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

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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.

Two Gardens.

There are two significant gardens in the Gospels. In Gethsemane you find Jesus agonising over the prospect of imminent death. John’s Gospel gives us the other garden: a place vibrantly alive with a vast, pregnant silence.

“I am deeply grieved,” says Jesus in Gethsemane, “Remain here, and keep awake,” he says to Peter, James and John.

There’s a lovely reflective Taize chant, ‘Stay with me; remain here with me. Watch and pray.” The words and the music have stayed with me since Easter. As I hear it in my head, the words become mine. It’s me saying, stay with me. As I try to watch and pray, the betrayer appears accompanied by a crowd armed with swords and clubs. My anxieties and fears crowd round, menacing, threatening. Betrayal! Judas! But deeper than this dark, crowded place in me is that other, silent, vibrant, spacious garden – Christ in me the hope of glory, as Paul puts it.

Re-discovering that ever present place of growth is only possible if I don’t try and fight that crowd of ruffian anxieties and fears. There’s nothing they like more than a fight. “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword,” says Jesus to Peter. Surrender is the only way to deal with this ruffian crowd. It’s not an abject cowardly surrender. It is a calm non-judgemental gaze at all that is going on in my head. Only thus do I suddenly find myself in that other, spacious, powerful place of Resurrection – Christ in me the hope of glory.

The Resurrection: Myth or Reality?

The Resurrection: Myth or Reality is the title of a book published a few years ago by Bishop John Spong. In the run-up to Easter I have been re-reading it. I love the Bishop’s profound knowledge of the Bible. He explores the contradicting stories about the Resurrection in the four Gospels and reminds us that they are not history books. They are examples of ‘midrash’: that Jewish method of exploring a profound spiritual experience by commenting on or expanding earlier Biblical stories. The remarkable parallels between the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection and what we Christians call the Old Testament are well known. Traditionally Christians have appealed to these parallels as proof of the way in which the ‘Old Testament’ prophecies are fulfilled in the Gospel stories. However to the non-Jewish mind, and especially to 21st century people the contradicting details will no longer allow us to accept that we are reading historical accounts of something that literally happened.

Having explored all this the Bishop comes up with an imaginative reconstruction of what might have happened on that first Easter. Whatever the Resurrection event was, he suggests it happened not in Jerusalem three days after the crucifixion but in Galilee six months later, just before the feast of Tabernacles. The Palm Sunday triumphal entry into Jerusalem becomes the return of Peter and his fellow disciples from Galilee to celebrate the feast of Tabernacles, their consciousness now awakened. Like  blind Bartimaeus in chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel, NOW they see!! Now they KNOW what Jesus meant by the kingdom. In this reconstruction bits of the Gospels’ jigsaw fall into place: the Transfiguration, the cursing of the fig tree for example. I cannot summarise a carefully argued book here. It’s worth reading if you are unfamiliar with it.

“God does not know how to be absent” wrote Martin Laird in ‘Into The Silent Land’. I wonder what the Christian liturgical calendar would look like for a God-does-not-know-how-to-be-absent Church?!

Happy Easter!

Awakened consciousness: living the resurrection

I belong to a dispersed community called Contemplative Fire and here is the Easter message from the founder, Philip Roderick, to all of us ‘Companions on the Way’ as we are called. Most of us are in the UK but there are others in Canada and even Hawaii. Philip writes:

Christ is risen! Alleluia! How is this mystery to be revealed this week, this day, this moment in my life, your life, our life? As the darkness of night gives way to the lightness of dawn (as I write), and as the dying back of winter gives rise to the buds, leaves, blossoms and fragrances of spring, how do you and I discover an Alleluia in our own awareness, lifestyle and service?

I am inspired by the work of Cynthia Bourgeault. I was delighted to learn in Wisdom Jesus of her gratitude to Jim Marion’s Putting on the Mind of Christ, where he explores a different way of interpreting Jesus’ often-repeated phrase “the kingdom of heaven”. He sees this as a metaphor for a state of consciousness, “It is a whole new way of looking at the world, a transformed awareness…” So, “the kingdom could well be translated as “awakened consciousness” or “unitive consciousness”. So often, Jesus would begin a teaching by saying “The kingdom of God is like….” Could a way of doing full justice to the inner structure of his teaching be to say: “Awakened consciousness is like….”?

Living in the awareness of God’s kingdom was the clear focus and aspiration of the Jesus mystery, expressed in his teaching of the close disciples and the crowds. The main challenge to that unitive state and liberated intention during Jesus’ last days was suffering and desolation, pain and disintegration. Or so it seemed to the ones who travelled deep with him. This was the end. It appeared so even to the Marys and to John, devoted followers, gathered in grief in the hellish place of absence and aridity. They were at the cross, holding on to scraps of truth in the midst of lies.

He, the awakening and the awakened one, was not only on the Cross, but in the Cross. Dying into the place of intersection. We, as his disciples, as his body, may find ourselves there also – occasionally, regularly, permanently? The point of departure proves to be the place of arrival, but in a new key, at a new level of being. In his Living Between Boundaries, Philip Sheldrake looks into the significance of a cross over a burial site – a meeting place of apparent opposites. The cross embodies a “cosmic entrance and exit point where the material world and the world of the spirit were believed to come into especially close contact.”

Consciousness of God is not tripped up and ambushed by Christ’s journey into the closed quarters of hopelessness and ultimate homelessness, into death. Rather, immersed in the turbulence of our own aspirations, trajectories and periodic buffetings, to our surprise, we discern that what, on occasion, we feel to be the end of meaning, the eschaton, the terminus, is not in fact. Chaos, we gradually discover, is able to sponsor and release from within itself a new beginning, an unfolding of divine-human solidarity; love at all levels.

Rowan Williams once wrote: “The resurrection is cross-shaped”. As with Yeshua, so with us. The rising happens from within the tomb, from inside the hidden place of dying to self. Absence yields presence. There is a greening of the desert, a leavening of the dough, a rolling of the stone, a rising of the sun. Having negotiated the Lenten beckoning to “Risk Reality”, our invitation now is to “Welcome Life“.

Happy Eastertide! May an awakened consciousness be graced to each of us!

Amen to that!

Entering Jerusalem

Mark’s Gospel chapter 11.

Suppose Jesus had lived to a ripe old age. Would the truth of his teaching be diminished? I think not. Plenty of people (of all religious persuasions and none) have lived this truth, and many have died for it. This blog is dedicated to the recovery of Jesus as a Wisdom Teacher rather than a Saviour. I don’t want to belittle those believers for whom Jesus is their saviour, the one who died for them on a cross. I do, however, want to affirm another way of following him.

I have to confess I have a problem with this part of the Church’s year, called Holy Week. It’s based on the account of the final few days of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, covered in detail in all four Gospels. Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of Christ seemed to take an almost sado-masochistic delight in the suffering inflicted by Roman authorities on anyone they regarded as a criminal. I notice a physical sensation of sickness and dread in my stomach even as I write this now, with images of crucifixion coming unbidden to mind. Does it help to concentrate on how they killed Jesus? In my case at least, the answer is, no. What matters, for me, is having my eyes opened (like Bartimaeus in chapter 10) to the truth of Jesus’ teaching. Of course I freely acknowledge that he demonstrated dramatically and painfully the truth of his teaching.

Exactly what happened in those last few days of Jesus’ life is difficult to discern. Actual historical facts are shrouded in what today we might call spin. As the earliest Christian communities reflected on the life transforming experience they were all part of it was natural for them to search what we now call the Old Testament for clues. Turn to Zechariah chapter 9 verse 9 and you will find a reference to the future King of Israel entering Jerusalem on a donkey. If Jesus deliberately entered Jerusalem in this way, he wanted to make a point based on the Zechariah passage, but it must have been a subtle one because later when Pilate asks him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus replies, in effect, ‘Well that’s your word’, as if to say, ‘it’s not as simple as that’. What we know of the teaching of Jesus is that he certainly would not want to be thought of as a ruler who lorded it over his subjects would he? Nothing could be further from the truth of his teaching, could it?

Of tyrants and servants

Mark’s Gospel chapter 10 verses 32 – end

Mark keeps giving us hints about the fate of Jesus. Here’s another one in verses 32 – 34 with its dramatic picture of Jesus striding ahead on the road to Jerusalem, the disciples struggling to keep up. “What’s he up to? Doesn’t he realise Jerusalem is a dangerous place for him?”

Verses 35 – 45 also give us another of Mark’s favourite themes: the failure of the disciples to get it. They think Jesus is going to turn everything upside down when he gets to Jerusalem by becoming the great promised Messiah, the king of Israel. James and John have a request: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  There’s a wonderful irony in Jesus’ reply:

“…..to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” (verse 40)

Of course he cannot grant James and John’s request! His ‘throne’ will be a cross and those on either side of him will be two thieves.

The other disciples are angry that James and John are trying to steal a march on them and get positions of privilege in the kingdom that Jesus keeps talking about. Remember, the gospels were written up to 40 years after the death of Jesus. The authors were part of the rapidly emerging Christian church. Did Mark keep returning to the disciples’ failure to get it because there were already struggles for power among the leaders of those young communities?

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognise as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.” (verse 42)

Hmmm! So nothing much changes then! Plenty of tyrants around today. How difficult it is for us to get it. Perhaps it really is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for us to become servants and give our lives for others.

Talking of tyrants, they don’t have to be political rulers. Think of the alarming spread of modern forms of slavery.

Chapter ten ends with the healing of a blind man. Mark is hinting at the possibility of healing for all of us who don’t get it:

“Go, your faith has made you well.’

Immediately Bartimaeus regains his sight (he gets it in ways that James and John obviously didn’t) and he follows Jesus on the way. Where were they heading? Jerusalem, where Jesus was to demonstrate the ultimate in not being a tyrant. We’ve got to chapter 11 in Mark’s Gospel which begins with Jesus entering Jerusalem. Let’s look at that in tomorrow’s entry in this blog.

Let go and ‘suffer’?

Mark’s Gospel chapter 10 verses 13 – 31

“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (verse 15)

So what is it about children that makes Jesus say this? They are not particularly ‘good’; at least, not judged by adult standards and requirements. They are relatively unselfconscious – once again, until adults get at them. They have little power or status and they are dependent on adult help and support. They are open to learning new things. Above all they have yet to develop strong egos. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘ego’ as a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance. I looked at Self and self esteem in a previous blog post [on chapter 8 verses 34 – 37. Posted March 13th 2014 ]

Egos, as I said in my last post, are blind. Only getting in touch with the grounding truth about us restores our sight. Then we can see …what? The kingdom of God! Yes but what is that? It is the Presence of God in everything especially in other human beings. Egos think almost exclusively in terms of past or future but the kingdom is visible only in each present moment. The King James Version of verse 14 is ‘suffer the little children to come unto me’. Suffer meant ‘allow’ or, in this current version, ‘let’ the little children come. The disciples could not ‘allow’ it because they had fixed ideas about the place of children. Maybe there’s suffering to be undergone before we are able to allow, to let something happen, when we think it is not appropriate. Can we say that the disciples’ egos: their self-esteem or self-importance, were getting in the way of allowing children to approach Jesus? I can only speak from personal experience. Most of the pain I suffer (21st century meaning) is caused when I refuse to suffer (17th century meaning) things to happen; that is when my ego, with its ideas about what is appropriate for me, gets in the way.

In Mark’s next story, about the rich man (verses 17- 22), it’s his wealth that is getting in the way. He cannot move on from his faithful keeping of the ten commandments (good as that is) into the radical letting go that Jesus offers him. We know nothing about this rich man except that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” (verse 21) It’s one of those intense brief encounters when a spark is ignited between two people and Jesus invites him to join his little band of followers. The man turns away. Jesus then warns his disciples about the difficulties posed by wealth when it comes to following his Way. The essence of this Way is, let go! No hoarding. No clinging. Fortunately for most of us in affluent countries, “for God all things are possible.” (verse 27) Wealth is not of the essence of letting go, but perhaps only if we don’t let our need for self-esteem or self-importance get in the way.

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.