Do you prefer your eggs Sunny Side Up? Breakfast with Lazurus

Go to an American diner for breakfast and chances are that you will be asked how you would like your eggs. The most popular option is Sunny Side Up (I know we Brits prefer more explicitly culinary terms like fried or poached). 

In asking for our eggs Sunny Side Up we are in some ways suggesting that breakfast is an optimistic meal, it sets us up for the day. The Brits have also been encouraged to regard breakfast with, as psychologists may put it, unconditional positive regard. We may not ask for our eggs Sunny Side Up, but, we have been encouraged to ‘go to work on an egg.’ (If  your are less than 45 you may not remember this strap line!)

Sunny Side Up provides an interesting parallel to a particular Christian narrative, one that goes something like this: Become a Christian, enter ever deeper into a relationship with the Divine, grow in faith, be blessed with an increase in the Fruits of the Spirit, become (alongside you worshiping community) a visible witness to the transformed life, encourage existing fellow believers and, in time, attract others (non believers) to the Christian faith.

There is nothing wrong with this narrative, in fact there is a lot right with it, for in short it is called hope, and, hope, fed by faith, and revealed through love, is a distinctively Christian virtue. So please do not for one minute think that I am dismissing this narrative for, like many, it is part of my own story. Every single Christian, after all, has at some stage been evangelized. 

But, unfortunately it is an incomplete account of what real Christian life may be like, for living as Christians, also means living in the midst of darkness and, let’s not be too prissy about this, downright evil. Unfortunately, evil is not an abstract concept, something out there which fails to relate to us. Evil, like love (which always wins in the end) is perhaps better viewed as a relational verb, as opposed to an abstract noun. Holy Week surely teaches us this, for Jesus in Holy Week, becomes the very human focus for all that is evil.

But, we must not fall into the romantic trap of thinking ‘job done’ we are free from all that is dark,  or evil, Jesus has done it all for us. We must continue to live in hope, whilst recognizing that hope itself is only meaningful as an antidote to darkness (just like faith is the antidote to unbelief and, love to hate). If everything was perpetually rosy, we wouldn’t need to live in hope.

In Holy Week Jesus was brutalized by both the faith community (surely this couldn’t happen today?!) and, their political masters. Whilst Christians rightly live in hope both for themselves and others, we must also understand that the transformed life will also attract ridicule, rejection and downright evil. Pointing towards Christ is a risky business. Just ask Lazarus, for in Monday’s gospel reading we are given the following deeply disturbing detail:

‘When the crowd of Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many Jews were deserting and believing in Jesus,’ 
(John 12, 11).

History does not tell us what happened next; did Lazarus survive or, was he (not Steven) the first Christian martyr? 

Can you live Sunny Side Up, in the midst of darkness? 

With an apology to John Bunyan

Something funny has occurred recently. The idea of pilgrimage,or journey, has become deeply ingrained in my mind. Ever since I started to think about pilgrimage my daily bible readings have ganged up on me, I can’t get away from the subject! It’s the Christian equivalent of buying a new car, the model and color combination of which you though was very rare, only to suddenly discover that countless other drivers have also chosen the same model and design!  

In my desire to escape pilgrimage I have employed the time honored Christian strategy of changing the Prayer Books I use. Surely different texts provide alternative insights, or revelations?

But no, they are all ganging up on me, around the one central theme that has been whispered into my heart. The Celts are up to it, so are the Benedictines and even the Anglicans, through the week day Lectionary. God, it seems, is ecumenical. 

So let’s have a look at some of the recent passages that I have been unable to avoid:

Today’s readings from the Northumbria Community (Celtic Daily Prayer) includes Jeremiah 6, 16 (just one verse, so the message can’t somehow get lost in the midst of a larger reading): ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the way is good,and walk in it.’

Or how about this from Sunday’s Northumbria readings,Isaiah 35, 8: ‘And a highway will be there, it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way.’

The Lectionary, meanwhile, provides us with Psalm 23, ‘though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and you staff they comfort me.’

So it seems that walking along the Way of Holiness does not preclude walking through the shadowy side of life, or even encountering real, undiluted evil, but it does mean that on our pilgrim journey we are accompanied by Jesus. We may not always recognize His presence, but this does not mean He is not with us, tending to us. As today’s psalm in Saint Benedict’s Prayer Book stresses (Psalm 121): ‘May he never allow you to stumble! Let Him sleep not, your guard. No, he sleeps nor slumbers Israel’s guard. The Lord, is your guard and your shade; at your right hand he stands………the Lord will guard you from evil, he will guard your soul. The Lord will guard your coming and going both now and forever.’ 

Both the Northumbria Community and the Lectionary have, in recent weeks, colluded to stress the fact that the Lord meets us as we walk. The onus is on us to stand at the crossroads and look, before choosing to take the Way of Holiness, in the full knowledge that it won’t all be plain sailing, in fact at times our journey will be painful and, costly but, that we will be met by the Lord, or at least by one of His followers (i.e. us!).

On Sunday the New Testament reading for the Northumbria liturgy was Acts 8, 35 where Philip meets the ‘pilgrim eunuch’ and shares the good news of Jesus with him. Earlier in the month the Lectionary provided a wonderful reading from the prophet Hosea (Hosea 6,3 & 4) ‘let us acknowledge the Lord, let us press on to acknowledge him. As surely as the sun rises, he will appear, he will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth.’

Taking pilgrimage seriously is important for several reasons: First, it allows us to accept the obvious fact that our life experiences are something of a mixed bag. Secondly, it encourages us to focus on progress, rather than the fixed bipolar metrics of success and failure. Thirdly, it reminds us that our walk is never unaccompanied. Finally, pilgrimage liberates us from the responsibility for assessing our worth against a set of, in reality, fairly arbitrary outcomes. The success-failure model can, I suggest, exclude God for, it carries the whiff of being a highly individualistic. 

John Bunyan famously encapsulated some of these ideas in The Pilgrim’s Progress; a real Christian classic. My prayer is that I, no we, rediscover the notion of pilgrimage, otherwise all we are left with is narrow notions of success and failure (neither of which are Biblical categories). Success  and failure are however seductive concepts because they are both competitive and relative. My success implies your failure, for instance. Success and failure cannot accommodate the Benedictine idea of transformation of life, the Pilgrim’s Progress in other words. Finally, success and failure are both triumphalist. If we succeed we feel good (proud?), if we fail we feel bad (guilty, worthless?). 

in 1 Corinthians 15, 55 (thank you Benedictine Prayer Book!) St. Paul famously asks: ‘Where O death is your victory? Where O death is your sting?’

I suspect that the answer to this lies in our attitude towards the narrative of pilgrimage viz a viz the success-failure account of life. If we are truly on the Pilgrim Journey, a journey whose only meaningful metric is progress (where progress is all about an ever deepening relationship with Jesus), it is hard to locate death’s sting.

In the success-failure account, by contrast, locating the sting is very easy; it’s either in the pride of success, or the guilt of failure. It’s in the comfort of relativity and the exercise of power. It’s in the value of achievement over person-hood. It’s in seeing our significance in human terms rather than through God’s eyes. It’s in a narrow and highly muscular distortion of Christianity. 

So I need to apologize to John Bunyan for not taking pilgrimage seriously enough and, for preferring to live in the laziness of the success-failure prism. 

I need to chose the path on which I will walk. I need to accept that the garden is not always rosy, whatever, choices I make. But, having stood at the crossroads and made my choice I need to press on, knowing that I will be accompanied.

Are you on a pilgrimage?

Mind your language!

I can distinctly remember my mother threatening to wash my mouth out with soap and water after I had uttered some form of mild swear word; words which today are more likely to be regarded as slang! Oh, how our children have an easier time of it! 

At college (by the way only three months to go to ordination) we have recently been given cause to reflect on the words we use and, the way we use them.

Earlier this week many commentators praised Pope Francis for the simplicity, in both language and style, shown when he greeted the people of Rome, as their Bishop. Of course the name Francis implies simplicity. Francis understood that onlookers would correlate the words he used with the style of papacy he will adopt.

A guest lecturer, a remarkable lady who deliberately lives alongside the poor, made two very interesting observations. First, she challenged us to make our sermons simple and profound, always guarding against the temptation to talk down to people (simple and superficial) or to use our newly acquired theological training to show off (complex and superficial). Secondly, she described how she refuses to use a selection of words originating from the social sciences. For example, she doesn’t use the word empowerment, for some people will never have power and, the word empowerment implies, from her perspective, unhealthy individualism  She believes a better word, a more Christian word, is significance. Each individual whether they are independent, interdependent  or indeed highly dependent, should be treated as significant for no other reason than God regards them as significant.

In a lecture on Monday students were asked how they would know whether their initiatives in ministry were a success or, a failure. The problem, from my perspective, is that success and failure are absolutes, measured one against the other. Focusing on success and failure, and measuring them through metrics borrowed from the secular world, may be the enemy of Christian concepts such as pilgrimage. An overt focus on success or failure may lead to either pride or guilt, dependent on the outcome. Pilgrimage, by contrast is kinder, more pastoral, as it focuses on the journey itself.

I believe that if we wish to pastor or minister we have a duty to think about the words we use and, to critically evaluate the use of words, phrases, concepts offered to the Church by two of the great evangelistic movements of the twentieth century: the management sciences and ‘pop’ psychology. We need to use words that reflect our faith, we need to offer hope and love even when the metrics offered by the secular world would indicate failure or lack of empowerment. The words we use both from the pulpit and, in the street are missionary words – they say something about us, our beliefs and the God we follow. Words have power, let’s use them wisely.

I think St. Benedict was correct when he wrote, quoting Proverbs 18, 21 ‘the tongue holds the key to life and death,’ and, in the ninth step of humility, that ‘in a flood of words you will not avoid sinning,’ (Proverbs 10, 19) followed by ‘a talkative man goes about aimlessly on earth,’ (Psalm 139, {140}, 12).  

So words are important, they are tools of mission and, according to Proverbs, directly related to salvation. Food for thought!

Do you need to wash your mouth out with soap and water?

Economic, political, religious and, deeply personal choices in Lent.

Life is about choices, some mundane, tea or coffee for instance, some important, to make contact with a friend, to choose to wait until we have more information about a a particular decision and, some crucial.

The Christian believes that the choices we make have not only temporal but, eternal consequences.

Lent is a time to evaluate our life choices and, the model for this is Jesus’ own temptation in the desert.

I sometimes think that we sanitize this part of Jesus’ narrative, failing to understand that He really was tempted, seriously, deeply tempted, to make the wrong choices. He was tempted to achieve power, status and glory in three ways:

  • He was offered economic power. Just think how his entrepreneurial stock would sore if he took the route of turning stones into bread. And, ponder for a moment how easy it would be to justify  this course of action as Holy, after all he would have been able to provide real, physical, food for an impoverished people. But, unlike the Feeding of the Five Thousand, such a feeding would  be bereft of any spiritual content, or holiness. Acceptance of this temptation would have provided Jesus with the opportunity for self-delusion, he would have been able to feel good about a bad choice. The Devil’s first temptation is subtle, nuanced and clever.
  • He was offered political power and again he rejected it. If he had accepted the temptation for political power,by jumping into the abyss and being saved by the angels He would have achieved instant fame. Through the spectacular He would have secured a following. His followers, however, would be limited those addicted to, or impressed by the spectacular and, the cult of the leader (sadly this phenomena is also a feature of religious life). Such followers could never have become true, world changing disciples, as again there would be no spiritual connection with their leader . The Christ of Palm Sunday would not have been possible. The three days of Easter could not have happened. The Devil’s second temptation is less subtle instead going straight to the heart of the human ego, he plays on the desire to be liked and followed, through what we do, rather than who we are. It is the equivalent of that most annoying of dinner party questions ‘what do you do?’
  • He was offered religious power, through the practice of Devil worship. Instead Jesus chooses to worship God, even though He knows that this will lead Him to feel forsaken (in the Garden of Gethsemane). The third temptation is the most crude and, yet in many ways the most scientific for the Devil is a good anthropologist. He knows that human beings are designed to worship (after all he is the Devil largely because of his own worship choices) and that, and this is a sobering thought, our worship can only be directed in one of two directions, evil or good.

The consequences of Jesus’ rejection of His temptations are played out through the subsequent Gospel stories. He is able to feed people both physically and spiritually, He is able to provide a model for a different form of leadership, and He is able to accept His destiny, even though he knows that He will feel forsaken.  The Easter story reveals the eternal consequences of Jesus’ choices. Ultimately His choices are salvific; both for Him, and us, His disciples.

Lent provides us with the opportunity, strengthened by His grace, to face down our temptations and, I guess,  modern temptations can still be categorized as entrepreneurial, political or religious. I think that the desire for power is both the virtue (or vice)and, the engine of temptation. Jesus instead offers an ethic of self-sacrificial love.

One final thought, if you can bear it: just imagine Jesus had succumbed. What would have happened? I have a nagging suspicion that He might still have gone to the Cross, not willingly, but, in total rejection of His destiny, because the power that He exercised would still have been an affront to the Roman and Jewish leaders (the politicians and the religious leaders) but, that there would be no resurrection glory as His religious leader (the Devil) would have no interest in securing either His, or our, eternal destiny. Under this scenario Jesus would be no more that a figure of historical interest, just another example of someone who challenged the status quo for a brief period and, lost. Thanks be to God for Jesus real Lenten choices.

This Lent what choice will you, and your church make; power or love? 

Do you agree that Lenten choices are salvific , both for ourselves and others?