Category Archives: New Testament

Who needs religion?

Only in chapter 6 does Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount get round to religion. Almsgiving, prayer, fasting: apparently we should do these things secretly –

  • verse 3: “But when you give alms do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”
  • verse 6: “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret….”
  • verse 18: “….so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret….”

So why do we make prayer such a public activity? Lots of people find it difficult to get a rhythm of private spiritual practice going. They do most of their praying when they go to a church service. If we look at Luke’s account of Jesus teaching his followers to pray we might think he had to be persuaded to do it. Luke chapter 11 has one of the disciples saying, “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples”. Luke seems to suggest that they had watched Jesus at prayer and wanted to know how to do it. If John could teach his disciples, why couldn’t Jesus do the same?

What the sermon on the mount seems to suggest, what Jesus seems to suggest, is that there is something more important than simply going to church. Religious practice, going to church (challenging and uplifting as it often is), may not deal with the junk in our personal cellars (see my last two blog posts). Indeed this junk, often labelled ‘the ego’, gets in the way so much that our religious practice may actually encourage it. Think of Luke’s story of the Pharisee and the tax collector at prayer in the temple (Luke chapter 18 verses 9 – 14). This is why the basic stance of prayer is confession, by which I mean, no deception (of myself or anyone else). Confession is nothing to do with grovelling guilt. It is the simple, honest, acknowledgement that this is me, warts and all, at this moment. No ifs, no buts, just me with all this junk in the cellar.

Now, here’s the miracle, the good news. We discover that this basic stance turns out to be not just confession but confession/forgiveness: a dynamic, perpetual process. Look at verse 14 and compare it with Mark chapter11 verse 25 and John chapter 20 verse 22/3. Clearly, for the Gospel writers, forgiveness is central to whatever we mean by prayer, indeed for the whole Christian way of life. As the American novelist Saul Bellow wrote, “The forgiveness of sins is perpetual and righteousness first is not required”. Amen to that.

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More junk in the cellar

Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 5 verses 27 to the end.

This time the junk is to do with sexual desire, intemperate language and retaliation. There’s nothing I can add to my previous blog post on the basic principles of dealing with the mental junk that gets in the way of loving other people and ourselves. (See ‘What Lurks in the Cellar’ posted August 28th)

If you really want to go more deeply into the issues of intemperate language and retaliation I recommend two books:

  • Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg
  • Jesus and Nonviolence by Walter Wink

Both writers are dealing with challenging issues of our violent times. Walter Wink believes that the Christian tradition of nonviolence is urgently needed as an alternative to the “dominant and death-dealing powers of our consumerist culture and fractured world”. He has fascinating insights into some of the social norms of Jesus’ time that shed light on turning the other cheek and going the second mile.

The blurb for Marshall Rosenberg’s book says that it will help me:

  • to put my primary focus on connection through empathetic listening rather than being right or getting what I want;
  • to transform conflict into mutually satisfying outcomes;
  • to defuse anger and frustration peacefully;
  • to break patterns that lead to arguments or depression;
  • and to move beyond power struggles to cooperation and trust.

There’s also a Center For Nonviolent Communication. Go to www.CNVC.org

Adapting some words of Nan Merrill’s rendition of Psalm 61, May you know abiding love, gently joy, deep peace and wisdom.

What lurks in the cellar?

Matthew’s Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, chapter 5 verses 17 – 26

We should be like cows grazing in the meadow. Coming to a thistle, it is best not to get upset: just move gently on to some fresh green grass. In this sermon on the mount meadow I come to verses 17 – 20: several thistles! Some scholars think these verses represent the struggle of those very first Christians in Jerusalem (Jews, remember) as they tried to reconcile their profound experience of Jesus with their Jewish upbringing. Since I am not attempting a scholarly blog I can quietly let the scholars get on with their (important) discussions and move on.

The grass gets greener in verse 20:

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom.”

It looks like a thistle at first sight but look at what follows in the rest of this chapter 5. We get a series of sayings each beginning with, “You have heard it said…..but I say to you…..” Each one highlights a practical outcome of the shift in consciousness I talked about in my last post. If they look impossible to achieve that’s because we haven’t ‘repented’: we haven’t made the shift into the kingdom consciousness. We haven’t learned how to ‘let go and let God’. Therefore we don’t know who we truly are.

Perhaps Jesus got a bit frustrated with people who asked him for a ‘sign’ (see Matthew 24: 23-27; Luke 11:29; John 4:48). They were looking everywhere for the truth except inwards. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was already an Anglican priest when he heard a sermon in a Moravian church in Fetter Lane, London. He reported, “I felt my heart strangely warmed”. Now, I cannot ‘strangely warm’ my heart to order. Such an experience is not mine to manipulate. It is a gift. I can receive it. I can ignore it, or even reject it. I cannot make it happen. I can put myself in the way of it, hope for it, ask for it. If I have eyes to see, ears to hear, if I let go of all that I think I know, I discover that the gift has already been given. I discover that it was lying there within me, unopened, all the time. It might be hidden amongst the junk I have collected in my search for meaning and truth but it was there from the beginning.

What follows in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount are examples of how the junk gets in the way: anger, for example, in verses 21-26. Here I am, feeling angry with someone, just at the moment when I want to do something good: to offer my gift at the altar, as Jesus puts it. What to do? Deal with the anger first, says Jesus. That means first, accept that I am feeling angry. Trying to ignore it, push it away, won’t help. That’s just pushing around the junk in the cellar of my mind, disturbing a lot of dust maybe, anything but finding the gift that lies there in the depths of my being. So step one is, accept that I am feeling angry. I’ve picked up a piece of my mental junk. Step two: don’t throw it away in disgust. That just raises more dust and disturbs the other junk that’s lying around. Put in down gently and wait. What then becomes clearer is the next step. That’s the wonder of the gift of the strangely warmed heart. The next step may indeed be to go and say sorry, or explore gently with the other person why I’m feeling angry with them. Quite often, though, such a step becomes unnecessary once I have gently put the anger junk down. It simply subsides. Notice I keep using the word ‘gently’. Getting agitated about feeling angry is, well, more junk! It’s like worrying about being worried.

So where is this gift of the strangely warmed heart? Why can’t I find it? Well, I’ll never find it so long as I keep poking about amongst the junk in the cellar. It’s not just another package. Stand still amongst all the clutter. Wait, quietly. Look! It’s the whole cellar!! And here’s the astonishing good news. If dealing with the junk takes me down into this wonderful cellar then even the junk is useful. Tempting junk? Bring it on because it can help me discover who I truly am in the depths of my being!!

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.

The silent revolution

Matthew chapter 5 verses 1 – 9.
Here we are at one of the most familiar passages in the Bible: these few short verses, known as the Beatitudes, followed by the longer sequence of teaching known as the Sermon on the Mount. Impossible to put into practice – right? That’s what most of us think, especially if we have sincerely tried. But suppose we are not reading it right. Suppose we have always heard this teaching as a list of very difficult demands. Jesus often talked about ‘those who have ears to hear’ or ‘eyes to see’; and certainly we can be both deaf and blind to the truth he wants us to see and hear. Why? Because we think it is head stuff, but actually it’s heart stuff. Do I mean it’s mostly about feelings? No. It’s deeper than feelings. Cynthia Bourgeault writes:

“In these eight familiar sayings we can now see that Jesus is talking about a radical transformation of consciousness, embraced through an attitude of inner receptivity; a willingness to enter the flow; a commitment to domesticate those violent animal programmes within us; and above all a passionate desire the unify the heart. This is a very powerful fourfold path…..not unlike the teaching you would hear today from the Dalai Lama and other great spiritual masters who have dedicated their lives to increasing the quality and quantity of human consciousness.” The Wisdom Jesus, page 47.

For most of Christian history only a few outstanding people have understood this teaching. We have called them saints, so unusual have their lives been. But now, perhaps, we find ourselves in the midst of a silent revolution in which more and more ordinary people do have eyes to see and ears to hear the truth Jesus is pointing to. Curiously, many of them have little connection with religion, with the churches. Those of us who stay connected to organised religion can find it pretty frustrating. This silent revolution has been gathering pace for more than a hundred years now. I began this blog last year on the hundredth anniversary of a book by Evelyn Underhill in which she wrote:

“The energising Spirit of Life cannot be communicated in a sermon. Hence the greater number of Paul’s converts quickly degenerated into mere formal believers, once the stimulus of his great personality was withdrawn. Thus the distinction between the inner and the outer church, so strongly marked in the Synoptic gospels, was, if not acknowledged, at once established; the outer church of new creed, the inner church of new creatures, of organic change and growth. We must…..sharply distinguish ‘Christian Mysticism’, the transcendent yet biological secret of Jesus, from the compromise which is commonly called ‘Christianity.” The Mystic Way, page 214/15

In 1936 Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit palaeontologist, wrote:


”We now have to accept it as proven that mankind has just entered into what is probably the most extensive period of transformation it has known since its Birth… Today something is happening to the whole structure of human consciousness: a fresh kind of life is beginning to appear.”(Science and Christ)

I can offer just a few clues about what these verses have come to mean for me. I do this very cautiously because, unless you come to see for yourself, hear for yourself, you will be in danger of staying in your head instead of shifting to your heart. When the shift happens you will see and hear and understand.

Verse 3. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Sometimes I feel I am a failure in spiritual matters: forever coping with unloving thoughts and attitudes.
Verse 4: Blessed are those who mourn. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the images on the television screen showing the folly and dysfunction of the world. As I write this, aren’t we all deeply affected by yet another outbreak of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians?
Verse 5. Blessed are the meek. Someone once added, for they will inherit the earth, er….if it’s all right with you!
Verse 6. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Again this speaks to my sense of helplessness and weakness, when confronted with human folly and dysfunction, of which I am part.
Verse 7: Blessed are the merciful. The root of the word merciful means something like exchange, as in merchant and commerce. The French for ‘thank you’ – merci – has the same root. Resolution of any conflict involves compromise and that means some form of exchange.
Verse 8: Blessed are the pure in heart. For me this has little to do with impure thoughts. Rather it’s about singleness of heart: returning to centre when suffering the afflictions of the first five beatitudes.
Verse 9: Blessed are the peacemakers. That is people whose language reflects meekness, mercy, poverty of spirit; people who are likely say ‘in my humble opinion’; people who are non-violent communicators.
Verse 10. Blessed are the persecuted. How fortunate I am! Here in the UK I am extremely unlikely to be persecuted in the way that, for example, Christians in Syria are. Yet persecution happens all around me. We call it abuse. I can even persecute myself: accuse, threaten, berate myself!

The light dawns

Matthew chapter 4 verses 12 to 17.
Still following Mark’s general pattern, Matthew now comes to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. He is fond of introducing ‘Old Testament’ quotations by way of making his point. Here he gives us a passage from Isaiah:

‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles,
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.’

I am reminded of a little liturgical piece. (I can’t trace its origin – can anyone help?) The question is asked

How will I know when the dawn breaks?

And each time there’s a different answer:

You will see through to the innocence of others….
You will move in the world more freely…..
You will notice yourself more clearly…..
You will exist in the world more generously…..
You will suffer in the world more lightly…..
When you accept the night as a friend, the dawn has already broken…..

In verse 17 Matthew follows Mark with Jesus’ proclamation:
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
I dealt in detail with this crucial summary of Jesus’ teaching in one of my earliest blog posts.  See The Heart of the Matter on Mark’s Gospel, chapter 1 verses 14 & 15

One more thing about temptation

I can’t resist including this verse from John Donne’s lovely poem, ‘Sweetest love, I do not goe…’. He compresses into this one verse our capacity to try and hang on to thoughts and experiences we label ‘good’. We always fail of course, and the second half of the verse expresses our skill at feeding and hanging on to thoughts and experiences we label ‘bad’.

O how feeble is mans power,

That if good fortune fall,

Cannot abide another houre,

Nor a lost houre recall!

But come bad chance,

And wee joyne to’it our strength,

And wee teach it art and length,

It selfe o’r us to’advance.

As we shall discover in the next few weeks, Jesus teaches in the sermon on the mount that letting go of thoughts and experiences (whether we label them good or bad) is the key to the kingdom: a key which lies in our hands, not Peter’s.

 

 

How to resist temptation – DON’T!

Matthew chapter 4 verses 1 – 11

Did Jesus win the battle with Satan when he was tempted in the desert? No he didn’t. Not if you think of dealing with temptation as the kind of warfare so much in the news. To get nearer the truth we must borrow from Japanese martial arts techniques. Here strength is not met with opposing strength but with a cunning yielding that uses the opponent’s physical impetus. By going with the flow of the assailant’s attack he is taken off balance and floored. Most of us know from experience that resisting temptation, fighting it, seems only to increase its power. We lose the battle too often and get discouraged. If you find the image of ‘spiritual warfare’ helpful, think less of nuclear strikes and more of ju jitsu.

Yet again we find hints, hidden gems suggesting this approach, in the Christian contemplative tradition. The anonymous author of the 14th century spiritual classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, (one of the earliest books written in the then emerging English language) speaks of ‘looking over the shoulder’ of temptations. Thomas Keating http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Keating is an American monk who has helped to recover this ancient Christian tradition of contemplative prayer. Using The Cloud of Unknowing he advises us to welcome temptation. Each distraction, every tempting thought is an opportunity to return to ‘the Presence at the heart of the universe that therefore is at the heart of each one of us,’ (to use the words with which I ended my previous blog post). With others Fr. Keating developed Centering Prayer – a 21st century adaptation of the approach adopted in The Cloud of Unknowing. In designated times of contemplative prayer the advice is to remember the four ‘R’s:

Resist no thought.

Retain no thought.

React emotionally to no thought.

Return ever so gently to the sacred word (a Christian version of what Buddhists would call a mantra).

We have all forgotten who we are. Fr. Keating suggests that we are all the victims of ‘programmes for happiness’, devices designed to prop up who we think we are – the false self. Happiness, we fondly imagine, depends upon us satisfying three sets of needs:

Power/control

Security/survival

Esteem affection.

I suggest that these three pairs of needs correspond to the three temptations in Matthew’s story of Jesus in the desert.

Which of these is uppermost for each of us depends on our unique history and make-up as well as the demands of each present situation. Spiritual ‘warfare’ is mostly a patient training (like attending a martial arts class) to learn how to spot our own personal version of these programmes for happiness. With practice we learn to see the temptation coming and welcome it as yet another opportunity to return to the truth about who we are. So, the advice goes: temptation? Bring it on! It’s a reminder to return to that Presence at the centre of our being that is also the centre of the universe.

You can read an extended exploration of all this in Cynthia Bourgeault’s book, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, chapter 9 http://www.contemplative.org/books.html or in Thomas Keating’s book, Invitation to Love http://www.amazon.com/Invitation-Love-The-Christian-Contemplation/dp/082640698X

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.