Humanity, Divinity, Pilgrimage, Pain -Reflecting through Hebrews

Over the last few days the New Testament readings for the Eucharist have been taken from the book of Hebrews; and what insights they provide. The writer famously reminds us that the Word of God is alive and active. The Word (Jesus) is not some benign, passive entity (why would anyone want to worship such a God?) but alive and, involved. His involvement is at the deepest level of our humanity, our pain and suffering. This is good news.

His involvement is not contingent on how we feel, indeed the message given in the epistle is that he, the Word, knows what it is like to suffer: ‘Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested,’ (2, 18), and that ‘we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin,’ (2,15). The fact that He has suffered and been tested means that we can approach our advocate and savior with confidence assured, of His mercy and grace (2, 16).

Of further comfort is the thought that we can, indeed must, approach Him in our weakness. This is in fact our priestly calling. The priest is only able to ‘deal gently with the wayward and ignorant since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as those of the people,’ (5, 2-3).

Recently I have been feeling weak, bogged down by life, anxious and unsure. The letter to the Hebrews provides much comfort, Jesus  knows how I feel, He has walked my walk and, He wants to use my weaknesses in His service. Thanks be to God.

Will you offer your trials and weaknesses to Jesus for His blessing?

St. Benedict, John the Evangelist and Mitch Albom; Kenosis and arousal.

Towards the end of last week the the daily gospel reading was from the end of John Chapter 3. John provides us, or at least me, with a huge challenge: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease,’ (John 3 ,30). Decreasing, accepting and instigating a lessening of self is, counter cultural for a society driven by statistics, even where the statistics used have no obvious relation to happiness and meaning. Is the person with the most Facebook ‘friends’ or the most followers on Twitter really living the most meaningful life? The diminishing of self is also counter cultural for a society infested with neurosis and anxiety but, which has become attuned to masking its fears.

Decreasing is all about the giving away of self, in love, so the other may grow. It is about shedding the masks we put up and the fictions we create to generate self-esteem. It is about getting rid of  the negatives which bind us, and if we are not careful can come to characterize us. When we decrease in stature we learn to play the orchestras most difficult instrument, second fiddle. We allow Christ and, others to take centre stage, to receive our full attention, we invest in others a sense of hope. The Greek word for this form of emptying is Kenosis, and it turns out that Kenosis is actually rather good for us. Kenosis can provide us with a true picture of ourselves; the me that’s left after all the pretenses and anxieties have been stripped away, the only form of me that’s of any heavenly use.  It is this form of self that Benedict wishes to see arise in verse 8 of the Prologue, for when we are Kenotic both we and others can ‘arise.’ John the Baptist knew that his theological task was to diminish himself and, in so doing opened the way for humanities most significant gift: Jesus Christ.

Mitch Albom in Tuesdays with Morrie and Have a Little Faith provides a highly enjoyable (and inter-faith) account of Kenosis in action. These are two wonderful, and short, theological novels which I recommend in exploring the benefits of the development of the Kenotic self.

What steps do I need to take to decrease so He, and others, may increase?

Love the motor of prayer?

I must admit I don’t really understand prayer. Why do we do it, why does it work, or not work? And, how should we pray? And, yes, I know we have the Lord’s Prayer, given to us by Jesus, when he was asked how we should pray. I also know the advice about locking yourself in room and, the lesson on humility provided through the story of the impressive and devout fellow and, the tax collector.

But,  sometimes, perhaps mostly, my own prayer life is very thin. ‘Dear Lord please do so and so, resolve this or that  situation, etc.’ My prayers are frequently contingent and transactional in nature. If god, and here I am deliberately using a small g, would only get his act together, then so could I!

And, there are clear reasons to offer such prayers, for life can be crappy and situations painful. And, the miraculous can be highly entertaining, requiring no effort or involvement on our part. 

Over the last few days the daily readings for the lectionary have taken us through 1 John. 1 John uses the contrast between dark and light to great effect. Another major theme is love and, in the game of love, John (let’s not carry on  calling him 1 John!) makes it clear that the first mover advantage lies with God for, he loved us first.

John also urges prayer: ‘if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from Him anything we ask, because we obey His commands and do what pleases him. And, this is what pleases him: to believe in the name of His son, and to love one another as he commanded us.’ 1 John, 3 21-23. God’s one rule appears to be love. 

Is love underpinning and guiding our prayers? Does praying in love alter the content and nature of prayer?

New Year, New Ventures: support from the Celts and Benedictines.

I don’t know about you but when everyone flees the nest to start a new term, or to begin a new venture, I always feel slightly anxious, and yes, a little bit downcast; a bit blue. Perhaps, this is just my nature. Anyway, its how I feel today as I prepare to start the new term at Cuddesdon and, as I take my eldest daughter back to school (where I know she will be brilliantly served). My wife starts her course again tomorrow, my younger daughter begins term in a couple of days time.

I am also aware that many of my friends and family are entering into new phases of their life, in some cases their ministry. They, no doubt, will be feeling that strange mix of hopeful anticipation and mild anxiety. All of us have just begun a new calender year. What will providence bring our way? What do we hope for and, what do we fear? How are we (Winston Churchill) to  ‘keep buggering on?’

Well,may be the Celtic and Benedictine traditions can help. The liturgy for the very brief midday prayer from the Celtic Prayer Book incorporates the words of  Psalm 90 verse 17, ‘let the beauty of the Lord our God shine upon us and establish thou the work of our hands,’ whilst in the Prologue to Benedict’s rule we are encouraged to ‘first of all, every time you begin a good work, you must pray to him most earnestly to bring it perfection.’ Benedict provides us with the answer, prayer, the Celts with some words that we can use as we think of the days, weeks, and years ahead.Very ecumenical!

What are we both hopeful and anxious about? As the hymn suggests can we ‘take it to the Lord in prayer?’ Go on you know it makes sense.

Careful Listening

St. Benedict begins the Prologue to his rule with the words ‘listen carefully,’ I have read the prologue countless times and, for some reason, perhaps a lack of care, have focused solely on the word listen. But, to listen without care is, maybe, not to listen at all?

Care, kairos, is a virtue. Listening carefully means to pay attention, not simply to the words themselves but to the person speaking. Careful listening means paying full attention, and listening with the ear of the heart, not just the ears and the brain. Careful listening also means paying attention to one’s own responses and, reflecting on them. Careful listening implies openness and, an acceptance that our initial, gut, responses may be wrong. Careful listening respects the other and nurtures ourselves. Careful listening has the potential to truly transform.

This year can I take the time to listen carefully?

Treasuring and Pondering

‘But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart,’ (Luke 2,19).

Mary had been visited first by an angel then, after the baby was born, by the shepherds. Each visitor had a story to tell, words of advice and encouragement. The shepherds encouraged by the angels, so we are told, hurried to see Mary and the baby. After a fleeting visit they departed in order to tell anyone who would listen what they had seen and heard.

For Mary, information was coming quick and fast, and it was all good news. Indeed, of such quality was the news that she ‘treasured it’ and, unlike the shepherds who rushed off to speak, simply ‘pondered’ their words in her heart. Mary knew that she had a special child; the special child. She knew that He would cause excitement. She knew that unrefined impulse would cause others to rush off to speak and act as soon as they had encountered her child.

The gospels (especially Mark) contain many accounts of encounters where Jesus specifically asks the beneficiary of His grace not to speak about what had happened, but, like many of us (me included!) these individuals were unable to keep still and, to ponder what had happened to them in their heart, nurturing an even deeper level of understanding and, an ever more valuable storehouse of treasure.

Do we feel compelled to react, to speak in response to events, information and good news, or, like Mary, have we developed the capacity to ponder in order to understand the true significance of what we have seen and heard?