Monthly Archives: October 2013

An inch ahead lies darkness

Mark chapter 6 verse 7

Jesus called the twelve and began to send them out by two and two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8. He ordered them to take nothing for the journey….

On stage a good actor has authority, even before uttering a word. Musician, dancer, any good performer, has this authority of presence. Behind each performance lie the tedious hours of preparation and practice. But an actor, a concert pianist, must forget all that as she steps on to the stage. She must ‘take nothing for the journey’ ahead. If the actor is worrying about remembering his next line the authority of his performance is lost. I think it was the actor Michael Caine who said that he takes his next line from the face of the actor he is performing with. He must enter fully into the moment, lose himself in the character he is portraying and the movement of the play.

I was ordained into the priesthood of the Anglican church. That gave me a position, a role, a certain kind of authority within the structures of the church. It did not, however, guarantee the authority that Jesus spoke of when he sent out his twelve loyal followers. Only when I am able to let go of priestly authority and ‘take nothing for the journey’ – only then might the authority of Presence be granted to me. I might have great skill in writing (this blog, perhaps?) or speaking but without letting go into each present moment without foresight, without forethought then (to paraphrase Paul in his letter to the Corinthians) even though I speak or write “in the tongues of mortals and angels, but do not have love” then I have the authority only of a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”.

The writer and spiritual guide, Simon Parke, reminded me in his recent newsletter of the Japanese proverb, ‘An inch ahead lies darkness’. The patient, persistent hours of practice beforehand might prove useless in the next few moments unless – that is – unless they have helped me learn to take nothing for the journey.

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Mark’s gospel chapter 6. Knowing you, knowing me.

Then Jesus said to them, Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house. (verse 4)

Jesus is back where he grew up. ‘Ah! Jesus! Yes. I remember him. Carpenter, isn’t he? Mary’s son. Wandered off on some crazy tour leaving his brothers and sisters to do all the work back here.’

We like to know where someone is ‘coming from’, as the saying goes. We like to pin people down: slot them into categories so that we know how to react to them. We keep a whole database of categories in our heads for this very purpose: young, sexy, drunken layabout, dynamic, intelligent, posh, doddery to name a few. Our brains are lightening quick at choosing a slot for the person we have just met. What’s more, our database includes stuff we’ve stored away about people we know well. I say, ‘know well’ but that is often the problem. People in Jesus home town were sure they knew him well but, clearly, their knowledge was getting in the way.

There are at least two kinds of ‘knowing’ about people. The first is mostly to do with the roles they play: business person, parent, husband, wife, doctor, patient, victim, persecutor; the list is endless and often quite useful. We ‘know where we are’ when we play a role. We don’t expect the doctor to have a long chat with us about the party she enjoyed last night and the doctor can rightly expect us to get to the point quickly about the symptoms we’ve got. A child has a right to be nurtured. In exceptional circumstances children are brilliant at nurturing a parent who needs it, but we all recognise that these are exceptional circumstances and that an immature adult who expects to be nurtured by a child is damaging the relationship.

The message of Jesus focuses on the second kind of knowing. This is not knowing about someone. It is entering into a relationship with them, without foresight, without prejudice, without forethought, without demands or expectations but simply in open, hopeful trust. Such encounters make us vulnerable and of course, sometimes we can be hurt. If someone produces a knife, it’s probably time to leave, quickly! But at least let’s start our encounters (perhaps especially with those we think we know well) in open trust.

Mark’s gospel chapter 5 verses 21 – end

I am an old man now so it’s important that I do not try to cross the road while talking on my mobile phone. Multi-tasking is no longer a safe option for me as my senses become duller with age. In any case, doing one thing at a time is, according to Zen Buddhism, the way to enlightenment. For older people it’s also a good way to avoid accidents.

 Verses 22-35. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw [Jesus] fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live. So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who….. had heard about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well .…..Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’…….He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease’.

In this section of Mark’s gospel Jesus is responding to an urgent plea for help from a father whose daughter is seriously ill. He’s on his way to their house, surrounded by a pressing crowd. Among them is a chronically ill woman who reaches out to touch him. In spite of the commotion around him, Jesus notices and feels her touch. I think he’s doing one thing at a time, don’t you? He is not feeling rushed by Jairus’s urgent concern for his daughter. He is on his way to help but he is still aware of the present moment. As the saying goes, ‘wherever you go, there you are’.

Here in central London they have recently started broadcasting a safety notice on the Underground, (the ‘Tube’) reminding travellers that trains run every few minutes so there’s no need to risk an accident by hurrying on the escalators or the platforms. Just the other day a young woman slipped and fell on the platform in front of me as she rushed to beat the closing doors of the train about to leave. Especially in a busy city the sense of not wanting to be ‘here’ because I am desperate to get ‘there’ becomes an ingrained habit.

“It’s all right for him,” do I hear you say? “He’s retired. He’s got plenty of time. He’s got nothing to worry about.” True (apart, perhaps, from the last of those statements) but just consider the widespread popularity of techniques to help people relax, to learn ‘mindfulness’, meditation, yoga and so on. Younger people are clearly not happy with rushing everywhere. They are willing to pay good money to learn techniques that ought to be freely available in any Christian community (though sadly they often are not). Doing one thing at a time requires a basic sense of trust; hard to cultivate if your job is threatened, or you are late to collect the children from school, or money is so short that you have to use a Food Bank.

Right at the beginning of this gospel, Mark summarises the message of Jesus like this:

The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news’. (See the first post of this blog).

It is good that human beings can multi-task with such skill, but when this skill blinds us to the fact that the time (that is each present moment) is fulfilled – filled full of promise – then we are losing sight of what it means to be truly human. There’s a nice touch in a 1960s science fiction novel (Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein) about a human being who has been raised by Martians. Apparently Martians, who live for centuries, know how to wait. When Valentine Michael Smith arrives back on earth he discovers that his fellow humans lack this skill of waiting. To cover up any embarrassment for them he learns to wait faster. He does this so well that there are times when he appears to be waiting at breakneck speed. There’s a difference between hurrying and waiting at speed!

Mark’s Gospel chapter 5

He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain…..Day night among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance he ran and bowed before him;; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me?…….

There are two ways in which people can reveal some of their innermost thoughts in public on the streets of our towns and cities. Most of them are talking on their mobile phones, scattering personal information around to anyone who happens to be passing. The others are just muttering aloud as they walk past, or sit next to you on the bus – these we tend to label a bit ‘mad’. We wouldn’t say they were possessed by a demon but that’s what folk in Jesus’ day thought. He encounters such a person in this chapter: self harming and not just muttering but howling and shouting: a danger to himself and others.

Remember, the Gospels are not biographies. Here in this episode Mark, as usual, gives us a skilfully woven narrative, but let’s not assume that these things happened exactly in this way on one day in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Instant healing of a seriously disturbed person? Possible, no doubt. Miracles, as they say, do happen. But suppose the ‘demoniac’ as some versions label him, was not that different from me?

Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”

So many voices clamouring in his head!  Well……there can be quite a racket going on in my head too: voices accusing me of not being good enough; muttering,  ‘just look at him, he’s a disgrace’; ‘oh my god I’m going to be late’; going over an encounter I’ve just had with someone and ‘giving them a piece of my mind’; ‘I’m no good at this’; ‘I don’t want to be here in this boring crowd’; and so on and so on. Of course I am ‘civilised’ enough not to let any of this babble be heard by those around me.

Now, I am also fortunate enough to have caught a glimpse of a much deeper truth about who I am. Underneath the mental clamour is the vast, silent, stillness and presence that we call God. Once I have sensed that deep truth, that loving, graceful, accepting Presence, it becomes possible for me to keep returning to it. The more I learn to practice getting in touch with those depths, the more the clamour in my head subsides to be replaced by a loving awareness not only of who I am but of everyone else too.

A small charity called The Prison Phoenix Trust teaches prisoners to meditate and do yoga; to turn their prison cells into, you might say, monastic cells. Its quarterly newsletter publishes moving letters from inmates describing their journey from self harming and the racket in their heads to the discovery of the spacious peace from which flows the healing that they need to move on in the recovery process that will set them free even while serving the remainder of their prison sentence. For most of us healing is a gradual process like this. We remain wounded human beings but underneath there is wholeness.

Was the ‘demoniac’ in Mark’s story healed instantly? We don’t know and it doesn’t matter whether or not such a miracle of healing happened. What lots of us do know however is that healing encounters happen, whether through meeting someone, or reading something, or in some other way in which Presence catches our attention and gives us a sense of who we truly are.