Monday, November 30, 2009

Happy Birthday, St Andrew's

Advent 2 : Feast Of Saint Andrew

Advent is a season of preparing ourselves for Jesus’ arrival. As we look forward to Christmas, and the celebration of Jesus’ coming into the world, we examine ourselves in the light of the knowledge that one day he will return.

Today is the Feast of St Andrew. Andrew was one of Jesus’ disciples, the brother of another of Jesus’ disciples, Simon Peter. In fact, it was Andrew who introduced Simon Peter to Jesus. Andrew could do so because he had prepared himself for Jesus’ arrival on the scene.

In his Gospel, John tells us that before he was a disciple of Jesus, Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptizer [note 1]. John the Baptizer was Jesus’ cousin [note 2], whose prophetic ministry called the people to repent – to examine their lives and make themselves ready in preparation for Jesus’ arrival. As soon as the time came for Jesus to be revealed, John the Baptizer knew it, and pointed Jesus out to Andrew. The rest, as they say, is history...

Advent. The time is now: the time to repent, to examine and change the direction, the course, of our lives... walk in the footsteps of Andrew, whose Feast we celebrate today.

note 1: John chapter 1. John was one of Jesus’ disciples, and knew Andrew well. John and his brother James – who also became one of Jesus’ disciples - were fishermen, as were Andrew and Simon Peter. Their fathers, Zebedee and Jonah, were in business together – quite successful business, given that they employed not only their four sons but also several other hired men.

note 2: cousins; brothers: this story is grounded in flesh and blood...

Sunday, November 29, 2009

First Sunday Of Advent : A Light For The Patriarchs

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the start of a new year in the Church calendar. In the Season of Advent, we look back and look forward. We look back, remembering the story that leads to the birth of Jesus. And we look forward, to his coming again. Advent is a season of getting ready: in the light of what God has done, getting ourselves ready for Jesus’ return. Preparing to welcome him. In one sense, every Advent carries the hope that this might be the last time we get to journey this path...

Advent takes in the four Sundays before Christmas, and each Sunday we light candles, incrementally, to remember certain points in our story. On the first Sunday, we light a candle to remember the Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – whose lives pointed to Jesus’ life. On the second Sunday, we light two candles, to remember the Patriarchs...and the Prophets, whose words pointed to Jesus’ coming. On the third Sunday, we light three candles, to remember the Patriarchs, the Prophets...and John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus. On the fourth Sunday, we light four candles, to remember the Patriarchs, the Prophets, John the Baptist...and Mary, the mother of Jesus.

The first Patriarch was Abraham. God came to Abram, and said, “If you give me your life, I will give you my life.”

‘Abram’ means ‘Great Father,’ or, we might say, ‘Best Dad.’ But Abram was childless. Every time someone called him by his name, it was a slap in the face. Like serving a cup of tea to someone you know has unsuccessfully gone through every stage of infertility treatment, in a mug emblazoned ‘Best Dad in the World’ – not just once, but every time you serve them a cup of tea...

God said, “Let me take on the identity of Great Father, of Best Dad...” [of ‘Abba,’ the name by which Jesus would call God] “...and in return I will bless you with my identity: you will become Abraham, ‘Father of Nations’...”

And God comes to us this Advent with the same invitation: “If you will give me your life, I will give you my life.”

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Heptagonal Questions

The ‘Rule of Life’ of The Order of Mission (TOM) is not carried in written form (as, say, the Rule of St Benedict is), but in iconic form: circle; semi-circle; triangle; square; pentagon; hexagon; heptagon; and octagon.

The shapes are simple tools for living as disciples, and we often use two or more in conjunction, just as a carpenter might use a plane and a mallet in constructing a chair.

The triangle is a tool that helps us to attend to our relationship with God, with each other, and with our neighbour. The heptagon is a tool that is used as a spiritual health-check (I have previously written about the seven signs of life here).

How might we take an honest look at our relationships? The questions below use the seven signs of life – movement, respiration, sensitivity, growth, reproduction, excretion, nutrition – as a measure, and are intended for use in a group context (we call such groups a ‘huddle’). I would suggest that the way to use them is not to attempt to answer all 21 at once, but to ask the Holy Spirit to highlight a question that God wants to have a conversation with you about, and then pray that God will speak to us through the discussion that unfolds.

Disclaimer: I have written these questions, at a particular time and in a particular place. They reflect wider TOM values, and my context, and are not the only ‘heptagonal’ questions that could be asked. There is value in periodically reviewing such questions, and tailoring them to context.

UP: living with confidence

[M] Are we resistant, or open, to worshipping God in new ways?

[R] Are we animated by the Spirit, or a monument to the past?

[S] Can we see what the Father is doing?

[G] Are we open or resistant to abiding, growing, bearing fruit, or being pruned?

[R] Are we secure in our identity as beloved sons of God, with whom he is pleased?

[E] Are we confessing our sin, or hiding it?

[N] Are we feeding on the word of the Father?

IN: God gives us each other for the purpose of character-formation

[M] Are we moving as one body, or pulling in different directions?

[R] Are we speaking words of life, or of death, to one another?

[S] Are we aware of, and responding to, one another’s needs?

[G] Are we being discipled, and discipling others, in Christlikeness?

[R] Are we raising up a new generation in our place?

[E] Do we hold on to resentment?

[N] Is every member of the body fed, appropriate to their experience and function?

OUT: taking the gift of the body out into the world

[M] Are we involved in the life of our neighbourhood?

[R] Can we identify signs of the Spirit breathing life into our neighbourhood?

[S] Are we aware of, and responsive to, changes in our neighbourhood?

[G] Do we see the kingdom of God advancing in our neighbourhood?

[R] Do we actively foster hope for the future of our neighbourhood?

[E] Do we actively foster reconciliation, or add to division, in our neighbourhood?

[N] Are we feeding the physically and spiritually hungry in our neighbourhood?

Thoughts On Two Great Mark Carey Quotes

Yesterday evening was our regular meeting-up with other members of The Order of Mission. Our friend Mark Carey was sharing some recent reflections on relationship with God (UP), one another in the church (IN), and with our neighbour (OUT). He observed that our relationship with God is the source of our identity, and therefore the place where our confidence comes from. However,

“God gives us each other for the purpose of character-formation.”

In other words, our character is not formed in isolation, in spending time alone with God, but through the testing and refining that comes by living in community with other people; by having our rough edges worn down by other people’s rough edges, as we knock against each other.

This is significant, because the temptation is always to take the route of least resistance, to form community with people who look like us, but in doing that we limit the potential character-formation God wants to work in us. We need to embrace those we find difficult to love, those we have ‘nothing, other than Jesus’ in common with, those who are hard work.

Moreover, Mark observed that the highly individualistic model of evangelism, whereby the church (at best) supports me in my personal place of witness, is flawed because it fails to recognise adequately that we are the body of Christ. As such, our call is not to operate as supported individuals but as one body,

“taking the gift of the body out into the world.”

This has profound implications. If we are called to take the gift of the body out into the world, we need to wrestle with the extreme fragmentation of ourselves within the world, caused by the shift to an ever-increasing and highly individualistic professionalization of every sphere of life. For example, monasteries functioned as communities that provided accommodation for the traveller (hotels); medical care for the sick (hospitals); respite care for the infirm (care homes); libraries and scriptoriums in which learned was collected and passed on (schools, universities, publishers); almsgiving for the poor (welfare); employment for farmers, blacksmiths, and a host of domestic servants; microbreweries...All these functions have been taken over by the State, or private enterprise, and rather than operating as communities of salt and light, Christians work as isolated grains and motes, only coming-together to worship.

While I am not advocating a mass exodus of Christians from our schools or health service, I do wonder whether the models that overtook the monasteries are themselves reaching the end of their life, the limits of their capacity? My hunch is that the rise of ‘new-monasticism’ is not just about a rediscovery of a disciplined Rule of Life, but about the reappearance of ‘new monasteries’ serving our neighbourhoods...

Monday, November 23, 2009

Get Ready For Advent | Jesse Tree

For several years now, I have posted a daily Advent calendar of images and reflections on my blog, and you can find them linked from ‘Advent’ in the ‘labels’ on the sidebar to the left.

Next Sunday is the start of Advent, the beginning of a new year in the Christian calendar. Advent is a big deal in our family. We use this season as a journey towards Christmas, in ways that help us to remember – to enter-into – the story. Over the years we have built up certain family traditions, some of which have been passed on to us by other people, and some of which we pass on again, so that other people can start to build up their own traditions.

We have a small Christmas tree made of bare twigs, and this year we will have a go at using it as a Jesse Tree. One of the prophetic descriptions of Jesus in the Bible is the root / shoot / tree of Jesse – see Isaiah chapters 11 and 12. Jesse was the father of King David, and this title points to Jesus’ human ancestry descending from David, and God’s promise to David that one of his descendents would sit on the throne forever. A Jesse Tree symbolises Jesus, and on it a different ornament is hung each day from 1 December to Christmas Day, each ornament reminding us something about Jesus. As each ornament is hung, verses are read out that tell of that aspect of who Jesus is.

For anyone who would like to do something similar, here are some suggestions for decorations / verses / other prayers you could use:

A star: John 1:1-9.

An angel: Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38; Luke 2:8-15.

A trumpet: Advent not only looks back to Jesus’ coming into the world, it is also a season of looking forwards to his coming back again. Revelation 11:15.

A bauble: representing the world. John 1:9; John 3:16-21.

A present: Matthew 2:9-11; Romans 5.

A Father Christmas: a common tree decoration, Saint Nicholas was a Christian bishop, who is remembered on 6 December, with this prayer.

A wise man: Matthew 2:1-12.

A soldier: a common tree decoration because of the Nutcracker Suite, points to Jesus as Prince of Peace, Isaiah 9:6-7.

A shepherd: Luke 2:8-20.

A manger: Luke 2:1-7.

(This list is not exhaustive, leaving room for you to come up with your own ideas / match to your own decorations.)

There are seven very ancient prayers that Christians have used in the week before Christmas, which also lend themselves to a Jesse Tree. With links to the prayers, they are:

A dove (symbol of wisdom)

A candle (making the tree a burning bush)

A Christmas tree (root of Jesse)

A key (key of David)

A star (bright morning star)

A king (king of the nations)

God-with-us (Jesus, with Mary and Joseph)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Remembering | Reconciliation | Part 2

This is the liturgy I wrote for an act of remembering and reconciliation.

Each one of us comes forward, breaks off a piece of bread, and lays it on the table. Together we say:

This night, Christ will be taken, for us.

Under cover of darkness, we will come for him.
Under cover of darkness, we will betray him with a kiss of friendship.
Under cover of darkness, we will scatter; we will desert him; we will deny knowing him.
And as the dawn breaks, we will weep for ourselves.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness within us has not understood it.
But, the light shall dawn over us, with knowledge of our salvation.

Each one of us comes forward, and places our piece of bread back on the plate. Together we say:

This day, Christ shall die for us.

This day, Christ dies in solidarity with me, as one who has suffered wrongdoing.
This day, we are not left alone in our suffering,
but are caught up in God’s mercy and grace.
This day, we respond with thanks, with eucharist.
This day, Christ dies in substitution for me, as one who has inflicted wrongdoing.
This day, we are not left alone in our inflicting suffering,
but are caught up in God’s mercy and grace.
This day, we respond with thanks, with eucharist.

We pass the plate around, each one of us giving a piece of bread to the next. Then, together we say:

We have remembered Jesus, and in our remembering his body is re-membered.

We choose to remember ourselves as we are, in him.
We choose to remember each other as we shall be, in him.
We choose to be re-membered, to be reconciled with God and neighbour.
We choose to receive, in the bread and the wine, our healing.

We pass the cup around, each one of us serving the next.

Remembering | Reconciliation | Part 1

I have been reflecting on remembering and reconciliation, with the help of one of my favourite theologians Miroslav Volf. These reflections have led me to write a liturgy for an informal/experimental act of sharing bread and wine together – an act which (sometimes we forget) is all about remembering and reconciliation.

There are two types of memory. The first is passive memory. This is when an external trigger causes something stored in our memory to come to mind. It can be a good memory or a bad memory – hearing a song on the radio takes us back to the time we first heard it; smelling freshly-brewed filter coffee takes us back to a friend’s house; seeing an ambulance race by takes us back to a time our child was in hospital – and we have absolutely no control over it happening.

The second type of memory is active memory. This is what we choose to recall about the event, to dwell on, to bring into the present from the past, to carry with us. When the ambulance races by, we might recall the pain of seeing our child suffering, or we might recall the skill of the medics and the joy of their recovery – and we have a choice as to what we will focus on.

How we remember can make us more broken, or more healed.

We have a choice.

God wants us to remember in such a way that brings healing, wholeness, reconciliation.
The word ‘eucharist’ means giving thanks. And at the giving thanks expressed through sharing bread and wine, three acts of remembering intertwine to work reconciliation:

In the eucharist, we remember what Jesus did.

To remember means to bring an event in the past into the present in such a way that it lives in the present. Jesus introduced the practice of sharing bread and wine in remembrance of him in the context of a Passover meal, a meal at which Jews speak of the ancient exodus from slavery in Egypt in the present tense: it was ‘us’ whom God delivered.

So, what did Jesus do? On the cross, Jesus died in solidarity with sufferers of wrongdoing, and substitution for wrongdoers. He reconciled both in himself – and so the cross anticipates a community of reconciled enemies. (This includes reconciliation of the divided self, for we are all both one who has suffered wrongdoing and one who has inflicted wrongdoing on others.)

In the eucharist, Jesus is re-membering his body.

To remember is also to re-member, to put together: to put fragments of a story together in such a way that makes a coherent narrative; to put broken bones together in such a way as to allow them to knit together again.

As we remember Jesus’ work of reconciliation, he re-members, or makes manifest in the present what he won for us in the past.

In the eucharist, we participate in re-membering Jesus’ body.

True, it is something that Jesus works; but he does not do it to us, he does it through us. At the table together, the question is asked of us, what do we choose to remember about one another?

‘Such community is exactly what we commemorate in Holy Communion. Central to the rite is the solidarity of God with each human being and the reconciliation of each human being to God. Inseparable, however, from reconciliation to God is reconciliation to fellow human beings. As Alexander Schememann puts it in The Eucharist, in this holy ritual “we create the memory of each other, we identify each other as living in Christ and being united with each other in him.” In the Eucharistic feast we remember each other as those who are reconciled to God and to each other. Our past, marked by enmity, has given way to a future marked by love. By remembering Christ’s Passion, we remember ourselves as what we shall be – members of one communion of love, comprised of wrongdoers and the wronged. The Passion memory is a hopeful memory since it anticipates deliverance from wrong suffered, freedom from the power of evil, and reconciliation between the wronged and the wrongdoers – for the most part, a reconciliation between people who have both suffered wrong and inflicted it. The midday darkness of Good Friday that is our sins, suffering, and enmity will be overcome by the new light of Easter morning that is our rejoicing in each other in the presence of God.’

(Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory, pp. 119, 120)

...we create a memory of each other...we remember ourselves as what we shall be...

This, surely, is why Paul writes to the church in Corinth that to participate in this moment without recognising the other, and without intention to be reconciled to them, is to eat and drink judgement on ourselves.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

LifeShapes Heptagon | MRS GREN [Recycled Post]

[I first posted this just under a year ago - 19 November 2008 - but have been thinking about these things again today, in relation to the context I find myself in.]

The Psalmist wrote, “As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you.” That is, as he observed something in nature, the Holy Spirit revealed to his spirit that there was a correlation between the ‘natural’ order and the ‘spiritual’ order. Jesus also regularly used organic images to convey spiritual truths. The Heptagon takes the seven universal signs of life, from the biological sciences, and applies them in this way. It is concerned with healthy life, and helps us to identify potential problems so that they can be addressed before they become terminal. It is a helpful health-check for individuals and groups.


If an animal doesn’t move, it either runs out of food or becomes food. Are we moving? Has our perspective – on God, on yourself, on the world – changed, or is it static? Is our faith defensive, or a journey?

And if we are moving, is our movement purposeful? Migrating herds or flocks, or running around aimlessly? Distracted movement is as much a sign of ill health as lack of movement.

Some creatures move very quickly, others very slowly: one is not better than the other! But communities need to move together.


Respiration is the process by which oxygen is absorbed and energy is released, in every cell. The Holy Spirit is the breath of God, which gives us life. Prayer is to the spirit as breathing is to the body. Taking an occasional breath may be sufficient for existence, but not enough for active life. On the other hand, hyperventilating is a panic response, a sign of anxiety. Healthy breathing is both natural and, most of the time, unconscious.

How is our prayer life? Do we rarely or never pray together? Is prayer all we do (hyperventilation)? Or is it a natural response?


We often talk of 5 senses – sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. In fact, there are several others, including sense of heat, of balance, of pain, and an unconscious awareness of the connectedness of our body parts. Sharks have a sense of electric fields; birds navigate using a magnetic sense.

Are we sensitive, towards God, each other, the world around us? Are we attuned to the spiritual environment around us? As a community, are we releasing individuals who can take a lead for us in relation to one or other of the senses?


Churches that believe that growth is important tend to focus too much on growth. You can’t grow by attempting to grow: only by indirect effort. If all the other six signs of life are healthy, healthy growth just happens…and if they aren’t healthy, unhealthy growth – like cancer – may result.

Having said too much attention is given to growth, it is worth pointing out that:

(i) growth is not constant: it often happens in stages [see the LifeShapes Square] or seasons [see the LifeShapes Semi-circle].

(ii) there are different expressions of growth, from an elephant that gets bigger to a lawn of grass that spreads wider: one size does not fit all.


Not every individual reproduces, but every community needs to, or else it will become extinct. The truth is, you – your group – will die. If reproduction has not taken place, all you have learnt is lost.

There are different forms of reproduction. In cellular reproduction, every component is duplicated internally, and then the cell becomes two cells. With complex organisms, DNA – values, in codified form – from two distinct parents combine to form offspring that are both recognisable and unique. Some creatures reproduce in low numbers, and invest heavily in nurturing their offspring; others reproduce in large numbers, and may never know what becomes of their offspring – but information for the continued survival of the species is nonetheless passed on.

Are we passing on what God has invested in us, to others? What might that look like? In some cases, long-term investment; in others cases, a passing opportunity. At times, it might lead to numerical growth within one group; at other times, to the creation of new groups.

Reproduction can be impaired by ill health, barrenness, isolation, or contraception (artificially constraining potential for new life). Do any of these issues need to be addressed?


Every living thing builds up toxins within itself, and needs to find a way of neutralising and expelling those toxins. If it is unable to do so, it will move through discomfort to poisoning to death.

Spiritually speaking, toxins build up within us: hatred, gossip, complaining, lust, greed, hurt…

Spiritually speaking, excretion refers to the activity of asking for forgiveness for ourselves and extending forgiveness to others. This is so vital, Jesus includes it at the heart of the pattern of prayer he taught his disciples!

Are we accountable? Are we honest about toxins? (They are an inevitable side-product of life.) Are we seeking and proclaiming forgiveness?

Problems relating to excretion can result from problems relating to...


Nutrition is to do with diet. A healthy diet is balanced in composition, and in regularity. Problems include:

(i) under-nutrition: where too little is eaten, e.g. no regular discipline of meditating on God’s word.

(ii) mal-nutrition: where there is an imbalance of composition, e.g. lots of sermons, very little testimony, prophecy, etc.

(iii) over-nutrition: where too much is eaten, e.g. a new sermon every week, without space to digest the food, assimilating it’s goodness. Over-nutrition combined with lack of exercise results in obesity…

In the West, eating disorders are often associated with unhealthy self-image. Are we secure in our identity as children of God?

Friday, November 06, 2009

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Remember, Remember [Recycled Post]

“Remember, remember the fifth of November
The Gunpowder Treason and plot.
I know of no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.”

So runs the traditional children’s rhyme. Though, as a child, I always got in a terrible muddle between the fifth of November and the ninth of November, the latter being my birthday…

[I first posted these reflections back in 2006, but] Bonfire Night is incredibly relevant to our post 9/11 world, and should indeed never be forgot.

On November 5th 1605, Guy Fawkes was discovered in a cellar beneath the Houses of Parliament in London. The cellar was filled with barrels of gunpowder, with which Roman Catholic conspirators intended to assassinate King James I and the members of the House of Lords and House of Commons at the formal opening of the 1605 Parliament. The plot had been formed in response to the hard line taken by James I against Roman Catholicism, most likely after it became clear that Catholic Spain was embroiled in too many concerns of its own to come to the aid of England’s Catholics. The plot came to light when a conspirator, uneasy that fellow Catholics would die in the blast, wrote to a member of the House of Lords telling him to stay away that day; but the ringleaders discovered this ‘treason,’ and some historians believe Fawkes was set up, buying time for those more culpable to escape. Traditionally the failed Gunpowder Plot is remembered each year with bonfires, on which an effigy of Fawkes – the Guy – is burnt, and with fireworks, symbolizing the explosion that never happened.

An English population among which there lived a religious minority treated with suspicion and facing discrimination; a cell of militants within that community who saw violent revolution as the only hope for change…the events of 1605 feel all too contemporary. What might we learn, standing outside in the freezing cold November darkness?

Firstly, Bonfire Night reminds us that violent revolution is not the way to go about change – not only because it is morally wrong, but also because it is in fact counter-productive. Bonfire Night deconstructs terrorism as a means to an end; highlights the dilemma of those ‘on your own side’ dying; calls into question the brotherhood of the cell…

…But Bonfire Night does not commemorate a black-and-white victory of right over wrong; a ‘reasonable,’ ‘enlightened,’ ‘fundamentally good’ way of living as society, successfully resisting its opposite. Bonfire Night deconstructs such a na├»ve view, too. In many ways James I needed challenging – and, ironically, was regularly challenged by the politicians who would have died with him; and the following torture, trial, and high-profile executions of men who certainly weren’t the ring-leaders, draws the justice of retaliation to terror into question. The flames of Guy’s pyre cast light and shadows on our faces that speak of the light and shadows in our hearts; and as we stare upon the effigy of a burning Catholic, we might just feel the uncomfortable heat of our own prejudices, exposed.

I don’t know how history will judge us. There are aspects of my society that I believe are wrong; and, I am sure, aspects of my society that are wrong which I am blind to. Not only because it is still so contemporary, but also because the world is so complex, the four-hundred-year-old tradition of Bonfire Night ought to be celebrated, with a bang.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Father And Son | Part 3

Recently I re-read the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) noting those places where God the Father speaks directly to Jesus, and those places where Jesus speaks directly to the Father. Since then, I have been reflecting on them in this way (suggested by my friend Mike Breen): to see the words the Father addresses to Jesus as being addressed to me, and to make the words Jesus addresses to the Father my own prayer.

In Part 1, I looked at the words the Father speaks to the Son. In Part 2, I looked at the words the Son speaks to the Father, with the exception of John 17, which is a chapter-long prayer, the text of which can be found below. There is undoubtedly a sense in which Jesus is unique, both in his identity and in the task set him. And yet it is also true that Jesus is our model; that we share in his identity through covenant, and share in his kingdom mission. Jesus’ commission to his followers was to make disciples who would make disciples until Jesus’ return. If we are to take seriously our identity as a son of God, and our commission to make disciples, then this is a seriously world-transforming prayer to pray with Jesus...

‘After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed: “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.

“I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name – the name you gave me – so that they may be one as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.

“I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”’

(John 17:1-26, Jesus, on the night of his betrayal)

Father And Son | Part 2

Recently I re-read the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) noting those places where God the Father speaks directly to Jesus, and those places where Jesus speaks directly to the Father. Since then, I have been reflecting on them in this way (suggested by my friend Mike Breen): to see the words the Father addresses to Jesus as being addressed to me, and to make the words Jesus addresses to the Father my own prayer.

Jesus’ words to the Father are perhaps the most intimate insight we are given into his life, and show us what it means to live a life so secure in the knowledge of the Father’s love for us that we can lay down our life for his glory.

Because Jesus refers to God as Father, everything he says to God is grounded in the language of covenant, of the relationship by which two persons become one. (This is why Jesus can say to his disciples, anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.) In general, the kingdom language of God as King is found in Jesus’ teaching, including many of his parables. Nonetheless, some of the occasions where Jesus addresses his Father display the covenant thread, and some display the kingdom thread.

Having sent his disciples out in mission:
“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.”
(Matthew 11:25, 26 & Luke 10:21)

This is a kingdom prayer, a prayer of recognition that our Father is also Lord of heaven and earth. Not surprisingly, it comes in the midst of Jesus’ ministry, at a point where he has sent out the disciples he has trained up to demonstrate that the kingdom of God has come near, by driving out demons and healing the sick. It is a prayer that rejoices in God’s up-side-down kingdom that frustrates worldly structures. It is a prayer prayed with joy – joy that originates with the Holy Spirit, is given abundantly to Jesus, and given back to the Father. And as it becomes our prayer, so the presence of joy in our lives will start to increase, built-up with exercise.

At Gethsemane:
“My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
(Matthew 26:39)
“My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
(Matthew 26:42)
“Abba, Father”...“everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
(Mark 14:36)
“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”
(Luke 22:42)

These are covenant prayers. Prayers of recognition that Jesus is not a lone agent, but is in covenant with one greater than himself (this is deep theology for a Trinitarian; in part, Jesus has emptied himself of all that comes with being equal with God in order to be fully dependent on the Father; in part, Jesus, even resurrected, ascended and glorified, lives to glorify the Father). Knowing the Father’s love, he can offer his life in submission to the Father’s will. Nonetheless, the fact that he is in covenant with the Father means that he can ask, and is listened to: this is a conversation, only one side of which we overhear. There is progression here (as revealed in Matthew’s Gospel), as Father and Son together arrive at their decision. As we grow in our knowledge of the Father’s love, so we grow in our identity as his sons; and as we grow in our identity, so our capacity for obedience in the face of the hardest things the world and the accuser can throw at us increases.

On the cross:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
(Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34)

This is a covenant prayer, a prayer of the deepest vulnerability that cries out, where is my covenant partner?

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
(Luke 23:34)

This is a kingdom prayer. In forgiving those who crucified him, Jesus disarms the accuser of any legal right to have them tried by God for the murder of his Son. When we are wronged, we can demand justice. But when, instead, we extend mercy, the accuser is disarmed. Forgiveness of those who have wronged us – and we will be wronged – is one of the most powerful weapons we possess.

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
(Luke 23:46)

This is a covenant prayer. Indeed, following Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34, it is a reaffirmation of covenant: though the evidence suggests that I have been deserted by God – though, like Job, I am told to curse God and die – yet I will trust in him to rescue me.

Raising Lazarus:
“Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
(John 11:41, 42)

This is, really, a kingdom prayer, though covenant is very close to the surface. Indeed, Jesus even states that this is not about covenant, not about his relationship with the Father (that is the already secure grounding), but is a kingdom breaking-in moment. Unless we are also secure in covenant, we will not be able to pray kingdom breaking-in prayers in public: there will be that nagging doubt, will God hear and answer me, or not? But if we are able to make this prayer our own, it will be not for our benefit, but for the benefit of those around us who need to know that God has sent us, with good news.

Predicting his death:
“Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!”
(John 12:27, 28)

I have already touched on this kingdom prayer in Part 1, because this is the one time in the Gospels where we are privileged to hear both sides of a conversation between the Son and the Father. The Father responds, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” This is a doing prayer, a prayer of kingdom action, of taking on the very task given Jesus to fulfil. We, too, have a calling, a kingdom part to play, by which we will be used to bring glory to the Father. And we, too, will face the temptation to draw back from the doing, to settle for the being alone. But doing flows out of being; being is not self-serving.

If we were to pray the prayers of Jesus with him, to make them our own, what might happen?

Father And Son | Part 1

Recently I re-read the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) noting those places where God the Father speaks directly to Jesus, and those places where Jesus speaks directly to the Father. Since then, I have been reflecting on them in this way (suggested by my friend Mike Breen): to see the words the Father addresses to Jesus as being addressed to me, and to make the words Jesus addresses to the Father my own prayer.

On what basis is it valid to consider words spoken to Jesus to be addressed to me? On the basis of covenant. I am in relationship with God through a covenant made between Jesus and humanity, ratified (as true covenants are) in blood. A covenant is an exchange of identities. On the cross, to those who agree to the terms offered, Jesus took our identity and gave us his own. That is why we are called sons of God: it is not a matter of gender inclusivity/exclusivity, but a consequence of becoming one with the Son (in covenantal language, women must get used to being considered sons of God, and men get used to being considered part of the bride of Christ). Therefore, by virtue of being made one with Jesus, we can receive words spoken to him as spoken to us.

In the Gospels, we have recorded for us just two occasions where the Father speaks to the Son. The first is at Jesus’ baptism, where the Father declares:

“You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

(Mark 1:11 and Luke 3:22; see also occasions where the Father says this of Jesus to others, Matthew 3:17 & 17:5, Mark 9:7, and Luke 9:35)

The second is in response to Jesus addressing the Father at the start of his final week leading up to the crucifixion. In response to Jesus’ prayer, “Father, glorify your name!” the Father replies:

“I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.”

(John 12:28)

The first word is a word of Covenant. A word about our identity, which flows from the Fatherhood of God, and is manifest in obedience to his will. A word about being; a word about our nature.

The second word is a word of Kingdom. A word about our authority, which flows from the Kingship of God, and is manifest in acts of (self-sacrificial) power that destroy the works of the evil one and set captives free. A word about doing; a word about our commission.

Covenant and Kingdom are the two threads that run through the entire Bible from beginning to end, underpinning and interpreting the whole narrative into which our story belongs.

What, then, might the implication of hearing these words spoken over us be?

Firstly, we need to know that we are loved by our heavenly Father, accepted into – and publically recognised as belonging to – his family, and experiencing his pleasure with us. That is very simple, but very hard – especially so for anyone who has not had a positive experience of their earthly father. It is also very hard for those who lean too far towards kingdom – to doing – to hear (especially as these words were spoken over Jesus before he had done any of his ministry). But it is the gift of God, which he longs for us to receive.

Secondly, knowing this love empowers us to live lives that glorify God, by being available to our Father to work through for his glory. And his greatest glory is for others to come to know that they are his son, whom he loves, with whom he is well pleased. Again, this is very simple, and very hard. In particular, it is very hard for those who lean too far towards covenant – to being – to hear. But it is not enough to hear the first word without responding in such a way that makes it possible to hear the second word. We need to hear the Father speak both words over us...

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Gospel According To Disney Pixar's UP

What makes a story a good story, a story worth telling, a satisfying story to have been told? I’d suggest that a good story is one that touches our emotions; that tells us something we recognise about the world we live in, and at the same time offers us a better world that could be ours if we choose to accept the invitation.

On that score, UP ticks all the boxes, and is a good story despite a plot that is not very satisfying for most of the film (deliberately so, in contrast to the first ten and last five minutes).

Carl and Ellie’s story:
Carl and Ellie’s story is told in the first ten minutes, and it is told beautifully. Over the course of a lifetime together, Ellie comes to learn a priceless secret: that greater than the adventure of travelling many miles to fulfil a great dream together is the adventure of travelling many years of ordinary moments together – what Mother Theresa described as small acts done with great love. As circumstances – sometimes bitter circumstances, told with great pathos – conspire against Carl and Ellie achieving her childhood dream, the adult Ellie does not settle for a smaller world and a smaller dream, but decides to choose a deeper world and a deeper dream.

This story, of a lifelong marriage, of deep companionship and enduring love, is a story we are routinely told by the Media is no longer realistic today. “Marriage was traditionally an economic transaction, no longer necessary in an age of greater financial independence for women.” “Marriage is a social construct responding to an evolutionary urge, again made unnecessary by economics.” “And we are all living longer, which makes the idea of a lifelong commitment all the more impractical, all the more impossible.” Without moralising, Carl and Ellie’s story – Carl and Ellie, who both have a job; Carl and Ellie, who discover that they cannot have children – holds out to us something better: the adventure of small acts done with great love, overcoming great hardship, and sharing great joy.

Charles F Muntz’s story:
The acclaimed explorer Charles F Muntz was the inspiration of Carl and Ellie’s childhood imagination. But then tragedy strikes: Muntz is wrongly accused of faking his discoveries, and discredited. In his attempt to clear his name, to vindicate himself, he ends up losing himself. He is innocent of forgery, but loses his innocence, becoming an increasingly bitter old man, turning his genius to evil, and becoming the antithesis of the inspirational hero he was as a young man. He perfectly depicts for us Jesus’ observation that whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and what good does it do a man to inherit the earth but forfeit his soul?

Carl and Russell’s story:
Carl Fredricksen is now also an elderly man who has lost something of great significance to him – his life with his wife, Ellie – and who, in trying to hold on to the past, is becoming an increasingly unattractive and isolated individual.

Russell is a young boy who comes, uninvited, into Carl’s life. Russell’s parents have split up, and he misses his father. He hopes for his father’s presence in his life, but is tentatively resigning himself to disappointment on that front. He is obese, over-eager to please, and lacking confidence and self-worth – despite having earned all but his final badge as a junior Wilderness Explorer (akin to a Boy Scout). He is, frankly, annoying.

Together, Carl and Russell go on the dream adventure that Carl and Ellie never got round to. This adventure takes up most of the film, and brings a certain poetic closure to the house in which Carl and Ellie lived together, but overall is far less satisfying than the first ten and last five minutes – those deeper adventures, those small acts done with great love.

Carl is forced to give up his life, to make room for Russell – and in doing so becomes a perfect depiction of Jesus’ observation that whoever loses his life for the sake of the gospel will find it [it being both ‘their life,’ at a deeper level, and also ‘the gospel,’ the kingdom of God breaking in]. Clearly this is not a ‘Christian’ film [God spare us from those], and the gospel in question is not a 2-D presentation. It is a gospel of broken, hurting people being brought together and discovering that they need each other, that together they can experience life in greater fullness. It is a gospel of redeemed community, where the elderly and the young can come together across the generation divide and lay down their lives for each other.

But it is Ellie, through her treasured scrap-book, who opens Carl’s eyes to see the adventure that he has already been on, and who gives him the inspiration to have new ones. It is the trace memory of Ellie that holds out a better world, that Carl and Russell discover, and that the audience are invited to discover too. Hers is a secret worth discovering, and worth telling, too...