Category Archives: God

No ego – no problem

Mark’s Gospel Chapter 9 verses 33 – 37 & 38 – 41

‘No ego – no problem’, goes the Buddhist saying. There is a problem however: we’ve all got an ego! So how do we deal with it? The teaching and life of Jesus give us lots of clues: for example, in the next few sections of chapter nine as Mark builds up to the climax of his gospel.

All three of the synoptic gospel writers give us stories of Jesus and children. Here in verses 33 to 37 we have the disciples’ egos arguing about who is the greatest. Jesus, his arms around a child, tells them:

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

I don’t know about the place where you live, but here in London UK almost all public statues of men demonstrate their powerful egos. I know of only one place in Europe where you will find a statue of a man being gentle. Pestalozzi (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Heinrich_Pestalozzi) stands in the centre of Zurich with his arms around a child – surely a reference to the next words in this story of Mark’s:

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Verse 37)

Our egos like to compare themselves with others. They can easily feel threatened by what they see. Either, they feel better than that other person, or they feel worse. Either way, there’s a problem for the ego. Notice, I keep referring to the ego in the third person. That’s because the good news is that fundamentally we are not our egos. We are all human beings in the image of God. That’s the reality underneath all the shinanakins the ego gets up to.

Verses 38 – 41 reveal the disciples’ egos at work again. They say to Jesus:

“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

‘Not one of us’, is a favourite ego attitude. Think of all the pain and suffering caused by, ‘not one of us’!! Nothing strengthens the ego more than being right and making other people wrong. Egos are blind. They cannot see through to the deep reality about every human being on the planet. God is the very ground of our being.

The next section (verses 41 – 49) tells us how seriously Jesus wants us to take the problem of the ego. All right, so the language is over the top for modern readers but maybe that was Jesus’ startling way of saying, wake up; pay attention; this really matters.

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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.

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 1 verses 16 – 22. Aha!!

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me….’

Here’s an encounter of Jesus with a couple of men who say, ‘Aha! so this is it!’ Jesus had the kind of presence that wakes you up, alerts you, grabs your wholehearted attention.

A concert pianist comes on and sits at the piano. As she settles on the stool and gathers herself, the conductor waits, the orchestra waits, the audience waits. It’s a moment of intense expectation before the creative performance begins. The energy is there, the creative skill is there. Behind it all there are the hours of hard practice. Now it all comes together. There’s not only the authentic ‘voice’ of Beethoven, there’s the skill and authenticity of pianist, conductor and orchestra.

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority.

In December 2005 I wandered in to a bookshop and ‘by chance’, apparently at random, picked up a book. It was A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. I recognised an authentic voice speaking with a gentle authority which made sense of my experience –  35 years of ministry as an Anglican priest and nine years of retirement during which I had let go of God. It was an Aha! experience. Now, eight years later, having discovered the Christian tradition of contemplative prayer (why had no one told me about it? How had I missed it for 35 years?!!) I return to the New Testament with fresh eyes. I still find difficulty in using the word God: it is too burdened with assumptions that I no longer hold. But the recognition energy of the Jesus event (see my last blog post for this phrase) resonates with me.

So, did I encounter Jesus in that Aha! experience? Do I encounter him now? I can only pose another question: do I encounter Beethoven during a performance of one of his piano concertos? Without his towering genius the performance could not happen; without the creative skills of conductor and orchestra it could not happen. And suppose the audience are all engrossed on their mobile phones while the music sounds around them? What would my experience be then? I suggest that there is a sense in which I do encounter Beethoven perhaps even in spite of an unresponsive audience but how much more if we are all enraptured by the performance.

Likewise, I suggest that without the whole ‘Jesus event’ – Jesus himself, disciples, Gospel writers, Paul’s letters, the emergent Christian community – there’s no way in which an encounter, an Aha! experience can happen. When it does happen, I have entered the kingdom, the realm of Being, that Jesus spoke of. That, of course is just the beginning. I can then work at deepening the experience, learn how to keep on entering the realm of Being so that it becomes more and more a part of me and the way I live.