Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Silence as Creativity and Liberation

Lent is a really good time to consider spiritual practices of silence and of renunciation. Fasting and silence help us to understand Jesus’ experience in the desert or wilderness. We think of Jesus in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights as a metaphor for our own need to strip away in our life unnecessary distractions. Desert spirituality is about raw encounter, with ourselves and ultimately we hope with God.

Sara Maitland writes in A Book of Silence about her own journey into silence as a modern day, somewhat alternative hermit. In one particular chapter Sara describes some time she spent in the Sinai Desert and this leads her into some specific insights. In an engaging paragraph she writes:

I started to think that perhaps silence is God. Perhaps God is silence – the shining, spinning ring of ‘pure endless light’. Perhaps God speaking is a ‘verb’, an act, but God in perfect self-communication in love with the Trinity, is silence and therefore is silence. God is silence, a silence that is positive, alive, actual and of its ‘nature’ unbreakable.

Sara’s reflection on silence in the desert made me wonder about the relationship between the desert and God’s creative silence. It’s true that we spend a lot of time in the Church reflecting upon the Word – the act of the Father in Christ the Son. But if what lies behind that act is God’s silence, what is the implication for our devotional practice, for our seeking of wisdom in the Holy Mystery of Divinity? Silence and desert monasticism has a long history in Christian devotional practice, and perhaps it is enjoying something of resurgence today as people seek out new spiritualities.

I have found, as many have, that periods of silence in worship have become deeply enriching and necessary, as my spiritual journey has progressed. My own first real experience of communal silence was at theological college where with Sarah Coakley, we sat in an hour’s silence each week. Also, every morning before prayer we had 20 minutes of silence. These silences rather than being empty were full, and that perhaps is the essential paradox. They seemed able to take me further, to explore more, to enter more deeply in to God.

Yet silence has also had to answer some criticism. Is silence really a retreat away from the world, a form of escapism from real problems? For those groups or individuals who have been oppressed and literally silenced, surely we should be encouraging them to come to voice?

Sara Coakley, a feminist theologian, has written on the interplay between justice and silence. In Powers and Submissions, she addresses the charge of whether ascetic practices have been used to encourage women’s submission, disassociated introversion, apolitical anaesthesia and ultimately the silencing of women. Have women been silenced, she asks? Of course yes women have. But that doesn’t have to be the last word on silence.

She argues  for an alternative interpretation: contemplative practice should be at the centre of feminist theologies, as being that which leads to a proper disciplining of self as well as assisting freedom from all that binds and manipulates. She writes: ‘the means of peace, and indeed of the final gender equity that must attend it, are patient practices of transparency to God, by whose light political strategies must ultimately also be illuminated.’

If the ‘Church’ and religious traditions have been guilty of subjecting women and others into various limiting stereotypes and models, freedom from religious misuse of power and subjection comes for Coakley through the patient practice of silence. And this can be deeply empowering. We remember Jesus’ silence before Pilate. We remember the long silence that Rowan Williams apparently made on Radio 4 when asked a question. A silence that actually empowers us by its deepness; silence is in many ways the final act of defiance from those who are being oppressed and manipulated. For in silence we refuse to engage in the cunning of words and politics that seek to condemn us.

It is perhaps no coincidence that two very different but similarly engaged contemporary (feminist) writers on religion should be drawn to silence and contemplation as a means of liberation. It is perhaps only from the deep creative silence of God that a proper religious renewal can emerge, one that re-generates religious language and practice.

The question of the language we use to speak of God and to God is at the heart of course of the practice of religious belief and doctrine. I remember that I had a spiritual crisis during which I felt that the language of the church was inadequate and limiting when it came to its naming of God and my relationship with God. Calling God Father as we do in the Christian religion can become a stumbling block for many for different reasons; language which at one time was very helpful can become unhelpful. Any language which becomes static, inflexible, unchangeable is a language that is not honouring God or Her creation. Language has to move and adapt and this is true too of liturgical and religious language. The language should not simply mimic culture unreflectingly in order to be relevant but through diversity, play, creativity, freedom and novelty, it should challenge and empower people once again to find a language to talk to God and about God. As we experiment with prayer we translate a theology of inclusion into a practice of inclusion. And yet, the silent source of that movement and creativity is of course the inexpressible, unknowable mysterious God.

If communities find that language is a barrier to communion perhaps sitting in silence together (for a time) is a strategy for renewal. At an Inclusive Language conference I attended I was very moved and challenged by the idea of a silent Eucharist which one woman told me she had been involved in. I imagined being part of such a service, where the actions of Christ are brought into silent focus, as we keep silent and remember the story through mime. What possibilities of renewal of liturgical language might come through such a discipline?

Desert spirituality of course in only part of the journey; it is a time of purification and testing. But Christ comes out of his forty days in the desert not a broken an exhausted man, after all, but one ready to boldly start his ministry, to proclaim the Good News. He comes out of the desert ready to speak – not to remain silent: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1: 15)

There is a time for silence and a time for speech; but speech without silence is likely to be arid and empty.

Money - 'thought for the day' BBC Coventry and Warwickshire

It’s been a week for me of thinking about money. It has of course for the nation as well as we listened to the detail of the Chancellor’s budget.

How much money we have got, how we get it and how we spend it are questions that every household has to ask; every business and charity too. The questions are the same for the nation, if on a much larger scale.

This week in my church we have been looking closely at our finances and the resources available to us. It has been challenging, making all of us vulnerable. For questions of finance and money get right to the heart of things. They ask us to seriously reflect upon what is important and who is important. In so doing they reveal our deepest values. Jesus taught unequivocally that we cannot serve two masters – we can serve either God or wealth. Yet I suppose the temptation is to think that we can divide our loyalties. We can blur the line and keep our feet in both camps.

I was inspired to read this week about the Sikh tradition of langar. Langar is a free community kitchen, instituted by Guru Nanak, which today forms part of every Sikh gurdwara or temple. What is so fundamental to this tradition however is Guru Nanak’s teaching of upholding the equality of all people. The way that the food is donated, cooked and served reflects this. Anyone may come to the community kitchen regardless of wealth, background or creed and anyone can volunteer in the kitchen to prepare food or wash up. Everyone sits on the floor and eats together. Volunteering and eating in the kitchen is a spiritual discipline in which meditation is encouraged. The dignity and equality of the human person is upheld by the religious values which underpin the service.

This seems to me to be a prophetic teaching for today, reminding us that we are all equal before God and that life is blessed when we share what we have. It is not that those who have should give to those who have not, but something much more profound - that each of us needs the other in order to learn about who God is. And so whether we are thinking about personal or public finance, it seems vital to remember the equality of every human being and the equal dignity they have before God. If we keep this in mind our attitude to how we acquire money and how we spend it should better reflect the love and compassion of God. 

You can listen to the 'thought for the day' here: 7.50am 22nd March 2015

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Life before God's invitation

I wonder if you can imagine yourself in your daily life. What do you do Monday to Friday? - work at a check out, in a factory, teaching students, cooking the dinner, shopping, gardening, reading a book? Imagine that into your domestic or work space Jesus appears - Jesus is there just a few metres away and he’s calling you ‘Follow me’.  

Imagine Mary before she was surprised by the annunciation, what was she doing? Imagine Joseph as Mary came to talk to him to tell him the news, what was he doing; imagine the inn keeper who opened the door; imagine the shepherds as they were out on the fields tending their sheep; imagine the wise men before they saw the star. They all had a ‘normal’ before something strange and mysterious happened to them. And they are judged on how they respond to that mystery and that invitation.

-‘be it unto me according to your word’

These narratives tell us, as the incarnation reveals to us, that Jesus/God appears in our normal ordinary world. Jesus meets the ordinary person in their ordinary lives and makes an invitation -he presents a new reality and says: do you want to help me in this work? ‘ ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people’….

It might be easier to keep on fishing, keep on shopping, keep on reading, keep on cleaning, it might seem easier to look away, to not notice that someone in the near distance is calling you, is looking at you, is inviting you, is asking you – it’s perhaps simpler to imagine that it’s not you that’s being addressed. But,

What if like Simon, Andrew and James we should respond to this stranger who is calling us? We should get up, leave our dishes, leave the check-out, leave the book and follow?

Most of us no doubt at some stage have taken that step, listened to that voice and had the courage to get up and follow. But, I wonder if Jesus has more to ask of us, more to show us, more to invite us to see?

He did with Martha, who wanted to draw her sister back in to domestic tasks, but Jesus said no, she has chosen to follow that call, to take the time to listen.

The Christian journey is one of continuing encounter, continuing relationship with God and a daily opportunity to look beyond the surface realities and domesticity of our lives. Jesus takes the disciples on a journey, one that is compelling, often confusing, dangerous, miraculous, frightening, remarkable and life shattering. Like the first disciples Jesus invites us on a similar journey – his voice and his call is as much historic as it is present and the proclamation and announcement of the good news ‘that the time is near and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe’ is just as compelling as well as necessary today, as it was for the first disciples.

Mark’s Jesus is one who doesn't hang around waiting for people, he makes an invitation and then is gone; he’s got a whole new world to proclaim. The frightening aspect of the Gospel I suppose is that it can easily be missed, because God turns up with an invitation, but then he is gone. For us as Christians our vocation is to keep following, keep up with that voice and keep saying yes to that invitation. For Jesus asks us to be co-workers for the spreading of the good news, co –workers in announcing the new order, fellow travellers who will see something new, who will enter into a different world, who will be challenged and who will be transformed. As we hear again that story of the first disciples, we are invited by God to remember our first response to his call and reflect upon our own faithfulness. Are we still letting the mystery and the strangeness transform our reality? Or have we fallen back into the familiar every day? 

Preached at St Maries as part of Christian Unity Week, 2015

RC Lectionary

Mark 1: 14-20

The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry

 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ 

Jesus Calls the First Disciples

 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Vulnerability and Invitation

In one of the most extraordinary poems (in the sense that it reveals to me a new way of seeing things), in the ‘Haphazard by Starlight’ collection (Janet Morley) Denise Levertov reflects on the idea of Jesus as the Lamb of God (see her Agnus Dei). In it she explores the characteristics of a lamb, and by so doing –edges us to the discovery of our own significance in the story of God. For a lamb is unintelligent, weak, dependent – he relies on us ‘cold hearts’ to give him sustenance: -is it implied(?) she writes that ‘we’ must ‘hold to our icy hearts’ a ‘shivering God’?

It’s a surprising and enlightening reflection as it turns on its head the concept or idea of God as omnipotent and all-sustaining, suggesting rather, that God depends on us for our love, kindness and mercy – that indeed our ability to nurture God has a real impact on God’s ability to be found and to excel.

This sort of discovery relies on Christians being mature grown up ones, who do not suppose that God will rescue them in a heroic fashion, but rather, that we must take responsibility for harbouring God.

It is worth seriously reflecting upon this and considering it; mulling it around in our hearts and sensing the full implication. How many of us are waiting for heroic rescue? How many of us imagine that God will sort it all out anyway, that we’ll be alright. The sort of response that St Paul was struggling with when debating with the Romans about the implications of grace – ‘what then are we to say, should we go on sinning in order that grace may abound! By no means!’ – if we make God totally dominant, able to achieve everything for us, then we are left with a humanity that is denied its free will. And yet, if we assume it’s all down to us to achieve our salvation, to work for it, then surely we are doomed? The surprising nature of God’s grace is that it works through partnership – it's not either or: the great debate between faith or works that so disrupted the unity of the Christian tradition in the Reformation period was unnecessary when one considers the question to be not about faith or works, but about the grace and invitation of God which suggests partnership and mutuality. God makes room for us and invites us to be his handmaiden, for his nature is that which rejects dominance and force, but rather shines forth in vulnerability and gentleness.

Jesus the lamb of God – who takes away the sin of the world.

A weak and gentle lamb is the opposite of the Lion and yet in the Revelation reading (Rev 5:1-10) Jesus is described both as a Lion and a Lamb. William Blake of course has written poems about the Lamb and the tiger, contrasting the innocence and meekness of the first, with the fierceness of the second. Somehow within the Christian narrative, Jesus brings together the idea of the dreadful creature with the meek. The suggestion in Revelation is that it is his suffering sacrifice that brings these supposing paradoxical elements in his nature together: meekness united with courage or strength.

It’s a mixture that can be found in some holy people – where meekness and gentleness is mixed with courage and strength which can be disarming and surprising. It is after all meekness and gentleness that invite our love and tenderness: God wants us to nurture him. Yet in this weakness is strength - again as St Paul expresses it – for it’s a strength of true depth and worth – that suffers for us, that endures for us, that maintains its fullest integrity for us – never denying us our human agency, and yet not allowing us either to destroy ourselves: God saves and invites us to be part of that saving story. He does it gently – ‘come and see’.

Lectionary Readings for 18th Jan 2015

Revelation 5:1-10
John 1:43-51

Denise Levertov, Agnus Dei in 'Haphazard by Starlight: A poem a day from Advent to Epiphany' by Janet Morley. 

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Religion and Violence

One of the issues that the terror attacks in France urge us to reflect on is the ever present threat of hatred and violence. We can align hatred and violence to any number of religious or political ideologies, but the banality of hatred and cold murder comes from the human heart for any number of reasons. It happens in homes and between friends as well as between strangers and supposed enemies. Certitude - moral, political or religious gives power. It enables one to live under the delusion that our supposed version of truth gives us the right to hate and at the worst to take away life. Such certitude gives confidence as it feeds hatred and violence. Of course religious outrage - defending God - gives the greatest veneer of righteous anger that anyone could manufacture. The argument goes: You have offended my highest beliefs, literally my God, so I have the right to hurt you. It is a perversion of religious truth and the exact opposite of the real aims of any religion – love God and your neighbour. And who is your neighbour? A lawyer (who loved to be right) asked Jesus that question long ago and he told him in no uncertain terms that it is the person who is different from you (ethnically, politically and religiously, i.e. the Samaritan) whom you should and must show compassion to.

Jesus came and absorbed the violence and hatred in the world in order to transform it.  As Christians in a multi-faith and secular society, our only message and purpose is to continue to express Jesus’ way of peace and love, in which those whom we thought we were meant to condemn become those whom we are compelled to show compassionate love to. Jesus shows us that the only way to overcome violence is through love and that is a costly road to walk; but the alternative which is an escalation in conflict, fear, violence and death is costlier by far. 

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Christmas Video Message

Text version-

Hello from St Andrew’s Church in Rugby, where once again I’m surrounded by Christmas trees. This year there are a couple that pick up the WW1 remembrance theme using poppies as decorations. 2014 has been a significant year for the UK and for Europe as we’ve reflected on the significance of the first and the second world wars. The not uncontroversial Sainsbury’s advert reminded the nation that the story of Christmas can do extraordinary things; even in war it can unite enemies, as in the famous Christmas Day truce in 1914.

At Christmas we do enter a mystical moment, a moment of opportunity, where the message of God’s love and care for each one of us comes really close. The vulnerable child, the nativity scenes, the bringing of gifts, they tell us that we can still believe in the power of love to transform human experience. At Christmas 1914 on the Western front, some soldiers dared to look their enemies in the face and wish them happy Christmas.

In our societies today we all have the need to look those we dislike, blame and accuse in the face and see that they too bare the image of God. Transforming our enemies into friends is the mystical work of God, but it is made possible in the story of Christmas. Jesus, the baby in the manger, the Prince of Peace, tells us of God’s desire for peace, love and unity for all humankind. I hope that that message reaches deep into your life this year.

From everyone at St Andrew’s Church in Rugby, I wish you a very blessed, holy and peaceful Christmas. 

The video message will appear on the Rugby Advertiser website on 25th Dec. 

Sunday, 21 December 2014

The Announcement of a Birth

We all have experiences of the announcement of pregnancies: ‘Mum I’m pregnant’; ‘we’re having a baby’, or in our case a step further on the sonographer saying, ‘one head and another head’…..

But, the simple announcement is not often straightforward; human lives and relationships are complex and fraught with difficulty as well as with joy and frustration and even tragedy. We all have knowledge of the complications too; for some the inability to have children, or a miscarriage, the loss of children; for others the joy and challenge of adoption or fostering children.

Bringing children into the world, let alone bringing them up, is an exercise in experiencing the pains, sufferings, joy and delight of God’s relationship with his people. It should perhaps be no surprise to us that at the heart of the story of God’s relationship with us, his people, is the announcement of a birth. For there is no greater metaphor, no more complex and demanding role, no more poignant or dangerous moment than that of the moment of birth: the fragility and beauty of life and the pure miracle that is life are evident so strongly in that moment.

And so it is that we come to Mary, and the announcement from Gabriel that she is to have a baby. Most of the time in life, especially in our advanced and technological democracies we have the illusion of choice and control. My own experience of pregnancy and child birth is the opposite experience; you have to wait and let nature take over. There is no control and little choice – we are given life and the process surrounding it. That experience of life as gift necessitates renunciation of control. Mary is surprised and perplexed, but she accepts God’s word to her and lets it be.

Sometimes in life we will encounter an event or experience, perhaps one of tragedy or joy that will leave us speechless. It will leave us floundering, in chaos, perplexed and out of our depth. There are times when life takes over, we cannot control or understand it; at those times we must seek God’s word to us and let it be; only desire that we might continue to serve God, as Mary does.

Mary was given a comforter and friend in Elizabeth, for whom something extraordinary was also happening. The shock and the strangeness of her situation was softened by her story being connected to Elizabeth’s. Having a companion who is connected to our own particular story is vital if we are to persevere in life. We need to be connected to others who too are experiencing the strange and perplexing narrative of a life lived in God’s hands; so that the joys and the pains can be shared.

The announcement of new life, the gift of a child, is a precious as well as a deeply vulnerable moment. It is in that way that God chooses to communicate more of Her nature to us: a Mother as well as a Father. The Annunciation is the continuing revelation of God’s tender loving care for Her people – and for ever more the nature of the Christian God will be connected with the image of a mother tenderly caring for her blessed child of promise. As Christians we must remember that God comes to us as a mother tenderly gathers her children, and share in that compassionate love with one another.

Text: Luke 1.26-38