Monday, 29 November 2010

Advent - Being ready

The day I realised I was going to have a baby was just four weeks before the date that she was due.

Not that I was one of those women who don’t know they’re pregnant. I knew I was pregnant. It had been a miracle of my own, having had fertility treatment. I had had all the tests and the scans; had been to all the antenatal appointments, changed my diet; done the exercises. Even decorated the spare room.

And I had enjoyed being pregnant. Got used to moving in a certain way; felt full of energy; felt connected to the being growing within me – would have happily stayed eight months pregnant forever.

But that’s not how it works and four weeks before the due date I went om a tour of the hospital delivery suite and suddenly realised that I was going to have to ‘have’ this baby – and I did not feel ready.

I suppose it’s all about control – in pregnancy I was in charge –or at least I thought I was– I had lived my pregnancy carefully, haphazardly, healthily, hopefully but generally as I wanted. The last few weeks gave me just a few more boxes to tick - phone numbers, birth plan, bag packed, ready meals in the freezer.

But more and more it was wondering if I should go to work, visit my friend who’s had flu, take a weekend break, chance climbing into the loft or drive across town by myself. Instinct made me more and more reflective; absorbed in the division taking place within me; establishing connections that would outlast the ‘due’ date. Telling the baby ‘you are mine’ – but realistically, it was the baby who was now in control. The baby who will born when she is ready (two weeks late as it happened) and everything would then revolve around her. As much as I had prepared I did not feel ready and as much as I had planned I felt lost.

And that is true, because when a baby is born everything does change – the baby is born -and you are reborn – as a mother. And all around you, other people are reborn as fathers, grandparents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. The house and the car become too small – the world too big - the future both exciting and frightening. The ripple effect of just one tiny new life.

And how can anyone possibly be ready for that?

St Luke has been trying to prepare us all year– the Gospel of Luke the Physician speaks to us of a practical almost pragmatic Jesus; a Jesus who wants us ready for anything. If we have listened; if we have taken the teaching seriously, then we will have taken opportunities to become more prayerful, to bring God further into our daily lives.

Romantically, the idea of spiritual preparation is often compared to going into battle, becoming one of God’s warriors – onward Christian soldiers.

But it is much more like pregnancy – what we are preparing for is a lifelong commitment; a relationship that will change; will change us; will grow, may waiver but will never go away; will never be without belonging; will never be without love.

In Advent even the Church changes; changes from being a mother to being a midwife - calls us in to reflect - nurses us towards our new beginning – moving our focus from ourselves to the One who is coming - from the Jesus we think we think is only ours – to the Christ who holds us all.

In Advent we are invited to share the last few weeks as Mary spent them; no fait accompli –but making ready, being ready; wondering and waiting; laying awake at night feeling uncertain and unsettled; anxiously journeying towards an event that would change her life; that would change the life of the world –the birth of the One who is the Light of the World.


Saturday, 20 November 2010

Save yourself?

Gospel Luke 23:35-43

The people stayed there before the cross watching Jesus. As for the leaders, they jeered at him. ‘He saved others,’ they said ‘let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.’ The soldiers mocked him too, and when they approached to offer vinegar they said, ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’ Above him there was an inscription: ‘This is the King of the Jews.’

One of the criminals hanging there abused him. ‘Are you not the Christ?’ he said. ‘Save yourself and us as well.’ But the other spoke up and rebuked him. ‘Have you no fear of God at all?’ he said. ‘You got the same sentence as he did, but in our case we deserved it: we are paying for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong. Jesus,’ he said ‘remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ ‘Indeed, I promise you,’ he replied ‘today you will be with me in paradise.

‘Are you not the Christ?’ he said. ‘Save yourself’

Way back, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was posed a very similar question. It came at the end of his time in the desert after his Baptism. Not so much a question as a temptation. The devil had known that Jesus was now fully aware of the power that he held as God and Man. He may have considered that forty days in the desert would leave the human Jesus failing in strength, realising his weaknesses – and thought that this was an opportunity to suggest that Jesus uses his Divinity to his own end; that this was an opportunity to divert Jesus from the path his Father has chosen. And, after all, the Father has never been human; has never been hungry, couldn't know what it was really like to be one of us.

But Jesus was a strong, young man then; full of life; full of mission; full of the confidence that his Father and the Holy Spirit had blessed him with. Full with the belief that he could do this without rejecting either his humanity or his divinity. Confidence, Faith and Hope all sent the devil packing….then.

But now he’s back. And the circumstances must balance far more in his favour. He hides in humanity; in the weakness that sees us grabbing at straws to save ourselves; without accepting or realising that it can never be us that saves us.

Does the first criminal truly know Jesus? He throws the claim but does he believe? It may  seem ridiculous;  but for some, it is easier to believe in magic than to believe in mercy.

To the first thief; Jesus may be no more than a charismatic prophet; a rebel leader.  But there may be plans- friends conspiring to save the day and if so, why shouldn’t he be included? If Jesus can do this for himself, shouldn't he do it for everyone?

And how easy would it be, this time, to accept the challenge?

With the Mission behind him; abandoned by friends; rejected by the people he had come to save. His body stripped of all the strength and dignity of manhood; as his humanity withers away and the Father and Holy Spirit keep silent - the devil must have been rubbing his hands in glee.

If you are the Christ; you can save yourself.

Jesus is the Christ – but he can’t save himself - this is the relationship of Trinity  –-  mercy will have to come through the Holy Spirit and from the Father. Jesus, the Christ, must give himself up and put himself into their hands.

The sign says - This is the King of the Jews - a strange kind of king then that surrenders to the will of others. A king that places himself, not in authority but in solidarity with his people; with the lowest and most desperate of his people. Even knowing that a word, a gesture, could make this all go away; he chooses not to; he chooses to remain faithful to his humanity. After all if, at the end, he simply swept all this away then what was the point? Was it just a game- God playing Man?

Jesus proves his power by being powerless; his submission takes him out of the hands of those who jeer and tempt him leaving him in God's hands.
When the other criminal speaks up; he recognises this. He knows himself; he has accepted who he is; sees some sort of justice; knows that he now has no power over his future.

In his acceptance, he sees that there is a difference - Jesus is being sacrificed and is accepting that this needs to be done; is making himself the sacrifice. There is something bigger here; there is something more; there is a strength and a faith that even at the end; even for a few moments the man wants to be a part of.

 ‘Take me with you.’

And Jesus does; Christ, the king who will not save himself, will save this man.


Thursday, 18 November 2010

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Love, actually

Gospel Luke 21:5-19

When some were talking about the Temple, remarking how it was adorned with fine stonework and votive offerings, Jesus said, ‘All these things you are staring at now – the time will come when not a single stone will be left on another: everything will be destroyed.’ And they put to him this question: ‘Master,’ they said ‘when will this happen, then, and what sign will there be that this is about to take place?’
‘Take care not to be deceived,’ he said ‘because many will come using my name and saying, “I am he” and, “The time is near at hand.” Refuse to join them. And when you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened, for this is something that must happen but the end is not so soon.’ Then he said to them, ‘Nation will fight against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes and plagues and famines here and there; there will be fearful sights and great signs from heaven.
‘But before all this happens, men will seize you and persecute you; they will hand you over to the synagogues and to imprisonment, and bring you before kings and governors because of my name – and that will be your opportunity to bear witness. Keep this carefully in mind: you are not to prepare your defence, because I myself shall give you eloquence and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, relations and friends; and some of you will be put to death. You will be hated by all men on account of my name, but not a hair of your head will be lost. Your endurance will win you your lives.’

Sometimes you just don’t want to hear the honest truth – or if you do – you don’t want to believe it; or, you edit what you hear.

Luke is so straightforward, like it or not,  a plain-speaker. And, surely, after reading this Gospel you would wonder why anyone would have wanted to be a follower.
After knowing that history shows that these experiences have happened; continue to happen; you would wonder why, in these days,  there would be any point in being a Christian.

If the early followers thought they were living in the End Days – then where must we be?
It is passages like these that suggest that very little has changed. Man’s inhumanity to man continues, with only the evolving of weaponry and excuses to enter into conflict after conflict. The peace seekers are still the persecuted ones. Trying to follow the Christian message is likely to put you in the minority. And, even Jesus suggests, there is very little you can do about that.

Except – know that you are loved.

That’s where Jesus tells us our confidence, our endurance, our faith comes from.
In our relationship with God we have to know, in our mind, our heart and our guts, that as much as we love; we are loved so much more in return. We have to know; as the martyrs and the saints that have gone before us have known.

And how do you know?

You just do.

Have you ever loved and tried to explain it to someone else. It is a treasure stealing exercise; trying to deliver a list of qualities and experiences, attractions and commonalities that will prove a feeling that cannot be measured. Using words that sound banal once they are spoken. Making excuses for a feeling that will not be excused.

Trying to convince another person is an impossible task – even if the other is the one you love.

Parents with wayward children; partners who don’t seem to have anything in common; children with irresponsible parents tend to have the most honest answer –

I love them because I do - I love them because I cannot do otherwise.

And these are the words that Jesus puts into our mouths when we are asked to bear witness. Love is enough. Love is everything. Love is Godly.

Any other reason, excuse, debate is subject to the rule of the world; that says nothing is set in stone; that nothing is ever forever, that nothing is true. 

If the time ever comes when we are challenged or persecuted or betrayed; our confidence, our ability to stand tall will be fed by the Love that God has for us.  And if that challenge causes us pain or exile then perhaps Jesus will put his own words into our mouth.

‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’


Friday, 12 November 2010


Having just come back from a retreat where the group was invited to make a commitment to several hours of silence and realising how unique and demanding an experience this became for some; I have spent some time thinking about what it was we were asking.

Paradoxically, we hear a lot about silence these days. In a world full of multi-sensory experiences, both actual and virtual, silence has become something of a panacea for the over-stressed and often overwhelmed psyche. Courses, classes, retreat centres even tv programmes promise silence as a cure for the busy-ness of life.

People seek the perfect silence –but our own physical presence creates sound – heartbeat, breath, blood rushing through veins. Noise, it seems, is part of the human condition; proof of life.

If noise is the human condition does this make silence divine? Is this why we regard it as something outside our natural abilities, that, in some way it is accepted as an ‘unreachable star’? Is this why we make the link between silence and the religious life? One place where we expect to encounter the silent space is the convent or the monastery. Unlike the media frenzied world filled with twenty-four hour multi-decibel distraction, even a religious community that is not dedicated to complete silence still actively timetables it into the day. It is the ‘place’ for prayer, for contemplation, for encounter with God.

There are those who recommend that we should be seeking silence as a positive addition to our lives, for physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. But is this just a bit na├»ve – silence is not enriching in and of itself – silence rather has a quality, a clarity that allows other emotional and spiritual experiences to express themselves; a space for opportunity - but like the Gospel story of the ousted demon, this space can be filled by angels or by even more demons.

Dictionary definitions of silence insist on the idea of absence; the absence of sound, the absence of communication, the absence of knowledge. It rejects society, community; it refuses to ‘share’ it connotes selfishness and secrecy. Silence has no positive attributes for a world that needs to know.

Silence is most popularly understood as absence of communication, absence of language. No-one speaks to you, you speak to no-one else therefore silence is created. Within everyday society the mere idea of this behaviour is abnormal. There is a perversity to silence that unsettles; that needs to be dealt with. People dread the awkward silence that can break up a conversation leaving both parties staring at their shoes desperately trying to fill the gap. There is the pregnant pause that suggests accusation or blame or asks for the unwilling reply.

In the classroom, where the modern focus is on stimulation and activity, silence has been become unwelcome. That we find the same students have problems when they are expected to sit for ninety minutes or more in silence in an examination room surprises us. Sitting in silence is considered a punishment, our inclusion room insists on silence – yet the students often remark on what a peaceful and productive day they have had – but as it was part of the punishment they don’t see it as something desirable in their school or home life.

The worst punishment I ever inflicted on my son was to tell him I was so upset with him I couldn’t speak to him (he was about 6). I didn’t hit him, I didn’t say I didn’t love him but for a sociable person who loved to communicate – I might as well have. I never did it again.

I try to make sure now if I have students sent to me that the ‘sitting in silence’ is to give them reflective and ‘letting go’ time - not a withdrawal of my (the school’s) concern or regard for them.
Lindisfarne Castle

Yet, spiritually and in faith, there is the belief that silence is the language that connects us to God; the Mother tongue. When I try to describe sacred silence to people I ask them what is the difference between being in their house by themselves and being with someone else – even when that person can’t be seen or heard?

Those who are loved immediately get it – they are comforted simply by the knowing of the other person being present.

Those that aren’t say they would rather be by themselves – a silence with another person in it is a threat.

And it can be. For some there is the unwelcome silence of going home,unwillingly, to an empty house; the grief-laden silence of a missed loved one; the resentful and abandoned silences of promises not kept; visits not made. For the lonely or emotionally hurt, silence can be a cruel reminder and a vacuum from which the hurt does not escape. Who wants to contemplate how hurt they are? This has to be something we are aware of – that before silence becomes a place of rest and growth; other healing may be needed.

When I read Sarah Maitland’s ‘Book of Silence’ about the search for this ‘vision’ that she had; I did wonder what what her problem was –it was as if she was seeking an elixir of life - making demands on silence that not only needed to fulfil expectation but made the search exclusive to those who have the time, money and wherewithal. The idea of going to a place of silence suggests that it is a rarity outside normal experience; that it is a luxury; a retreat. Whilst us humans do need to find a place away from distractions; the aim should be, as a desert father said, ‘to find silence in a foundry’. The ‘place’ of silence should only be the first part of the journey.

I wonder if the silent ‘outside’ is like a cosmetic – ‘rehydrating’ the self temporarily – a luxury- allowing us to slough away the deadening hurts, tensions and stress.

The silence ‘inside’ is drinking in the water to rehydrate the living body to allow cells to heal and to grow. The human body is 60% water; we know we need to replenish the water. An atom within the human body is 97+% space. How do we replenish the ‘space’; the spirit?
 Lindisfarne dawn

I suppose I do have to thank Sarah for drawing silence to my attention. Because silence is natural to me I had not quite realised how unnatural it is to others. Indeed, I had not, until recently, noticed silence as the constant in my life. It has, for me, meant many things from reclusive and barren to universal and grace-ful. It has been imposed on me physically, environmentally, and psychologically; in hindsight it has been a sanctuary and it has also been a prison.

And this I have come to accept because, in time, with guidance and God’s help it has become a healing and sacred experience; the grace to carry silence within, is one I would not do without. But that has not been an easy journey. The silence of contemplation requires courage. I have had to hear, feel, know that God loves me; I have had to admit more and more that I am who God wants me to be; I have had to let myself be healed; I have learnt to be content (more than content) sitting with God because I know he is there in the silence and sometimes in that contentment I do hear him.