Compassionate action

So, if you have followed me through the last seven blog posts on Matthew’s ‘sermon on the mount’: his skilful summary of Jesus’ teaching, we are ready to take an axe to the roots of our consumerist society. Well, that’s what these next words of Jesus seem to suggest –

“…do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” (Chapter 6 verse 25)

 Monks and nuns take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Those of us who desire to live the way of Jesus in our complex secular lives must find our own interpretations of these vows. I talked about chastity in my last blog post. Some rare and courageous individuals take the vow of poverty quite literally in their daily living – Hindu and Buddhist monks with their begging bowls for example as well as some Christians. The difficulty for them is that they have to rely on the rest of us who do plan ahead.

Looking carefully at verses 25 – 34 of this chapter 6, I do not think those of us who make plans for the week, or month, or even years ahead are excluded by Jesus’ teaching. Last week I heard the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University talking about their research programme. He told us that it has taken the last 8,000 years to achieve a 40% increase in agricultural productivity (No, I have not added a nought by mistake). Given the rapid increase in world population we need a similar 40% increase over the next 30 years. Scientists don’t have much time to help us avert a catastrophe. We can say the same about our response to climate change.

There are, of course, Christians who think the end of the world is a good and inevitable thing that God might bring about in our lifetime. Reading my blog, I think you will guess that I’m not one of them. The teaching of Jesus makes sense whatever we may think about the way the world might end. Notice one little word in verse 32. In the version I use it’s the word ‘strive’. Our consumerist society depends upon striving for the latest fashion, or some newly created take-away food. Jesus says,

“Strive first for the kingdom of God. So do not worry about tomorrow….” 

Notice, it’s not strive only but strive first. Get your priorities right. If you are an activist, be a contemplative activist. Act out of enlightened consciousness, not out of fear, desperation, hatred, contempt for politicians who are ‘getting it wrong’ or any other ‘I’m-right-you-are-wrong’ attitude. A Buddhist might say, listen to the cries of the world and act out of compassion and a Christian can fully embrace that. I am profoundly grateful for all the contemplatives-in-action whose compassionate striving is part of the silent revolution that is this stage of the evolution of human consciousness. They might help us avoid panicky short term solutions.

Chastity – what’s your definition?

So what is your definition of chastity? For me the clue lies in these two short passages of Matthew’s Gospel chapter 6:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth…..but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven….For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (verses 19 – 21)
“No one can serve two masters…..You cannot serve God and wealth.” (verse 24)

“But,” I hear you say, “they are not talking about sex!” That is because I get my definition of chastity from the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (executed by the Nazis for his part in the plot to assassinate Hitler). For him chastity is the total orientation of my life towards a goal. And the goal? You might call it the single heart. Stanza 18 of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, puts it with heart wrenching drama. In December 1875, as the Deutschland founders in a storm off the Kent coast and the sea swamps the ship, one of the passengers, a nun, calls out ‘O Christ, Christ come quickly!’ Hopkins writes:
“Sister, a sister calling
A master, her master and mine! –
And the inboard seas run swirling and hawling;
The rash smart sloggering brine
Blinds her; but she that weather sees one thing, one:
Has one fetch in her: she rears herself to divine
Ears…….”
Here is the single heart – “Has one fetch in her: she rears herself to divine ears”
Later, in stanza 29, Hopkins combines the single heart and the single eye
“Ah! There was a heart right!
There was a single eye!”
Perhaps he had in mind the three short sayings I have been focussing on in these last two blog posts.

BUT – aren’t jihadists in Iraq and Syria also single-minded – even to the point of martyrdom?! Weren’t Christians single-minded in the medieval crusades to liberate Jerusalem and the ‘Holy Land’ from ‘infidel’ Muslims? Do we not have to admit that religions of all kinds can get it seriously wrong? How do we distinguish? How do we discern the true from the false? By their fruits, says Jesus. We don’t gather figs from thistles, he adds. Brother Roger of Taize said, “Nothing is more important than the loss of love”. You might say that the whole of these three chapters of Matthew’s Gospel could be summed up in those words from the Prior of the Taize Community.

Not one of us acts alone. We are all part of a wider community. To quote John Donne, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” We can all get swept up by a communal tide of unexamined assumptions, fears, anger and hopes. They can blind the healthy eye, create division in the single heart. To help counteract this blindness (especially in the religious person) there are three checks and balances within the Christian tradition. One of them is just that – tradition; the tradition of thinking and spiritual practice that has mapped out down the centuries the dangerous byways that religious zealotry can tread. The second is scripture: for Christians, the Bible. The third is reason: just plain old rational thought. These three, interacting with each other, no one of them dominating the remaining two, can provide a supporting framework within which my heartfelt desire to live a life of chastity can find proper expression, and that includes my fifty five years of marriage!

The sound eye

Matthew’s Gospel chapter 6 verses 22 & 23

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.”

Open your eyes and light enters your body. That’s what people once believed, apparently in a simple, literal way. But here Jesus is pointing to something deeper and the 1611 King James Version gets nearer to what I think Jesus intended. It says, “…if therefore thine eye be single…” and “But if thine be evil….”.

An old lady spots a group of hoodies ahead so she crosses the road, being afraid of them. She falls and is momentarily concussed. When she comes round she finds herself surrounded by the hoodies anxiously caring for her. One of them has phoned for an ambulance.

We make lightning quick judgements on the basis of what we see. Often we are wrong. Our eyes give us information only about this instant. They don’t recall the past and they cannot foresee the future. The brain does that.

On several occasions Jesus asks, “Do you see this woman?” He is asking people to stop making judgements on the basis of what they have seen in the past so that they can actually see this person in front of them here and now. Seeing in this way is actually a form of repentance. Take a look at my second post in this blog: The Heart of the Matter, to see what I mean.

Wordsworth got it right in his poem, Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey:

“While with an eye made quiet by the power
of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
we see into the life of things.”

Jesus gently pulls our legs about this truth in the story at the beginning of chapter 7: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” We might say the logs are not in our eyes, they are in our brains. They are the judgements we so quickly make, like the old lady and the hoodies.

Since writing that last sentence, two days ago, I have become the victim of a telephone scam aimed particularly at older people. The caller pretended to be a policeman. He invited me to disconnect and dial 999 to verify this. Apparently, because the caller didn’t also disconnect, my 999 call went straight back to his telephone and I was therefore ‘hooked’. Would the hoaxer have succeeded if I had been in eye contact with him? I very much doubt it. Like the old lady and the hoodies we are all making judgements all the time but here, without eye contact I got it seriously wrong. I shall explore this in a later blog post when I get to chapter 7: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”

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.

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.