Saturday, 3 November 2018

The Struggle with Holiness


About a year ago I read a book with the title “Struggling to be Holy”. The author’s name is Judy Hirst – and reading that book is one of the first significant steps I took on the road of considering how to engage with the United Reformed Church’s move into promoting more intentional missional discipleship under the banner headline of ‘walking the way’ and with the sub-title ‘living the life of Jesus today’.

Christian discipleship is nothing new. It started when Jesus said to four fishermen on the shore of Lake Galilee ‘come and follow me’. Because that is all Christian discipleship is – following Jesus. We have all engaged in discipleship in different ways, and continue to do so. But sometimes it is worth just thinking about what we are doing. Sometimes it is worth challenging ourselves – and I find the notion of holy habits very helpful in that.

However, I also need to admit, and I suspect you may need to also, that I frequently struggle to be holy – and that is why I identify with the title of Judy Hirst’s book, ‘Struggling to be Holy’ – but, more than that, as I read the book, I found a lot of what she said really helpful. I have come across plenty of books where I have liked the title, and felt it said something to me, but then discovered that the content, in my opinion at least, didn’t live up to the promise I saw in the title. But that was not the case here – and so I would like to explore a little of what she says with you.

First, a comment on holiness itself -  Holiness is about God being present and our being present to God. The more we can be in honest relationship with God, the holier we will become. Some Christians behave as if the task is to persuade God to be with them, but the delightful truth is that he is already present in the relationship. The problem is to be present ourselves. God is there but where are we?”

I think it is really helpful to remember that holiness is not about our trying to do it – because we won’t. We can’t. It’s about our connection with God. It is a bit like the now fairly well-known saying that, I think, came from Rowan Williams – ‘Mission is a matter of finding what God is doing and joining in.’ Now, of course, it is important that we respond to God’s call. That is what discipleship is. But it is important to remember that God was there first, if I can put it that way. I can’t do stuff that will make me holy, no matter how hard I try. I can do all sorts of good things. I can create or enter a context which is helpful to a holy approach. But in the end, my connection with holiness comes because of what God does. It is God who is holy. And God is there for us. And God wants to relate to us. That is why we are called. But it is also important to remember that God takes us just as we are. Of course, there are times when it would be good if we did things in a better way. But there is no exam to pass. There is no grade to reach. And sometimes it is worth remembering that God loves and values us, and that is us as we are. Hirst reminds us of the important that can be played by the things in us that can be difficult. She writes: “if I could jettison the parts of me I found troublesome I would also lose parts of myself which I valued. We are complex realities and we need to learn to love what we are, both delightful and damaged, and put it all into the hands of the master potter to form into something unique and beautiful.” Or, rather more simply, she also puts it like this, talking about the times when she has come to God and simply said, “Here I am, what a mess.”

I don’t know about you, but I find it really reassuring to be reminded that I can come to God with that kind of approach. I like to get things right. We all do. But I certainly don’t always manage it. And I find it helpful to be reminded of the conversation that the risen Jesus had with Peter just after they had shared breakfast beside the lake, the ‘do you love me?’ conversation, significant not least because of the question being asked three times, mirroring the threefold denial that Peter had uttered just before the crucifixion.

Let me read a slightly longer passage from Judy Hirst’s book, which expands on this thinking: “So very often people in a mess (and that’s most of us most of the time) feel they can’t pray because they can’t say the words that they think God wants to hear. We fear that we can only pray by giving God the right answers. In fact, the biggest danger is simply not to pray, to fail to be in conversation with the God who loves us. Far better to say to God, if it is your truth, that for example, …. you really want to forgive this person for what they have done, but you also want to hate them forever! Trust God with the mess and inconsistency! The response God wants is the response we can make even if the stuff of our response is sometimes contradiction, confusion and irrationality. Invite him to be part of the resolution, to help you to begin to grow into the person whom he yearns for you to become. I am always helped in this by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prayed as he felt. He longed that God would take the cup from him. He asked God for what he wanted, inviting him into the mess, but none the less was able to say ‘Yet not my will but yours be done.’ He was able, in these hugely terrifying circumstances, to trust himself absolutely to the God whom he knew loved him. God doesn’t want us to pretend. We don’t need to protect him from the truth.”
As she also says, rather more briefly: “God can live with the reality that we are still sinners even if we find it hard to do so!”

You might not expect me to say this, but sometimes our problem is that we try too hard. It’s not that it’s wrong to try. But it is wrong to not trust God. And sometimes we need to learn to leave things in God’s capable hands.

Let me offer just one more quote from Judy Hirst which reminds us of how challenging it is to be holy, and yet, at the same time, how easy it is, if only we will let God do God’s bit - I am reminded of a Peanuts cartoon ….. Charlie Brown comes to visit Lucy at her 5 cent psychiatrist booth. Lucy says to Charlie Brown that life is like a cruise liner. Some people put their deckchairs up at the back of the liner and like to look back to where they have come from. Others like to pitch their deckchair at the front and look ahead to where they are going. What about you, Charlie Brown? Where do you put your deck chair on the cruise liner of life? There is a long, sad, bemused pause. ‘Heck,’ Charlie Brown says, ‘I don’t even know how to put my deck chair up!’” Hirst adds: “Believe you me, having listened in depth to the lives of many people; it seems to me this is the reality for most of us! The challenge is to learn to pray as we are and this is closely linked to our ability to accept ourselves as we are and not as the idealised people we might imagine ourselves to be.”

[Part of an address given to the Colchester & Tendring Area Partnership within the Eastern Synod of the United Reformed Church at Plume Avenue URC, Colchester on 1st November 2018.]

Monday, 15 October 2018

Church Is Who We Are


“Church is not something we do; it’s who we are.” So says Neil Hudson in his book “Imagine Church”. He also says this: “The goal of disciple-making is not to make us more adept in church life, nor even more alert to the theological debates that may be raging in church circles. The goal is to enable us to live our lives in a way that reflects our Master’s intentions for the world around us.” So, how on earth do we do that? How do we reflect Jesus’ intentions in the world which we inhabit? How, putting it fractionally differently, do we walk the way? How do we live the life of Jesus today?
It is always good in our thinking to look for a Biblical clue, and I love the account that Luke gives us, in the final chapter of his Gospel, about that bit of walking that took place on the road to Emmaus. That was a walk those two were never going to forget – and I find all sorts of interesting things come spinning out of that story to challenge and encourage me.
Can you imagine walking along that road?  What a range of emotions those two disciples must have felt!  In a sense it was a pointless walk.  Everything must have felt pretty pointless to them just then.  Yet, in another sense, it was a walk loaded with purpose – because of what was going to happen.  I suppose they would never have known what they had missed if they had decided to stay an extra night in Jerusalem – but how much poorer we all would be, not just this pair, if we didn’t have this story.       
I could say lots, and much of it would apply to our thinking about what walking the way means to and for us.  But let me just say two things.  First, they went because they knew where they were going.  Second, but actually they didn’t know where they were going – because the journey was about to be transformed, and extended.
They were on this walk, in the first place, because they were going home.  There was nothing left for them in Jerusalem.  There was no point in staying.  All sorts of things prompt our journeys, are reasons why we choose to walk to a particular place.  As we consider the way that God may be calling us to walk, don’t discount the obvious.  Don’t discount the routine.  Don’t ignore the fact that God may be calling you to what you consider very ordinary.  Sometimes the extraordinary things of God are found in the otherwise extremely ordinary.  God may well want us to engage with the familiar.  Indeed, almost always, it is a good place to start.
But, and here is the other aspect of this story, we also need to be ready to be surprised.  It was maybe not that surprising for them to be caught up by a ‘stranger’.  That sort of thing would happen – but what followed was far beyond their wildest dreams.  Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?  Well, actually, it would appear that they weren’t – because they clearly didn’t have a clue, until they saw him break the bread.  As we look to walk the way, are we ready to be surprised?  Are we ready for the unexpected?  Are we willing to grab the opportunities that come our way?  And, of course, are we ready to be pushed a bit further?  A walk of about seven miles is suddenly doubled.  It becomes fourteen.  They had made their weary way to Emmaus.  But now the news can’t wait – and they rush back to Jerusalem, not in the least concerned at the prospect of retracing their steps.
We know all about walking second miles.  But this is a far more significant doubling up.  Seven becomes fourteen. 
Do you remember how Isaiah thought that he had done pretty well for God?  He had served God with energy and commitment.  He had done his bit, or so he thought.  Only God had a very different idea of things.  God had just the thing lined up for Isaiah, a new and bigger task.  It is there in Isaiah 49, verse 6 – (God) says, ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.  Isaiah thought that he had done well by taking God’s message to the Israelites – but God suggests that to be just the beginning.  Isaiah is to take the message not just to the Israelites, but to the nations. 
Lots of times God will just want us to walk a little way, and that’s good – but are we ready for the big thing, if that is what God is calling us towards?
As we consider the challenges and opportunities of walking the way, it is helpful to think again of the notion of developing holy habits.  Our holy habits, whatever they may be, can help us to be in tune with God.  There are, of course, many approaches we can take as we consider just what are the holy habits to which God is calling us, at the moment.  There are many different ways of describing what it is that we are called to do and be.
The classic list of ten is to be found towards the end of Acts 2, and it is a helpful list.  There is probably more than enough there – but I like thinking about different approaches which might just strike a helpful note.
One approach is to think about what might be called ‘ancient practices’ and to consider how they might help us in the challenge of developing good holy habits.  The fact is that we need God’s help as we seek to be the people God wants us to be.  As Brian McLaren puts it: “You can’t take an epidural shot to ease the pain of giving birth to character.”  He also says: “You can construct a great way …. a path, a road, a hallway, a passage … but unless it leads to the right destination, what good is it?”
I am sure that there are different lists of ancient practices, but I want to suggest a list of six – and two on that list, prayer and celebrating the sacred meal of Holy Communion, are in the Acts 2 list of ten, so I am going to pass over them for the moment – but that leaves us with four that I want to mention.
The first of these four is the ancient practice, the holy habit, of pilgrimage.  It links closely to the notion of walking.  A pilgrimage is a walk to a special place.  The walk might be long, or short – that is not important.  A pilgrimage does have an arriving, but the journey is just as important.  Is there somewhere that God wants you to go on a regular, or occasional, basis?  Would the holy habit of pilgrimage enhance your spiritual life?
The second of these is the practice, or habit, of tithing.  This links to generosity, which is one of the ten, but is more specific and, I suspect, more challenging.  This is about a particular level of giving.  How do we view giving?  Would we class it as a holy habit?  If so, what does that mean for our giving?  If not, why not?
Then, third, we have the practice, or habit, of fasting.  This links to prayer, but it would be wrong to simply identify it as prayer.  It is an idea that is perhaps not particularly prevalent these days – but the idea of detoxing, on the other hand, is gaining popularity.  We take part in dry January or ‘go sober for October’.  We give up chocolate or some other treat for Lent.  And so on.  Is that not a twenty-first century form of fasting?  And what do such things do?  Well, all sorts.  It is certainly worth considering whether to make fasting, in some form or another, a holy habit.  Apart from anything else, and there can be many benefits, it can help us to consider our priorities.
And so, fourthly, and finally, and where I want to put a little bit of emphasis, there is the ancient practice, or holy habit, of sabbath.  We are so good at making ourselves busy.  We are so good at rushing around.  There is so much to be said for pressing the pause button.  The principle of sabbath is fundamental to all that the Bible offers us.  Genesis 2, verse 3 – so God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.  We need to rest.  We need to relax.  We need times of refreshment. 
Taking time just offers so much possibility.  As Dan Allender has it: “Delight doesn’t require a journey thousands of miles away to taste the presence of God, but it does require a separation from the mundane, an intentional choice to enter joy and follow God as he celebrates the glory of his creation and his faithfulness to keep his covenant to redeem the captives.”  I like that idea of sabbath opening us to such possibility, such joy.  The Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, also helps to discover the amazing impact of sabbath, which he describes as representing “a radical disengagement from the producer-consumer rat race of the empire.  The community welcomes members of any race or nation, any gender or social condition, so long as that person is defined by justice, mercy and compassion, and not competition, achievement, production or acquisition.”  I think there is so much to be gained from developing sabbath as a holy habit.
So what way is God calling you to walk today?  What holy habit does God want you to take up?
(Address given at the Synod Meeting of the Eastern Synod of the United Reformed Church, October 2018)

Thursday, 23 August 2018

God's Beloved


I have just finished reading “God’s Beloved”, Michael O’Laughlin’s moving and inspiring biography of Henri Nouwen. O’Laughlin sub-titles the book ‘a spiritual biography of Henri Nouwen’, a suitably descriptive comment. The book carefully explores Nouwen and his spirituality and, in so doing, offers a range of insights about the spiritual life.

O’Laughlin spends quite a bit of time exploring Nouwen’s weaknesses in a way that seems supremely appropriate. I can’t imagine that Nouwen would have objected. It seems to me that Nouwen recognised the value of vulnerability, a part of his life especially discovered and emphasised through his involvement in L’Arche. As O’Laughlin comments: “Henri teaches us that we grow in holiness by becoming more completely ourselves and acknowledging our authentic feelings and failures.” (p. 85)

Another important element of Nouwen’s thinking emphasised by O’Laughlin is his engaging with people in a way that reflects Jesus doing precisely the same. O’Laughlin: “Jesus scandalized others when he healed on the Sabbath, and he then explained that human beings were more important than the days of the week. Henri many times went right around the rules as well, as long as a greater truth was served.” (p. 120)

In a similar vein, O’Laughlin separately writes: “The world that Henri saw around him was full of people. Their humanity attracted him, and their need for light and inspiration called out to him, but that was not what made him write so creatively or love so many of them. Instead, Henri Nouwen’s considerable contribution to Christian spirituality was based on a decision, renewed again and again, to be true to himself.” (p. 162)

In short, Nouwen felt himself called to a ministry of care and concern. He simply wanted to share and express God’s love in practical ways. In so doing, he provides a helpful, but challenging, model.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Jonah's Journey

I have recently been doing a bit of reading around Jonah and enjoyed Denis McBride's Journeying With Jonah. I like the way in which McBride relates the story to the things in which we might well be engaged.

So, for example, he uses the story to remind us that God doesn't discard just because we turn our backs on God's way.

“As Jonah sets his personal compass for distance from God, that same God turns towards Jonah, refusing to abandon his prophet.  God does not allow Jonah’s rebellion to have the last word.  The chase is on, not to condemn Jonah for his desertion but to summon him back to his original calling – an image of hope for all who travel a similar route.”

He reminds us of the value of what he calls 'coming to ourselves'. We are pretty good at pursuing our reckless way and we, too, need that thing that causes us to pause and reflect.

“Not unlike the Prodigal Son who, after a long journey in flight from where he belonged, ended up in a Gentile’s pig-pen where “he came to himself” (Luke 15:17), the prophet Jonah will come to himself in an even more unlikely place as he ends up in the belly of the great fish.  Often we do not choose the place where, after detours and deviations, we come home to ourselves: one day we just end up in an unexpected place – where we might feel imprisoned – and the experience forces or invites us to look at ourselves again.”

I also like McBride's challenge to see a bigger picture that goes way beyond ourselves. I fear that, too often, we model ourselves on Jonah and miss that bigger thing that represents God's Kingdom values.

"We are all questioned by God’s insistent and abiding mercy: “And should I not be concerned about …?”  God invites us to go beyond our prejudices and allow a larger perspective to hold.  “And should I not be concerned about …?”  We fill in the rest of the sentence, if we dare, naming our favourite enemies, the people we would surely reckon to be beyond the reach of mercy or understanding.  We pause at the names, or the races, or the religions.  Whoever.  Can we allow God to be the kind of God he chooses to be, scandalising us with his mercy to those people?”

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Looking to Mark


I have been reflecting on Mark this afternoon with the help of Rowan Williams’ “Meeting God in Mark”, a great, and enjoyable, introduction to Mark’s Gospel.

Williams point out that Mark’s concern is not to give a carefully constructed diary, but rather to introduce the reader to a person – “He doesn’t give you anything much like a connected story ….  here is the anointed Jesus doing this, doing that …. and as you work through this collection of apparently disconnected anecdotes, you begin to see what sort of person he is.” Mark’s concern is to help us to meet Jesus.

Williams goes on to emphasise the message as the important element. Jesus does perform some miracles, and Mark reports these, but they are always there to make things right for someone, and never as a demonstration of power on the part of Jesus. “It’s being taken for granted that Jesus is indeed a healer and an exorcist and that the miracles he performs are real. But what Jesus himself refuses to do is to base his authority on ‘signs and wonders’.”

The task of Mark is to point people towards Jesus and, in so doing, to recognise the depths of God’s love.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Bonhoeffer on the Place of the Church


In the final segment of his book "The Cost of Discipleship", Bonhoeffer outlines his doctrine of the church.  Discipleship happens within the context of the church. 

Bonhoeffer stresses that we are the Body of Christ.  That is the essential statement about the church:

Christ’s place on earth has been taken by his Body, the Church. The Church is the real presence of Christ. Once we have realized this truth we are well on the way to recovering an aspect of the Church’s being which has been sadly neglected in the past. We should think of the Church not as an institution, but as a person, though of course a person in a unique sense.”

He recognises the place of the word though that on its own, he suggests, is not enough.  We also need the sacraments:

The word of preaching is insufficient to make us members of Christ’s Body; the sacraments also have to be added. Baptism incorporates us into the unity of the Body of Christ, and the Lord’s Supper fosters and sustains our fellowship and communion (κοινωνíα) in that Body.”

The church, for Bonhoeffer, is really important.  It is the means of God’s holiness coming into the world.  He writes:

“The holiness of God means his coming to dwell in the midst of the world and to establish his sanctuary as the place from which he sends forth his judgement and redemption (Ps. 99 etc.). Moreover, it is in this sanctuary that God enters into a relationship with his people by an act of atonement such as can only be effected in the sanctuary (Lev. 16.16 ff). God makes a covenant with his people and separates them from the world as his own possession, and vouches himself for this covenant. ‘Ye shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy’ (Lev. 19.2), and again, ‘I the Lord, which sanctify you, am holy’ (Lev. 21.8). This is the foundation on which the covenant is based. All the subsequent legislation presupposes and is intended to maintain the holiness of God and his people. Like God himself, the Holy One, the people of his sanctuary are also separated from all things profane and from sin. For God has made them the people of his covenant, choosing them for himself, making atonement for them and purifying them in his sanctuary. Now the sanctuary is the temple, and the temple is the Body of Christ. Hence the ultimate purpose of God, which is to establish a holy community, is at last fulfilled in the Body of Christ.”

So, disciples, empowered by God, can really make a difference.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Bonhoeffer on the Disciple as Messenger


The third segment of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's book "The Cost of Discipleship" considers the task of the disciple as a messenger.  This is, in fact, further commentary on Matthew as Bonhoeffer reflects on a section of the gospel starting near to the end of chapter 9, at verse 35, and running through to the end of chapter 10. 

This very brief section focusses on the role of the disciples, both as individuals and a group and the challenges of the task they face.  They are individuals, and Jesus calls them for who they are.  They are the messengers, and they are Jesus’ choice.  So, Bonhoeffer reminds us:

“Simon the Rock-man, Matthew the publican, Simon the Zealot, the champion of law and justice against the oppression of the Gentiles, John the beloved disciple, who lay on Jesus’ breast, and the others, of whom we know nothing except their names, then lastly Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.  No power in the world could have united these men for a common task, save the call of Jesus.  But that call transcended all their previous divisions.”

There is, then, a question as to the gifts and abilities that we bring to the discipleship task.  Bonhoeffer gives expression to what disciples are called to do which may, or may not, need re-interpreting in our day:

“They are charged to proclaim the advent of the kingdom of heaven, and to confirm their message by performing signs.  They must heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead and drive out devils.  The message becomes an event, and the event confirms the message.”