Writing and transformation

Writing

Tomorrow, I’m preaching once again at St Mary’s, Newport-on-Tay so having had a full and busy week I’m sitting at my PC on Saturday morning/afternoon pouring over the gospel reading (John 4: 5-42) searching for inspiration.

I already have a sermon that I’ve preached on this Sunday in the lectionary (Year A, Lent 3) but I’m keen to write something else, something new. Despite feeling quite exhausted, dizzy and in need of a long and welcome sleep.

One of the threads that is woven throughout the opening chapters of the Gospel according to St John is that of transformation, starting with Jesus’s changing of water into wine. I could do with some transformation this afternoon, starting with the changing of my blank word processor document into a sermon!

Alumni Carol Service sermon

Interior of St Salvator's Chapel
Photo of the interior of St Salvator’s Chapel (photo by Suny Brockport)

Here’s the text of my homily from last night’s carol service at St Salvator’s Chapel, University of St Andrews.

It was a real privilege to preach at such an event, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I was nervous before hand. Really nervous; my mouth went dry, but such are depths of cassock pockets I had a 1 litre bottle of Volvic (which did contain only the purest H2O) hidden in there from which I took a few swigs before climbing the steps to the pulpit, to deliver my homily, across from Dr Lang, the University’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor.

But once I got up there and began, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen”, I was fine. I was in my element, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Unlike the poor folks at the back of the chapel, for whom the PA system had, unknown to me, died during the second or third reading. Still, some folks back there said that they could hear me as I’d spoken loudly and clearly. Oh, my mother will be proud of me. :)

Anyway, here’s my homily / address / reflection:

“Christmas Lights”

The Child of Light

If the scriptures had said: “Today, light is born,”
man’s heart would not have leapt.
The idea would not have become a legend
and would not have conquered the world.
They would merely have described a normal physical phenomenon
and would not have fired our imagination-
I mean our soul.
But the light which is born in the dead of winter
has become a child
and the child has become God,
and for twenty centuries our soul has suckled it …
(Nikos Kazantzakis)

Grumpy old men

I must confess that for the last decade or so I’ve been rather “Bah! Humbug!” about Christmas lights.

Not the Christmas lights that you wrap around the tree that you’ve sawn down, dragged into the living room and jammed into a bucketful of stones.

Those lights are safe, as it were (if they’re not then you should have them checked out by a qualified electrician … as I keep reminding my Mum!)

No, what I mean is, I didn’t mind those lights. You could have them.

What I objected to mostly was the big – in inverted-commas – “American-style” lights: the lights that ordinarily, sane members of the public would drape liberally over their bungalow or detached villa, and so in one fell swoop, and enormous spike on the National Grid, transform their house from Dun Romin into something akin to Las Vegas.

Vs

The thing is, I really didn’t understand myself why I was so against them. Other than the obvious reason that I was just getting older and grumpier!

I suspect too that I dressed it up in some kind of pseudo-theological argument: that it detracts from the real meaning of Christmas, that it was too “commercial”.

All change!

However, you’ll be pleased to learn that I’m no longer the angry old man of 24 months ago. Something changed in me when I moved back to St Andrews.

When I moved back to Fife, presumably the planets realigned, I became a calmer and happier human being, and trivial matters such as Christmas lights and the subsequent effect that has on climate change just seemed to melt into insignificance.

Realisation

When I started to unpack this, what I realised is that for the last 12 years I’ve been living in cities (London, Edinburgh and Inverness).

I’ve been living in an environment where the night sky is always orange. There is no proper darkness. There is no real distinction between light and dark. It is always light.

And so these Christmas lights, whether they are hanging from Mr & Mrs Naughtie’s roof or slung across the street outside Marks & Spencer’s, they are just one more set of lights amongst many. In a sense, they’d lost their impact on me, lost their meaning, lost their significance.

Dark night of the soul

When the clocks went back this year I really struggled adjusting to the darkness. Because it really was dark driving back to Anstruther from St Andrews every evening, through the blackness.

It felt cold, and lonely, and dark, and hopeless, and I had no energy. It took me a good two months to even begin to get used to these early, dark evenings.

But then something incredible happened … at the end of our street.

Just as the nights were getting longer, the sun was disappearing over the horizon earlier and earlier, people started to decorate their houses with lights. And it really did lift my spirits.

Because there in the darkness was light. There in the darkness were signs of life, and hope and celebration.

And it suddenly made sense, in a way that simply reading about it in books didn’t, or thinking about the theological imagery on warm summer evenings at theological college.

It suddenly made sense – like an epiphany, but before Advent! – it made sense why this time of year was chosen to celebrate the birth of Jesus: around midwinter, the time of the winter solstice, when the day is short, and the night long. In the midst of this darkness comes light. Signs of life, and hope and celebration.

The Light of Christ

The prophet Isaiah wrote,

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9: 2 & 6, NRSV)

St John wrote in the opening to his account of the Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. (NRSV)

Everything was created through him; nothing – not one thing! – came into being without him. What came into existence was Life, and the Life was Light to live by. The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn’t put it out. (The Message)

“What came into existence [in Jesus] was Life, and the Life was Light to live by.” Jesus has come to be the light of all people, God living amongst us to show us how to live, how to really live, to live our lives to their full potential. “… The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

The starlit darkness

When you hear the word “darkness” what does it conjure up in your mind?
What images do you recall?
What places do you remember?
What feelings does it evoke in you?

Are there any areas of your life that feel are in darkness just now, that you wish could experience the light of Christ, bringing hope and new life?

Just for a moment:
Imagine you are in a house in the country;
all the lights are on, artificial light, electric light.
It’s time to leave;
You collect your coat and say your farewells and step outside.

It’s not like the city – there are no streetlights.
As you step into the darkness everything goes pitch black.
You are dizzy with darkness,
You can’t focus on anything.
You walk hesitantly down the path, feel for the gate and get through it.

Now you stand and wait and look around.

Gradually what seemed pitch black becomes less so.
Slowly, your eyes adjust — now you can make out the shapes of trees and houses, and hills on the horizon.
You feel the ground beneath your feet, solid and firm.
You look up.
Above you is the vast expanse of the heavens.
What at first seemed to be only darkness you now see is starlit and incredibly beautiful.
Galaxies, stars, planets, a crescent moon … this is the starlit darkness.
The breathtaking darkness of God.
The mystery of God.
God is a starlit darkness — breath-taking …
God is a starlit darkness.
(Alternative Worship, Jonny Baker et al)

I want to end with this short prayer from the 17th century saint St Dimitrii of Rostov:
Let us pray:

The Kindling

Come, my Light, and illumine my darkness.
Come, my Life, and revive me from death.
Come, my Physician, and heal my wounds.
Come, Flame of divine love, and burn up the thorns of my sins,
Kindling my heart with the flame of [your] love.
Come, my King, sit upon the throne of my heart and reign there.
For [you] alone [are] my King and my Lord.
Amen.

Preached at St Salvator’s Chapel, University of St Andrews on Tuesday, 18 December, 2007. Bible passages were: Isaiah 9: 2, 6-7; Luke 1: 26-38; Luke 2:1-7 and Luke 2: 8-20.

Carol services

Vestments hanging in my office
My clerical shirt and vestments hanging in my office.

This evening I’m preaching at the Alumni Carol Service at St Salvator’s Chapel, University of St Andrews, starting at 18:30. So my clerical shirt and vestments are currently hanging up in the office.

I would have hung them all behind the door but unfortunately I’m too tall for the coat hook and my cassock was dragging on the floor. That’s what white boards are for, though, I guess.

This will be my second carol service this year. I conducted (most of) the carol service at St Mary’s, Newport-on-Tay on Sunday evening. I say “most of” because I had it in my diary as starting at 18:30, while the rest of the congregation had 18.00 in theirs. I missed only two carols and a couple of readings.

When I got home I checked my emails to see what time they’d given me. It turns out that was the problem: they hadn’t given me a time, just said “early evening” and I’d guessed 18:30 based on previous experience of early evening services.

This evening’s service is definitely starting at 18:30. Besides, it’s just across the quad from my office. Literally a hop, skip and a genuflect away.

Prayers please that my sermon goes well and that God speaks through me (but not in a weird, Hollywood style!).

Update: Oh for goodness sake! It turns out that the carol service begins at 19:00, not 18:30!! I was told 18:30 … can no one tell me the correct time that I’m supposed to turn up to these things?! ;)

Resistance and contemplation

Resistors

I thoroughly enjoyed my day yesterday preaching at St Peter’s, Linlithgow and St Columba’s, Bathgate. Here’s how I was introduced in the pew leaflet:

WHO’S THE HANDSOME YOUNG PREACHER? That’s the rector, of course! But standing next to him is Gareth Saunders, a friend and fellow clergyperson, who thought he was coming for dinner and ended up staying for sermons. Please make him and Jane welcome.

We did feel very welcome. Here’s the sermon that I preached on Luke 18: 1-8, which I entitled “Resistance and contemplation” (Year C – Pentecost 21 / Trinity 20)

Introduction

Jesus told [the disciples] a story showing that it was necessary for them to pray consistently and never quit. (Luke 18:1)

Analogy?

When I first read this – in fact, I think every time I’ve read this parable I’ve just assumed that this was a simple analogy that we were dealing with here. I assumed that Jesus wants us to understand that the judge represents God and the widow represents us. And that what he’s saying is that we simply keep nagging on and on and on at God with our prayers, and one day, eventually, worn down by our consistent nagging and pestering God will give in and answer them. Out of a sense of a need for peace and quiet, rather than a concern for justice and love.

Problems

But that doesn’t fit at all. Is that really what God is like? If you re-read the parable with that understanding then it begins:

“In a certain city there was [God]
who neither feared [God/himself] nor had respect for people

It’s not a very promising start so far…!

In that city there was a widow
who kept coming to God and saying
“Grant me justice against my opponent.”
For a while [God] refused;
but later he said to himself,
“Though I have no fear of [myself] and no respect for anyone,
yet because this widow keeps bothering me,
I will grant her justice,
so that she will not wear me out by continually coming.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m honest, that doesn’t really sound much like God to me.

That doesn’t sound like the God who was revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. That doesn’t sound much like the God who loved the world so much that He gave up His one and only Son as a sacrifice. That doesn’t sound like the God who always sides with the victim, who spent His earthly ministry in the company of sinners, and lepers, and prostitutes and tax collectors, and all those who were excluded by the society around him. That doesn’t sound like God at all.

Maybe … God isn’t meant to represent the judge in this parable.

Scenario #2: God is the widow

So then I thought, what if we’re meant to turn it around? What if we are to understand that God is the widow in this story, and we are the judge?

In a certain city there was a person
who neither feared God nor had respect for people.

That sounds a bit more like us!

In that city there was God
who kept coming to [the person] and saying
“Grant me justice against my opponent.”
In other words, perhaps, “love your enemies!”
For a while the person refused;
but later he said to himself,
“Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,
yet because God keeps bothering me,
I will grant him justice — I will love my enemy —
so that he will not wear me out by continually coming.

It kind of works a bit better that way around, it’s certainly more realistic. But it still doesn’t fit with what Jesus said. Jesus told the disciples “about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (NRSV) – “that it was necessary for them to pray consistently and never quit” (The Message).

And yet in that interpretation, it’s God who is the consistent one who never quits … and we kind of know that about God already. So why would Jesus be telling us a story about that? Why would he be stating the obvious? Maybe this parable isn’t an analogy after all.

Herzog

One New Testament scholar, William R. Herzog, has explored this in his book Parables as Subversive Speech.

Even the title of the book got me excited! I have an uncle in California who runs a newspaper called the Anderson Valley Advertiser whose motto is “Fanning the flames of discontent”.

He asks “What if the parables of Jesus were neither theological [stories] nor moral stories but political and economic ones? What if the concern of the parables was not the reign of God but the reigning systems of oppression that dominated in Palestine in the time of Jesus? What if parables are exposing exploitation rather than revealing justice?”

So the parable, then, isn’t a simple analogy. It’s not a metaphor about the Kingdom of God; it’s not an illustration for how the Church should conduct itself. Instead it’s a focused description by Jesus of how things really are. It’s almost political satire, if you like-as uncomfortable and powerful as a cartoon in Private Eye.

Naming the silences

Another New Testament school, Colleen Shantz, from Toronto, suggests that “telling people their own stories is part of an educational process for Jesus…”

In telling their own story it gives them distance from their situation it gives them the perspective needed to view their own situation from another angle, to see it afresh, and-importantly-it jars them if not into action, then certainly into recognition of the truth of the situation.

In other words, Jesus is revealing the reality of their situation so that they can recognize it, name it and act on it.

Prayer in action

So, what does this obscure parable of Jesus have to do with prayer? Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. And then he goes and tells them a story that could have come from the pages of Private Eye that highlights political injustice.

I think what Jesus is doing is demonstrating that faithfullness in prayer cannot be separated from political action.

Two things about prayer

There are two things that I’ve learned about prayer over the years:

  1. Prayer is not about me. Prayer is not about what I want. It’s not about a shopping list of requests, like a list of presents that we want from Santa. Prayer is not about me.
  2. Prayer is always about God. Prayer is always about letting go … and letting God. It’s about handing over my limited understanding or perspective on a situation, and asking for God’s.

Letting go

Our natural human compulsions are

  • to be successful,
  • to be right
  • to be powerful
  • to have everything under control.

But Jesus showed us another way.

God coming in the person of Jesus was “about vulnerability, about letting go, about emptiness, about self-surrender.” (Rohr, Simplicity, p.31). Jesus understood that “if you are filled with yourself, there is no room for another, and certainly not God.” (Rohr, p.44)

So often we want to protect ourselves, protect our egos, we don’t want to lose anything of ourselves: we don’t want to lose face, lose our positions within society or within the faith community. We want to become successful, popular, powerful, influential. And we want our churches to become that way too.

But in praying for more, in asking for more, in reaching out for more, in gathering MORE to ourselves, in wrapping ourselves in religious language and with religious baggage we become less and less like Jesus, who did the complete opposite. What Jesus did was showed us how to let go.

Christianity vs Religion

I was at a day conference a few years ago, at New College in Edinburgh (April 2005, “The Spiritual Revolution”). It was a conference about the place of religion in modern society: the decline of religion and the rise of spirituality and New Age.

At the end of the presentations one Professor of Practical Theology stood up and said, “Well, that’s all very interesting but one thing that you’ve failed to recognise is that Christianity is not a religion. Christianity is about a relationship!” There was rapturous applause from the audience. And he was absolutely right.

“Religion is one of the surest ways to avoid faith and to avoid God.” (Rohr, p.33)

Religion is about what WE have to do to reach God, to please God. It’s about learning the correct rituals, the right words and actions, it’s about surrounding ourselves with the right tools and paraphernalia to get it right.

But Christianity is about what God has already done for us through Jesus Christ, to reach us and draw us back to himself. And the way that we do that is by learning to let go. “Let go and let God”

“We have to learn to become spiritually empty.” (Rohr, p.40)

Wake up!

It’s in letting go of our compulsions, in letting go of our agendas and listening for God’s we find salvation and are led into action.

The Gospels are filled with stories of Jesus going off on his own to pray – to contemplate, to let go and align himself with God’s will. And Jesus was incredibly active – his prayer led him into action, to do something about the situation that his people found themselves in.

Western minds

We in the West could learn a lot from this.

“The great temptation of the Western Church has been to imprison the Gospel in our heads. Up there we can be right or wrong, our position can be correct or false, but in any case everything always remains firmly in our grip … On the other hand, action never allows us the illusion of control, at least not for long. (Rohr, p.69)

Contemplation

I’m going to end with an example of how someone’s prayer has led them to action. This is written by Jonathan, a member of Rutba House, a Christian community in North America.

Every morning I try to wake up thirty minutes before I have to do anything or go anywhere. I brush my teeth, make a cup of tea, and stumble into the little prayer nook that we have under our stairs. I light three candles, sit upright in a wooden chair, steady my breathing, and sit there.

I haven’t figured out just how to do it, but I try to focus on God. Some days I repeat the name of Jesus over and over again. Some days I pray the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus [Christ], Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

We have a rosary on the desk. I don’t know how to pray it, but I roll my thumb over the beads some mornings. I try to give myself to God.

Usually I end up thinking about someone I need to talk to or a project I’m working on or the book I was reading when I fell asleep the night before. When I catch myself, I try to focus on the chant again: “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus….”

Inevitably, my mind wanders again.

This bothered me a great deal until I read [St] Teresa of Avila who told me that I need not fight against those thoughts, but should let them wash over me, rejoicing in the truth that God is an anchor who can hold me even in the storms of my mind. I’m not very good at contemplation. But contemplation is not about me. It’s about God.

… in action

This summer a young man was killed in our neighbourhood during a drug related shoot-out. The police came and went, but the neighbourhood was still held captive by fear. So the church decided to take to the streets.

Every Saturday morning we gather on the corner where the drug dealers hang out. (There are more of us than there are of them.) We split up into groups and canvass the neighbourhood, singing as we go and stopping to pray with anyone who’ll join us.

After an hour, we all return to our starting point, make a circle, and sing together. On the street corner, we have church.

Activists might call what we do on Saturday mornings a protest. It is. But it is more. It is also contemplation – a corporate communion with the God who is our peace. On our prayer walks the wall between spirituality and activism collapses.

Resistance and contemplation are one.

(Schools for Convertion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism, p.172)

The Present Future

Book cover for The Present Future

While reading around the subject of Jesus saying:

“You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
(Luke 12: 56)

I picked up this book off my bookshelf: The Present Future: Six tough questions for the Church by Reggie McNeal.

Wow! Well there’s an author who doesn’t miss with any of his punches! It’s a book written with courage, insight, humour, honesty, a passion for Jesus Christ and a desire to see the Church move beyond its seeming current obsession with preserving the current status quo and moving towards being a powerful missionary movement: to face the future with imagination and courage.

While his focus is on North America, I’m quite sure that the picture McNeal paints in broad brushstrokes about the “current church culture in North America” can equally be said about the church here in the UK, if I understand correctly what the likes of John Drane have been writing about the situation this side of the Atlantic.

New reality #1: The collapse of the Church culture

Here’s what McNeal says on page one of chapter one:

The current church culture in North America is on life support. It is living off the work, money, and energy of previous generations from a previous world order. The plug will be pulled either when the money runs out (80 percent of money given to congregations comes from people aged fifty-five and older) or when the remaining three-fourths of a generation who are institutional loyalists die off or both.

Please don’t hear what I am not saying. The death of the church culture as we know it will not be the death of the church. The church Jesus founded is good; it is right. The church established by Jesus will survive until he returns. The imminent demise under discussion is the collapse of the unique culture in North America that has come to be called “church.” This church culture has become confused with biblical Christianity, both inside the church and out. In reality, the church culture in North America is a vestige of the original movement, an institutional expression of religion that is in part a civil religion and in part a club where religious people can hang out with other people whose politics, worldview, and lifestyle match theirs. As he hung on the cross Jesus probably never thought the impact of his sacrifice be reduced to an invitation for people to join and to support an institution.

Powerful, challenging but also exciting stuff. As fearful as I was about the Luke 12 passage a couple of days ago, I’m now going to look forward to putting this sermon together in the next couple of days.

You can read a little more on the Amazon UK website; you can currently buy the book on Amazon for as little as £6.15.