Category Archives: God

Liberte. Egalite. Fraternite.

Just occasionally my systematic journey in this blog synchronises with a newsworthy event. In this case the advice in chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel is about living according to the Way of Jesus of Nazareth in a world that has startling similarities with the slaughter in Paris last week and the gruesome mayhem perpetrated by jihadists in several other countries. Before going any further I remind myself that more Muslims are killed by jihadists than Christians. I wish to write in solidarity (fraternity, the French might say) with my brothers and sisters of other faiths, these fellow human beings of mine.

I confess my ignorance of the Quran but I believe it speaks of Jesus as a prophet rather than the Saviour of the world. I can live with that! I have spoken elsewhere in this blog of the human tendency to turn a prophet who points us to the truth into The Truth itself. In my (I hope humble) opinion the truth is not a person, it is a Way of being and living. I try to practice the contemplative path and, if asked, I refer to myself not as a Christian contemplative but as a contemplative in the Christian tradition. There are times when I feel I have more in common with a Jewish, a Buddhist, or a Sufi practitioner than with some of my fellow Christians.

Matthew invites us all in chapter 10 of his gospel:

  • to live in this troubled world like sheep among wolves, being wise as serpents and innocent as doves (verse 16)
  • to love our enemies, even if they persecute us (verses 16 – 25)
  • to love the truth more than our human families (verse 37) always provided that we understand truth as a way of living not a set of beliefs or doctrines.
  • to let go of all we think we know about ourselves, especially the thoughts we cling to in the mistaken belief that without them we could not exist (verses 38 and 39)
  • to live with compassion for all human beings because, like us, they are made in the image of God (verses 40 – 42). The virtue of fraternity, enshrined in the French constitution, comes close to that of compassion. It underlies the expression of both liberty and equality as Paul of Tarsus understood when writing to Christians in Corinth. Some of them were offended by fellow believers who felt free to eat meat that had been offered to idols and then sold on the market. Of course their freedom was compatible with the gospel, Paul agreed, but perhaps they should restrict their freedom out of loving sensitivity to the consciences of those who were offended. (1 Corinthians chapter 8)

Amid all the human sin and tragedy a new consciousness is arising on the planet and it is not restricted to any one of the great religions. To be sure, each in its own way has managed to encode the truth, whatever difficulties we in the 21st century might experience in decoding it.

Finally I recommend an article in the Guardian newspaper about Sufism:

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Christmas distractions

This morning at my daily practice of Centering Prayer I was besieged by distractions. They included creative thoughts about writing this post. I was tempted to go and note them down in case I forgot them. I tried to let go of the temptation. Then I was besieged by worries about dementia. If you practice this form of prayer you will recognize what I am describing! The Silence within us is often drowned out by noisy thoughts, even good creative ones. We so easily lose touch with that Presence we call God.

Here is the idea I had while praying. (See, I didn’t forget it!) My purpose in this blog is to recover more of Jesus the wisdom teacher. I began it back in 2013 with this quote:

“Then came Jesus, whose distinctive, original voice I have argued can still be heard through the conversations of his followers which have shaped the Gospel text.” (Diarmaid MacCulloch, ‘Silence: a Christian History’ page 219)

Sometimes the conversations of the followers of Jesus are in danger of drowning out his distinctive, original voice. They can even do so with beautiful, creative parables like the nativity stories of Luke and Matthew. For example, the author of Matthew’s gospel has Jewish Christians in mind and his aim is to relate Jesus to Jewish history and tradition. He does it in ways that are sometimes obscure to us. He presents Jesus as a second (better?) Moses. He is very fond of relating his Jesus story to passages in what we Christians call the Old Testament.

Now I have to confess that the idea of Jesus as a second Moses and the details of Jesus birth and childhood are a bit like those distractions I experience in prayer. They can drown out that distinctive voice whose message resonates with 21st century people for whom traditional religion is off-putting. I am pretty familiar with the Bible and it is helpful to see how Jesus uses scriptures he was familiar with. But is not essential for me. I find much more help and inspiration in modern writers and speakers, for example Eckhart Tolle, Cynthia Bourgeault, Richard Rohr and many, many more who point out to me the Way I should follow. We are in the midst of a profound shift in religious and spiritual consciousness. The miracle is that the teaching of Jesus still has the power to enable that shift to continue. The miracle was that the Gospel writers had collections of the sayings of Jesus to work with and modern scholarship is a great help in discerning when they are using those sources. My purpose in this blog is cautiously to sift out the teaching of Jesus from the ways in which those earliest Christians encoded it. Ultimately (and paradoxically) what can be drowned out is the sound of silence. Within that silence is the Silence of true Being. I believe Jesus was continually pointing to that silent Presence, inviting us to enter into it, there to discover who we truly are.

I’ll continue my sifting of Matthew’s gospel in my next post. Happy New Year.

Christmas interlude

Nine years ago it was – December 2005. In a bookshop here in central London I picked up a copy of Eckhart Tolle’s ‘A New Earth’. It was one of those apparently random choices that produce an extraordinary Aha! experience. Suddenly I could see clearly what I had been searching for since the 1950s. Books I had read over the years, experiences, fumblings in the dark, all fell into a pattern. “So that’s what it’s all about” was my underlying feeling/thought.

Isn’t this what happened to those first followers of Jesus of Nazareth? Especially the authors of the Gospels? Whether or not they had actually met Jesus in the flesh, things fell into place when they heard his message and reflected on his life. What they had read and pondered over the years before was what we Christians now call the Old Testament. Suddenly in the light of their experience of Jesus, it was alive with startling fresh meaning. ‘So that’s what it means’ must have been their frequent response.

Time and again the Gospel authors weave passages from the Old Testament into their accounts. This year in the approach to Christmas I have been struck as never before by the astonishing creativity of both Luke and Matthew in their nativity stories. Are there any other passages in the whole of literature that have been the source of such a two thousand year stream of artistic and spiritual inspiration as these two?

Might it be one of the gifts of this doubting, skeptical age to accept the liberal scholarly consensus that we are dealing here, with poetic mythical writing, not a factual account? I for one am set free as never before to relish and revel in these stories, allowing them their own artistic integrity.

I must admit that I prefer Luke’s version. He concentrates on the women: more appropriate, don’t you think, for a story about a birth? Matthew is a bit too dark for me, though I can understand why folk feel it’s more appropriate in our present troubled world.

Luke’s story of the angelic messenger to Mary ends with, ‘then the angel departed from her’. After all the commercial hype, that’s what happens on Christmas day, don’t you think? It can feel a bit flat. However, in the midst of whatever happens to you at Christmas and in the coming year may you know the Presence that does not depart.

I’ll be back with my next post on Matthew’s Gospel in the new year.

Know-it-all

Matthew chapter 7 verses 24 to 27:

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house but it did not fall because it had been founded on rock…….”

This morning as I sit to write this post it feels as if the rain is falling, the floods are rising and the wind is blowing. I won’t bore you with the personal details; just to say that I am thinking, who am I to be writing stuff about spirituality when I am feeling like this? The other temptation when I am feeling like this is to look around for help. Maybe, I should re-read that book, visit that church to pray, talk to that person ……?

The uncomfortable truth is that I am a ‘know-it-all’ – a phrase normally used in a critical way about bores who think they know everything. But in the spiritual life there does come a point at which being a ‘know-it-all’ is good. Finding yet another inspirational book, or speaker, or retreat centre can become an escape, a failure to act on what I know. What I need to know, or rather to remember, is that my house is built on rock; that ‘underneath are the everlasting arms’; that there is ‘nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God’. This is what I forget too often and, of course, inspirational books and people do help me to remember. However, eventually I have to recognise that getting more knowledge won’t help. I am talking about  head knowledge. What I know in my head has to become stuff that I experience at a gut level, almost literally in my body. I re-member it, re-embody it and that is a process that can only happen from moment to moment. Perhaps this re-membering, this re-embodying, is the narrow gate through which Jesus says we must pass into the kingdom.

When J. S. Bach wrote his cantata ‘Ich habe genug (I have enough) he had in mind the old man Simeon who according to Luke’s Gospel, took the baby Jesus in his arms and said, in effect, ‘now I’m happy to die because I’ve seen all I need to see.’ (Luke 2: 29) You can hear Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing the cantata at www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSTDibqXuGo

So, at the end of this series of posts on the Sermon on the Mount you could say, “That’s it. That’s all I need. I have enough.” I could make this my last post for this blog but I think I’ll continue in the hope that I’ll find different ways of saying the same thing which, come to think about it, is probably what Jesus was doing. Words point to the reality but they are not that reality itself. Maybe that’s why Jesus said, ‘Don’t go babbling on’ and why he warned that not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’  enters the kingdom.

Perhaps this from Aldous Huxley’s novel ‘Island’ is a good way to finish a series of posts on the Sermon on the Mount

“….people ought to take their religion warm from the cow, if you see what I mean. Not skimmed or pasteurized or homogenized. Above all not canned in any kind of theological or liturgical container.”

It’s not what it says on the tin

Beware of false prophets….you will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns or figs from thistles. (Matthew chapter 7 verses15-20) 

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. (Matthew chapter 7 verses 21- 23)

I find Roman Catholic imagery and worship off-putting so I was unsettled when one of my children married a Roman Catholic and became one also. But they and their two children are the most wonderful loving family and I love to spend time in their presence. Then again there are atheists and agnostics who exhibit the loving presence that I aspire to. And of course the same is true of Buddhists, Muslims and any other religious practice you can think of. As Brother Roger of Taize said, “Nothing is really serious except the loss of love.” So the message for me is, don’t judge the contents of the tin by its label. Incidentally, I owe a great deal to Roman Catholic writers, who have opened up for me the path of contemplative prayer and living. I ‘know them by their fruits’.

Reader, if you care to go back to the very first post of this blog you will find there the principles on which I approach the Gospels, especially this from Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch: “Then came Jesus, whose distinctive, original voice I have argued can still be heard through the conversations of his followers which have shaped the Gospel text.” (Diarmaid MacCulloch, ‘Silence: a Christian History’ page 219). Suddenly, at the end of today’s two passages you get a sense of the way in which the distinctive original voice of Jesus has been overlaid by the kind of conversation that produced Matthew’s Gospel: “Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you: go away from me you evildoers’.” Here the immediacy of Jesus’ message has been exchanged for a future event called the Kingdom of God from which some people will then be excluded.

It has taken me years to accept that the first Christians were not a perfect bunch! True, they were part of an astonishing transformation of human society. It is also true that, just like us, they struggled to hear and understand the truth that Jesus taught. That is why the Gospels reflect that struggle; sometimes faithfully recording words that Jesus spoke; sometimes making assumptions that have shaped Christian history so that we too can find ourselves struggling to understand. The blog http://earliestchristianity.wordpress.com sheds light on that struggle and is worth looking at if you fancy a more scholarly approach to these questions than I am capable of.

Richard Rohr, one of those Roman Catholic writers I have found helpful, puts these words into the mouth of Jesus, “Don’t worship me. Follow me!” Now there’s a bright light to shine into the mysteries of the New Testament.

It’s open. Come in!

Ask and it will be given to you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!                                   Matthew chapter 7 verses 7 – 11

William Temple, an Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1940s, said, “When I pray coincidences happen.” My personal experience verifies the truth of this. Yet it was precisely this experience of ‘answers’ to prayer that undermined my traditional belief in a personal God ‘out there’ somewhere managing the affairs of this world (caricatured as the bearded old man above the skies). Why did this ‘God’ apparently ignore so many requests? There have been times when I wonder if my prayers have an almost geographical range. Blunderbuss requests for peace in Iraq or the poor in Africa have no (immediate) discernable effect, whereas sniper rifle shots at a specific, limited target seem to fall within the Archbishop’s truth. Please note that I speak here very tentatively. In my last post I referred to my unease when this mysterious process becomes the primary focus of religious events from Lourdes pilgrimages to Pentecostal healing services. Most of them are concerned with healing of one sort or another and of course I deeply desire healing: for people I love, for people I hear about in the media. The suffering of the world moves me.

The Archbishop’s point about coincidences can include physical and mental healing. Again, I can verify the truth of this from my own experience but still I find myself in the presence of mystery. Trying to explain it gets us into real trouble, especially the temptation to think that we can manipulate the process for our own selfish ends. (There are warnings about this kind of temptation a few verses after today’s passage and I’ll explore them in my next post.)

This morning in bed I was flooded by a sense of profound peace. What more could I want? There was no point in asking for anything. To do so would have been to superimpose my puny desire on this ineffable mystery. What I personally want seems pointless in the midst of such reality. So, still speaking very tentatively, I read “Ask and it will be given to you; search and you will find……” in the context of the rest of chapters 5 to 7. Apart from physical healing the question arises, how desperate am I to find the narrow gate; to enter the realm of the rule of love; to begin the rehabilitation process for my addiction to anxiety, resentment and all the rest of the mental junk that afflicts us? The good news, the Gospel, is that the door I am knocking at is open. The truth I am looking for, the peace I desire, is already present. As many saints and sages have testified, the God I am looking for has already found me: is and always was present in every fibre of my being. I am simply one beggar telling any other beggar who might be interested, where I have found bread.

If not now, when?

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.  (Matthew chapter 7 verses 13 and 14)

The narrow gate? What did Jesus mean?

I am part of a dispersed community called Contemplative Fire. Most of us live in the United Kingdom, though there are Companions on the Way (as we are called) in Canada and elsewhere on the planet. We commit ourselves to a threefold rhythm of life: A learning journey, crossing thresholds and the pivotal one, on which the first two depend is:

‘Encountering the present moment in quietness’.

I suggest that the narrow gate of which Jesus speaks is precisely this: the present moment. Isn’t this the key to much of his teaching? Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now is a world-wide best seller. There’s nothing new in what he says. Look carefully through the teaching of many Christian saints and sages and we discover that they all say the same thing in many different ways – ‘if not now, when?’ If we wish to discover the abiding Presence that we call God we should stop searching here, there, in the past, in the future. In fact we must simply stop searching. Rather, we must, in the words of the Psalm: Be still and know…..

I’ve been talking about addiction in the last few posts – our addiction to worry, anxiety, fear, resentment, anger and all the afflictions that our minds fill us with. Is this what Jesus calls the wide gate and the easy road? Surely he doesn’t mean that we actually prefer this state of mind? But look around you; look within yourself. It really does appear that we do rather like worrying, being resentful, angry and all the rest of it! Otherwise, why do we persist with such states of mind? Why do our newspapers and televisions successfully appeal to our sense of outrage, dissatisfaction and blame? Perhaps Jesus is right: it appears to us easier to put up with all the pain than to find the narrow gate, pass through and start out on the disciplined road of the present moment.

Even those of us who believe in the power of prayer and seek to practice the presence of God can be hoodwinked. We get upset about something and we think, I must get to church, go to Confession, find a quiet spot, book a session with my therapist, wait for this wait for that. What we often fail to appreciate fully is that, to quote Martin Laird,

God does not know how to be absent.

 This is why searching is pointless. What could be more pointless than looking for something that is already Present? This is why encountering the present moment in quietness is the key. It’s simple but it’s not easy. Given the pressures of our past personal experience and of contemporary life, we all need to keep practicing our spiritual five finger exercises (prayer, meditation, yoga – whatever helps us to excavate the present moment). For some of us the wounds of our past life are so deep seated that we can benefit from the outside support of a sensitive therapist or a spiritual accompanier. For all of us the rhythm of withdrawal/engagement is essential. As we practice, gradually it becomes a state of being that we live within moment by moment, whatever the outward circumstances of our life. Eckhart Tolle says, “If you miss the present step on the journey, you miss your life”. Let’s spell Life with a capital L because that’s what Jesus is inviting us into.

Salt and light

Matthew’s Gospel chapter 5 verses 13-16

How did Jesus read the scriptures (what we Christians now call the Old Testament)? The answer must surely be: with an entirely fresh and startling (not to say revolutionary) insight. There are clues, for example in Luke’s gospel 4: 14-21 when Jesus reads from Isaiah in the synagogue and comments on the passage. Or think of Psalm 37 verse 34: “Wait for the Lord, and keep to his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land,” and compare that with, “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.”

So what are we to make of, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfil….” (verses 17 – 20). Jesus is inviting us, not into an ever stricter legalistic approach; he’s saying make the shift from your head to your heart, see into the heart of things. In other words, repent, that is enter into an entirely new and revolutionary way of being in the world. When we make this shift, this change of consciousness, we become those who are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.

That’s why those who make this shift are blessed. They (we) become part of a much wider shift in human consciousness, a river you might say, that is sometimes little more than a trickle, sometimes a broad steady flow. It is not confined to any one religious tradition. In my tradition today some call it emergent Christianity.

The collection of pithy sayings we call the Sermon on the Mount explores some practical consequences of this shift in consciousness. Whether or not Jesus actually uttered them in this order as one sermon doesn’t matter. What really matters is to read them as clues to what happens when we discover who we truly are. Of course they often show us how we have forgotten who we truly are; when it comes to anger, for example, or our ‘enemies’. The good news, the gospel, that also emerges in these chapters of Matthew’s Gospel is that failure is always an opportunity, an invitation to return home to that centre and ground of our being. More on the sermon on the mount next time.

Matthew’s Gospel

So far in this blog the focus has been Mark’s Gospel. Now it’s time to turn to Matthew. The author of this gospel had a copy of Mark and borrowed passages from it. Perhaps he had a more strongly Jewish background. Although he follows Mark’s general pattern, he expands it a lot, usually with Jewish Christian readers in mind. Some scholars suggest Matthew mirrored the Pentateuch (the first five books of what Christians call the Old Testament) with his own five sections:

  1. The Sermon on the Mount. Chapters 5, 6 and 7
  2. Instructions for the twelve Apostles. Chapters 9 verse 35 to 10 verse 42.
  3. Parables. Chapter 13.
  4. Community regulations. Chapter 18.
  5. Condemnations and judgements. Chapters 23, 24 and 25.

There’s a wrap-up verse or two, the scholars suggest, at the end of each of these sections: Chapters 7 verses 28-29; 11 verse 1; 13 verse 53; 19 verse 1; and 26 verses 1-2.

So, focusing on Jesus as a Wisdom Teacher, the elusive Jesus of Nazareth (please see my very first blog post for this approach) we start with John the Baptist in chapter 3 who had an important influence on Jesus. John baptises Jesus and it’s clearly a profound experience for him (for Jesus, I mean). Following Mark here, Matthew goes straight on to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness in chapter 4 verses 1 to 11. He expands Mark’s terse account (Mark chapter 1 verses 12 and 13) in a way which later Christians found helpful as they searched in the third and fourth centuries for clues about the spirituality of Jesus. These ‘desert fathers’ as they are called (though women were probably involved as well) had gone into the Egyptian desert to try and recover the essence of Christian spirituality. They spotted that Jesus dealt with temptation by using verses of scripture. Remember, no one was actually there in the desert with Jesus so he must have taught his followers this technique for coping with temptation.

You don’t believe in the devil? Neither do I but sometimes it feels as if what goes on in my mind is part of a deliberate policy to unsettle me! Perhaps Matthew did believe in the devil. It doesn’t matter. The point is that temptation is taken seriously here in chapter 4. “If you are the Son of God…..” The lure of the first two temptations is, ‘so you think you have a calling? think you’re someone special do you? Well then, surely you should have these special powers’. On holiday recently I found myself thinking, ‘what’s the point of all my meditating when it doesn’t make me special? All these people around me on this lovely sunny Greek island seem quite happy without all the spiritual stuff that I try to practice. Surely I ought to stand out from the crowd?’ But, what if I stop expecting anything special? What if I carry on with my daily spiritual routine without any expectation? What if I just try to be present, to live each moment as it comes, without foresight, without forethought? Hmm! Jesus had something to say about that kind of attitude in what we call the sermon on the mount, later in this Gospel. 

“All these I will give you……” This, the third temptation, is still surprisingly relevant to me, even in my ninth decade. I can still find myself regretting my lack of achievement, feeling I should have ‘made it’ in some way; or that I haven’t been recognized enough. This is the temptation to enter the kingdom of ego and pursue power, profit and reputation at the expense of truth. Of course younger people should exercise power, create profitable businesses, be successful politicians. Without all this human society can hardly function. The temptation however is to lose sight of the truth about who we are, to forget our essential vulnerability, to lose touch with the still, silent, immense Presence at the heart of the universe that therefore is at the heart of each one of us. More on these temptations in my next blog post in about a week’s time.

Tell me!

Someone I love is murdered or disappears. I don’t know where she is buried. I am consumed by a deep need to know what happened, where the body is. Ian Brady, the ‘moors murderer’ adds to the pain of his victims’ relatives by refusing ever to tell where he buried the bodies. Relatives of the missing Malaysian airliner may never know where that doomed plane and its passengers now lie. Not knowing can be the source of continuing grief and pain.

John’s Gospel tells the story of Mary of Magdala (chapter 20). There she stands outside an empty tomb: the body of the man she loved, Jesus of Nazareth, is missing. “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him,” she cries. Then, to someone she supposes to be the gardener she makes a grief-stricken plea:

“Tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.”

I published a post on April 20th about John Spong’s book, The Resurrection: Myth or Reality. He speculates that no one knew where the body of Jesus was buried. Executed criminals were tossed into a mass grave. The disciples had fled. They weren’t there to see it. Spong suggests that stories of an empty tomb were later inventions, trying to illuminate the life-changing experience the disciples called the Resurrection. Maybe there’s an echo of this reality in John’s story. Mary, wrapped in grief, desperately wants to know where the body is, so that she can give it a proper burial. TELL ME! I want to know! At least give me this crumb of certainty in my grief, then I’ll have some small ritual to do which might help.

But no one knows, and the garden is empty. Or is it? Does the gardener become the risen Christ only when we accept that we don’t know; only when we accept uncertainty? Standing here, not knowing, allowing that not-knowing simply to be the case for me; maybe then the place becomes vibrant with a Presence.

Of course it is good to know and to face the facts, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission proceedings in South Africa showed. I wish they would set up a similar process in Northern Ireland. But when no one knows, when there is no one able or willing to answer the question, ‘Tell me’, then accepting uncertainty is the only way forward. And think of the pain that can follow a refusal to accept uncertainty. Think of the pain caused by our zeal to promote certainty in the absence of facts. ‘Accept this dogma, this creed, because we KNOW and you don’t, or you have got it wrong’.

The Psalm doesn’t say, accept this set of beliefs or facts. It says, “Be still and know that I am God….”

Be still and know that I am…

Be still and know…

Be still…

Be.