we dare to remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy? What might happen, if we dare to not covet? The people respond to this degree of un-knowing with unholy fear: Moses exhorts them, ‘Do not be afraid.’

This is the way of living with God in our midst. Reverently. Aware of our God-honoured limitations, and of God’s steadfast love.

The words, the mountain, the darkness all point to something more. To the unutterable. Untouchable. To super-saturated light in which we are blind and yet aware that we are not left alone. For God has come down to us.

And we are called to come up the mountain.


Quiet Day : part 1

‘Yahweh & the Seraphim’ Quiet Day: Session One

The ‘Yahweh & the Seraphim’ Quiet Day at Sunderland Minster took the form of three sessions. Each began with listening to a reflection on a passage from the Bible. This was followed in the first and third session with space to respond individually: in reading the passage and the reflection, praying, journaling, drawing; or looking at the sculpture from different angles, or through coloured lenses, or binoculars. In the second session we took the different approach of group discussion.

The sessions build one on another; depend on simplicity and space; and come with the health warning that they might bring to the surface any manner of things between you and God, including deep things. So the space is to be held as holy ground, and with the possibility to discuss anything with me – as the facilitator – in confidence. As several people expressed an interest but could not attend, now that it has taken place I am posting the reflections, with a link to the Scripture stories they relate to.


Reflection on Exodus 3

The last thing Moses wants is to be found. He is, after all, a fugitive on the run. He has made a new life for himself, in the wilderness. One wonders how much he has told the woman he has married about his former life; the extent to which he has disclosed, and held back; what territory lies between them even as they lie together in the dark?

He is a man who has accommodated himself within a life he could never have imagined in his younger days. Is it a disappointment? A relief? Some indescribable mixture of the two? His horizon has shifted, his world become very small, the sky above vast.

On this day, he has journeyed beyond the wilderness, has pushed beyond the back of beyond. What lies there? The unknown, the unimaginable. The mountain of God. That is what is left, when we have wandered beyond the far edge of the margins.

Out of the corner of his eye, a blazing bush. This in itself is not unknown to him. The wilderness can get very hot, hot enough for a bush to spontaneously combust, to blaze with light and burn itself out. But not this bush: it keeps on blazing. For this, Moses must turn aside. Indeed, he is compelled to do so.

It turns out that this is no earthly flame, but an angel sitting in the branches, blazing like the sun. An angel, heralding, guarding, and standing in the presence of God. This, apparently, is what angels do. But it is God who calls out to Moses. And Moses responds, ‘Here I am.’ Here I am.

God tells Moses to come no closer. His journey, in this direction at least, has reached its end. He is to remove his sandals, the symbol of his wandering, and this is a holy moment in a holy place. Moses has come home, has returned to the fold, has been born anew.

And this causes Moses to hide his face, for he was afraid to look at God. God is unbearable.

In this place, beyond the wilderness, God confronts Moses with his deepest failure, the one that still defines him, against which Moses’ life appears Plan B, second best. It turns out that the place of failure – hearing the cry of the people on account of their taskmasters – is the very place where Moses and God stand on common ground. This is the first step in God’s plan of redemption, which will take Moses back, to face Pharaoh, in order for Moses to leave Egypt behind for good.

Is it possible that we might encounter God on the ground of our deepest failure?

Moses asks God to reveal his name. God responds, ‘I AM WHO I AM’ and my title is YHWH, from ‘to be’. I am what I am, and I will be what I will be.

Here I am. The mountain of God echoes back the words with which Moses first responded to God, ‘Here I am.’ Not because God is to be understood to be made in Moses’ image, but because Moses’ words reveal that he bears the imprint of God. And he discovers this standing in front of an angel who is worshipping God at the foot of a mountain on the far side of the wilderness.

And here we are, at the foot of a mountain that bears the inscription I AM YHWH, surrounded by flaming Seraphim.

How did we get here?

And now that you have turned aside to be here, for what purpose might God have called to you?


On prayer

Our whole life is a prayer. We do not need to attend to praying; we need to attend to awareness of the prayer we are already praying at any given moment. Do our thoughts or words or actions reveal a prayer of devotion, or anger, frustration, grief, joy, desperation, hope...? All these and more are necessary prayers, for prayer is the bearing – and laying bare – of our being before God. The Psalms are a master class in this. If you want to learn how to attend to what you are already praying at any given moment, read the Psalms, regularly.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

To an unknown god

Holy Communion today includes a reading from Acts 17:15, 17:22–18:1.

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.’

There are three altars* at Sunderland Minster: the Bede Chapel altar, the Chancel high altar, and the Nave altar; appropriate for small, medium-sized, and large gatherings respectively.

I would suggest that there are also several altars in our own heart, where we encounter and respond to God. Whereas the ancient Greeks attributed different spheres of life to the concerns of different gods, Christians worship one God; but we encounter this one God in as many different aspects of our lives. So we might speak in terms of the altar where we encounter and respond to this one God as our Healer; the altar where we encounter and respond to this one God as our Provider; the altar where we encounter and respond to this one God as our Comforter; the altar where we encounter and respond to this one God as the creator of the world…as Lord over history…as Lord over our lives…This is not to suggest that God is compartmentalised, but rather to recognise that our understanding of God develops as what we worship as unknown is made known to us.

And this brings us to the place in our heart of an altar with the inscription “To an unknown god.” We might need to look carefully to find it, especially if we are confident that we know God better than others do. And yet we would do well to keep such an altar. To acknowledge that God is always more than our knowledge of God, and always will be. Even when we stand before God face-to-face, we will not be able to contain him. We know God, because God has revealed himself to us, and principally in the person of Jesus; but he invites us to step out into the unknown, to walk by faith not sight. To present our sacrifice at the altar to an unknown God, not so as not to offend through ignorance, but in order to participate in mystery.


*I know that some people take exception to the use of the term ‘altar,’ as it can suggest that Jesus’ death was somehow insufficient and needs replenishing. Indeed, refuting such a view (Articles of Religion XXXI), the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and Common Worship only ever use the term ‘the Lord’s Table,’ or ‘table’ for short. Nonetheless, the order for Holy Communion in the Book of Common Prayer includes the prayer: ‘O Lord and heavenly Father, we thy humble servants entirely desire thy fatherly goodness mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving…And here we offer and present unto thee, O lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto thee…And although we be unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service…’ Therefore, what is primarily the Lord’s table to which we, unworthy though we are, are invited, is simultaneously our altar where we offer our sacrifice, not to appease God’s wrath but in response to God’s love.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Go away

Morning Prayer: Luke 5:1-11

‘Simon Peter...fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” ... When they had brought their boats ashore, they left everything and followed him.’

Peter’s self-awareness as a sinful man is – in this context, at least – not to do with what he has done but what he has failed to do. Fishing all night without a catch, he has failed those who were dependent on him. This is only emphasised by Jesus’ grace, in the miraculous catch of fish.

But it does not end there. Jesus does, indeed, go away from him. Not abandoning him, but enabling him to follow. To move from the place of failure, through the forgiveness that disempowers fear, to a fresh start within restored relationship. (‘Leaving everything’ ought not to be understood as the abandonment of relational responsibility – Jesus strongly opposed such false piety – but as participating in this dynamic.)

Where do you and I need Jesus to go away from us today, that we might follow?

Lord, join me in the place of my failure,
of my frustration, of my disappointment.
Lord, join me in the place where
the Accuser whispers seeds of discouragement
and shouts out taunts against my vocation to
personhood.
Join me in that place;
and then Go away from me, Lord,
that I might follow you...

A prayer, after the prayer of Simon Peter.


Monday, April 25, 2016

Against

Acts 12:25-13:13 reading from Morning Prayer today, the Feast of St Mark.

I am struck that Paul informs the magus Elymas that ‘the hand of the Lord is against you’ – mirroring Pauls own conversion experience on the road to Damascus. The hand of the Lord being against you is not lifted in anger, but as constraint, giving direction, preventing the one veering off the path from going over the edge by nudging them back towards the centre.

The language of God being against our enemies is common-place, expressing our lust for judgement, not our love for mercy. But where might we need – where might we hope for – God’s hand to be against us?

Sunday, April 24, 2016

To be or not to be

Yesterday the Royal Shakespeare Company marked the day on which William Shakespeare was born, and died – 52 years later, and 400 years ago – with live performances from the Bard’s home-town, Stratford-upon-Avon. One of the highlights was this sketch, in which several actors argue over how to deliver arguably Shakespeare’s most famous words. Do yourself a favour and watch them.

The sketch revolves around the fact that Shakespeare was an incredibly generous playwright, whose work allows, invites, even depends on, genuine partnership with the players. ‘To be, or not to be. That is the question.’ can be delivered in a great many ways, the weight changing depending on which word or words are stressed, each offering providing its own invitation and challenge to the audience.

The writers of the works collected in the Bible were just as generous. That is why the Bible must be read aloud, not silently. Why it must be read aloud, in public, by as wide a selection of voices as possible; and why it ought to be read aloud even when reading it alone, turning the words over and over in search for the rendition that is best-fitting to the ‘player’ – the one who proclaims – and the production – or, context in which they are performing (by which I mean to refer to the work of the people and not a falsehood) for which they are rehearsing.

Notable among these performers of biblical works is God himself. Christianity does not teach Scripture as written by God (though in practice a great many Christians believe to the contrary, that it was). Rather, God is both inspiration – as Shakespeare was inspiration for the performances last night – and a player who breathes life into the work, making it come alive.

You don’t have to be a famous actor to deliver these lines. But it does help to be part of a company of players. And to rehearse together.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Bodies

God has given us bodies, with which to touch time (including our own aging) and space (which has its own physicality).

So many of the stories Jesus told have to do with bodies. A woman kneading dough, her arms muscular from the repeated action, an action that would have caused those arms to ache quicker when she first began kneading dough than they did now. A merchant travelling widely in search of pearls, feet sore, back sore, weary from his journey and yet driven onwards. A farmer hefting a bag of seed over his shoulder, throwing his arm out wide, again and again. Hired workers labouring under the midday sun in a vineyard, sweat running down the groove between their shoulder-blades, tickling where they can’t quite reach to scratch…

The point of the stories is not to extract some abstract dis-embodied truth from the messiness of life, but, rather, to demonstrate that God is to be found in the very ways in which the body touches time and space.

Again, there are so many accounts of Jesus’ body touching the bodies of other people – a woman with a fever, a dead boy, a leper. Touches that made him ritually unclean – understood by some to contaminate and therefore temporarily exclude from community; but perhaps better understood as gift, time out to reflect on the deep holiness of such connection, to return with refreshed appreciation of our bodies, and those of our neighbours.

This also is why we are given actions: water poured on the head (every time I step under the waterfall of my shower-head, I am reminded of my baptism, an event I cannot remember but am nonetheless shaped by); bread broken and shared; wine drank in company with others. Do this in remembrance of me. Do, not think, not believe – not divorced from our body, at any rate. We participate our way into relationship. We are shaped bodily to God, and neighbour. We can know our creator, and our fellow creatures, no other way.

Last June, I started running the weekly Parkrun – 5 kilometres, run in community at 9.00am on Saturday mornings – as often as I can make it. The run, followed by breakfast in a cafĂ©, is an activity I have especially done with my son, Noah. Today I ran my 21st Parkrun (I make it, on average, fortnightly rather than weekly). My time has come down from 00.32.47 to 00.23.41.

At the moment, my right thigh aches. Not when I run, but between runs. I can feel my body, in a very particular way. In a way that brings to mind Jacob, wrestling with God all night long, an encounter that left him with a permanent limp. That reminds me that the God who gave me a body took on a body of his own, and gives my body an unfolding story of its own, through which I might know and be known.

My thigh aches. And I am deeply grateful for it.


Thursday, April 21, 2016

mid-week eucharist



mid-week eucharist (thanks-giving)

or, taking time in the midst of the ordinary and every-day to be thankful for all God has done for us…