Monthly Archives: September 2013

Mark’s Gospel chapter 4 – Storm on the Lake

A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the  boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But Jesus was in the stern, asleep on the cushion (verses 37/8)

Google ‘storm on the lake’ and you find at least a dozen famous artists whose imagination has been caught by this story. (I wish I could reproduce one here but I haven’t worked out how to do that yet!)

Everyone in the boat is terrified but there is Jesus – asleep amid all the chaos. How could experienced fishermen get themselves into such a state? They must have been used to the turbulent winds which suddenly spring up on that lake. So what is going on here? Well, take a look at Psalm 107: 23 – 30 (and Psalms 18:16; 69:1-3;  77: 16 & 19;  89:9;  93:4). There you have it! This is a story about the Presence of God; a Presence deep within every one of us even when things are going seriously wrong. It must have been obvious to those around Jesus: that utter stillness of real, moment by moment Presence which is also dynamic energy.

Notice, I said a Presence deep within every one of us. I know we easily forget it when things go wrong, especially if we haven’t been practicing our gardening. Gardening?!! See my previous blog post on the parable of the sower.

It’s not that there are no storms once we have learned how to rest in that Presence. Martin Laird, in his book ‘Into The Silent Land’, has a moving account of a drug addict who has learnt how to cope with his craving through the practice of the stillness of contemplative prayer. He comments, “Through his own journey of prayer, struggle, vulnerability, and community, he has glimpsed, however briefly, that precious gateway into the silent land. His struggles have not gone away, but he struggles less with his struggle.”

Charles Wesley must have had this storm on the lake story in mind when he wrote his famous hymn,

Jesu lover of my soul
Let me to thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high;

Several years before Mark wrote his Gospel, Paul of Tarsus had written his letter to Christians in Rome. In chapter 8 he wrote:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God….

If you are not convinced try reading Martin Laird’s ‘Into The Silent Land’ or ‘The Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle.

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Mark’s Gospel chapter 4. Let’s do a bit of gardening.

He began to teach them many things in parables

Jesus taught in parables; no serious scholar doubts that. When we read a parable in the Gospels we are close to the authentic voice of Jesus of Nazareth. As Mark says later in this chapter (verse 34):

He did not speak to them except in parables

 But parables caused problems for his audience. Perhaps he deliberately chose to confuse people. Perhaps they are a bit like Zen Buddhist koans – ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’.  Perhaps both parables and koans are designed to stop people in their tracks and say, ‘Hang on! Wait a minute! I don’t get that!’ That must be what the early Jesus movement churches thought because next in this chapter we have the first of several ‘explanations’ of a parable:

10When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God; but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12in order that “they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.”

Oh dear! Like I said in my previous blog post, the history of the church (and therefore of the New Testament writings) is the history of ‘broken people’. Here is a writer who, with the community of which he is part, is wrestling with the puzzle, ‘why don’t people get it?’ and ‘why do they persecute us Christians?’ He finds his answer in the words from Isaiah that he quotes in verse 12. It’s a tempting explanation, especially if one has stumbled on the truth that, there is a beautiful, vibrant, joyful reality underlying my brokenness that Jesus called ‘the kingdom of God’ and yet lots of people just don’t get it.

With the greatest of respect to Mark, I want to insist that there is a further lesson to be learned about what Jesus called the kingdom of God. The reality to which Jesus points in other parables is that this beautiful, vibrant, joyfulness is present in every human being, no matter how blind to it they are; no matter how much their blindness leads them into shocking behaviour.

Some of the reasons for our blindness appear in the explanation of the parable, verses 13 – 20:

  • Satan. ‘Satan’ was a neat way of explaining the inhuman depths to which we can sink. Most of us today cannot go along with the idea of an independent being out there somewhere of utterly evil intent. The Jewish philosopher/poet Martin Buber, reflecting on the Nazi holocaust, suggested there are two stages of evil. The first he called decisionlessness; what you might call the, I’ll-get-around-to-it-later syndrome. This attitude can leave us vulnerable to his second stage. Here it is possible for otherwise ‘nice’ people to take positive decisions to engage in destructive activity especially if lots of those around us are helping to make it attractive or even respectable. We are queamish about calling something or someone ‘evil’. Maybe it’s because we don’t like to think that anyone is beyond reform and redemption. Eckhart Tolle writes in his bestselling The Power of Now, “Humans are a dangerously insane and very sick species. That’s not a judgement. It’s a fact. It is also a fact that the sanity is there underneath the madness. Healing and redemption are available right now.”
  • Staying power (verses 16 & 17): people who ‘have no roots’ as the parable puts it. Mark probably had in mind the persecution that Christians were suffering for their faith when he was writing his gospel. But trouble of any kind can knock us off course – for example, illness, other peoples’ cruelty. Or we can behave like children in a supermarket of toys. We get excited about a new technique for meditating but as soon as it proves a bit difficult to keep it up we rush off down the aisles looking for a new toy.
  • Worldly blandishments. They hadn’t heard of capitalism in Mark’s day – consumer, global or otherwise. They weren’t exposed to our daily deluge of television advertising, and celebrity culture. Still the nail is accurately hit on its head here with ‘the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth; and the desire for other things’ (verse 19)
  • Finally the good soil (verse 20). It can take some of us (me for example!) almost a lifetime to realise that there’s ‘good soil’ somewhere deep inside us. The seed has been lying there just waiting for me to do some gardening. The good news is that there are now many people on the planet who realise this and are able to offer help. Eckhart Tolle is one of them. There is an exciting rediscovery of the Christian tradition of contemplative prayer. Here are just a few web sites to visit
  •  http://ecocontemplative.com/index.html
  • http://www.biospiritual.org
  • http://contemplativefire.org
  • http://www.contemplative.org/cynthia.html
  • http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org
  • http://centeringprayer.org.uk
  • There’s a good summary of what is known as ’emergent Christianity’ in the final chapter of Don MacGregor’s book ‘Blue Sky God’.

Mark’s Gospel – interlude

I am a broken man who happens to be a bishop.

One of those present at a gathering I attended last weekend uttered those startling words. Somehow I knew that the speaker knew this was not the ultimate truth about himself. I was reminded of the  story of the Pharisee and the tax gatherer who went to the Temple to pray (Luke 18:10). One boasts of his spiritual and moral practices. The other sees himself as a sinner in need of forgiveness. Jesus reminds his hearers that it’s the second person who is closer to  God.

Christianity and especially the institutional expression of it we call the church frequently gets a bad press. I suspect this is usually because too many of us too often forget what the bishop remembered last weekend. We are all broken people, just like the rest of humanity. And yet – and yet – as I hinted, the bishop spoke his words with an authenticity that suggested he understood an even deeper truth about himself. The church can also get a bad press when its members never get beyond the knowledge that they need forgiveness. Wallowing in the ‘miserable sinner’ syndrome is missing or misunderstanding the good news that Jesus proclaimed, almost as much as boasting about our spiritual prowess.

Now here’s the thing: there never was a golden past in the history of Christianity, apart, that is, from the life, teaching and death of Jesus of Nazareth himself. It was always, from the beginning a history of broken people. I am not one of those who believes that the Bible is the inspired ‘Word of God’ – in the sense that inspiration somehow overrode the ‘brokenness’ of its authors.

Jesus never wrote anything down – so far as we know. If he did, it didn’t survive. What happened around him was an outburst of spiritual energy that has transformed world history, in ways both good, not so good, and just plain bad. From his life, teaching and death has flowed a river that millions of people are part of now.

Things happened because of the energy of this river of life.  Some of them altered the course of the river’s flow – Paul’s letters, the Gospels and other bits of the New Testament (all written by broken people); the emergence of an ordained ministry, priests, bishops, Popes (more broken people, as the current Pope would, I am sure, acknowledge). Every now and then there’s a major upheaval as the river gets forced into a canyon, becomes turbulent, even falls over a cliff; the split between eastern and western forms of the church, for example and the Reformation. Most of these crises happened because broken people either forgot their brokenness or forgot the deeper truth about themselves.

The waters have been getting pretty choppy again over the last 150 years or so as the Bible is subjected to scholarly criticism and scientists begin to describe a universe that profoundly challenges the way we think about God, the world we inhabit and the people we share it with. Think of gay people, the ordination of women, abortion, contraception, the misuse of our home planet, poverty and plenty.

So when, in my next blog post, I return to Mark’s Gospel, please remember that I start from the assumption that I’m reading something written by a ‘broken’ human being who nevertheless was profoundly inspired by all that Jesus of Nazareth had said and done, especially his message of forgiveness and love. Like the bishop, Mark and his fellow New Testament authors could write with an authenticity springing from a deeper place within them

Mark’s Gospel chapter 3. Who am I?

‘Mark’ (whoever he was) is a skilful writer. He has a plan. The stories he gives us are meant to fit together. It often helps to read a whole chapter in one go. That way we can get his drift and begin to understand what he is telling us about Jesus.

Chapter 3 is about people who just don’t get what Jesus is about, even his family. At the end of the chapter, Mark gives us a strong hint about how to get it – how to really ‘see’ Jesus.

The chapter begins in a synagogue with people who don’t see. Or rather they only see what they want to see. They’ve made up their minds and are watching, waiting to pounce if Jesus puts a foot wrong, breaks the rules….

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent…..

Mark has just given us the story about new wine bursting old wineskins (see my previous blog post). Here’s the new wine of Presence and love overriding religious rules.  As Brother Roger of Taize said, “Nothing is really serious except the loss of love.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but ‘they’ can sometimes be the critical voices in my head which are watching to see if people are going break the rules. I mean, I’ve got standards haven’t I, and I think people ought to live up to my standards! The voice in my head can be lightening quick with criticism of others (and incidentally of myself when I fail to live up to my own standards). Like those watching Jesus in the synagogue, I can be afraid of the reckless, outrageous, healing  abundance of Compassionate Presence.

Jump for a moment to verse 21:

When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him,  for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebub, and by the ruler of demons he casts out demons.’

The gossip is upsetting Jesus’ family. It’s serious: much more serious than not keeping the religious rules. So Mark follows this with a comment about the stark danger of cynicism, of a blindness so absolute that it is impossible to see compassion and love when it is staring you in the face.

….whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never receive forgiveness….

Then comes Mark’s punchline story.

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting round him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’ Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’

Some time before Mark wrote his Gospel, Paul of Tarsus had written a letter to Christians in Galatia:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Our sexual orientation, the circumstances of our life (whether inherited or adopted), the roles we play – father, mother, business person, social reformer, etc. etc. – are all an important part of living but they are all secondary to the essence of who we are.  To follow the teaching and example of Jesus of Nazareth is to discover this profound truth about ourselves: we are human beings-in-communion, with God, and with the whole of creation. Discovering the will of God, as Jesus puts it, is not a question of, ‘Right, this is what I have to do next.’ It is the startling discovery that – to quote Irenaeus, an early Bishop – ‘the glory of God is a human being fully alive.’

Mark’s Gospel chapter 2 verses 21 & 22

No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wine will burst the skins and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh skins.

Scholars agree that Jesus said something like this. A lot of them also think that these sayings have been edited by the gospel writers to reflect the growing gap between Christians and Jews at that time. The question for us might be, are we approaching a similar crisis? ‘Millenials’ is what some younger Americans who came of age at the turn of the century call themselves. They are also more likely to be ‘nones’ because they answer questions about religious affiliation  with the word ‘None’. Yet they also regard themselves as spiritual.  The future of institutional Christianity looks more uncertain now than perhaps it has ever done. Books about it abound. What is called ’emergent Christianity’ flourishes. The “sea of faith” has been receding ever since Matthew Arnold used the phrase in his poem Dover Beach in the late 19th century, referring to its “long melancholy, withdrawing roar”.

For most of my thirty five years of priestly ministry I struggled to keep my ordination vows; struggled to keep alive the church I served. The mental acrobatics I performed as I tried to reconcile my experience with the church’s teaching would have impressed an Olympic selection committee! The current euphemism for making someone redundant is ‘letting them go’. Only after nine years of retirement during which I ‘let go’ of God (at least as I had understood the word) did I discover the hidden Christian tradition of contemplative prayer.  Nobody had told me about it at my theological college back in the 1950s. Can the old wineskins of our traditional churches hold this ‘new’ wine: wine that is actually a rich and very old vintage?

John Robinson was a Church of England Bishop in the Diocese of Southwark, here in London. Exactly fifty years ago he created a national sensation by publishing a book called Honest To God. “Our image of God must go”, he wrote; somewhat shocking for a Bishop to say that, even today. He thought it might take a hundred years before a different way of thinking about God really took hold and became part of mainstream church life and practice. God as the Ground of Being was what he proposed instead of the prevailing idea of God as a separate entity, a being ‘out there’ somewhere. Well it begins to look as if his fifty years was a conservative estimate.

Thinking of God as the Ground of Being, the philosopher and theologian Raimon Panikkar says, “contemplative life is neither pure meditation nor pure action; instead it is the action upon which one reflects and the meditation upon which one acts, the undivided life. Its name is wisdom.” Everywhere one looks people are finding new ways of expressing the fundamental truths of Jesus’ message: new/old wine that threatens to burst the old wineskins of western Christian practice.

Mark’s Gospel chapter 2 verses 13 – 17

Tax gatherers were the hated stooges of the occupying Roman administration in Palestine when Jesus was alive. Now here’s Jesus calling Matthew, one of those stooges, to follow him. Matthew invites Jesus home to dinner and religious folk are not best pleased. They corner some of Jesus’ disciples and mutter:

“Why does he eat with tax gatherers and sinners?”

Jesus replies,

“Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who sick. I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

The basic stance of prayer is confession (see my previous post) but not as it has been widely understood in Christian circles for centuries. By confession I mean first a deep sense of longing, unease, dissatisfaction with the way I am. Later, once I have found the Compassionate  Presence that gives some fulfillment of my longing, some ease, some satisfaction, confession means a lack of pretence, a willingness always to say, ‘this is how I am at this moment’. But ‘this is how I am at this moment’ is not a blanket of weary resignation thrown over the whole of the rest of my life. It is simply a surrender to the way things are with me, in me, around me, at this moment. Put like this, it is madness to pretend that things are not as they are now, at this moment. But I am not telling myself that things are going to stay this way. In true confession I am not labeling the ‘things’ that are the facts about my situation at this moment. For example if I have a headache, I have a headache. That’s a fact. If I tell myself, ‘Oh my God, it must be a brain tumour!’  That, to put it mildly, is an opinion. If I am feeling angry with someone that’s a fact to be acknowledged (confessed) without pretence, without running a commentary about it in my head, especially without going over the event which caused my anger, or feeling guilty about being angry, or imagining what I might do about it in the next few seconds, or minutes, or days, or weeks. Given the speed with which my mind can gallop away with any of these thoughts when I am angry, it is best if my ‘confession’ focuses on the actual physical sensations that are happening – pounding heart, flushed cheeks, sensations in the pit of my stomach. Why is it OK to practice confession in this way? Because nothing separates me from the Compassionate Presence which we often call God, which is actually the deepest truth about us. Does this mean that there’s nothing else for me to do about it? Not necessarily by any means. It does mean that confession enables me to see clearly what, if anything, needs to be done and how to do it.

Mark’s Gospel chapter 2 verses 1 -12. Forgiveness

The colours of the rainbow are beautiful but without sunlight they would not exist. The teaching of Jesus is pure, undivided sunlight but it helps if we pass it through a prism so we can see all its rainbow colours. This is what Gospel writers do. In my first blog post I looked at Mark chapter 1 verse 15 which gives us the themes of time, kingdom and repentance. Now, in this story at the beginning of chapter 2 we get a fourth vibrant colour of Jesus’ teaching – forgiveness. The story appears in all four gospels which is unusual. In John’s version the Scribes object to the healed paralytic carrying his mat on the Sabbath. For the three synoptic Gospel writers it’s Jesus’ claim to forgive sins which upsets the Scribes. Here is Mark’s version (which Matthew and Luke have borrowed) but I’ve shortened it for the sake of brevity in this post.

3. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. 4. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and …they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. 5. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’  …. 10. ‘But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority of earth to forgive sins’ – he said to the paralytic – 11. ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’

Several of Jesus’ parables shed light on the power and primacy of forgiveness. He had infinite compassion for those who felt they were no good at following in his way. Paul of Tarsus understood the power and necessity of forgiveness. “Wretched man that I am”, he writes in his letter to the Romans, “who will deliver me from this body of death?” His answer follows immediately: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

What inhibits my ability to follow the way of Jesus is the power of my mind to drag me away from the present moment in which the kingdom lies hidden. I am booby trapped with land mines of the past and sometimes consumed with fear about the future. I have experienced the trauma of being a vulnerable infant in a world which is blind to the kingdom. Then there is that primitive, animal part of my brain which still, after millennia of evolution, tries to ask of any unknown situation, ‘Do I fight it? Run away from it? Eat it? Mate with it?’

Beset by all that paralyses me, forgiveness is the dynamic key that sets me free to pick up my mat and follow the path that Jesus has mapped out for humanity. Forgiveness has very little to do with the past, except when guilt, resentment, and pain cripple me now in the present and so blind me to the power and Presence of the kingdom. Most writers on the practice of contemplative prayer urge gentleness as we deal with all that distracts us from the reality of the Presence. To observe without judgement but with gentle awareness all the antics of our minds is to practice forgiveness.

Some people, of course, have been so deeply hurt by the brutality of others that forgiveness does not come easily to them even though lack of it prevents them from moving on. The press often suggests that a public enquiry will bring closure for child abuse victims, for example. Of course public enquires into child abuse are an essential tool but they do not enable the victims to move on into abundant life. Only the practice of forgiveness can do that.

And here’s a startling truth. Forgiveness cannot be practiced without confession. What?! A child abuse victim should ‘confess’?!! Yes, if by ‘confession’ we mean a total, unconditional, non-judgemental acceptance of myself just as I am now in this present moment, with all my pain about the past; all my hope for the outcome of an enquiry into the abuse or the trial and conviction of my abuser. When I adopt this attitude of total acceptance of the way things are for me at this moment, suddenly forgiveness is at work. For deeply hurt people the process will take time and outside help may well be needed but sooner or later the truth will dawn that the dynamic of forgiveness is always, unconditionally available. Then the outcome of any enquiry becomes irrelevant at least for the victim’s spiritual and psychological health and wholeness. They are able to ‘take up their mat and walk in the pure sunlight of the Presence which Jesus called ‘Abba, Father’.

Forgiveness is not a mental activity that I can exercise at will, just by thinking about it. I enter into it when I ‘repent’ and discover that it is part of that total, ongoing experience which Christians have called the Resurrection, the ever present, pure sunlight of the Presence.