Saturday, 28 February 2015

Lent day 10

The view from a thousand year old castle keep shows a taller five hundred and fifty year old tower. In the background are several much taller towers, three times as high, none of which is yet more than fifty years old.

Early humans fled from predators by climbing into trees or inaccessible high places. Soon they began to construct towers, places where not only could they take refuge, but also keep watch on the horizon for signs of approaching danger. The image of the tower as a place of refuge and defence crops up in scripture, associated with divine protection. Two examples:

The name of the Lord is a fortified tower; the righteous run to it and are safe. (Proverbs 18:10)
I will say of the Lord “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” (Psalm 91:2)

One of the earliest Biblical stories (Genesis 11:1-9) recounts the construction of a tower in ancient Babylon, noted for ruins of tall pyramids called ziggurats built six centuries before Christ. The tower of Babel was part of a great urban construction project, rising into the sky as its centre-piece, uniting inhabitants and giving them a distinct identity, as tall buildings still do today, all over the world.

They said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4)

This ambition has been imitated by planners and developers in every city ever built since then. What originated as a place of safety evolves into a status symbol, to invest with vain pride and pretensions of grandeur, forever bigger and better.

This story was told as an explanation for the exstence of different human languages and the problems caused by there being so many. At the beginning simplicity and unity reigned.

And the Lord said: “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this (construction project) is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. “Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:6-7)

Breakdown of communication between human is attributed to divine intervention, with the aim of thwarting their ambition to become god-like in self-estimation. It is a punishment for pride, one of the deadliest sins to which human beings are prone? Or is a test of mettle and determination, through which to grow by learning about each other's differences, finding out how to communicate and collaborate despite this 'historic' set-back?

The towers of our time still serve their ancient purposes, but our evolution as inquisitive and social beings has found new uses for man-made high places. Over thousands of years a line of towers across a continent could relay a warning by simple signals - fire, smoke, flags, noises - now they convey the digital electronic information that drives so much of daily life. 

We have learned how to understand and use each others languages in order to work together for the common good. Yet, this doesn't prevent communication failure on the grandest as well as the simplest of levels between individuals, groups, societies, and sometimes the consequences can be catastrophic.

No matter how marvellous the achievements of this modern era, or great its successes, the realisation of failure in communicating well with one another, despite best efforts, is truly a humiliating experience. God can hardly take pleasure in this. But, if it is allowed to happen, it must be so that we can learn, and grow to understand Who really is in charge, Master of All.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Lent day 9

Right from the first biblical stories of human origins in Genesis, rivers are mentioned - archetypal waters flow from Paradise into the rest of the world, one source dividing into four rivers: Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, Euphrates. The former two are never mentioned again, but the other names persist to our own times. There are said to be 4260 rivers and stream mentioned in the Bible. Many are wadis - channels which are dry and empty of surface water until the rains come. Others have permanent water flowing, except in times of drought. Often these are landmarks, serving as territorial boundaries.
River crossing places are mentioned in the Bible, but there are no mentions of bridges. It's not that bridges were absent from the world over 2000 years ago. Wherever the Romans ruled, bridges were constructed of brick and stone, as part of their transport infrastructure. They were places of control for both the military, and for traders. This innovation hardly impacted upon the stories that Jews and early Christians told about themselves, rooted in lifestyle in which bridges were irrelevant to the meaning they found in relation to places.

The image of passing through the waters to enter a new place and a new state of being begins in the Exodus escape across the Sea of Reeds. It's at the core John the Baptist's preaching and ministry by the Jordan river crossing. and then of the disciples of Jesus, commissioned to go and baptise people wherever they make new disciples. Getting wet, being momentarily overwhelmed by water, is essential to the ritual of initiation into a life giving spiritual experience of liberation. A symbolic death to an old life and re-birth into a new one. There is no ritual short-cut by passing above the river using the convenience of a bridge. 

One of the titles acquired by generations of Popes, imitating imperial authority and initiative was pontifex meaning bridge maker. Christian rhetoric honourably speaks of mission as a bridge building affair. Bridge building becomes a metaphor for the vital task of reconciliation, bringing together people separated from each other by their fears of difference and conflicts of interest.

Being born again of water and Spirit however, means going through waters which may be chilling, un-nerving, disorienting, bearing the risk of losing one's footing on uneven ground, if not losing one's breath for a moment. There may be an element of ordeal in this passage for some, even if the outcome is joyful. All these are elements of the continuing experience of discipleship in the Way of Jesus. Since early times the church has ritualised and tokenised this passage through the waters to make it safe and one might say, family-friendly, accessible to all people. But there is no convenient bridge to avoid the inner experience which going through the waters represents.

"As many as are baptized into Christ are baptized into his death." (Romans 6:3)

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Lent day 8

Unexpectedly, on a cold, grey wet morning a host of daffodils burst into bloom in a street corner grassy patch, days ahead of others in the nearby park. The first of the season. It's rare that they do not arrive in time for St David's Day, this coming weekend. These seem to benefit from their proximity to the shelter of the wooden fence behind. Yet they can flourish in exposed hostile conditions.
In this season of Lent, nature provides us with many intimations of its resilience in the face of adversity. Spring flowers offer signs of hope, of new life following the barrenness of winter. 

In the weeks leading up to Easter, and especially on Palm Sunday, graveyards in Wales will be decorated with flowers, traditionally daffodils. 'Sul y blodau' it's called in Welsh - flower Sunday. 

Since the reformation there has been no popular All Souls / Day of the Dead November observance in Wales. It's not that the dead are forgotten, but the action of remembering them has been re-attached to the recollection of Christ's passion, death and resurrection.

And now, O Father, mindful of the love / That bought us, once for all, on Calvary's tree,
And having with us Him that pleads above, / We here present, we here spread forth to Thee,
That only offering perfect in Thine eyes, / The one true, pure, immortal sacrifice.

Look, Father, look on His anointed face, / And only look on us as found in Him;
Look not on our mis-usings of Thy grace / Our prayer so languid, and our faith so dim;
For lo! between our sins and their reward, / We set the Passion of Thy Son our Lord.
(W Bright)

Qualities characteristic of the world of nature are equally a heritage of humankind. Is our confidence and hope in God's grace and mercy matched by our resilience in the face of every kind of adversity? Paul writes

"For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:38-9)

Is this true also for each one of us that thinks of themselves as believers?

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Lent day 7

"You have prepared a table before me 
in the presence of those who trouble me."(Ps 23:5)

Tables are one of the most commonplace features of everyday life. Places where many kinds of work take place, where people sit to eat, gather to talk, negotiate deals or play games. Tables stand at the centre of family relationships, and at the heart of the encounter with God in worship. Humans being invented the table and re-invented it in a multitude of forms and functions with endless creativity.

The word 'invention' is derived from a Latin word meaning 'to find out'. Humans have found out something essential and necessary to help sustain relationships that comes from the mind of God. Human creativity emulating God's has taken His thought and brought its many forms in being. 

The Psalmist doesn't stop with the notion that God has prepared a table for us. God's creative act is given a context, 'in the presence of those who trouble me'.

Who troubles us? Those we don't know how to trust, or understand. When any sort of meeting begins, with friend of stranger, there are only looks, empty space and silence between us and them. Until that space is filled with greetings or any other kind of social exchange, before trust and communication is established and the rest of the encounter evisaged, there is a moment of apprehension, a  moment of discomfort. However speedily this moment may be dispatched by our social skill and experience, the moment before a meeting begins is troublesome.

That is perhaps why tables feature so prominently in trading, in diplomacy and politics, a God given artefact filling the void, providing a position in which those who meet can safely know where they start from.

Whether a church community meets to worship God literally around a table, or else near a table, it serves as a focal point for that troubling encounter with the One who is present, but not visible. It is the place God has provided for us in all dimensions of life, and at the heart of discipleship, where we may learn to open our hearts fearlessly in trust and humility, despite our apprehensions. 

What we rehearse thoughtfully in prayer holds good for every other table meeting place in everyday life.  It's beautifully summed up in familiar words.

"We do not presume to come to this thy table O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies."

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Lent day 6

In the mid twentieth century the faithful were urged to pray for the needs of the world with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Nowadays broadcasters bombard us with global news, and a running commentary on it, all day every day. So many stories, so many summaries of stories, so many images, so much statistical data about every subject imaginable.

How hard it is to digest what is of most concern to us, to our world and its future. We struggle to live with the shadow of being overwhelmed by more information than we can ever cope with. How much there is to bring to God in prayer! Where do we start? What can we say?

When Jesus taught his disciples about prayer, he stressed the importance of persistence, waiting, trust and simplicity. The memorable words he gave them and us to recall, he handed down to us distilled into the most simple of sentences containing what most needs to be said, in the Lord's Prayer.

"In your prayer do not babble as the pagans do, for they think that by using many words they will make themselves heard." (Matt 6:7)  

'Babble' here translates from the original Greek as 'stammer' or 'repeat idly', utterances that make no sense or have little purpose. Magical, ritual incantations are meant to derive their power from the sound of words used, without ultimate concern for their real meaning. It may sound impressive and obscurely eloquent to hearers, but reaching others does not mean being heard by God.

For prayer to avoid being mere babble, to have real meaning, minds and hearts open to the world and its needs are challenged to focus and concentrate many thoughts and concerns to attach to, or to fill like a container words we need to say in prayer. It calls for preparation, the practice of silence and the desire to share with God our experience of life in all its fullness.

Echoing Jesus' teaching, St Benedict five centuries later advised: "First let your prayer be brief and pure." Prayer that reaches to God emerges from us as a fresh fruit of awareness of the joy and sorrows, needs and sufferings that make life what it is from wherever we stand. Often we are unsure when we have said our prayers that it was as we'd hoped and intended it to be. But we don't pray to feel good or better. We pray to express our love to God for his world and its need to be more like God intended it, and make ourselves part of his loving purpose. "Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven."

Monday, 23 February 2015

Lent day 5

There was an intense hailstorm this morning, it persisted long enough to leave me thinking about hail and indeed the role bad weather plays in the Bible. 
For an agrarian economy a hail storm can be a real catastrophe, ruining crops before harvesting, killing young plants, even killing birds and young animals being bred for food. Hail is mentioned 38 times in scripture. Fourteen times it's in the Exodus story, where hail is one of the seven plagues visited on the Egyptians for their hardness of heart. Six times in the Psalms, either referring back to the Exodus or as part of a theophany described. Four mentions in prophetic books, and three times in the Revelation to John, also linked to judgement.

Hail is interpreted as punishment on those who are wicked and unfaithful to God. It's a very ancient and primitive image of divine energy that is being represented, going back to Canaanite religion prior to the Israelite invasion in which Ba'al was the god of storms, reminiscent of Zeus later in Greek mythology and religion.

Hebrew thinking strives constantly to avoid confusing the creature with the Creator. The divine Word, thought, intention, brings time, space, matter-energy and the laws that govern them into being. God is not to be identified with the storm but understood to be the author of storms. 

We have done well to evolve an understanding of mechanisms that make weather happen, and can forecast weather, even the threat of hail, so that protective measures can be taken. We now know better than to equate weather with judgement and punishment, even if the impact on our lives can on times be severely punishing. 

Adverse extreme weather conditions are a result of climate change exacerbated by humankind's over-reliance on energy derived from carbon sources, together with economic ambitions pursued without regard for the health of the planet's ecosystems. All are symptomatic of being out of harmony with nature, not living with true respect for this earth, without regard for the will and intention of its Creator.

Scientific rationalism, in awe of the rich complexity and mystery of the universe, still tends to confuse the Creator with the creation. Or else, the more we think we understand, the more we entertain the illusion that understanding will lead to a control over nature that makes gods of humans. 

Failure to look beyond ourselves and our universe for the Source of our being is what produces many unintended errors of perception and judgement about life on earth, with catastrophic consequences. Making a religious turn-around will not of itself fix human problems hailing down disastrously upon us in this turbulent environmental era, but it can and will renew the creative imagination to meet the challenge courageously, eyes wide open.

As Proverbs 29:18 says: "Without a vision the people perish."

Sunday, 22 February 2015

First Sunday of Lent

Reflecting on the value of life and human mortality, St Paul wrote to the church in Corinth - 

"We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us..." (2 Cor 4:7)

It may have been a common figure of speech in his day in which earthenware pots were as ubiquitous a means of storage as plastic tubs are for us. In cultures around the world stories are told and rituals performed in which clay pots containing small things of value are smashed to release and distribute the content as gifts or rewards to participants in a social or religious ceremony. In modern times chocolate Easter eggs filled with sweets, and Christmas crackers are adaptations of the custom for a global consumer market.

In sixteenth century Mexico, Augustinian Friars adopted what may have been a Mayan custom of this kind for catechetical purposes. The custom persists to this day, although in a largely secular way, of making a three dimensional seven pointed star from fireclay or papier-mache, brightly decorating it and filling it with small gifts and sweets. In a game that is played, children are blindfolded and given sticks with which to hit at the star in an effort to break it open and release its contents. This 'earthen vessel' is called a Piñata. It came to Spain and Italy from Mexico and spread across Europe.

Originally the seven points of its star represented the seven deadly sins. Blindfolding the stick wielding child and encouraging them to hit out at the points of the star represented an assault on those sins that are most spiritually harmful. Breaking the points stood for overcoming the sins, a reward was the result. The breakable image doesn't have to be a star. One contemporary Piñata variant is an effigy of a donkey, whose four legs, two ears and nose provide aiming points for attackers.
These Piñata were broken open as part of today's non-religious birthday celebration for my grand daughter. It's an unusual co-incidence, as the Piñata custom in Mexico is associated with the first Sunday in Lent. The Gospel for today takes us into the wilderness with Jesus, tempted by the devil resisting his challenging suggestions through faith in the Word of God, sustained by grace when he is at his most vulnerable. 

In the face of all in life that stimulates, excites or threatens us, unleashing appetites and desires or exposing our anger and aggression, right relationship with God enables us to get a bigger perspective on life and a different sense of self worth. Without such a higher awareness we are at the mercy of impulses we do not understand and can barely control. It is impossible not to go through life without being tested by circumstances and relationships that reveal our weakness and ignorance. We may learn from our failures, or ignore them and repeat them. The excellent power of God's love is seen in his patience and compassion towards us, and his mercy is expressed in the forgiveness and healing that is freely on offer to all, whether we think we deserve such kind attention or not.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Lent day 4

Show me thy ways, O LORD, and teach me thy paths. Lead me forth in thy truth, and learn me: for thou art the God of my salvation; in thee hath been my hope all the day long. (Psalm 25:2)

See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is. (Ephesians 5:15-16)

An afternoon walk through woods much frequented by walkers and joggers. None of the well used paths are firm and dry. They are safe when the going is good, but the ground holds the winter rain for many days and it remains soft in places. There is almost no route to take that isn't muddy or churned up. Care is needed. It's easy to slip, even where the path is steep, for it's hard to discern where it will be safest to tread, and the beauty of the place can distract one's attention.

This can be compared to paths that comprise life's journey in faith. Well trodden ways that are safe for people to travel when conditions are good. But, there are times and seasons when the changing climate of thought or the events of history make such paths unstable, risky, hazardous to follow, even though the direction taken and destination reached is unchanged. The journey cannot be delayed. It can be diverted to other paths, but there's no guarantee that they will be safer to tread or reach the same goal. Following the way requires something more of us than usual.

We must learn how to walk warily in changed and changing conditions, as determined as ever to end up where we long to be, but more consciously about where we plant our feet. There is no guarantee that we will succeed just by using the footsteps made by others when the ground is uncertain. Discernment is required, observation, testing, careful judgement in making our moves.

What Lent helps us to re-discover is that our own experience and experience shared are not enough on their own to enable us to walk the path of life in faith with safety. There is always a need to go beyond our understanding, beyond the known evidence, beyond ourselves in discerning the right way to travel, even over the most familiar ground.

Time and time again in our lives we repeat the Lenten journey. Each time, a different experience of ourselves and the world, different concerns, changed awareness, for better and for worse, comes with us. As if it is the first time, or the last time, or some time in between. We dare not walk automatically or inattentively when we do not know exactly the challenges we will face. But when we look to God to show us how to walk, as well as where to walk in faith, we can be sure that "All shall be well, all manner of things shall be well."

Friday, 20 February 2015

Lent day 3

"I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting." (Isaiah  50:6)

"He was despised, rejected, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief" (Isaiah 53:3)

Familiar words from Isaiah's Suffering Servant Song, so strongly associated with the suffering of Jesus in atonement for the sins of the world. Each Friday in Lent becomes a kind of rehearsal for the final Great or Good Friday when the story of his death is told in full.

Today I had to spend some time looking at images of people caught on camera in the process of thieving, or else photographed after detention. Often a subject is half aware of the possibility of being seen, and attempts to shield their face from scrutiny, hoping for anonymity. Once caught in the act, the face reveals a look of dejection, vulnerability, sadness, apprehension, as they realise their little gamble is over and now the consequences must be faced.

The law does not allow such images to be shown in the public realm, out of fair concern that each suspect is innocent until proven guilty, even when they have been caught red-handed. Everyone has a right to the due process of justice, even though the process itself is known to be sometimes flawed. Some offenders are vulnerable people, driven by compulsions they cannot control. Justice requires they are protected. 

On this day therefore, no single image captures for me what this grey area between perpetrator and victimhood represents. Not even an abstract doodle of a face will do.
Many real sad faces blend into one in my imagination, each representing a story laced through with suffering. The world has so many sad and miserable people. They can do bad things, that's for certain, some of them wilfully and deliberately. The suffering they cause is linked at a deep level to the sufferings they have experienced personally.

When we say that Jesus lived a perfect sinless life, totally secure in the love of his family and the love of God, it is not intended to suggest he didn't know what it was like to feel pain, endure sickness or exhaustion or even the sorrow of unintended conflict or misunderstanding. He was, after all, completely human and subject as all people are, to the changes and chances of this passing world. 

What it does mean is that he was able to endure in suffering all the misfortunes he encountered without retaliating, without passing on suffering or harm to others. We go further than this by declaring that he freely chose to place himself in harm's way, identifying himself with the suffering of others, whether they were sinned against or sinning. In the face of rejection, hostility, mockery and shame, he did not hide his face. Others imposed that on him briefly while he was tortured. Whatever was done to him to cause him pain and suffering, his face, his gaze showed loving compassion beyond our full comprehension.

Many images have been made that strive to express this incomprehensible love, and they speak to our hearts at different times in life. On this day, however no single image of Jesus' face can represent them all, but they stand alongside those images of shamed remorseful offenders which cannot be shown. His love is so great that it embraces them all.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Lent day 2

The old Welsh Prayer Book Eucharist lectionary for this day in Lent is Luke 11:1-13, which presents Jesus' teaching on prayer in response to the request of his disciples. It gives the shorter, perhaps more original version of the Lord's Prayer, as a guide to the subject content of prayer offered together, as well as alone. It continues more extensively to speak about the need for persistence and trust in prayer. In another passage about prayer in Luke 18 speaks of praying and not losing heart. My search for an image to reflect upon led me to this.
On a beach in Catalunya stand the remains of a fortified gun emplacement from the time of the Spanish Civil War. Once it guarded the road along the shore and the beach against invasion. Over eighty years, it has stood in the same place, unmoved. Tidal erosion has enlarged the beach, pushing back the line of the road, leaving the long abandoned fortification at the water's edge.

The constantly variable action of the sea mad this change happen. No two waves reaching shore are identical in shape and strength. No matter how alike they may appear at any time, they are but similar to each other. What binds their action into an unstoppable force for change is their persistence. They have been shaping earth's landscapes since seas first came into being.

Can such a quality of persistence be cultivated in seeking to pray and not lose heart? We know that the sea moves mountains eventually. In Mark 11:23, Jesus says:

"Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, 
'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' 
and does not doubt in their heart but believes
 that what they say will happen, 
it will be done for them.

It's not so much a literal promise of instant action, as an invitation to persist in trust that God's will shall be done, and as the sea teaches us, that means eventually.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Ash Wednesday

I'd like to travel with keener eyes than usual, and am challenging myself to look each day for a picture of some scene or symbol to reflect on to connect the church's Ministry of the Word for Lent with my current experience. I don't know how easy I'll find this, and began this day of penitence with a sense of barrenness, nothing creative or imaginative emerging.

During the Ignatian group meditation session, just one image emerged, seemingly unconnected with the chosen scripture reading from Isaiah 25:6-9

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
    a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
    the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
    the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
    from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace  from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.
In that day they will say,
“Surely this is our God;
    we trusted in him, and he saved us.
This is the Lord, we trusted in him;
    let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.”

It's the view from my study window of our garden. My attention is drawn not to the door into the back lane, but to the bird feeder. It's filled with seeds. It's been like that since before Christmas, but visits from garden birds have been unusually rare. Trees and bushes in neighbouring gardens were severely cropped two years ago, so there isn't the shelter from predatory local cats there used to be. When smaller birds visited, pigeons would also come in ones or twos and hunt for seeds dropping into the grass below. The garden has been empty of small birds throughout the winter, and only occasionally could the distant sound of a robin or a sparrow be heard. 

The bird table is a place where one of nature's little feasts takes place. Despite the food on offer here, there is no activity worth mentioning. It's a little deserted oasis. The first daffodil shoots in the bed below and crocuses nearby are signs that life forces are already at work contending with the cold and damp. All we can do is wait and see what changes happen as Spring arrives and Lent progresses. Waiting in hope of God's promises of renewal, and a return to the banqueting table. Not only for the birds but for ourselves and the church.

The church reminds me of the bird feeder, charged with so much nourishment, freely available to any who will draw near enough to taste and see. So many people are uncertain, cautious of approaching, perhaps fearful of being preyed upon, so many churches have been deserted. What needs to change to make the desert a place of feasting once more?

Wait for the Lord, his day is near: wait for the Lord, be strong take heart!