St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Notes for Reflection

July 28                                     NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Genesis 18:20-32; Colossians 2:6:19; Luke 11:1-13*

[This Sunday is designated Social Services Sunday: the readings suggested for that celebration are Micah 6:8-12; James 2:14-17; Matthew 25:31-45.]

Theme:  Prayer is the obvious topic this week.  "Let Us Pray", or "Lord, Teach us to Pray" come immediately to my mind.  But I rather like "Heartfelt Prayer", for reasons that I hope will become clear shortly.

Introduction.  We open with what I have always thought is one of the more bizarre passages of Scripture, and certainly one of the more unorthodox passages on how to pray!  In my less reverential moments I think of it as "the Dutch Auction Approach to Praying" (for very obvious reasons).  Our second reading does not directly relate to prayer, although prayer is one of the fundamental ways in which we may "continue to live our lives in Christ...abounding in thanksgiving".  Our gospel passage gives the kernel of our Lord's teaching on prayer, the first third at least of which we regularly follow, albeit sometimes a little too automatically.  (An elderly priest friend once warned me early in my priesthood that reciting the Lord's Prayer is rather like walking – easy enough until you think what you're doing when you may well trip yourself up!)

Introduction.  For the last two or three weeks I have had a little story buzzing around in my head.  It comes right at the beginning of a book called Field of Compassion by Judy Cannato.  A brief version of the story goes like this.  A man was walking along a beach one day, on his way to inspect a pier, when he heard a strange noise.  Looking around he found it was coming from a young whale that was stuck on a sandbar a few yards out into the water.  There was nobody else in sight so the man decided he had to do something.  He waded out to the whale and when he got to the agitated creature he was uncertain what to do.  He reached out his hands and placed them on the whale's body.  Immediately the animal stopped thrashing about and became calm and still.  Then the man decided the best thing he could do was to try to turn the whale around until it was facing the deeper water.  Very slowly and gently he managed to do this; and when he felt that the time was right he started to push the whale in the right direction.  To his great relief and delight the whale freed itself and headed out to sea.

Whale strandings are, of course, common around our shores so this story probably does have much of an impact on us at first reading.  But think about it for a moment.  Why did the man get involved?  What evolutionary, much less economic, advantage did he gain by getting himself soaking wet, using up time he needed to complete his inspection of the pier, and risking injury from the thrashing animal?  None.  What did he know about whale recuing?  Nothing?  So why did he do what he did?  The clue is in the title to the book.  Another clue is this: I meant to use this story in the Notes two weeks ago, as part of my comments on the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Think about that for a moment: who is my neighbour, asked the lawyer, and in response Jesus told him the Parable.  The real question is not, who is my neighbour, but to whom am I called to be a neighbour?  Two thousand years ago the answer was any human being in need.  And today?  Jesus could use Judy Cannato's story to teach the lawyers (and the rest of us) that we are called to be neighbours to all creatures in need.

And to lead us into this week's topic on prayer.  When is our prayer most real, less likely to be pro forma?  When we care.  When (in the case of intercessory prayer) we are motivated by compassion (as the Samaritan was [Luke 10:33], and as the whale-rescuer was).  Yes, it would be marvellous if we cared as deeply for each and every sick person in the entire world as we do for one of our own family members stricken by illness, but that's not always the case, is it?  We all have fields of compassion, we might say, and our prayer is at its most heartfelt when someone within that field is in need.  Notice how often the Scriptures (especially the Psalms) refer to someone "crying out to the Lord".  That's code for praying heartfelt prayers.  If we're not crying out to the Lord, when we're interceding for someone, then perhaps we should be quiet until we care enough to start crying out.  [We could use that prayer time more profitably to ask the Lord for an increase in our compassion – remembering that compassion means to enter into that other person's suffering, to suffer with them.  Heartfelt prayer is not for the fainthearted! ]

And here's another thing about prayer that we can learn from the Good Samaritan and the whale-rescuer; compassion needs to lead us into service.  We are called to heal the sick, and not just feel really, really sorry for them.  Which reminds me of another helpful little story, this one from my own experience.  Many years ago I belonged to a small church where we were encouraged to offer our own prayers during "the open spot" in The Prayers of the People".  One member regularly prayed for an elderly neighbour who was very lonely.  Eventually the Vicar asked this intercessor to tell our prayer group a bit more about this neighbour of hers.  She told us that the woman had come to New Zealand as a refugee many years ago, she had no family in New Zealand, she hardly went out, she never seemed to have visitors, etc, etc.  So the Vicar asked the intercessor if she might go and visit the neighbour.  "Oh, no!" she said.  "I wouldn't want to intrude on her!  That wouldn't be right."

A final helpful word of wisdom – sadly I have forgotten the author, but I have pondered it often over the years since I first came upon it.  Anon said, "Prayer is not a means by which we attempt to change God's mind about something; rather it is a means by which we give God an opportunity to change our minds about something."

Genesis.  Which, of course, is flatly contradicted by our first reading this morning!  Abraham is trying everything he can to get God to change his mind about the threatened punishment of Sodom.   Subtlety is not his middle name – and you won't find a prayer like this in an Anglican Prayer Book!  But it surely deserves inclusion in any manual on prayer, Anglican or otherwise.  First, this passage a wonderful illustration of the idea that prayer should be a dialogue, not a monologue.  How often do we "say" our prayers, and then leave without giving God an opportunity to have his say?  In fact, here the Lord starts the dialogue: either directly or indirectly he lets Abraham know what he has in mind for Sodom.  Secondly, Abraham "cries out" in protest against this: he is bold (honest) almost to a fault.  Heartfelt prayers are always more truthful than polite.  Abraham cares, but notice what he cares about.  He cares about God's "reputation", his honour, his Name, we might say.  And he cares so much that a short pro forma prayer is out of the question.  He keeps on praying, earnestly and passionately, seemingly bargaining with God.  [No doubt the theologically correct thing to say is that God is testing Abraham, appearing reluctant to act justly to enable Abraham to recognise his own strong feelings for what is right and proper to God's own nature.  But that's not really what it sounds like, is it?  And finally, there is the interesting question of whether or not Abraham's prayer is "granted".  Read on through chapter 19 and decide for yourself – but note that some scenes may offend some readers.

Taking It Personally.

·        Do you agree or disagree that intercessory prayer must be motivated by compassion?

·        What strikes you most about Abraham's prayer in this passage?  How would you describe his attitude towards God?  Is he really concerned for God's "holy name", or is he worried about the inhabitants of Sodom?

·        Can you recall an occasion when you have taken a similar approach in prayer – perhaps in a case where "it just isn't fair" (code for God isn't acting fairly here)?

·        When you pray do you usually give God "equal speaking time", or are your prayers inclined to be monologues?

·        Read verse 33 (omitted from today's passage for some inexplicable reason).  Think about it.  Who makes the first move away – God or Abraham?  So God both initiates and ends the dialogue.  What lesson is there for you in that?


Colossians.  We continue from last week with the breathtaking vision of St Paul of the all-embracing "reach" of Christ.  He makes explicit what is implicit in the realisation that Christ is God incarnate: everything we understand about, for example, the omnipresence of God must equally be said about Christ.  Thus, if it is true that we live and move and have our being in God, then it is equally true that we live and move and have our being "in Christ".  But this week's passage also has an extraordinarily modern tone to it.  It screams "Dawkins!" at us.  Verse 8 (see also verse 4) shows that there is nothing new in the "philosophy" of Messrs Dawkins, Geering and Harris under the sun.  And I suspect that the modern Church, at least in its Anglican manifestation, has much to learn from verses 16-19 (perhaps the reason why these verses are reduced to optional status in the Lectionary – they are too near our ecclesiastical bone).  How often we get obsessed with relatively unimportant, or at best peripheral, issues and obscure the fundamental truths as set out in verses 8-15.


Taking it Personally.


·        Read through verses 6 -14 slowly and prayerfully.  Remind yourself that the "you" addressed in these verses includes you!  When you are sure you have fully absorbed the message (and taken it very personally) give thanks.

·        Focus on verses 6-7, 10 and 12.  Notice the tense: these are not things promised to you for the future – they are things that have already occurred – they are part of your present reality.  Give thanks again.

·        Make your own list, using verses 16-19 as a guide, of the side issues, trivia, and other irritations that have distracted you along the path of faith.  Pray for the gift of discernment.  And abound in thanksgiving!


Luke.  This passage is not quite as strange as the one from Genesis, but each of its three parts has an element of strangeness all its own.  Notice first that the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray.  Isn't that strange?  These are adult Jewish men and they don't know how to pray?  Notice, too, that the question arises after they have watched him praying – a reminder that prayer is essentially something practical, something we do (or don't do).  They are not asking for a master-class on the theoretical under-pinning of prayer – they want to know how to do it.  They refer to the example of John the Baptist who taught his disciples how to pray.  (It would be great to know what he taught them!)  Perhaps this underlines the corporate nature of this teaching: Team John prays that way, and Team Jesus prays this way.  It is our prayer, not my prayer.  Even when I pray it alone, I pray it with the whole Body of Christ.  Verses 5-8 use one of the stranger images of God we will find in Scripture, but the point is clear enough: persistence is a key element of heartfelt prayer.  And verses 9-13 reminds us that the real basis of prayer is God's love and goodness – even if its apparent assurance of 100% success is a little strange.


Taking It Personally.


·        Start with the Lord's Prayer.  Recite it slowly, carefully, "tasting" each phrase.  Notice how it starts and ends with praise.  Do you usually start and end your prayers with praise?

·        Personalise the first petition along the lines: your kingdom come ever more fully in my life, your will be done in my life.  Is that really what you want?  If not, should you abstain from reciting the Lord's Prayer?

·        Are you persistent in prayer, or more likely to "do a oncer"?"

·        Focus on verses 9-10.  Do they accurately reflect your actual experience?

·        In respect of prayer, do you suffer from performance anxiety?  Have you ever asked anyone to teach you how to pray?  Does your local church offer teaching on prayer?  If not, shouldn't it?

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Notes for reflection

July 21                         NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts:  Genesis 18:1-10a; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42*

*[This Sunday is designated National Bible Sunday.  In my view any set of readings from Scripture fits this celebration.  However, The Lectionary suggests Isaiah 45:22-25; Romans 15:1-6; and Luke 4:16-24 might be substituted for those set for this Sunday.]

Theme:  We're spoilt for choice today, depending on which of the three readings most takes our fancy.  The link between the first lesson and the gospel passage would suggest something to do with hospitality.  The first lesson in itself might spawn a whole brood of themes, including (with thanks to Fr Gerard Hughes) "The God of Surprises"; or "The Promise of New Life"; or "Seeing and Believing".  The second lesson might tempt us to explore a rather modern concept, "The Cosmic Christ"; and the gospel passage could suggest the somewhat enigmatic expression, "The Better Part".  I am struck by the relationship between all three readings, and so my theme today is "Three Visions of the Divine".

Introduction.  If we were to select the Bible's "Greatest Hits" (and probably somebody already has) I would want all three of today's passages included in it, if only for the ability of each of them to tingle even the most tingle-immune spine with excitement.  First we have one of Abraham's most graphic mystical experiences, as "The Lord" appears to him in tri-personal form, so brilliantly encapsulated in Andrei Rublev's most famous icon.  Then we have St Paul at his most mystical best with his extraordinary description of Christ as the embodiment of the fullness of God AND the fullness of creation.  And we finish with this deceptively simple domestic story from a little house in Bethany, which, in Luke's hands, has almost the flavour of a soap opera.  [Cue the long cold look Martha gives Mary from the doorway.]

Background.  In deference to National Bible Sunday, perhaps I should start with a general observation about what I think the Bible is and, equally importantly, what it is not.  What it is NOT is a manual, called by some of the parishioners in the first parish in which I served "The Maker's Handbook".  (Now I come to think of it, what they probably meant was "the owner's or user's handbook" – why would the Maker of All Things need a handbook?)  To me, the Bible is like a spiritual journal – or a compendium of lots of spiritual journals – in which over hundreds of years many people have attempted to record individual and collective encounters with the Divine.  Some have taken a somewhat intellectual approach to that task, some have resorted to poetry, and many have used story-telling: all have struggled with the fundamental problem that our languages (all human languages) have evolved and developed in the everyday world of the five senses to facilitate straightforward communication about largely practical concerns.

Which means that it is not well equipped to describe human encounters with the divine in ways that make sense to those who have never had (or, at least, have never been willing to admit to themselves that they have had) similar experiences.  Sadly, throughout our faith history mystics have needed a particularly thick skin.

And yet the Bible has countless examples of mystical experiences that make no sense at all in the "real world".  Take our first lesson as a good example.  In fact, it's not just a good example – it is a wonderful example, because it captures the whole essence of a mystical experience in which the mystic finds himself or herself living and operating in two realms/realities simultaneously, without usually realising it until after it is over.  Put yourself in this scene with Abraham, look with his eyes and listen with his ears.  "The Lord" appeared to Abraham: let's be clear, what we are being told here; in this context "the Lord" means "God" – not the Spirit of God or the Angel of God, but God – the one and only God.  God "appeared" to Abraham.  Now we know what that means, don't we?  Abraham saw God.  Wow!  Curiosity reaching boiling point, we want to know from Abraham what God looked like.  We don't have to wait long: "he looked up and saw three men standing there".  God looked like three men?    Then Abraham addressed them "My Lord".  Do the numbers for yourself, as we used to say, and the result in the practical everyday world can only be confusion.  Verses 9 and 10 don't help: "they" ask a question, and then "one" makes a personal promise ("I will surely return to you").

Neither the rules of grammar nor the principles of logic make sense in mystical experiences, any more than they do in dreams.  But here we have one image of God – God embodied in three persons.  That sounds familiar somehow.

A very different, but perhaps even more astonishing image of the Divine is given to us in our epistle reading today.  Scholars seem to be playing the same sort of game with this epistle as they have for much longer with the Letter to the Ephesians.  Was it really written by St Paul or by someone who was very close to him and steeped in his theology?  As if that matters one hoot!  The point is that within a very few decades after the resurrection someone has been inspired by the Spirit to receive this profound understanding of the cosmic significance of Christ.  This man from Nazareth, this Teacher, this man sitting on the sofa in a little cottage in Bethany, is now understood to embody within himself the fullness of God, and to be the medium through which the whole universe has come (and is still coming) into existence and by whom it is being held together moment by moment!  That's in essence what verses 15-21 are saying, isn't it?

Think about that.  You may even need to stop and have a strong drink at this point.  (Well, I meant a two-bag peppermint tea, but please yourself.)  Christ, we are told in verse 15, is the image of the invisible God": "image" in Greek is "eikon" from which we get our word "icon" in its original religious sense.  And what an image it is as we watch the scope widen from verse to verse!  "Christ in all and all in Christ" is not a slogan for your next bumper sticker: it is a simple statement of an extraordinary fact.

And so we come to the third image of the divine we have today – outwardly a man sitting on a sofa in a private residence somewhere in Galilee – an image with which most of us are probably more familiar and therefore more comfortable.  But is it any less astonishing than the other two – than three visitors near the oaks of Mamre or the cosmic Christ in whom the fullness of God and the whole of creation is embodied?  That's who Martha and Mary are hosting in this little cameo from St Luke today.

Genesis.  By way of background it may be worth refreshing your memory of a previous mystical experience (or succession of experiences) Abraham had, as recorded in Genesis 15.  There the voice of the Lord appeared to Abraham in a vision; and the extraordinary "covenantal experience" occurred after Abraham had fallen into a deep sleep and "a deep and terrifying darkness".  Here the setting seems to be quite ordinary: Abraham is sitting in his tent sheltering from the heat of the day.  And the whole experience has a different feel to it – it is much more interactive.  In chapter 15 Abraham is allowed to express his doubts and frustrations about his lack of an heir, but after that he becomes the passive recipient of the divine activity.  In today's passage Abraham seems to be dealing with the Lord face to face, almost (dare I say it) as equals.  God meets him, we should note, in Abraham's cultural practices: hospitality to the travelling stranger is of vital importance in the desert lands.  But there is one great idea in common between these two passages.  God is the God of Promise, and therefore the God of the future, even though we can only encounter God in the present.  Teilhard de Chardin calls God the "One Ahead" rather than the "One Above".  Faith is, in some ways, the willingness to take God's promises as trustworthy and act accordingly: the somewhat tedious chapter 11 of the Letter to the Hebrews makes this case at length.

Taking It Personally.

·        Spend some time reflecting on the three very different images of God we have in these three readings today.  Which do you find the most astonishing?

·        How do you react to the word "mystic"?  Is it a positive or a negative word as far as you are concerned?  Is the only good mystic one who is long dead (St Teresa of Avila or St John of the Cross)? 

·        Have you ever had a mystical experience yourself?  Have you ever told anyone about it?  If not, why not?  Do you know of anyone who claims to have had a mystical experience?  What do you feel about that?

·        Have you had a dream in which God "spoke" to you? 

·        Are you feeling uncomfortable about these questions?  Why?


Colossians.  The great English writer on mysticism, Evelyn Underhill, classified this letter (together with Ephesians and Philippians) as St Paul's most mystical letters.  And yet, like all his letters, they also deal with practical matters.  The lesson seems to be that the truly Christian life starts with experiencing the reality of the divine, and then leading our ordinary lives from that central core.  Another way to put it is to look in awe at the big picture while living our lives in a miniature.  Experience tells us that we tend to swing from one pole to the other: we see the religious part of our life as separate from the practical side of things.  Some believe that only when we are praying, worshipping or attending vestry meetings are we doing God's work; the rest of the time we are minding our own business.  Paul wants us to heal that division.  The Christian life is a life of wholeness, not of discrete departments.


Taking It Personally.


·        An ideal passage for slow, repetitive, prayerful reading, phrase by phrase (the practice of lectio divina, in classical terms).  Focus especially on verses 15-20, or if that is too much, just verses 15-17.  Use these verses as a template for a prayer of adoration.

·        Notice the idea of movement and growth throughout this passage: Christ did not come (single event) into a static world.  The whole (the Body of Christ) is growing towards maturity through time.   Reflect on that idea for a while.

·        How might this passage change your image and understanding of Christ/God?  Is your Christ "too small", or does this passage risk robbing Christ of his humanity?


Luke.  Part of the appeal of this story seems to be the scope it leaves for putting our own take on things.  What was Jesus talking to Mary about?   We are not told, but we assume it was something very important, very profound, and very spiritual, don't we?  But is that very likely?  Why do we assume that Jesus was never "off duty" – never just "hanging out"?  He's on his way to Jerusalem – is it not likely that he paused here for rest and refreshment?  Could he not have been "off-loading" to Mary – sharing his fears and doubts?  And then there is the constant complaint from the Martha's Supporters Club that her very practical ministry is in some way devalued by Jesus' comment; but is that necessarily so?  It is often said that this story somehow contrasts the contemplative Mary with the practical Martha; but is that so?  Notice that Jesus does not summon Martha from the kitchen, or demand her attention.  He addresses her only when it becomes clear that Martha is in a big sulk – that her ministry to Jesus via the kitchen is not an offering of love but a grudging offering based on duty, convention, cultural requirements, or whatever.  In which case the "better part" is not a comment about the nature of ministry but the one thing only of which there is need – love for the other, however that may work out in practice.


Taking It Personally.


·        An ideal passage for the prayer of imagination.  Place yourself in the story and observe your feelings as the narrative develops.    Whose interests are being served here?  Who is setting the agenda?  Perhaps Jesus has a greater need to talk than to eat?  Is Mary being more perceptive, then, the better hostess, or is she shirking her share of the work, as Martha alleges?  [No personal projection allowed!]

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Notes for reflection

July 14                         NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Deuteronomy 30:8-14; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37*

*[This Sunday is designated Sea Sunday: the readings suggested in the Lectionary for that are Job 38:1, 4-11; Acts 27:27-32, 39-44; Mark 4:35-41.]

Theme:  Something fairly basic this week, I think.  The connecting theme seems to be something about knowing and doing; in fact, something like the Summary of the Law, loving God and loving our neighbour.  Following on from last week's notes about the whole idea of "Dismissal" at the end of the service, perhaps a good choice would be "Go and Do Likewise".

Introduction.  We start with a short extract from Moses' 'Farewell Discourse' towards the end of the Book of Deuteronomy.  The truly blessed way of life is one lived in accordance with the will of God, and it's no good pretending that we have no way of knowing what that will is.  The word of God is on our lips and in our hearts.  St Paul commends the Colossians for their faith, and the way in which they are growing in spiritual depth.  He prays that this may continue, so that they may do good works and please God.  And the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan features a lawyer – an expert in the Torah (the revealed will of God) - who wants to spend yet more time and energy in studying and debating, rather than putting all his great knowledge into actually doing the will of God.  In relatively modern lingo, what we're about this week is walking the walk instead of talking the talk (although in the right context that is important, too.)

Background.  In June a group of us from St Barnabas, Warrington watched a 3-part series on DVD on "Jerusalem the Holy City", by English historian Simon Montefiori.  One of the recurring images that stuck in my mind was the ultra-orthodox men who seemed to spend all their time either studying the Torah or praying at the ancient Temple Wall.  In fairness to them the only other thing I know about them is their present exemption from military service, a difficult issue for the Israeli government at this time.  What, I wonder, do they do with all this knowledge of the Torah?  No doubt they live their personal lives as best they can in accordance with its strict edicts, but do they do other stuff – for other people, for their local community, or for their country?  Is their faith limited to personal piety, or do they sometimes go and bear much fruit, to coin a phrase?

The temptation to put ourselves, or our own households, in order before we worry about anyone or anything else is common to us all, and certainly not limited to religious groups, as our political parties constantly show us.  Faced with issues of poverty, inequality, problem gambling, spying, privacy, global warming and heavens knows what our Labour Party turns its attention to in-house man-bans.  And before we laugh (or worse) at others we might want to ask ourselves(yes, again,) why our Church spends so much of its time and resources on meetings, conferences, Synods and other in-house gatherings to discuss issues that rarely if ever have anything to do with proclaiming the kingdom, much less building it through active ministry.  [Have you ever noticed that the people least likely to have the time to attend church meetings are chaplains?]

We have two classic examples of all this in our readings today.  Moses, like St Paul, was a great psychologist – he understood human nature – after all he had seen enough of it during the wanderings in the wilderness.  But now the people faced another, in some ways more challenging, spiritual danger.  They were about to realise their long-held dream – a land of their own.  They were about to experience "success", freedom, joy, and all those things denied to them in Egypt and in the wilderness.  They were about to have the opportunity to become busy, building homes, tilling the land, pursuing careers, doing things for themselves.  In those circumstances it's hard to find the time for God, isn't it?  Worse, it is hard to see the need.  Slaves, and refugees fighting their way through the wilderness, are far more likely to feel the need to pray than those who are settled in their own land and "making their own way in life.  (Think about that expression for a moment.")

Moses foresaw at least one tactic of evasion to which the people might resort.  Who can really know the will of God?  Isn't it hidden in the clouds of heaven, far above our simple minds?  Or isn't it foreign to us, something from over there, or back there, or anywhere but here?  We're just practical jokers, doing our best to provide for our families.  We haven't got time for Bible reading and all that carry-on.

This is where, somewhat surprisingly, Moses showed himself to be a true Jesuit!  St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus (better known as the Jesuits) stressed to his followers that God was operative, not only in outward events, but also in  own inner beings, in our imagination, our thoughts, our will and our affections.  Those who keep a journal will have experienced this for themselves: how often we "discover" something we didn't know we knew until we write it out.  Moses puts it this way: the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

And there's something similar going on in the parable.  The Samaritan doesn't have to look something up, or seek the advice of some learned man who has spent a lifetime studying the Torah (someone like the clever-dick lawyer who asked Jesus the question), or even pray for guidance.  Why did the Samaritan get involved?  Luke puts it this way: when he saw him, he was moved with pity. [See Luke 7:13 for a similar case.]  Take those words slowly and carefully.  He didn't decide to do something – he was MOVED to do something – passive, not active.  Who or what moved him?  St Ignatius has already answered that question: God working through the Samaritan's affections, that's who.  We might want to talk of a "stirring of conscience" sometimes; but then the question arises, whose hand is on the spoon-handle – who is doing the stirring?

Isn't this what St Paul means in his writings when he speaks of living in and by the Spirit?  (The expected answer is "yes".)

 Deuteronomy.  It may be worth making the point that the concept of blessing in this passage reflects the cultural norms of the time.  In those days "a gospel of prosperity" approach would be normative: God's blessing would be manifested in "the fruit of your body, the fruit of your livestock and the fruit of your soil"; something a little more substantive than the fruits of the Spirit to which we aspire.  But the idea of earning such blessings through obedience to God's commandments and decrees is not very different from the attitude of the lawyer who asks Jesus, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Taking It Personally.

  • Reflect on verse 14.  Can you think of an occasion when words just came to you, or something popped into your mind, that you knew was from God? 
  • How is God's blessing manifested in your life?  Spend some time thinking of the different ways in which you have felt blessed by God in the last week.  Give thanks.
  • As you look forward to a new week, intentionally "turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and soul" (v.10.)  Ask God to "prompt" you to do at least one specific thing this week.  Then do it!


Colossians.  A wonderful example of St Paul's pastoral prayer for those he cares about.  Notice how positive he is; there is no hint of the somewhat petulant tone we find, for example, in his correspondence with the Corinthians or the Galatians.  He lauds them for their faith in Christ AND for their love for all the saints (there's that twofold, vertical-horizontal love that is encapsulated in the Summary of the Law).  In verse 6 he reminds them that the "gospel has come to them" – it's a gift, not something they have dreamed up or invented for themselves.  The gospel (here meaning, perhaps, the kingdom) is growing throughout the world, as they are growing in spiritual depth.  They are bearing fruit as they have grown in comprehension of the grace of God.  But all this is a work in progress – we go on growing in the Spirit.  And so St Paul prays for them that they "may be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding", and on and on he goes.  Marvellous stuff, isn't it?


Taking It Personally.


  • Use this passage as a template for your own prayer, first for yourself and then for your local congregation.  Remember to give thanks for what you have already received and then ask for more!  More understanding, more hope, more wisdom, more strength, more endurance, and so on.
  • Then focus on verse 10 – an antidote to the virus of personal piety that leads to the privatisation of the Christian faith.  Use this verse as a guide for a short period of reflection and self-examination as you review the past week
  • Looking back over a longer period can you see evidence of spiritual growth?  Can you identify areas where you need a specific grace – to listen better, perhaps, to discern God's will in a particular circumstance, or perhaps simply a sharp prod to overcome inertia and get on with it?
  • Pray for spiritual growth for your local church, giving thanks for the people who are on the journey with you.  Avoid any sense of identifying specific faults or weaknesses in them, but pray for an increase in their spiritual growth as you pray for your own.


Luke.  There is always a great challenge in coming with an open mind (and an open heart) to a story we think we are familiar with.  This one is a prime example.  How might we find a fresh approach to it? Here are a couple of random thoughts to play with.  First, have you ever wondered what the Samaritan would have done if he had arrived on the scene a little earlier, when the violent robbery was still in progress?  Nor had I until I was chairing a session of the annual conference of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship many years ago in Wellington and one of the invited speakers started with that very question.  Is it enough to use our resources to care for the injured after the event, or should we get involved in the event itself?  (Any pacifists out there, that's a question for you.)  The second thought is to try to identify the Christ (God) figure in this parable.  I guess most of us would go for the Samaritan, but one of the more entertaining and challenging writers on the parables, Robert Farrar Capon, contends that it is the traveller, the victim of the assault.  Have another look at the narrative and read it alongside the Passion story and see what you think.  But for me, the key line remains the last one.  "Go and do likewise".  And here is the answer to the question the lawyer asked: who is my neighbour?  It is anyone to whom I am prepared to be a neighbour – anyone for whom I give a damn – or in more biblical language, anyone whom I love.  In Christian terms, I do choose my neighbours; the catch is that, as with every other choice I make, I am accountable for it.


Taking It Personally.


  • A classic story for praying with the imagination.  Place yourself in the story.  Whereabouts are you?  What is your first inclination?  
  • What might stop you getting involved?  (This is a good question to reflect on next time you drive past a would-be hitchhiker.)
  • If a friend asked you what he/she must do to inherit eternal life, what would you say?
  • What are your feelings as you ponder this parable?  Is it one of your favourites?  Does it make you feel comfortable or uncomfortable?
  • To give the story more local impact, who would you put in the place of the Samaritan?

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Notes for Reflection

July 7                           NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts:  Isaiah 66:10-14; Galatians 6:7-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20*

*[Today, the first Sunday in July, is designated Refugee Sunday.  The suggested readings for that are Lamentations 3:22-33; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; and Mark 5:21-43.

Theme.  Quite hard to pin down this week, I think.  Luke would suggest "Ministry"; Isaiah  would point in the direction of "Divine Love" (or, more strikingly, "The Maternal Love of God"); and Galatians would offer something about "A New Creation" or "A New Way of Life."  Take your pick.  My sense is that there is something here about the fundamental importance of relationship with God, out of which everything else must flow, including lifestyle and ministry.

Introduction.  I sometimes think that a good subtitle for the Book of Isaiah would be something like "The Highs and Lows of Living with God".  No one draws more dramatic pictures of the "emotional side" of God's nature than this great prophet; and as his book draws to a close we see the full range of God's feelings, from his tender, maternal love for Israel through to his furious indignation against his enemies.   (Typically, our Lectionary spares us the bad stuff!)  St Paul is in a more temperate mood today, as he finishes his letter to the Galatians.  Basically, he summarises his argument that the real issue for them to get their heads around is that God is calling them into a whole new way of life – to become a new creation.  Compared to that even the centuries-old tradition of circumcision with all its religious significance is now of no importance at all.  And perhaps the real point of today's gospel reading is that even "successful" ministry can be a lure leading us into false pride and boastfulness; only one thing is necessary, that we have been reconciled to God and have entered into eternal life.

Background.  As I read the gospel passage in preparation for these Notes, I found myself going back to the last section of our Eucharist liturgies.   All three call this section "The Dismissal of the Community", which is rather unfortunate, perhaps, as "dismissal" tends to have somewhat negative tones in modern parlance.  But in each case the rubrics save the day: they tell us "The congregation is sent out with these words."  They vary slightly in "these words", but the gist is clear.  "Go now to love and serve the Lord.  Go in peace."  It's a simple and profoundly important message, but is it often HEARD?  It might be too harsh to say it usually falls on deaf ears – perhaps it would be kinder and more accurate to say that it falls on inattentive ears.  The service is just about over; it is time to gather up our books, recover the glove that has disappeared under the pew somewhere, check we've got our glasses, phone and car keys and discuss with our Significant Other whether or not we have time to stop for a cuppa.  And all that's assuming that our foot, or some other part of our anatomy, hasn't gone to sleep or seized up in some inconvenient way and we are having difficulty in recovering our mobility.  "Going now" may be easier said than done.

And then there is the next bit, "to love and serve the Lord".  I was once asked, by an intelligent young teenager, why we say this bit right at the end of the service instead of right at the beginning.  Haven't we just done the "loving and serving the Lord" bit in the service?  Most of us don't say anything like that out loud, of course; but I suspect that he is not all that unusual in thinking that, now we have done the religious stuff, it's back to the real world tomorrow (if not today).  And I'm not at all sure that today's gospel passage is helpful in addressing this issue; in fact, I think it might be one of those passages that are quite alienating for many in our churches on a Sunday morning.

The heading in my NRSV bible reads "The Mission of the Seventy", and the 70 are sent out with these words: "Go on your way.  See, I am sending you out...", and it's all downhill from there.  Pause and stay with this analogy for a moment.  Suppose, instead of "The Dismissal of the Community" the heading in our liturgy was "The Mission of the Congregation"; and instead of our nice gentle-sounding generalisation "to love and serve the Lord", we had a much more specific set of instructions along the lines of this gospel passage.  How many of the congregation would be anxious to get started right away?  How many would be loathe to leave the church building after a set of instructions like that?  And of those who did leave, how many would be back next week anxious to report in along the lines of verse 17?  At the very least a "dismissal" along these lines might cast a bit of a pall over the morning tea – or, perhaps, prolong it indefinitely!

Okay, I'm being silly now, but there are two serious points here we might do well to ponder.  There can be little argument that the ideal promoted in passages like this, of which there are many, is full-time, itinerant ministry.  What possible application can they have to people who spend virtually all the rest of the week in full-time "secular" activities, with a fixed abode and address?  Is there not a sort of unspoken compact between the Church and the congregation on a Sunday morning that the latter sit quietly and respectfully listening, but will not be expected to do what they are apparently being urged to do?

And the second and related serious point is this.  Doesn't this play into the idea that "Ministers" are the paid professionals (aka clergy), and we can safely leave "ministry" to them?  I believe that there is an urgent need for the Church to teach that "ministry" is anything and everything that advances the kingdom of God, that builds up the Body of Christ, that promotes the redemption of the whole of creation, and that speeds up the coming of the Parousia; and to bring this down to the nitty-gritty I call my first and only witness, Betty, whom I met in a North Island hospital a few years ago.  She was a nurse to whom I passed on a complaint from a patient at the lack of cleanliness in the ward bathroom area.  Betty was very sad about it; it was getting her down, too.  It was, she told me, the all-too predictable consequence of the hospital's decision to contract out the cleaning services.  Before that, she said, the cleaners were recognised as an important part of the health team, helping to care for the patients and promoting their health by keeping everywhere as clean as possible.  But now, they are considered cleaners, a cost to the hospital; they are treated with less respect and react accordingly.  Draw their attention to something that needs wiping and you are likely to be told to do it yourself, or asked what you expect of someone paid peanuts.

I often think of this incident: cleaners are part of the health team, not just in hospitals, but everywhere.  Cleaners, we might say, are health professionals.  Or, to use religious language, cleaners have a very important ministry.  And here's another flashback from my previous existence.  The then Director-General of Health asked me to give priority to the drafting of some Plumbers and Drainlayers regulations over what to me seemed a far more important piece of legislation about medicines.  When I checked with him that he meant what he said, he assured me that good sanitation had made a far more significant contribution to the health of the nation than anything the medical profession had done!  Plumbers and drainlayers are health professionals, too, - they are part of the healing ministry.

So perhaps today's gospel passage needs a good bit of translation, into a language that makes sense to the people who are listening, who spend their time feeding others, cleaning up behind others, teaching others, serving others in all manner of ways – and probably never thinking of themselves as "ministers" sent out to love and serve the Lord and doing just that in those multifarious ways.  So this week, if you are leading a service somewhere, what about a more intentional "dismissal"?  Perhaps a pause, a moment for everyone to collect their things, their thoughts, and their stiff joints, and then an exhortation to "Go now, and continue to love and serve the Lord in all you do for others, whether at home, at work or at play.  Go in peace."  We are, after all, in the culture-changing business, aren't we?

Isaiah.  I am a rather late convert to the teaching of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (aka Pope Benedict XVI); and I am presently reading his book Introduction to Christianity, which in large part is centred on the Apostles Creed.  He devotes one whole chapter to the expression "The Father almighty", which most of us probably say without thinking about it too much.  His point is that this is an extraordinary composite of two quite distinct images of God's nature.  On the one hand God is "Father", essentially a figure of love and care and vulnerability – capable of being hurt and even abandoned by his children.  On the other, God is "almighty", a figure of unlimited power, able to do anything he wants to.  The author suggests that in that phrase is the true nature of God that Jesus Christ came to teach us and show us in himself.  This isn't the place to go further into all that; but it came very much into mind with this extraordinary passage from Isaiah.  Here is an image of God that is almost too human – and feminine at that!  Okay, God is NOT shown as the mother figure – but as the midwife (or lead maternal carer, as we call them today).  Try putting "almighty" alongside this image, and you will begin to see the point that Ratzinger was making.  And when you have done that, read on to verses 15 and 16!


Taking It Personally.

·        A passage to savour; read it through slowly, phrase by phrase.

·        Notice how positive the language is: "rejoice", "glad", "love", "joy", "nurse", "satisfied", "consoling", "delight".  Then reflect on your own present image of God.  Do you think of God as the Divine Midwife, bringing forth new birth and delighting in it?  If not, why not?

·        Mirror time.  Tell yourself, "God delights in me."  And give thanks.


Galatians.  St Paul is not best known for his ability to hide his feelings; particularly when he is exasperated! This whole letter trembles with it, and it does not seem to have abated much by the end.  He is so sick of the subject of circumcision!  By verses 14 and 15 we can almost hear him shouting and stamping his feet.  It's a whole new ball game, folks!  All that stuff is so yesterday – all that matters is the NEW CREATION!  Verses 9 and 10 are most helpful to my argument about daily service, above.  We are working towards an objective (the "harvest"); it requires day-by-day commitment.  We must take each opportunity to work for the good of others.


Taking It Personally.


·        Are there any subjects you are sick of hearing about in the Church – money, earthquake-strengthening, declining numbers, Te Pouhere, sexual orientation, inclusive language, or any other bugbear you wouldn't dream of mentioning in church circles?  Why wouldn't you dream of mentioning it?

·        Focus on verses 9 and 10.  Make them your guide for the week.


Luke.  A few more brief points.  Notice how much of this teaching is about receiving, not giving.  "Ministers" can easily see themselves, and be seen by others, as the strong one, who has no needs of his/her own.  Jesus sets them up in such a way that they will be dependent on others for their upkeep.  (Rather like clergy, now I come to think of it!)  Notice, too, that the message they are to proclaim to those who welcome them and those who reject them is the same: the kingdom has come near.  But there is a subtle difference: it has come near "to you" (those who welcome the disciples) in verse 9; in verse 11 it has still come near, but not to those who reject the disciples.  To reject the disciples is to reject Jesus, and to reject Jesus is to reject God.  The reporting back section is particularly interesting.  First it emphasises that all this is in the context of a spiritual battle (Ephesians 6, and so on), and is therefore of eternal significance.  And secondly, the disciples should not be congratulating themselves on their successes: collectors of church statistics please be extra careful here!




Taking It Personally.


·        Think about the coming week.  What is there in this passage that may guide you in your ministry – given the wider definition of ministry suggested in these Notes?

·        How easy do you find it to let others minister to you – to be (even for a few moments) dependent on others?

·        Reflect on the more menial tasks you may be doing this week.  In what way can they be considered "ministry"?

·        How would you feel if your priest or minister sent you out from the church with the words of dismissal suggested above?  Would it make any difference to the way in which you went about the week?

·        How would you feel about being asked next Sunday to give a "report back" on your ministry during the week?