Tag Archives: Christianity

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.

An inch ahead lies darkness

Mark chapter 6 verse 7

Jesus called the twelve and began to send them out by two and two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8. He ordered them to take nothing for the journey….

On stage a good actor has authority, even before uttering a word. Musician, dancer, any good performer, has this authority of presence. Behind each performance lie the tedious hours of preparation and practice. But an actor, a concert pianist, must forget all that as she steps on to the stage. She must ‘take nothing for the journey’ ahead. If the actor is worrying about remembering his next line the authority of his performance is lost. I think it was the actor Michael Caine who said that he takes his next line from the face of the actor he is performing with. He must enter fully into the moment, lose himself in the character he is portraying and the movement of the play.

I was ordained into the priesthood of the Anglican church. That gave me a position, a role, a certain kind of authority within the structures of the church. It did not, however, guarantee the authority that Jesus spoke of when he sent out his twelve loyal followers. Only when I am able to let go of priestly authority and ‘take nothing for the journey’ – only then might the authority of Presence be granted to me. I might have great skill in writing (this blog, perhaps?) or speaking but without letting go into each present moment without foresight, without forethought then (to paraphrase Paul in his letter to the Corinthians) even though I speak or write “in the tongues of mortals and angels, but do not have love” then I have the authority only of a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”.

The writer and spiritual guide, Simon Parke, reminded me in his recent newsletter of the Japanese proverb, ‘An inch ahead lies darkness’. The patient, persistent hours of practice beforehand might prove useless in the next few moments unless – that is – unless they have helped me learn to take nothing for the journey.

Mark’s Gospel chapter 4. Let’s do a bit of gardening.

He began to teach them many things in parables

Jesus taught in parables; no serious scholar doubts that. When we read a parable in the Gospels we are close to the authentic voice of Jesus of Nazareth. As Mark says later in this chapter (verse 34):

He did not speak to them except in parables

 But parables caused problems for his audience. Perhaps he deliberately chose to confuse people. Perhaps they are a bit like Zen Buddhist koans – ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’.  Perhaps both parables and koans are designed to stop people in their tracks and say, ‘Hang on! Wait a minute! I don’t get that!’ That must be what the early Jesus movement churches thought because next in this chapter we have the first of several ‘explanations’ of a parable:

10When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God; but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12in order that “they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.”

Oh dear! Like I said in my previous blog post, the history of the church (and therefore of the New Testament writings) is the history of ‘broken people’. Here is a writer who, with the community of which he is part, is wrestling with the puzzle, ‘why don’t people get it?’ and ‘why do they persecute us Christians?’ He finds his answer in the words from Isaiah that he quotes in verse 12. It’s a tempting explanation, especially if one has stumbled on the truth that, there is a beautiful, vibrant, joyful reality underlying my brokenness that Jesus called ‘the kingdom of God’ and yet lots of people just don’t get it.

With the greatest of respect to Mark, I want to insist that there is a further lesson to be learned about what Jesus called the kingdom of God. The reality to which Jesus points in other parables is that this beautiful, vibrant, joyfulness is present in every human being, no matter how blind to it they are; no matter how much their blindness leads them into shocking behaviour.

Some of the reasons for our blindness appear in the explanation of the parable, verses 13 – 20:

  • Satan. ‘Satan’ was a neat way of explaining the inhuman depths to which we can sink. Most of us today cannot go along with the idea of an independent being out there somewhere of utterly evil intent. The Jewish philosopher/poet Martin Buber, reflecting on the Nazi holocaust, suggested there are two stages of evil. The first he called decisionlessness; what you might call the, I’ll-get-around-to-it-later syndrome. This attitude can leave us vulnerable to his second stage. Here it is possible for otherwise ‘nice’ people to take positive decisions to engage in destructive activity especially if lots of those around us are helping to make it attractive or even respectable. We are queamish about calling something or someone ‘evil’. Maybe it’s because we don’t like to think that anyone is beyond reform and redemption. Eckhart Tolle writes in his bestselling The Power of Now, “Humans are a dangerously insane and very sick species. That’s not a judgement. It’s a fact. It is also a fact that the sanity is there underneath the madness. Healing and redemption are available right now.”
  • Staying power (verses 16 & 17): people who ‘have no roots’ as the parable puts it. Mark probably had in mind the persecution that Christians were suffering for their faith when he was writing his gospel. But trouble of any kind can knock us off course – for example, illness, other peoples’ cruelty. Or we can behave like children in a supermarket of toys. We get excited about a new technique for meditating but as soon as it proves a bit difficult to keep it up we rush off down the aisles looking for a new toy.
  • Worldly blandishments. They hadn’t heard of capitalism in Mark’s day – consumer, global or otherwise. They weren’t exposed to our daily deluge of television advertising, and celebrity culture. Still the nail is accurately hit on its head here with ‘the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth; and the desire for other things’ (verse 19)
  • Finally the good soil (verse 20). It can take some of us (me for example!) almost a lifetime to realise that there’s ‘good soil’ somewhere deep inside us. The seed has been lying there just waiting for me to do some gardening. The good news is that there are now many people on the planet who realise this and are able to offer help. Eckhart Tolle is one of them. There is an exciting rediscovery of the Christian tradition of contemplative prayer. Here are just a few web sites to visit
  •  http://ecocontemplative.com/index.html
  • http://www.biospiritual.org
  • http://contemplativefire.org
  • http://www.contemplative.org/cynthia.html
  • http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org
  • http://centeringprayer.org.uk
  • There’s a good summary of what is known as ’emergent Christianity’ in the final chapter of Don MacGregor’s book ‘Blue Sky God’.

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 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.