Monday, 27 January 2014

Happening Now

Among many unsettling moments at Theological College was the time when one of our lecturers, who liked to provoke both Catholics and Evangelicals (not to mention Liberals) was discussing with us 'the sacrament of the present moment'. Various people were nodding sagely and thinking 'Oh yes, I know what that means and what is more, I practise it daily - it is most definitely part of my (sophisticated, enlightened) spirituality...'

And then he looked mischievously around and said (in his inimitable Irish lilt) 'Of course, there's no such thing as the present moment...' 

This was the same lecturer who had also thrown cold water on the idea you can count up sacraments (2, 7?) with a lecture/bible study on how St Jerome translated the Greek word, 'mysterion', as 'sacrament' (e.g. Colossians 2:2-3) but it really meant 'mystery'. What was this mystery, hidden through the ages, and now revealed? Jesus Christ, of course: the (one and only) 'sacrament' of God. 

So, no 'present moment', and possibly a bit of doubt about 'sacramental'...Shock! Horror! No such thing, then, as the sacrament of the present moment, a revelation of the divine right here, right now...?

I can see how 'the present moment', and its possible spiritual opportunity, could become a 'thing', though. The idea would be that you slow down, think about what is around you - the sights and sounds and smells, and become aware. Present. You stop rushing, stop 'doing' and just 'be'. Feel the earth beneath your feet, hear the wind in the trees. Be grateful, know God's presence in the here and now. That sort of thing. 

I am generally no good at it, being naturally somewhat cerebral, impatient and an activist. On the Myers Briggs Personality Types (MBTI) weekend, in the middle of one session we had to go outside into the grounds for 20 minutes and note what occurred.

All I could remember was feeling bored, then impatient to get back inside and finish. Other people returned to describe in detail the intricate pattern on the brickwork and fifteen different species of bird they had spotted.

But the idea of being more available to the present, practising mindfulness, and what might happen if I did, still lingers.

Not generally one for New Year's Resolutions, I had decided at the beginning of 2014, I was going to have three - make sermons funnier; keep the house cleaner and practise being in the present moment more. The first two haven't been going that well, and in the light of the above, I'm wondering if I ought to abandon the third as well.

Then I stumbled upon a book, This is Happening. It's a collection of moments captured on camera for the social media site, Instagram. The blurb says 'Ever get that this-is-happening-feeling? The one when you notice something so beautiful, strange or wonderful that you can't quite believe you get to capture it?' The photos are as varied as life itself: a Ferris wheel; a freshly dug turnip; a picnic rug. I'm hoping to use it in some way during prayer times...Still photography as an aid to contemplation...?

It made me think. Mathematically there may well be no such thing as the present moment (looking forward to the moment makes it the future; as soon as you've had the moment, it's the past). However, there might be something in being attentive to the moments (plural) you are in. 

Noticing. Listening. Breathing. Being grateful. And God might be there.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Any Questions?

Second Sunday after Epiphany

John 1:35-39

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples,and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 

We live in an information saturated age.
In the age of Google, questions and answers are reduced to questions requiring information and the 'answers' which give you that information. 
What a search engine does, when you type in a question, is match your words as exactly as possible to places where you might best be able to find the answers.
But it’s not fail safe, and it’s shallow.
If, in a moment of existential angst, I type into Google, ‘What is the meaning of my life?’ I get, initially:

 ‘"My Life" is a song by American rapper 50 Cent and the second official single of his forthcoming fifth studio album Street King Immortal’, and a link to his song…

After that, I might be luckier and find a second entry, encouraging me to ‘Take the ‘three minute Chakra test’.
Or the third entry: ‘How to discover your life purpose in about 20 minutes’.
A simple search for information cannot give me what I really seek.
Our gospel today has at its heart a question asked by Jesus, which is not answered; and a question asked him by some disciples, which he answers in a certain way.
I’d like us to look at these questions and answers and what they reveal about how Jesus deals with us.

We’re still in Epiphany, still thinking about how God is revealed in Jesus Christ.
We’ve seen how the Magi discovered that God was revealed in the baby in Bethlehem.
We’ve seen how Christ was revealed in his baptism.
And now we come to John, who’s always the odd one out.
His is the one gospel where the baptism of Jesus is not narrated, but alluded to.
So, instead of a riverside scene, such that we tried to imagine last week, with Jesus going down into the not so clean Jordan, here we have the event commented upon by the Baptizer himself.

The passage opens with John looking up and seeing Jesus walking towards him.
He is quick to comment: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
He has recognized Jesus for who he is and he wants to testify to his real nature, until people understand.
It’s easy to forget that at this point John still had his own disciples, but that was about to change...

We’re told, ‘the next day John again was standing with two of his disciples…'
Again he watches Jesus walk by and again he testifies: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God.’
This time it’s enough to make two of his followers turn from John and go after Jesus instead.
Jesus notices this, turns, and asks them a question.

Here is that question at the heart of the passage...
Different translations inevitably render it differently, but the sense of the question is ‘What are you looking for?’, or better, What do you seek?’
As one commentator points out, a lot hangs on the way we phrase things: you ‘look for’ your glasses; you ‘seek’ the meaning of life.
To seek is a word associated with the Magi: they sought the King; they sought what the star meant; they were seekers.
Seekers is also a term used in reports on mission in the UK about which groups the church is effective in reaching and which groups it isn’t.
Spiritual seekers are at home with the spiritual quest for meaning, but they don’t necessarily think the traditional church can offer anything to this search.
Unlike Google questions and answers, ‘What do you seek?’ coming from the lips of Jesus, is a profound, 'meaning of life' question, and one which many people never really ask themselves.

It’s one of those bits of the gospel that is best slowed down, 'seen' in slow motion and pondered over.
When we read about Jesus in the New Testament, we can race through, jump over bits, miss their significance.
That’s why the reading out loud of Scripture in public worship is important.
Although it’s good to have the written word, the word that is heard can reveal something new for us.
I’d like to re-read that part of the gospel and see if, in your mind’s eye, you can slow it down to that one question, and then, imagine Jesus asking it of you, today.
Here we go: it might help if you close you eyes.

‘The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What do you seek?’’

It’s easy to miss that this question coming from the lips of Jesus is the very first thing he is recorded as saying, in this gospel.
In fact, for someone who is presented as the Word of God, Jesus has been pretty silent up till this moment.
‘What do you seek?’ is a fair question though, because so many, when presented with the life of Jesus, sought something other than what he stood for.
They sought political freedom, they sought to control him and they sought to control who could be saved.
‘What do you seek?’ he says to these disciples of John, who now appear to be following him.

It’s like today – people go to church for many different reasons – they like the music, they like the sense of history, the building; they are upset about a loss, or want to celebrate something happy, like a birth.
To all these people, and to us, who think we know why we’re here, Jesus still asks: ‘What do you seek?’
And He asks it repeatedly in life, in different stages.

I recall a period of life when spiritual things seemed a bit of a struggle.
I'd been a Christian for 18 years, had three small children, went to a big, lively church and a midweek bible study group for Mums. I had read the bible and I knew you were supposed to pray every day.
Not being a morning person and having small children meant I never found time to pray in the morning, so I decided I would try and sit down when they had gone to bed, at about 8pm each evening.
I would go into my room, sit on the bed, relax, and try and read a portion of the bible and pray, but it was hard work, partly because I was always tired but also because I wasn’t very challenged in my Christian life.
I’d been going to the same type of church for about fifteen years – I’d heard a lot of similar sermons and wasn’t sure, apart from looking after small children, what my role in the body of Christ really was.

I remember looking up from the bible one evening, looking out of the window as the evening drew on, and thinking ‘Is this it?’
It was a ‘meaning of life’ question.
I meant, ‘is this what being a Christian is always going to be like?’
Flat and same-y…?
If I was asking this question of God, I now believe He was asking it of me first.
Theologians call that ‘prevenient grace’.
He asked first, calling deeper, as He always does.
‘What do you seek?’
‘Is this all there is?’
Looking back with hindsight at what happened after that, in my life, and the life of our family, I can see that it was in many ways the end of a settled stage and the beginning of something very different, which eventually led to Ordination.
God knew this: I didn’t.
What was at the bottom of my apparent dissatisfaction was that fundamental question ‘What do you seek?’

The disciples’ answer to Jesus’ question is not recorded in our passage – it would take them a lifetime to work out.
But in any case, they, walking along behind Jesus and trying to work him out, now ask a question back.
‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’
It could be a request for information (like ‘where is the tomato purée?’- a question I always find myself asking in a new supermarket), or it could be they were trying to build up a picture of this man, this Lamb, about whom John was so enthusiastic.
And Jesus does give an answer, but it’s not an answer for information, it’s an invitation to come.

It’s the same for us:
‘Come and see’.
Come and spend time with me.
Come and let’s talk.
Come and let’s eat.

What do you seek?

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Danger: deep water

Flooding on the Oxfordshire Thames
Water can be dangerous. That much have we witnessed recently with the widespread flooding across the South East of the UK.

It's something to bear in mind as the Church this weekend remembered the baptism of Christ, baptised in the Jordan into the mess of life, and death. 

John Pridmore, writing in The Word is Very Near You (2009) tells an anecdote about the Jordan river, suggesting Jesus' baptism was not such a fresh and cleansing experience as we like to offer today: 'I once had on display in my religious studies classroom a bottle of water which I had drawn from the Jordan. Soon the green and slimy liquid was spawning all manner of disgusting things. Clearly it was a health hazard and it had to be thrown away' (p. 34).

In contrast, Kierkegaard dismissed a tidy little Christening he attended, with these words: 'A silken priest, with an elegant gesture, sprinkles water three times on the dear little baby and dries his hands gracefully with the towel' (in Pridmore, p. 35).

Baptismal life is not graceful, it's not the icing on the cake for baby; it's like water - unpredictable and overwhelming.

It's a strange fact of life on this planet that we cannot do without the very thing that in times of flood, claims so many lives: Philip Larkin said of water that it would be the main element if he were to design a new religion:

'If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church 
Would entail and fording
To dry; different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.'

Water: unpredictable and overwhelming. But then again it can let the light through.

Much of Church life is controlled - we are unsure of unpredictability and we fear being overwhelmed (especially us recovering control freaks). 

As with the prophet Ezekiel's vision of the river flowing through the city of God, we must be prepared for the shallows to become deeper and deeper till we're wading up to our chest. Only then will Epiphany happen - a true revelation of the divine in everyday life.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Unwrapping Christ

Epiphany Sunday, 2014.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 

A large part of Christmas is about presents and the myriad ways there are of asking for, planning, listing, ordering, choosing, buying, disguising, wrapping, posting, delivering and opening presents, for ourselves and for our loved ones.
I wonder if the way we 'do' Christmas presents says something about our personalities.
Do you buy last minute, or plan months in advance?
A great refrain in our household is 'why don't we buy all the presents in October?' but to date this idea has never come off.
And every year in the January sales I toy with the idea of getting all my presents half price...
Do you hand make your wrapping paper? (we actually have someone in the extended family who does this...)
Do you wrap each present with a bow?
Or do you find some paper from last year, smooth it out and scribble a note on in biro?
Do you like surprises?
Do you prefer lists?
Do you prefer to buy the things you want yourself and ask someone for the money?
The permutations are endless.

I had quite a busy run up to Christmas, what with family preparations and services...I don't want to alarm anybody but after Christmas Day, when I was on my week's holiday, I sat down and read a novel by Sue Townsend called The Woman who went to bed for a year.
In it, Eva Beaver, 50 year old wife of an emotionally incapable astronomer called Brian, decides to retreat to her bed in order to withdraw from the world and take stock of her rather sad and directionless life.
She goes to bed on September 19th and is still there as Christmas approaches, much to the horror of her family.
About three weeks before Christmas she sits her husband down to give him instructions on how to 'do' Christmas without her.
The resulting page of terribly complicated instructions (which completely defeat Brian) about ordering things, picking up things, buying things and running out of things really strikes a chord and is enough to make you weep at the complexity we have introduced to the season of gift giving
(read section bottom of page 184, to top of 186).

And so we come to Epiphany Sunday.
I always find myself running back to the commentaries and dictionaries for this Sunday.
Epiphany is one of those words which flits in and out of everyday language - a revelation, a sudden realisation about something or means revealing or manifestation.

We were reminded through Advent that the mystery of the ages, God in us, was somewhat hidden through the Old Testament and even in the New.
We recalled patriarchs, prophets, John the Baptist and Mary, all of whom pointed to the Messiah, those pointers getting stronger as we progressed.
Our Epistle today tells us that there is a 'plan for the fullness of time'; a plan to 'gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth' (Ephesians 1:10).
Something once hidden has been revealed.
So today, as we come into Epiphany, the theological question we are faced with is this:

What is revealed and how are we to respond?

Like present giving at Christmas...we ask, what have we be given, and how should we respond?
That's why our liturgy, our observing of the liturgical year, informs our minds as well as our hearts.
We understand that we've been given something at Christmas, a baby born as one of us.
But now we're in Epiphany, we ask ourselves, what does this gift reveal and how should we respond?

There are two thoughts for us to take away: 

We're told that the purpose of the journey of the Magi to the Christ child was to pay him homage (or 'home-age' as many a primary school child has mistakenly pronounced).
This phrase means, of course, to worship, but it implies physical prostration, a complete giving, not just of gifts, but of oneself.

The Magi have seen the star of the Messiah and it indicates this being is worthy of worship.
Since only God is worthy of worship we can safely assume that these strangers from the East realised from the outset that the one toward whom they were journeying was divine.
Very God from very God, begotten, not created.
Their journey is therefore not just physical - they are changed by their encounter.
They came into the place where the young child lay and prostrated themselves before giving their gifts.
They had sought the Messiah in the halls of power and prestige but were re-directed to a humble dwelling where lay God in the flesh.
This is perhaps the first thing to take away this Epiphany Sunday. 
We are made for worship and real worship, real encounter with the divine, changes us.
That is why we put all our efforts into preparing to worship when we gather - the quality of what we do here on a Sunday matters - it is a place of encounter.
It is about encountering the living God, through the building, through the music, through prayer, the Word and the sacrament, and being changed.
If not changed, it is perhaps not worship.
We say in our mission statement that we seek to be a worshipping family, and that is our core purpose, along with a second thing to take away today - namely, that this gift is for sharing.

The first Sunday of Epiphany is dedicated to the thought that this gift has been revealed to the Gentiles.

In other words, to strangers.
The Magi were from the East, they were not Jews, they didn't share the same religious heritage, but the God of all nations called them through their study of the stars and they set out to find the King.
And that is what we once were - outsiders.
A great drawback of the privatisation of faith today is that people assume that God is for people who go to church and everyone else is fine without him.
This is not the message of Epiphany. Or of Christmas. Or of Easter, for that matter (or of Pentecost).
Christ is a gift for all mankind.
He is for sharing.
So if Christ is a gift for all mankind, not just people inside churches, how should we respond?
Who are the people whom God is calling who are not yet part of our fellowship?
'While Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea, there came wise men from the East...'
'While the Christians in Whitchurch were worshipping in St Mary's....' what? What is going on out there in our community spiritually?
Someone has defined mission as finding out what God is doing and joining in.
That sounds like a good resolution to make for 2014.
Find out where God is in our community and join in!
The gospel today begins and ends with strangers.
We need to think about that as we go into 2014 wishing to be faithful to our calling to be bearers of the Good News.
The Messiah's arriving has meaning for all people.

We have asked on this Epiphany Sunday, What is revealed and how should we respond?

We have seen that what is revealed is none other than the Messiah, the saviour of all mankind.
Our response is, simply, to worship, and to share him.

May God give us the desire, the opportunity and the grace to worship and share him as this new year begins.