Friday, 24 February 2012

Do you know where you're going to?

Sunday Gospel Reflection
Mark 1:12-15 

The Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him.
  After John had been arrested, Jesus went into Galilee. There he proclaimed the Good News from God. ‘The time has come’ he said ‘and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.’

There are two primary choices in life; to accept conditions as they exist, or accept the responsibility for changing them.      Denis Waitley

One of my Lenten practices is to turn off the radio or cd player and drive to and from work in silence - giving me a 40 minute space each way to let God be my passenger - a bit of 'us' time.  In fact this is such a favourite practice that I generally carry it on all year; except for times when I use this as an opportunity to listen to recorded talks and lectures in peace. 

Just before the 'off' switch was pressed this year I was listening to Ron Rolheiser and he made a comment that whenever you are given any piece of scripture it is the first few words that say everything you need to know - an alternative approach to Lectio Divina - and a need for some real mindfulness

How much we anticipate the beginning of something; especially if we have completed preparations and developed expectations? So much so that we launch into it full throttle - racing through the first lesson, the first chapter,  the first day - our eyes already set on the finishing line when the smoke hasn't even cleared from the starter's gun.

This Gospel is just days from the beginning of Lent - ashes if not smoke - and a pivotal moment in the Church's year. This flamboyant tradition of Ash Wednesday is one of the most public statements of faith that modern Catholics make - with websites and blogs that celebrate 'How big is your ash?'. And that's fine - that's what community does - why not? 

But now, these few days later, as the discomforts of the denials are starting to bite, we wonder how we are going to gather the willpower to make it through the routine of the next 30 odd days and is there really any point?  What have we  missed in our eagerness?

Our Lenten journey is intended to remind us of how Jesus prepared himself for his ministry so that we may be better prepared to reaffirm our willingness to carry out our own. So how should this journey begin?

'The Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness'. 

Mark makes it clear this is not a voluntary act, not an invitation, not a promise to something more. The Spirit 'takes' Jesus where She wants him. This is a beginning - this rush of power; this gift of recognition; the handing over from John - but Jesus has to know what it means. We have to be prepared to  be  lifted up in the Spirit's hands -  we also have to learn what our discipleship means.

In these past few days have we given ourselves over to God's will or have we been focused on pursuing our own aims; what we decided was the right choice; the right action?

If we have been 'Spirit driven'  we will find ourselves, like Jesus, in the wilderness; the place beyond control; the place of encounter; the place of finding out. 

Our first reaction to losing control is to withdraw; to mistrust; to fear - the ideal territory for the devil's work. The suggestion comes to take care of yourself first; to decide it's too difficult and then justify our change of mind; to snatch at any opportunity to exert power - to deny rather than to submit. 

But the invitation is to submit; to become part of the wilderness; to encounter the wild beasts; the untamed truths of who we are; where we have come from; what hurts us and what feeds us. To know ourselves in God's eyes.

And so to know that all gifts; all grace comes from God - through the ministry of angels -  the love of friends. That no matter what the hardships; challenges and sacrifices, if it was God who put you there then  you will not walk out of the wilderness without a purpose; you will not walk out of the wilderness alone.

Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced - James Baldwin


Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Saturday, 18 February 2012

The family you choose

GospelMark 2:1-12 

When Jesus returned to Capernaum, word went round that he was back; and so many people collected that there was no room left, even in front of the door. He was preaching the word to them when some people came bringing him a paralytic carried by four men, but as the crowd made it impossible to get the man to him, they stripped the roof over the place where Jesus was; and when they had made an opening, they lowered the stretcher on which the paralytic lay. Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the paralytic, ‘My child, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some scribes were sitting there, and they thought to themselves, ‘How can this man talk like that? He is blaspheming. Who can forgive sins but God?’ Jesus, inwardly aware that this was what they were thinking, said to them, ‘Why do you have these thoughts in your hearts? Which of these is easier: to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven” or to say, “Get up, pick up your stretcher and walk”? But to prove to you that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,’ – he turned to the paralytic – ‘I order you: get up, pick up your stretcher, and go off home.’ And the man got up, picked up his stretcher at once and walked out in front of everyone, so that they were all astounded and praised God saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this.’

“Sometimes  walls are there not to keep people out, but to see who cares enough to break them down.” Anon

 This miracle is one that is particularly close to my heart.

I - more so my husband - have a friend who was paralysed following  an accident about thirty years ago now. From a young man; with all the imaginings and ambitions of youth he became encased in a wheelchair, all medical, personal - all care - needing to be done for him.  There have been efforts from the authorities to support his care and the necessities of living are in place. There have been dark times along the way and people who talk about 'quality of life' and 'lives worth living' may wonder what, in the end, this medical intervention has achieved. 

I would say that what this intervention has allowed is the grace of friendship. 

The friends that knew him before, supported him during and accompany him now are as incredible and as loyal as the friends of the paralytic man. Through them and sometimes despite him, life has gone on - real life. Through the way they speak to him, argue about football or politics - no quarter given or expected. Through the invitations and the practicalities of invitations to all and any parties and get-togethers. Through experiences of being pushed through boggy ground at race meetings, lifted into the back of vans to get to a concert, of racing through busy streets on match days; of the casual acts of holding a pint or cutting up a pie. 

In a time when disabilities still cause some embarrassment and when no-one wants to be reminded of 'what if ' these fifty-something men see their friend as no more and no less than that - their friend. And if they thought Jesus was in town they'd be there with their saws and hammers and not taking 'no' for an answer. 

And just like the four here - who they were; what their own concerns might have been; what Jesus could have done for them wouldn't have mattered as long as Jesus said 'yes' to their friend.

The prayerful truth is that Jesus has already said 'yes' to this man - for, despite whatever else he may have chosen to confess, what would have been the real sin? 

Surely that he might have chosen to exist in a life filled with regret; refusing to acknowledge that there were people who cared about him; finding no place in a community.  Believing that no-one would love him; that no-one could love him.

And there were times, I know, when that was how he felt.

That there was no way that God's grace could reach him.

Except he had friends.

The friend who can be silent with us, who can stay with us in an hour of grief , who can tolerate not knowing... not healing, not curing... that is a friend who cares.”  
Henri Nouwen


Saturday, 11 February 2012

At Your feet

GospelMark 1:40-45 

A leper came to Jesus and pleaded on his knees: ‘If you want to’ he said ‘you can cure me.’ Feeling sorry for him, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. ‘Of course I want to!’ he said. ‘Be cured!’ And the leprosy left him at once and he was cured. Jesus immediately sent him away and sternly ordered him, ‘Mind you say nothing to anyone, but go and show yourself to the priest, and make the offering for your healing prescribed by Moses as evidence of your recovery.’ The man went away, but then started talking about it freely and telling the story everywhere, so that Jesus could no longer go openly into any town, but had to stay outside in places where nobody lived. Even so, people from all around would come to him.

“One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying.” Joan of Arc

Mark's Gospel is a wonderful paradox to me - how this; the shortest of Gospels could have taken my scripture group two years to get to Chapter Ten (looks like we have at least another year ahead of us) - how these fragments of Peter's memory draws out memories of my own - how clearly God speaks through his Word - and sometimes the fewest of words.

This was brought home just this week; studying with the scripture group; starting a youth group study of Mark and preparing for next term's curriculum I have not only been reading  (and reading around) but listening and watching Mark. On Youtube; on ITunes;on DVD; BBC radio series and one man theatrical performances. 

The Gospel of Few Words is, I have realised, a gift to storytellers - as I am sure the first preachers and teachers must have been; as many are now. It can rattle along at a breathless pace, the urgency of the Message whispered under cover of night  and behind closed doors. 

Or,  in the breath's space before every 'and then' the teller is given the opportunity to expand; to reminisce on their own memory; to reflect on the insights of a listener or the overheard murmur of gossip.

'If you want to' 

How many ways can you say those four words? 

Politely; confidently; cajoling; disarming? Or, disbelieving and challenging?

A leper; judged the greatest of outcasts; condemned as unclean; 'dwelling apart' -pleaded - 
the pleading of a human being with no place left to go; no pride; nothing whatsoever to lose. The child that Jesus often reminds us we should be; powerless yet trusting. 
He put himself at Jesus' feet and Jesus healed him.

I wonder though how often we bring our prayers to Jesus in that way?
Jesus tells us that the Father answers our prayers and yet we will say 'not this time; not always; not at all' 

But how do we say
'if you want to'?

Do we make this a prayer of submission that allows God to heal in whatever way we most need it? Remember - for the first time in his life the leper was given the dignity of any other human being - he was able to speak openly and freely and everywhere. 

 Or, do we make this a prayer of challenge?

Do we dare God to answer our prayer? 

Do I say that -
-I believe in You, the One God, maker of Heaven and Earth, of all things visible and invisible
-I believe in You, the Father the Almighty who - put stars and suns in their place and set the tides in motion
-  I believe in you whose name is Love and gift is Grace
That you may do ALL that

But  I believe that You will not do this -  because You don't want to.

Or, rather - and this is much more true - 
that You will not do this because You will not do it my way. 
You will not listen to what I need  - how I need to be fixed - how I need what I want. 
You will not  because You do not understand that I know myself better than You do. 

How can God cure me of that?

'When people choose to withdraw far from a fire, the fire continues to give warmth, but they grow cold.  When people choose to withdraw far from light, the light continues to be bright in itself but they are in darkness.  

This is also the case when people withdraw from God.' ~Augustine


Saturday, 4 February 2012

The healing hand

GospelMark 1:29-39 
On leaving the synagogue, Jesus went with James and John straight to the house of Simon and Andrew. Now Simon’s mother-in-law had gone to bed with fever, and they told him about her straightaway. He went to her, took her by the hand and helped her up. And the fever left her and she began to wait on them.
  That evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were sick and those who were possessed by devils. The whole town came crowding round the door, and he cured many who were suffering from diseases of one kind or another; he also cast out many devils, but he would not allow them to speak, because they knew who he was.
  In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house, and went off to a lonely place and prayed there. Simon and his companions set out in search of him, and when they found him they said, ‘Everybody is looking for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go elsewhere, to the neighbouring country towns, so that I can preach there too, because that is why I came.’ And he went all through Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out devils.

 Another reading that often feels as though it is putting the women in their place;  I have always had difficulty with the idea that Jesus would heal someone simply so that he could have his supper made for him.
The translation from the Greek shows an inadequacy - deliberate (?) or otherwise. The word used refers to a  ‘woman who ministers to Jesus' - it seems that this woman becomes the first of his disciples. 

Never worry about numbers.  Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you.  ~Mother Teresa

 They left the synagogue full of questions and wonderings. It was getting late in the day so Simon Peter invited them all to his house to share the evening meal. As they drew closer to the house he commented,’ I’ll apologise in advance for my mother-in-law, her cooking is fit for David himself but she has a face that would sour milk.’ Whilst the rest laughed, a puzzled look came over Jesus’ face. 

In the shadow of Simon Peter’s front porch Esther’s face tightened into grimace. The house had been quiet all day, everything tidy and in its place. A simple supper bubbling on the fire, a chance for an early night and here was Simon, big lumbering Simon and some new acquaintances he will have picked up from the synagogue, the market place or the dock.’ New friends, Esther’ he’ll say with a wink. ‘ I’ve told them about your cooking – they’ve come to see for themselves’ and she’d be expected to stretch the meal, empty the store cupboards and spend the night, sitting in the kitchen, wincing at their loud voices and rumbling guffaws.  Oh, how she hated being a woman.

At the threshold the other men leaned down to take off their sandals and shake the sand from their cloaks whilst Simon Peter went into the house. ‘Esther – we have guests come to sample your cooking!’
 ‘What if there’s not enough? Supper was for you and Andrew.’
‘Now Esther, Moses tells us it is our duty to be hospitable ...’
‘Don’t tell me my duty, Simon’ Esther muttered under her breath as she moved to the kitchen – With a nod at the retreating figure, Simon Peter mouthed ‘sour milk’. 

The food was excellent and the friends relaxed sharing stories of the sea, memories of boyhood and hopes for the future. After a time they barely notice the silent, sullen figure drifting in and out with bowls and cups. 

Except for Jesus –for him there was no quiet, no peace in Esther. A catalogue of unfairness and complaints replayed themselves in her head. Demons of resentment and regret perched on her shoulders, claws tightening into her muscles; raising a fever of disquiet; whispering a litany of grudges into her ear. And buried deep beneath, the child Esther playing house with her dolls; the young woman beginning married life full of dreams, the matron widowed, having to move to a strange town; dependent on charity, a servant in all but name, a nobody.

Simon Peter called out to her ‘Another jug of wine.’ With a deep sigh Esther picked up the empty jug and walked out to the store. As she moved baskets of vegetables out of the way, a voice behind her made her start; ‘Let me help you mother.'
‘Thank you sir, but I can manage,' Esther replied warily, 'you should go back to sit with my son-in-law. You are a guest in his house.’
‘But you are struggling’, Jesus said to her, ‘and my mother would never forgive me if I didn't help.’
‘Then you are kind and your mother should be proud. Does she live in the town?’
‘No, but I hope she will join me soon; perhaps when she comes, you could be friends – she’d be a stranger here.’
‘I know what that’s like, Sir, I’d be glad to help her.’

Almost to himself, Jesus spoke again ‘I have relied on her wise words so much. Women have a lot to teach us men about faith, about sacrifice, about love. Young men like these; they need to know about such things.  If you have the time, mother, I would be grateful if you would come and sit and share your wisdom with us.’

He took her hand, looked honestly into her eyes and smiled with invitation; the demons withdrew their claws from her shoulders and the blackness lifted from her mind. 

‘You take the wine into the house, sir, and I will follow you.’

 Dare to reach out your hand into the darkness, to pull another hand into the light.  ~Norman B. Rice