(My) Word of the week

Earlier this week, as I was about to enter into a potentially fraught family situation, a friend of mine, encouraged me to ‘go gently.’ His advice struck a chord; it felt like a word being whispered into my heart from a higher power. Yet, his words were in themselves offered gently. 

Yesterday, when, to paraphrase the Beatles, ‘all my troubles seemed not very far away,’ the word gentle reappeared. This time through my nightly prayer (I am currently using David O’Malley’s Prayers to Close my Day – highly recommended, it is stunning value for money, and uses contemporary language). 

In turning to God the Opening Prayer uses the form of words: 

‘Thank you for your gentleness, with which you surround me in this evening’s silence. May it penetrate and settle my thoughts and feelings.’ This short extract provides insights into the quality, geography and biology of gentleness. It is conceived as a form of love which surrounds (geography) and is to be discovered in silence (more geography) and penetrates (biology) before settling our thoughts and feelings. In settling our thoughts and feelings gentleness restores and redeems us. Gentleness, it seems, is God’s ‘natural antidote’ to the inevitable stresses and strains of life. It is to be found, in silence, in communion, with God.

Although God wants to be gentle with us, and to teach us to be gentle with ourselves and others, the initiative is not all God’s. He offers the invitation, we are called onto respond. God’s RSVP, as it were, can be found in Matthew 28, 11: ‘Tired, warn out? Come to me you who are weary and exhausted with worries, and you will find rest for your soul. Walk with me, work with me, learn from me. I am gentle and have a loving heart. Learn from the unforced rhythms of Grace (I love this ‘gentle reminder’). I will not lay upon you any burden too great for you. Come to me and learn to rest in my presence.’ 

Lovely!

So it appears that ‘gently’ is my word of the week, given to my by a friend and whispered again, and again (so it penetrates my thick skull!) through Scripture. 

‘What words are being given to you? And, how are you receiving them?

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Dawkins, the Blessed Virgin and the challenge of evangelism.

I need to be up front and honest: I am far more sympathetic to faith as a lived mystical experience than I am to faith at the centre of a rationally conceived encounter with the Divine.

I have chosen my words carefully, seeking to express how I am drawn into faith, whilst accepting that all journeys into faith are equally legitimate. All faith is ‘conceived,’ this has always been the case in the Christian faith, just think of the birth of Jesus, conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin.

I suppose, thinking of my own experience, whilst I write, that I can, or even did, become a theist based on some level of rational analysis, but became a Christian through a mystical encounter. The sheer majesty and truth of which is reinforced through the Christian calender. 

Harvest reinforces the mystery of creation (and its subsequent fall). Advent provides a carefully designed fallow period, where we wait for Christmas, pregnant with anticipation, Christmas celebrates the mystery of the birth of Christ and then onto Lent, where we remember (for a second time!) our ability to cock it all up , followed by the Easter season where we celebrate all that Christ accomplished on the cross. Pentecost invites us to remain open to the work of the Holy Spirit and  to the God of all possibilities. The core sacraments of baptism and Eucharist provide the opportunity to enter into the entirety of the Christian story whenever they are celebrated (it is for this reason that I believe that the Eucharist should be celebrated weekly – I like Robert Webber’s pithy analysis that ‘the cup without the word is empty, the word without the cup is incomplete.’) The liturgical calender powerfully invites those who live through it to enter into the entirety of the Christian story, enacting our core beliefs (the Creeds in other words), in as Mary might have put it ‘in imagination of their hearts.’ 

Mary of course was famous for pondering all things in her heart and it is worth asking ourselves where we locate our own ponderings?  

I think that the evangelical questions facing all of us are:

‘Are we stimulating the imagination of the heart?’ 

‘Have we, in reality, become the products of an intellectual system that only regards that which can be empirically proven to be meaningful and modified our approach to mission and ministry accordingly?’

You can guess how I would answer my own questions!

My problem with much of contemporary evangelism is that it fails to stimulate the imagination in a way that allows people, using Mary as the prototype, to move from conception to resurrection. Mary shows us  that by pondering all things in the heart the strength can be found to go to the foot of the cross and, ultimately to experience resurrection joy. Yes we need renewal of the mind but how much more do we need to capture the heart. 

My fear is that an exclusive focus on the mind can only lead either to a dry faith (maybe one that through liturgical style masquerades as a lively faith!), abstract theism, or a fundamental rejection of the Gospel message. Some of those who fundamentally reject the gospel become our fiercest critics, the fundamental atheists. But here is a challenge to us:

‘Is fundamental atheism, of the sort successfully propagated by evangelists such as Richard Dawkins, in part a consequence of a crisis in Christian evangelism, a crisis made manifest by our inability to capture the imagination of the heart? If it is we are all complicit! Now that is a scary and sobering thought!

Word is not the same as words; the paradox of Christian teaching.

Jesus often taught in pictures: ‘the kingdom of God is like……….’ etc. 

Perhaps Jesus was aware (after all He stands both inside and outside of time and space as we understand it) of the colloquialism that ‘a picture paints a thousand words,’ or that Ignatian spirituality would later stress the importance of meditative techniques in which participants imagined their way into a given gospel account, either a parable or an historical event. Maybe Jesus was also aware that twentieth century educationalists and psychologists would discover NLP  which stresses that individuals are programmed to learn either through words, pictures or feelings.

Of course Jesus had to paint pictures and encourage the use of the imagination because he was bringing the good news of the kingdom into a largely illiterate society. But more than this, he was bringing the kingdom into a society controlled by  the most skillful of wordsmiths; the Scribes and the Pharisees.

‘Surely not!’ I hear you say! It’s hard for us to imagine a society such as this, isn’t it!?

Forgive my cynicism.

However if my cynicism has some merit there are surely lessons to be learnt?

Contemporary wordsmiths, such as me, need to understand and adapt their ‘teaching styles,’ accordingly. A visiting lecturer once made this point to me. She told me how effective my lectures were for students who learn through words, but how useless the same lectures were for ‘visuals’ and ‘kinesthetics.’

Looking back I think that I was guilty of two sins.

First, I was indulging my own preferences (I like words and can’t see the point of graphs, pie charts etc!l) without considering the needs of others.

Secondly, there was in reality a bit of a power game going on, you see in today’s world we really do endorse and promote those who are good with words. Richard Dawkins ‘theology,’ for instance, only sells well because he is good with words (by way of encouragement his sales are minuscule compared to the religious best-sellers, so please let’s keep a sense of proportion). The Scribes and Pharisees commanded respect, and not a little fear, because they were good with words, and they knew it. Words and power are inextricably linked.

Christian educators are therefore faced with a paradox: We are charged with preaching the gospel afresh in every age, in other words introducing individuals and communities to The Word, without necessarily relying on words. Word with a capital W cannot, should not, be reduced to  words. Too much emphasis in our teaching on words is to deny the possibility of  a Divine encounter with those who, through His creation, relate through pictures and feelings. How we teach goes back to the doctrine of creation!

So all of this leads me to these  questions:

‘What constitutes good Christian teaching?’

‘What doctrines and ethics that should guide our teaching?’ 

‘Does our teaching style simply confirm the status quo?’ Sadly, for many churches, perhaps (again paradoxically) those who stress a ‘strong / good teaching,’ I suspect that it does!

Post script:

My favorite picture this week was of Egyptian Muslims standing guard for Roman Catholics as they went to Mass. I was going to include the picture but decided not to (honesty moment – it is partly because I am a technophobe), so why not as a quasi Ignatian exercise imagine yourself into such a scene?

Toy Story Theology

When my children were, in the words of the Beatles ‘so much younger than today,’ one of their favorite films was Toy Story.

It really caught the imagination to the extent that whenever they took a risk or did something exciting, such as the water slide at the local swimming pool, they would yell at the top of their voices (and yes I did occasionally feel embarrassed):

‘To infinity and beyond,’ the famous words of Buzz Light Year.

Isn’t it amazing that for a child, such is their openness, the world really is full of infinite possibilities. Maybe this is what Jesus really meant when he asked us to come to Him as a child? Be open, let ordinary experiences be transformed into something far more interesting, bring your imagination, be playful, don’t let your experiences be limited solely to that which can be comprehended through cognitive skills. Perhaps,be wise?

Surely to live out our lives of faith in a way that invites the God of all possibilities to shape our lives is a life worth living? Whats’s the alternative? The singer-songwriter Passenger hits the nail on the head when he writes that, ‘you build your heart of plastic become cynical and sarcastic and end up in the corner on your own.’

Today’s New Testament reading from Celtic Daily prayer, Acts 12, 7-12, has a touch of the Buzz Light Year’s about it. The imprisoned Peter, chained and heavily guarded, is suddenly visited and released by an Angel of the Lord. The impact on Peter was so stunning (it would be, wouldn’t it!?) that he thinks that he he is having a dream, or a vision. But no what he is in the midst of is reality, a world of infinite possibilities, possibilities beyond his ken.

Interestingly Peter understands the reality of his experience through his physical senses (Christian spirituality is holistic with mind-body-soul working animating each other)  after he had ‘walked the whole length of a street,’ and after the angel had left him. It was the experience of absence that verified the experience, importance of, presence!

So this our challenge:

‘Are we with Peter and Buzz Light Year open to the possibility of going to infinity and beyond?’