Monthly Archives: April 2015

Breath-taking

Luke chapter 12 verses 13-26

Some people seek moral guidance from gurus. Here, it’s not so much guidance that someone wants from Jesus, it’s judgement:

“Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” (12: 13)

This is someone who really has not understood what Jesus is about. Only Luke among the three synoptic Gospel authors records this conversation and the parable that follows it. (12: 16 – 20, though it also appears in the Gospel of Thomas at 63: 1-3)

The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do for I have no place to store my crops?”

He decides to increase his storage space and says to himself:

“Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat drink and be merry.”

Elsewhere in the Gospel accounts Jesus says it’s harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. So where does that leave all us Christians in the developed world? By comparison with the desperate migrants risking death to cross from Libya to Europe we are all rich. It behoves us to be very sensitive to the possibility that our moral judgement is compromised by our wealth. The sting of the parable is surely in that well known phrase: ‘relax, eat, drink and be merry.’ I assume that Bill and Melinda Gates have not succumbed to that temptation. Their Foundation channels their wealth into lots of admirable schemes designed to redress the balance between richer and poorer nations of the world.

The crucial thing for us in rich developed countries is to remember who we truly are. Material wealth can make us blind to the spiritual wealth that is ours: the wealth we cannot store up any more than we can store up life-giving breath that can only be taken moment by moment. And for all of us there will come a moment when the breath-taking ceases and we begin the transition to dust.

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I need a neighbour with skin on

There’s a thunder storm. A little girl lies in bed, frightened. “Mummy, mummy!” she calls. Mummy comes and says, “There’s no need to be frightened, darling. Remember, God is always with you.” “I know”, wails the little girl, “but I want someone here with skin on.”

Twitter, Facebook and all the other digital media are not real substitutes for someone around with skin on. The Samaritan saw the wounded man lying there and went to help. I step out of my flat here in the middle of London and find myself presented with lots of chances to be a good neighbour. It’s important to grasp this fundamental reality of being human. Everything we do is time bound by our skin, our bodies. Lose sight of this reality and we can soon feel swamped by the relentless pressure of texting, Instagramming and updating Facebook status; not to mention daily horror stories about the impact of immigrants on our health service, or the desperate refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. Of course digital media are a huge benefit but they can blind us to the simple fact that we exist only in the present moment. We breathe in and out moment by moment. We can’t store up breath for the future. Jesus insisted that the kingdom, the realm of true Being can only be entered in the here and now. Of course we face political challenges and politicians seeking re-election can play on our fears, especially fears about ‘neighbours’ without skin on. Unless we can stay in touch with the fundamental fact that to be human is to exist in a time-bound body we will fail to make good decisions about general principles of good neighbourliness. Every time we hear or read something designed to ignite our fears about ‘neighbours’ without skin on the trick is to return to our breathing, to focus in on our bodies, before deciding how we should react. After helping the mugged traveller maybe the good Samaritan would have used Facebook if it had been available, to gather support for an anti-racism campaign.

 

Who is my neighbour?

The contemplative/mystical experience does not vary from age to age nor from culture to culture. What changes is the language and imagery people in widely differing cultures use to try and describe something that is essentially beyond words. Jesus himself was a man of his time and therefore used the language of his time and culture to point to the reality that silence reveals. Even more so were his disciples, the emerging Christian movement and the gospel writers. That makes reading the New Testament a challenging task. The closer we can get to Jesus of Nazareth the less time and culture bound the message is likely to be.

So far, my journey through Mark and Matthew has, I hope, yielded the essence of what Jesus was pointing to. Each Gospel writer puts his own ‘spin’ on the teaching and it is time to move on from Matthew to Luke. Matthew has given us the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. What Luke adds to the mix are several well known parables not found in Mark or Matthew. There’s the Good Samaritan, for example, the Prodigal Son, the Rich Man and Lazarus; and then there’s Luke’s affinity for the place of women in the story.

Mark, Matthew and Luke all record a discussion between Jesus and a Scribe about the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbour. Only Luke follows this exchange with two famous passages: the parable of the Good Samaritan (chapter 10 verses 30 – 35) and the conversation between Jesus, Martha and Mary (10: 38 – 42). The first is about loving my neighbour, the second about loving God.

A Scribe asks Jesus, who is my neighbour? Jesus doesn’t respond with a direct answer. Like all good teachers he tells a story and invites his questioner to make up his own mind. It’s a story designed to challenge our prejudices about strangers. Jews and Samaritans couldn’t stand one another. Who are ‘Samaritans’ for me? Who is my neighbour? Who presses my buttons? People who don’t give up their seat on the bus or train to those in greater need? Immigrants from eastern Europe? And who can I expect help from? Sometimes the most unlikely people offer their seats on the bus to me and my wife – both of us now obviously elderly. They are only ‘unlikely’ in my mind because of my prejudices about the kind of people I think they are. Sometimes I am the wounded traveller, sometimes I am challenged to be the good Samaritan.

A common misunderstanding of the contemplative/mystical life is that one becomes too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use. Nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps Luke should have placed the story of Jesus with Mary and Martha before the parable the Good Samaritan. For most of us the answer to the question, who is my neighbour, only becomes clear when we have become more like Mary than Martha. There are numerous examples of people who, Mary-like, have developed a mature and disciplined practice of contemplative prayer. Leaving their hidden place of prayer they go about their ordinary everyday lives with a deep sense of being connected with everyone they meet however fleeting each encounter may be. Thomas Merton, a contemplative monk, described this in an essay, ‘A Member of the Human Race’:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the centre of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I was theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of a pure self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness.”

This awareness stayed with him for the rest of his life. It was the fulfillment of the second commandment, to “love your neighbour as yourself.” I am never more essentially, more deeply myself, than when I have discovered a Mary-like stillness in the Presence of the divine. And in that stillness I know the answer to the question, who is my neighbour?

I’m dying……for what?

Here in the UK we say, ‘I’m dying to see you’; ‘I’m dying for a drink’; which of course is a way of saying I really, really want this to happen. Or we say, ‘I can’t wait to see you’ etc. expressing the same sense of urgency. We are not dying of course and we have no alternative but to wait.

At the heart of the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth is the insight that the ‘kingdom’ of which he spoke so often is entered only through a process that feels a bit like dying. It also needs a kind of waiting though not with the impatience most of us feel when we have to wait for a train or to be served in a supermarket queue.

In the western Christian calendar today is Good Friday. Yesterday, in the Gospel writers’ dramatic scheme they took us to the garden of Gethsemane. Here was a deeply disturbed man facing an agonizing decision:

“My father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

Because of his teaching and example Jesus faces the possibility – no, the probability – of death. Here is the man who had said:

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 16:25)

Now he has to ‘walk his talk’, practice what he has preached.

He will die…..for what? His followers started pondering that question as soon as they began to recover from the shock and grief of his death. It’s a question that has occupied the minds of Christian theologians ever since. If you are thinking that I’m about to plunge into theological speculation at this moment: relax. I am not!

Laurence Freeman, the leader of the World Community For Christian Meditation, says, “Every time we meditate we participate in the death of Christ.”

So, as a contemplative Christian I am dying to…..what? I am dying to the self that doesn’t like dying any more than it likes waiting in supermarket queues. I am dying to the self that compares itself with other selves and finds itself wanting and goes to great lengths to make up what it thinks it lacks. I am dying to the self that thinks it knows all the answers including, for some of us, the answer that goes, ‘I’m no good’ (or ‘I’m better than him/her’). I am dying to the self that panics and freezes when it is confronted with a challenge.

I could go on. The list of things that I mistakenly think are essential about me, or that are a hindrance to me, is a long one.

In three days time western Christians will be celebrating Easter: an experience that transformed a bunch of terrified men and women into a world-changing community.

So,like them, I am dying to experience the abundant life of the kingdom Jesus talked about. And remember this ‘kingdom’, this realm of Being, is not the exclusive domain of us who call ourselves Christians. I am dying to discover the truth about who I really am. It’s a liberating and risky truth. For some it can involve martyrdom – see my previous post. It’s the truth about all of us. Happy Easter or whatever festival of life and abundance you prefer to celebrate.