Saturday, 27 February 2010

On top of the world

Luke 9:28-36

Jesus took with him Peter and John and James and went up the mountain to pray. As he prayed, the aspect of his face was changed and his clothing became brilliant as lightning. Suddenly there were two men there talking to him; they were Moses and Elijah appearing in glory, and they were speaking of his passing which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were heavy with sleep, but they kept awake and saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As these were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is wonderful for us to be here; so let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ – He did not know what he was saying. As he spoke, a cloud came and covered them with shadow; and when they went into the cloud the disciples were afraid. And a voice came from the cloud saying, ‘This is my Son, the Chosen One. Listen to him.’ And after the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. The disciples kept silence and, at that time, told no one what they had seen.

‘went up the mountain’

After the desert experience of last week, it seems that there were times in Jesus’ ministry when he needs to reconnect with his Divinity (even knowing that he is always Divine). Imagine he has never been ‘apart’ and here he is on the mission of all Time, alone; always on ‘show’; living ‘himself’ with only so much time to give.

His visit to the mountain shows that he knows he can’t do it by himself. He needs to be fed with his Father’s love and the Spirit’s grace just as much as we do; he needs to be reminded of the goal; what the sacrifice is meant to achieve not just for him but for all of us.

Our vocations and callings may not be about saving the Universe but they are there. And we cannot fulfil them by ourselves; we also need to be fed from the Source although we may not be so quick to realise it.

As confidently as we try to live our lives in community and in faith; it is not always easy. To be a witness of God’s message uses up energy, time, emotion; and that’s when it’s going well. All too often, our faith is a badge that sets us apart; it is a wearying thing; to feel that you are the only one.

In Lent we may take the decision, and have the opportunity, to take time out for a spiritual retreat. Sometimes it is enough to change our pattern of prayer or to commit ourselves more deeply; taking the journey inwards; finding the sacred space that is God’s Tent within us.

We talk a lot about Lent being like a desert – an empty place – but there are mountains in the desert – as starkly beautiful as any alpine snow covered peak; to climb a mountain in the desert takes courage.

Desert mountains are survivors of what was there before; uniquely fashioned by the Spirit’s creative breath; they reflect the light in startling colour as the sun hits the crystal fragments in the sand. The eddies of wind carry the same sand; scouring the skin and eyes; and the climb, even a few hundred feet, pushes the air temperature up, ripping air from your lungs.

The breathlessness and magnificence unite taking away the ability to speak; leaving you open to your emotions; open to the elements; a good place to empty yourself out; to recognise and admit to your own powerlessness. So that when God comes; in whispers of wind and clouds of unknowing you are ready.

‘it is wonderful for us to be here’

A mountain top faith experience is something we all seek; to know that you have had a personal encounter with the Divine. Yet, there is some truth is the saying ‘be careful what you wish for’ because if you have ever been fortunate enough to have had such an experience of God, you will know it - it will be beyond words…..

In many ways it may seem beyond Time too; but we live in Time; so we don’t get to stay there; we will be sent back.

It is wonderful to live on the mountain; but we can’t ‘live’ on the mountain. Everything we do, have and care for is elsewhere. We are meant to take the experience with us, no matter how hard that may be. For some people who have had these experiences their spiritual lives are ruled by seeking the next mountain top without realising that these are simply moments that are meant to feed the life we live day to day. Our day to day life is not meant to be used purely for seeking these moments.

Peter speaks for all of us. In the struggles of daily life; who wouldn’t rather be on the mountain? But Peter wouldn’t have lasted long and neither would we. So appreciate the moment; the feeling; the grace when you are given it. Accept its wonder and its gift. And know that the journey continues.

‘told no one what they had seen’

How hard is that? To come back, even from a great holiday, a magical experience and not share it with friends and family? Unthinkable, really.

The thing about experiences of faith is that these are the moments when you are most closely in relationship with God. This is your personal experience; your gift; your grace. The last thing you need to do with it is give it away to those that will not understand.

It won’t mean the same to other people; they will not believe; they will question and query; causing you to question yourself; turning the real experience into a hot headed mirage. Why let that happen?

You were by yourself on the mountain – keep it to yourself.

And the paradox of this is that, actually, you can’t. If you have the experience it will transform you from within. You will change; you will see; you will feel. Others will experience that transformation; even though they can’t explain it. God’s presence will be felt; in heart and mind and action; as it should be.


Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Into the Desert

I stand with my back to the world.
Its distractions and temptations fading away
A mirage of life, then, gone.

Ahead the desert,
A hazy promise;
A journey into peace;
A journey into solitude;
A journey to find meaning
In a world of confusion.

There is no confusion here;
Life is precious and to be lived;
The journey a test of strength;
A trial of commitment to the Way.

What is the way?

Who is the way.

The God who was here first;
Tested and tempted

The God who remains now;
His footsteps in the sand

The God who is always;
Our oasis, our hope, our guide.

wordinthehand 2010

Sunday, 21 February 2010

God is nowhere IV

The snow falls as it did a few weeks ago but it seems to have lost its magic.
The snow falls and now we disregard it.

If a man falls should we do the same?

Last night, I drove out to pick my husband up from the station. Turning the corner into the side-street I noticed an elderly man lying on the floor, carrier bags spilling out shopping around him. Assuming that he had just fallen, I waited a moment but nothing happened. So I got out of the car and walked over to see if there was anything I could do.

‘I can’t get up. I’m lying here and I can’t get up.’

Moving closer to give him a hand it became apparent that there was more than one reason why he couldn’t get up. The first glance was replaced by the noticing that his clothes were a hotch-potch of styles, he wore no socks with worn black leather shoes and his ‘shopping’ comprised of empty boxes and bags stuffed into more bags. He was one of our street people in a clever disguise; wearing a veneer of respectability that would allow him access to station platforms, bus stations and other places of shelter without attracting attention; on a night like this a formidable survival technique.

Except – ‘I can’t get up. I’m lying here and I can’t get up.’

Except – he refused my hand.

So, I got back in the car and waited; watched taxis come and wait and go; watched travellers appearing out of the station at twelve minute intervals; watched an eco-warrior unfold a bike out of a bag and cycle off; watched Saturday night revellers on their way into the city centre; watched a man lying on the pavement who couldn’t get up; realised I had no way of knowing how long he had already been there.

I got back out of the car; this was making me ill. Negotiated with him to collect his ‘shopping’ together and to get him at least to sitting up. Agreed. He took my hand in a hand of translucent pale skin over strong bones but with no flesh to pad the palms or the fingers. He took my hand and kissed it and I experienced what cold really means. To be so cold and still alive seemed impossible; not impossible to imagine what would happen if he didn’t get moving soon.

My husband appeared, and between us we managed to persuade him to move again, against the wall of the office building; a little more sheltered but still ‘I can’t get up’. I went into the station for help; a shrug of the shoulders and ‘The police station’s the other side of the Town Hall, not far, you can walk- if you want’.

I did want. The Police Station was, at least, manned. ‘We’ll send someone around.’

Back to the station, my husband was sitting next to him, and had managed to strike up a conversation, man to man. He gave an unconvincing story of living in places that are either end of our district. But at least there was life in him; was it simply that our presence reminding him that he was alive?

We waited, the police did not arrive. We waited; taxi drivers chatted over thermos cups of coffee, having seen it all before, no doubt; We waited: travellers travelled. We waited.

‘You do realise we will end up taking him home’. My husband commented.

I don’t know whether it was the fear of ‘capture’ but this comment drew a sudden surge of energy in the man and he struggled up the wall to a standing position.

A mumbling under the breath as he picked up his bags, shakily straightened up again and gathered his thoughts enough to comment; ‘I’m up, I’m up and you two can f*** off!’. My husband laughed, ‘That’s more like it! At least he’s on the move, what more can we do?’

What more could we do, except pray? As we watched him zig zag into the back streets behind the station; as the snow began to fall; as more taxis, full of people with homes to go, came and went; the question drove home with us - what more could we do?

This morning I stopped the car to take a photo of some ponies in a nearby field A passer-by remarked ‘Poor things’.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Tough Love

Luke 4:1-13
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit through the wilderness, being tempted there by the devil for forty days. During that time he ate nothing and at the end he was hungry. Then the devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to turn into a loaf.’ But Jesus replied, ‘Scripture says: Man does not live on bread alone.

Then leading him to a height, the devil showed him in a moment of time all the kingdoms of the world and said to him, ‘I will give you all this power and the glory of these kingdoms, for it has been committed to me and I give it to anyone I choose. Worship me, then, and it shall all be yours.’
But Jesus answered him, ‘Scripture says:
You must worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone.’

Then he led him to Jerusalem and made him stand on the parapet of the Temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said to him ‘throw yourself down from here, for scripture says:
He will put his angels in charge of you to guard you and again:
They will hold you up on their hands
in case you hurt your foot against a stone.’
But Jesus answered him, ‘It has been said:
You must not put the Lord your God to the test.’
Having exhausted all these ways of tempting him, the devil left him, to return at the appointed time.

led by the Spirit

‘led’ being the nice way of putting it – the Holy Spirit being the original exponent of ‘tough love’.

The Spirit, more likely, leaves Jesus with no option and he finds himself restlessly wandering through the desert and I am going to hazard a guess what the very first temptation would have been – let’s get back to the Jordan. Let’s get back to that golden moment when my Father publicly acknowledged me in front of John; in front of my followers; in front of everyone. Let me feel that feeling again. And then, perhaps he hears the voice of the Spirit:

Why should you be in the desert?
Why would I want you here experiencing all these things?

Because it’s not all about you.

Jesus has just had the mountaintop experience of all time; theologians discuss at what point did Jesus know he was Divine? Was it ‘always and everything’ or did the understanding emerge with his human development? Well, if he didn’t know by now – then, I would guess, probably this point. Baptism has brought about transformation. And he is human, as well, had been human for thirty years – with all the experiences of emotion that time has given him. How overwhelmed must he feel?

We only have to think about ourselves; if we have ever had the opportunity to experience the ‘Eureka’ moment in faith. A time when you have struggled; you have climbed that mountain; you stand on the peak the clouds break and the sun shines on you. Like Jimmy Cagney, you are ‘on top of the world’. And in that explosion of happiness you feel joy and relationship and you feel God’s eye upon you. Then, all too often, you feel pride, vanity; you feel that you did it ‘all by yourself’; you feel powerful.

If God is feeling kind, you generally don’t get left there for more than a few seconds.

The ego gets a quick peek; enough to fulfill a few childish ambitions and then the mountain crumbles leaving you back on level ground and wondering why that happened. And it happened because it not all about you. In fact it’s not about you at all.

Whatever gifts, talents, opportunities you have been given, they are to do what God needs you to do. If you get there, if you do it, then all you have done is what you were meant to do. There may be a bit of job satisfaction in it – but the job continues – so get off the pedestal, take a moment, and get on with it. Finding the pleasure and joy in being where you are meant to be.

And it’s comforting to see that God treats his Son exactly the same way. The risk that it would peak too soon; that it would be over before it was even begun was too much, that really Jesus did not know what he was getting himself into. The people at the riverside were only the beginning and there were many rises and falls to travel before the time came.

Jesus needed time; to see what lies ahead; what the pitfalls are likely to be; to know where his help would come from; to have a ‘walk through’ in a place without distraction; where he knows he is on his own. What better place than the desert.

When Jesus faces the devil in the greatest temptations he doesn’t take him on himself; he doesn’t use his humanity; doesn’t use violence or argument; he knows who is the greater and calls on the strength of the Father – the Word of Scripture.

When he tells the devil ‘You must not put the Lord your God to the test.’ he knows that this also applies to himself; a surrender of will that accepts the promise of a harsh journey with very few mountain-tops.

During Lent we can use the temptation in the desert in our own meditations; how much of what we do is fulfillment of personal ambition? How much is pride and vanity? And then there is learning that although it is not about us – that’s ok - because look who it is about and look how God is there to support every move we make.

Pride belongs in the past; in smugness at what we have done. And we have not finished. Like Jesus, we have only just begun and we are being led by the Spirit.


Saturday, 13 February 2010

The eyes have it

Luke 6:17,20-26

Jesus came down with the Twelve and stopped at a piece of level ground where there was a large gathering of his disciples with a great crowd of people from all parts of Judaea and from Jerusalem and from the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon Then fixing his eyes on his disciples he said
‘How happy are you who are poor: yours is the kingdom of God.
Happy are you who are hungry now: you shall be satisfied.
Happy are you who weep now: you shall laugh.
Happy are you when people hate you, drive you out, abuse you, denounce your name as criminal, on account of the Son of Man.

Rejoice when that day comes and dance for joy, for then your reward will be great in heaven. This was the way their ancestors treated the prophets.

‘But alas for you who are rich: you are having your consolation now.
Alas for you who have your fill now: you shall go hungry.
Alas for you who laugh now: you shall mourn and weep.
‘Alas for you when the world speaks well of you!
This was the way their ancestors treated the false prophets.’

Stopped at a piece of level ground

This is Luke’s account of a teaching that we also know as Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.

Sometimes it seems that the New Testament has been put together to confuse us. A challenge to play ‘Spot the Difference’ with the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. And where there is difference to wonder which is the right one; because you would expect there to be a right one.

Or would you? Think about any incident happening out on the street, in the workplace, anywhere. If the witnesses are questioned there will always be conflicting pieces of evidence. How we register an event is an individual experience depending on many things ,not least how important that event is to us personally.

The first obvious difference here is that there is no ‘Mount’ in fact Jesus comes down to level ground. The Judaic tradition recognises the link between Mountains and God; it is a place of encounter; the Word that comes from on high. It would be natural for Matthew, writing to his Judaic audience to have the Lord teach from above – for the disciples, being faced with persecution and isolation, to experience a ‘mountain’ moment.

Luke is writing to the Gentiles, to us, and his people have no common understanding of God. They have come in at ground zero and so the imagery is different. Through Jesus, God came down to our level; the Lord looks his people in the eye. Perhaps the only time he ever looked down on us was at his death.

In fact, much of his life was lived looking up; at the shepherds and the wise men; at John baptising him into his mission; at the man passed through the roof for healing; at the woman caught in adultery as he sat and wrote in the sand; at Judas as he walks out of the upper room to betray him.

On this occasion he stands and looks them all in the eye; not just the Twelve but everyone of his disciples who ‘look’ to him, not only for leadership and teaching, but for their life.

It can be easy when you have authority to simply speak without appreciating what it is you are asking; to expect others to act in a way that you wouldn’t - ‘do as I say’ rather than ‘do as I do’. What the Lord is asking them to do here is not easy- to be prepared for the persecution and the hatred; to rejoice in a way of life that will make them outcasts. But he shows that he stands there with them – he is also an outcast, one of them.

Dance for joy

To dance when you are persecuted, hungry, hated and abused would take some doing one would think. But the important word here is joy, not happiness. To be happy having all these things done to you would be foolish. Happiness is an emotion really too insubstantial to last; too fleeting to sustain us. Silly things, little things make us happy (thank goodness). But what makes us happy one day becomes boring the next and too much trouble within no time.

Joy is different; joy lives in our heart as deep seated as Grace. It depends very much on the experience of love and rightness and belonging. There is strength in joy; the smiling strength that you see in children’s hospital wards or Aids orphanages or detainment camps. It is the shining that you see in the eye of a person who may be terminally ill but who knows the joy of life; in the eyes of those that care for them. It is the inner sense that knows God is present despite everything; in spite of everything and delights in that knowing.

No wonder Luke chooses to stand us face to face with the Lord. Imagine, looking into those eyes and hearing those words. To have that memory in times of tears and hunger and poverty; to remember those eyes and thinking that, even then, he knew what his fate was going to be and yet…he promised Joy.


Saturday, 6 February 2010

Fishers of Men

Luke 5:1-11

Jesus was standing one day by the Lake of Gennesaret, with the crowd pressing round him listening to the word of God, when he caught sight of two boats close to the bank. The fishermen had got out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats – it was Simon’s – and asked him to put out a little from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.
When he had finished speaking he said to Simon, ‘Put out into deep water and pay out your nets for a catch.’ ‘Master,’ Simon replied, ‘we worked hard all night long and caught nothing, but if you say so, I will pay out the nets.’ And when they had done this they netted such a huge number of fish that their nets began to tear, so they signaled to their companions in the other boat to come and help them; when these came, they filled the two boats to sinking point.
When Simon Peter saw this he fell at the knees of Jesus saying, ‘Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man.’ For he and all his companions were completely overcome by the catch they had made; so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were Simon’s partners. But Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on it is men you will catch.’ Then, bringing their boats back to land, they left everything and followed him.

The fishermen had got out of them and were washing their nets

There are times in our lives when we are comfortable and confident. Those times when we have reached a certain status; achieved something we have aspired to; or earned the respect of our peers.
Our faith fits in to our routine; we pick out what we want to hear and believe what suits our way of thinking. When God tries to get involved in our lives we move to a discreet distance, after all we have better things to do. Our lives are content; maybe things go wrong; but nothing we can’t handle.

Like Simon Peter, who had his own boat, his own business and a happy enough family life that he was content to have the mother-in-law living with him. For him, the Word was something to listen to whilst he was cleaning his nets; a background hum to his daily life. The poor night’s fishing was a disappointment but nothing he wasn’t used to – part of the job, part of life.

But then, he let Jesus into his boat; into his very life – and for a man of action, rather than words this was Simon Peter’s first ever real ‘Yes’ to God.

If you say so,

It isn’t the big Angel Gabriel moment, probably that would have frightened the life out of Simon Peter – but the words are about the same – ‘your Will be done’. The background hum has grown into something more; a heartbeat that matched his own; an invitation to move on; awareness that the life Simon Peter had surrounded himself with was good – but not enough.

It seems like a small request; just put out the nets again – what harm can it do? But ask any lake fisherman what that entails. The men are already tired – getting close to twenty or so hours without sleep. They know their lake; if they haven’t found a catch they’ll doubt it’s there. And they have just cleaned the nets – hours and hours of untangling, mending, rinsing and folding to be ready for the next night. There would be no fishing tonight if they put out now – and now was not a good time. But Simon Peter, for some reason, said ‘yes’; put his trust in Jesus and saw that immediate reward. More fish than he could handle.

Strange that, at first glance, this part of the Gospel seems to be about the wealth, the prosperity that faith in Jesus can bring. Like churches that offer a promise of success through faith in the Lord as long as you are willing to make a monetary tithe.
But this isn’t about prosperity. The catch is so overwhelming that the fishermen’s lives are put at risk; their nets tear, the boats fill with water and there is a chance they might lose everything. The only thing that saves them is that they call out to the other boat; by helping them, the other boat shares in the catch. Wealth is not something to keep to yourself; sharing with others becomes a two way relationship where the person in need may change from one day to another. On the other hand, being self-centred, ‘it’s all about me’ will simply drag you under and there will be no-one there to save you.

Equally, the Grace that we receive as God’s gift is not something to hoard. The more that you are blessed with the more need there is to share, to call out to others, to be in fellowship – Simon Peter’s faith has ‘saved’ him and he had ‘saved’ himself by including his friends in his good fortune.

Do not be afraid

Simon Peter had been shown the rewards of believing in the Lord in ways he could only dream of. Realising the authority of this man that he had tolerated in his boat now he could not bear to face him; could not believe that Jesus would want anything to do with him. And Jesus says the most common phrase used in the Gospel – do not be afraid. Simon Peter must have hesitated, wondering what else this man was going to do. Then he heard the call ‘to be fishers of men’. To leave the business, the boats, the home, family and the mother-in-law; to make them all secondary to this man, this Son of God who stood before him. And, as a man of action, there was no better reply than to simply moor the boat and walk away.

The Lord makes claims on our lives every day - how do we handle it? Is it so simple to up sticks and respond to a calling, a vocation of following Christ’s footsteps?

We would certainly find ourselves leading fairly transitory lives if this calling to physically leave everything behind, was for everyone. But remember there were always others; others that stayed; families and friends, disciples who followed in their hearts if not on their feet; building fellowship in the communities they lived in. A discipleship of the everyday that can be just as risky; a discipleship that asks us to witness in the minutia of our lives; to move away from our comfort zone. A discipleship that also needs to hear the words ‘do not be afraid’.