Hospital evangelism – a tribute to my step-father (an unwitting Franciscan!)

Last Wednesday the Rev’d Mike Withers died. I learnt a lot from Mike, my step-father. 

The way he died, Bible in hand, (placed there by a wonderful Sue Ryder nurse) was so fitting for someone who had confessed the faith since his ‘conversion’ at Billy Graham’s 1955 Wembley rally. It was a privilege, an enormous privilege, to pray with him, anoint him and give him his final Eucharist. These things all make ministry seem so ‘sacramental,’ so worthwhile. Next week (Monday) is his funeral; please pray for my mum as she mourns her loss. 

The most important lesson I learnt from Mike during his last few days was simply this: His (Jesus’) divinity is revealed through  humanity (His and ours). It’s worth saying this again, ‘His divinity is revealed through humanity.’

Not the diminished, self-serving, self-promoting version of humanity that we often present to the world but, the fullness of our humanity. The humanity that is redeemed by Christ and restored through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.

Doctors, nurses, patients, visitors, chaplains, Uncle Tom Cobbly and all, commented on the grace with which Mike bore his illness. He was able to talk openly, without self-aggrandizement, about his faith and his hope. You see in some way others in the hospital, and then for a few hours in the hospice, saw that Mike was somehow different (and this is not to claim that others do not bear their illnesses with incredible fortitude).

Two other priests, one from a more Protestant Evangelical background, the other a self-confessed Liberal Catholic, made passing comments to me last week on the challenge of contemporary evangelism. The gist of both their arguments was that now is the time for the church to stop talking, stop criticizing and to start showing that true Christianity offers a different, more humane way of life.

Pope Francis has recently linked the sustainability of the Roman Catholic Church to it’s ability to simply be the arms of God’s love in the world. As a Benedictine it pains me to say it (it doesn’t really!) but perhaps now really is the time for the Church listen to St. Francis’ advice to ‘preach the Gospel, using words only when necessary.’ This is what Mike did, and, the way he carried himself invited verbal clarification about his faith.

This model is of course thoroughly biblical. St. Matthew reminds us that our way is to be the way of humility and service (see Matthew 20, 25-28). St. Paul in the letters to the Philippians and the Colossians stresses that His divinity is revealed primarily through His humanity. 

‘And being found in human form, he humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every name so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend……………..’ (Philippians, 2, 8-10).

‘He is the image of the unseen God (i.e. the human image) the first born of all creation………’ (Colossians 1, 15).

But, I hear the wordsmiths say, aren’t we called onto proclaim the Gospel, the very Word or Logos, well yes, I suggest is the answer. But, only when invited, as a consequence of the difference in the way we carry ourselves as redeemed and restored human beings, otherwise we run the risk of appearing shallow and attracting the poor and needy (spiritually and materially) for our own psycho-spiritual benefit.

Jesus knew that this would happen, that his name would be used and abused. St. Matthew provides the starkest of warnings to all in Christian ministry writing that ‘on that day many will say ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” There is a huge, tectonic warning in these questions:  that is the propensity to equate works of power with God’s favor and our salvation (for the really interesting point is that deeds of power did take place, despite the ‘false motives’!) But listen to the reply: ‘Then, I will declare to them.’ I never knew you; go away from me you evil doers,” (Matthew 7, 22 &23).

So perhaps my two priest friends are right. That we need to adopt an increasingly Franciscan approach to mission and ministry? Such an approach requires that we trust in God’s love for all mankind, allowing His love to bring us to the pinnacle of our humanity. Mike certainly did this from his death bed.

Will you join with Mike in becoming a ‘Franciscan Christian?’

‘It’s a restoration job.’ A reflection on free-will.

Philosophers, theologians, geneticists, psychologists, fatalists and consequentialists, and other such ‘luminaries’ have argued about the existence of free-will since time began (that is time as a human invention!).

Now, I believe in free-will. I find it difficult to conceive a God, who Scripture defines in terms of love, limiting the objects of His love to that which is predestined. This would, in my mind, leave us as subjects, in the worse sense of the word, of something other than love. But, I am getting off my point……….

Because, my biggest concern within the free-will debate is not whether free-will is something with which we are imbibed but an excessive emphasis on the idea of ‘will.’

Will, it seems to me, is a highly individualistic word, it also implies that only that for which we truly strive is worth having. Another danger is the implication that through sheer effort, or psychological manipulation, we can become masters of our own destiny, creating our own preferred world, where …. doesn’t happen, (well it does, and we can’t). One final danger is that of ethical and moral relativism; if a given choice is the consequence of my free-will then it must be okay, whatever the consequences on others. We must always remember that free-will, just like democracy (the political manifestation of free-will) is perfectly capable of willing bad, appalling even, results. Will and grace frequently appear at odds with each other.

So my main concerns are not the extent to which free will truly exists but, rather, what is the point (or in philosophical terms telos) of our God-given free will and, the practices by which we can ensure that our free-will achieves its stated desire.

The stated desire, for a Christian, is not and cannot be self-expression, or the ‘right’ to accrue ever more exotic spiritual experiences (see 1 Corinthians 13 where St. Paul nails this point). Instead the aim of our desire must be perfection and union with God, Matthew 5, 48 makes this abundantly clear: ‘Be perfect just as your Heavenly Father is perfect.’ The manifestation of free-will is the beatitudes, (Matthew 5, 1-10). We are called by God, to use our free-will to literally be-those-attitudes (not simply to aspire to them.)

The prophet Micah urges the faithful to do:

‘Only this (so let’s stop adding further stuff on top), to do what is right, to love loyalty and to walk humbly WITH (NOT SIMPLY ALONGSIDE BUT IN PERFECT UNION WITH) your God.’ If we are not doing this (back to St. Paul 1 Corinthians 13) everything we do will be simply noise; it might sound holy (and many noisy / lively churches do), but……

So how do we get to the point where are free-will is brought back, directly in alignment with His, free will, for this is our calling?

I don’t know the full answer! But, I suspect that one things we must do is to sit quietly with God, allowing ourselves to be restored, by the Holy Spirit. Restoration is after all a great act of love and, in the physical world the objects of restoration remain passive (think of antiques or classic cars.) So too with us. We must sit passively before the Great Restorer, allowing ourselves to be restored through Grace. This may be the work of a lifetime but in doing so we might just allow ourselves to become a small part of the answer to the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Thy will be done, thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven.’

Are you allowing yourself to be a restoration project?

Get over your self! Please.

A friend of mine often uses the phrase ‘get over yourself.’ It’s a phrase I like and, yet I think it is more than just a gentle rebuke, or put down. It contains some real truths, some deep theological insights.

The ‘secular’ world (that of false philosophies, popularized by pseudo science) invites us to do the exact opposite. The key to success, happiness perhaps, is popularized through the myth that we can control our own destiny through the purposeful application of our own free will. This is undoubtedly true to an extent but an uncritical acceptance of this dogma is inhospitable to the greater truths within the Judea Christian traditions. 

Let’s consider the title of one of the best selling ‘psychological’  monologues of recent years: ‘Reinventing your life: The breakthrough program to end negative behavior and feel great again.’ The title both indicates the assumptions behind the narrative, and the its ‘theology.’ 

Starting with the assumptions:

Life is an invention. Really! Christians hold to a doctrine of creation. Isn’t creation a softer, kinder, more flexible and yes, creative word? Creation also implies a Creator. Invention, by contrast, inverts the relationship. If we conceive of ourselves as inventors does this leave sufficient scope for the Creator? 

Reinvention implies that we are not in reality very good at invention. The prototype was faulty! The blue print was ill thought through,lacking in realism. On this basis why would the reinvention be any better?  So what is the Christian prototype and blue print? The prototype is the image of God in which we are made, the blue print is Jesus Christ.

So if the blue print is Jesus what does this say about the ‘breakthrough program?’ I think it implies three things:

First, we are created, not invented beings.

Secondly, that something went badly wrong (the Eden experience) and that this experience led us to create false images; covering our private, most intimate, most distinctly human parts with leaves, thereby diminishing our humanity.

Thirdly, our route back to the image of God is one of redemption and restoration, made possible through life in Christ, and not reinvention.

Sadly, the Church, because of the evangelical success of the pseudo-science movement frequently adopts ‘false philosophies.’ In doing so it diminishes the doctrine of creation, leaves no room for grace and trivializes pain and, the notion of pilgrimage.

Our faith is in Jesus not in the ‘invented world.’ In Thomas Merton’s terms we are invited to find our true selves, as opposed to our false or empirical selves. The world believes we thrive when we strive. Christianity is kinder it suggests that we thrive when we cease to strive, when we open ourselves to His grace, when we are still and know that He is God (Psalm 46), when we stop trying to control the world around us and when, we stop measuring our ‘relative value’ in relation to other people.

The really good news is this:

Your value is not relative. It is absolute and infinite. You are not a human invention. You are a Divine Creation. And through the redemptive power of grace you can really thrive.

Stop striving and start thriving. Go on, ‘get over your false self.’

Enough is enough!

Robert Peston is currently presenting a three part documentary (BBC2 9 p.m. Monday) on the history of British shopping 1950 to the current day. His thesis is that in 1950 shopping was regarded as a weekly chore but that by the 1980’s it  had become one of our great British obsessions. When we go shopping we normally have one of two motives:

Replacing stuff which has already been consumed, what economists refer to as ‘consumer staples:’ basic foods, soap, toothpaste, bog roll etc, etc.

Or:

Adding to our collection of ‘discretionary consumables,’ that is items that we don’t actually need, but may have become objects of desire. We need, however, be to be careful, for one of the aims of the consumer marketing industry is to invert the relationship between needs and wants. The trick is to make us believe that unless we have the all new, all singing, all dancing, highly branded item our stock of happiness will diminish, our relative value in the eyes of our peer group depreciate and somehow life will be less wholesome, less worthwhile, perhaps even futile. We all ‘know’ this is a clever ploy, an act of supreme psychological manipulation, by the ad men and women; yet time, after time we fall for it. Why? Simple, because the advertising folk are brilliant psychologists. Worse still they are also highly successful evangelists. Let’s be honest they have helped create an entire nation of shoppers. Consumerism is the new religion.

Tragically, consumerist thought pervades the church. But, it doesn’t need to. In ‘Christ Alone,’ we have enough!  Jesus (Luke 22, 35) asked his disciples ‘when I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals did you lack anything?’ They replied ‘not a thing.’ 

Jesus has freely given Himself to His Church. We encounter Jesus in word, in sacrament and through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Surely, the gospel message is that this is all that is required to fulfill the prayer that ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven,’ is the simple acceptance that we have enough; we have Jesus. He doesn’t need replacing and He cannot be added to, He doesn’t try to manipulate us.

After all He isn’t a consumer item!

Are we a consumer church?