Posts Tagged ‘relationship’

Are we drifting apart?

November 30, 2019

Advent 1 – 2019

Matthew 24:36-44

Marian Free

In the name of God, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver. Amen.

I heard a tragic story the week. It concerned a young man, Brandon Richard Webster who is in Australia as a Fullbright Scholar researching how to use drones to assist farmers. Given his traumatic childhood, Brandon may never had made it this far. He only lived with his mother for the first eleven years of his life and as he tells it, the relationship was particularly toxic. For reasons that he does not understand, his mother did not want him to be happy and found the cruelest ways to make his life miserable. His only respite was a weekly visit to his grandparents and even then, they had to say that the visit was to give his mother (not him) a break. He was still quite young when his mother’s drug habit saw him spending hours alone in the houses where she bought and used the drugs. He often missed school and was frequently starving. At age eleven he took his mother to court. She lost custody and he has not seen her since (1).

Physical and mental abuse are just two reasons why relationships break-down. Tragic though the circumstances are, ending such relationships is usually the only way that the abused person is able to move forward and have any chance of happiness. Other reasons that relationships fall apart are nowhere near as dramatic and include such mundane things as ‘drifting apart’, ‘not communicating’, ‘the pursuit of different goals’, ‘having different values’ or simply ‘losing touch’.

Relationships, whether they are a marriage, a family or a friendship require an effort from both parties – taking an interest in what the other is up to, listening to their concerns, being there when times are tough, keeping in touch and ensuring the channels of communication remain open – especially when there has been a difference of opinion. Each relationship has its own peculiar properties. Marriage has to move from the heady days of first love to the building of a solid working partnership. Parenting has to shift from being in control to allowing increasing independence. Friendships must weather changes in occupation, marital status and address and must face the intrusion of partners and children. All relationships need to navigate carefully changes in circumstance especially when those circumstances involve loss or disappointment.

The break-down of a relationship – particularly of a marriage or between parent and child can be devastating. For some there is a sense of failure, for others a concern that they are being judged and for most the grief that something that once was so strong and so full of potential and hope has come to an end.

Today’s Gospel consists of a number of sayings relating to the coming of the Son of Man and two exhortations to be watchful and to be ready. The passage itself is just one small part of Matthew’s discourse on the last things which begins with Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple and concludes with three parables which reinforce the need to be prepared for Jesus’ return – the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, the parable of the talents and the parable of the sheep and the goats. Without the wider context of the gospel, these sayings and parables would be enough to put one constantly on the alert, living in terror of Jesus’ coming and of being found wanting.

That may well have been Matthew’s intention. He is writing some fifty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The first disciples have died, and it would not be surprising if the initial enthusiasm for the gospel had waned. Most of those in the community would be a second generation of believers who had not known the intensity of a conversion experience. Their opponents and the sceptics among their friends may well have been challenging them to explain why it was that Jesus has not yet returned. Matthew’s apocalyptic discourse may be just the shot in the arm that this community needed. However if, in our day and age, these chapters lead to a belief that God is a distant and demanding God who is just waiting for us to put a foot wrong in order come down on us like a ton of bricks then we have completely missed the point of the Incarnation – God’s presence among us in Jesus. God is nothing like the fickle, unkind mother in Brandon’s story. God, as the life, death and resurrection of Jesus demonstrates is always reaching out to us with love. God is longing to be in relationship with us.

The key is relationship.  Our relationship with God requires as much nurture and labour as any other relationship if it is going to weather the passage of time and if it is to develop and grow. Our relationship with God is at much at risk of drifting apart if we do not put the time and effort into maintaining it.

On this the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the church year, we might take time to stop and ask ourselves how our relationship with God is going. Are we in danger of losing touch? Have we stopped communicating or at least stopped communicating in a meaningful way? Is our relationship with God stuck in a rut, unable to move forward because of some barrier or another that we have put in the way? Or is our relationship with God limited because we are failing to grow and mature in our faith?

I can’t answer for you, but I would not want to come to the end of time or the end of my life only to discover that I no longer had anything in common with God, that I had neglected our relationship to the point of estrangement, or that I had become stuck at a certain point in my faith development so that I had only a stunted and partial relationship rather than one that was rich and meaningful.

In the end it is all about relationship – God’s with us and ours with God. It is about God’s constantly reaching out in love to us, our willingness to be embraced by that love and our desire to enter into a relationship that grows and matures such that nothing, not our death and certainly not the end of time will be able to separate us from the God who has given us everything, even God’s very self.

 

  1. Brandon says that if he were to see his mother again, he would tell her that he forgives her.

Energy, love, relationship – the Triune God’

June 15, 2019

Trinity – 2019 (some thoughts)

John 16:12-15

Marian Free

In the name of God, lover, beloved and source of love. Amen.

“For Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), a French Jesuit priest who trained as a paleontologist and geologist, love is “the very physical structure of the Universe.” That is a very daring statement, especially for a scientist to make. Yet for Teilhard, gravity, atomic bonding, orbits, cycles, photosynthesis, ecosystems, force fields, electromagnetic fields, sexuality, human friendship, animal instinct, and evolution all reveal an energy that is attracting all things and beings to one another, in a movement toward ever greater complexity and diversity—and yet ironically also toward unification at ever deeper levels. This energy is quite simply love under many different forms.”

The energy, love and relationship that are at the heart of the Triune God are the source both of unity and diversity, similarity and distinction, community and individuality. As much as they are unified in the oneness of God, the three persons of the Trinity are also separate and distinct, bound together in a relationship of love whose energy reaches out to embrace and include all creation. We need not be afraid to be gathered in, caught up by the energy that exists within and that streams forth from the heart of God. For just as the three persons of the Trinity do not sacrifice their distinctiveness in order to be one, neither do we give up that which makes us ourselves when we allow ourselves to be drawn into the oneness of God.The energy that holds the Trinity together is the energy that energizes the world, drawing into God’s orbit all who allow themselves to be captured and captivated by God’s love and in so doing increasing the presence of God in the world.

The unity and diversity embraced by the threefold God demonstrate that unity is not the same as uniformity and that it is often our differences (not the things we have in common) that enrich and enhance our relationships with each other and with the world around us. Contrary to what we might expect those things that set us apart from each other, and from the universe that we inhabit, are ultimately those things that draw us together. Our survival as a species depends both on our interconnectedness with all living (and non-living) things as much as it thrives on those things which make us distinct from the world around us. If we were all the same as one another there would be no need for relationship, nothing to attract us to the other and no energy to engage us in exploring what it is that unites (and what it is that divides) us. Just as opposites attract, and just as iron alloyed with carbon produces steel, so we are made stronger and our lives more interesting by diffence.

The relationship, energy and love at the heart of the Triune God create a model for the ordering of our relationships with one another. Being in relationship does not diminish any one person of the Trinity. Each member retains their distinctiveness while at the same time ceding any claim to superiority or dominance. If each member of the human race was secure in themselves, they would understand that they lose nothing by giving everything for the other. The Trinity that models perfect loving and perfect giving, demonstrates that wholeness in relationship reflects wholeness in personhood and that perfect relationships are partnerships between equals.

As our relationships with one another are built on the mutual respect modeled by the three-fold God, so too our relationships with the natural environment should reflect the Trinitarian nature of God. If our relationship with the universe reflected the love, energy and relationship revealed by the Triune God, it would not be destructive or exploitative but would be one of respect for creation and gratitude for all that creation provides for our sustenance and well-being.

A threefold God is not alone. A threefold God is not liable to dualism. A threefold God is relationship – a loving, dynamic, energizing relationship between three equals, each willing to sacrifice their individuality in order to be part of the whole and yet able to retain a sense of identify and wholeness.

In God who is three and yet also one, we find perfect love and the model for perfect existence.

One voice among many

May 11, 2019

Easter 4 – 2019

John 10:22-30 (some thoughts)

Marian Free

In the name of God who demands nothing more than that we respond to God’s love. Amen.

I make no secret of the fact that I revel in the academic study of the scriptures and that the discovery of patterns, the uncovering of clever writing styles and the revelation of contradictions excite and energise me. A more comprehensive understanding of the gospels – why they were written and for whom, the techniques used by the authors to pique our interest and to ensure that we the readers see the teachings of Jesus in the way that they want us to – answers my questions and helps to deepen my faith and my relationship with Jesus and with the God who lies behind the texts.

I know that my enthusiasm is not shared by everyone and that some of you would prefer me to keep it straight forward. That said, I believe (Or perhaps I hope) that you continue to indulge me because you know that underlying my scholarly interest is a passion for the gospel and a deep and sincere conviction that at its heart faith has little to do with how we interpret the bible, with how we worship or with the doctrine of the church. What lies at the centre of my faith is not a question about who said what when, or whether Mark’s retelling is more authentic than Luke’s but my relationship with the God who created us, Jesus who redeemed us and the Spirit who enlivens us. I am convinced that at its core faith is an absolute confidence in God’s love for each one of us and a willingness to accept that love no matter how undeserving we might feel.

Relationship is central to John’s gospel – Jesus’ relationship with the Father, Jesus’ relationship with the disciples and the disciples’ relationships with each other. Over and over Jesus proclaims that he and the Father are one (10:30 eg) and he urges the disciples to be one as he and the Father are one (17:11). It is Jesus’ unity with the Father that enables him to do the things that God does (3:35, 5:19f, 10:38 eg) and to speak the words God would speak (3:34). Jesus unity with God is reflected in Jesus’ unity with the disciples (14:20) who will not only do the things that Jesus does but will do greater things (14:12).

We enter into relationship with God (Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier) by responding to God’s call. Throughout John’s gospel there is an emphasis – not on doing the right thing, or behaving in a prescribed way – but by hearing and responding to Jesus’ voice (5:24f). This is an image that Jesus returns to in chapter 10 in which he describes himself as the Good Shepherd. He claims: “My sheep hear my voice, I know them and they follow me.’

My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.

In today’s world there are many distractions and many competing voices. Even those of us who claim to follow Jesus can find it hard to focus on Jesus when there are so many other things clamouring for our attention – families, careers, social media and advertising. Even our church membership, volunteer work and other ‘worthy’ pursuits can prevent us from truly hearing and responding to Jesus’ voice. Changing values challenge our certainties. Different cultures and faiths can blur the clarity of our vision and make the edges of our beliefs more fluid.

Even within our scriptures there are voices which distract and detract from the message that relationship is at the centre of faith. It is possible to read scripture in such a way as to see God as a retributive, demanding judge who demands that we behave in a way that will earn God’s approval rather than hearing the voice of God crying out for us to be in relationship in with God.

The doctrines of the church present another set of voices that can confuse and distract from this core idea of relationship – God’s with us and ours with God. We can spend inordinate amounts of time trying to understand the Doctrine of the Trinity instead of seeing it for what it is – a description of relationship – the relationship between God the Creator, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit – a relationship which we are called to enter so that as the lives of the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier are indistinguishable from each other, so our life is indistinguishable from that of the Trinity.

In the midst of all these clamouring and competing voices, there is one that calls us to himself – to life in the present and life in the future. May we who claim to be Jesus’ sheep hear his voice amid the competing voices of the world and follow wherever he may lead.

Authenticity

March 9, 2019

Lent 1 – 2019

Luke 4:1-15

Marian Free

In the name of God who, in Jesus, became totally vulnerable and totally accessible. Amen.

For a while there was a trend among writers and journalists to write searingly honest accounts about parenthood. Articles and columns were written, and books published by new parents, mostly mothers, who took it upon themselves to debunk the myths around parenthood. As I remember most of the authors were people who came to parenting later in life. They had established careers, bought homes and developed reasonably comfortable lifestyles and patterns of existence. None seemed to expect the enormous disruption that a new born child would bring. They had been led to believe all the positives – the flood of love that threatens to overwhelm you and the delights of watching as your child reveals her personality. They had bought “sales talk” of being able to establish a routine, the ability to work around baby’s naptime and the notion that if you do everything right your beautiful baby will fit right into your lifestyle!

When confronted with the reality of babies who don’t settle, whose crying interrupts dinner with friends and who refuse to settle into any sort of fixed pattern, such writers discover that their lives are completely upended and that, among other things, continuing their writing is near impossible. As a consequence of their surprise and unpreparedness they put pen to paper to share their experience and to prepare any other unsuspecting parents-to-be.

(At least this is how I imagine the events that lead to the articles.)

In some way the authors of these biographies felt that their families, their friends and society at large had undersold the difficulties of child-rearing, had put on a positive face despite the difficulties they themselves had confronted and had created an image that a baby would only enrich one’s life and that any down-sides were easily managed if only one used the right techniques.

I can understand how such false views are perpetrated and, if I am honest, I can own my own part in creating an image of trouble-free parenting. As a first (and second) time mother I attended my local playgroup with a number of my peers. Topics of conversation included sleeping through the night, potty training, and other riveting topics. In that situation, in which everyone else seemed to be succeeding at parenting, I found it difficult to admit that my elder child was not yet toilet trained and that my younger child screamed for two hours after every feed, no matter what I did. In that situation, observers could have been excused for believing that I was coping with motherhood and that my children were behaving in the same way as the other children in the group. Of course, unknown to me, there may have been another mother in my group who had difficulties of her own. If I had had the courage to be vulnerable and imperfect, I would have given her permission to acknowledge her own frustrations and concerns.

In the poem “Ash Wednesday” T.S. Elliot prays:

“Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,

Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood”

“Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood.” Elliot recognises that self-deceit, self-delusion is an impediment to authentic relationships. Deception leads to hurt, mistrust, confusion and even anger. As long as we endeavour to hide our real selves and our real experiences, no one will trust us with theirweaknesses and we build a society based not on the truth, but on a collective myth which results in everyone is trying to be someone whom they are not.

Honesty and authenticity inspire trust, allow others to be vulnerable and create relationships which give permission for each person be open and transparent about their own struggles and imperfections. In situations of trust we can share with each other our difficulties in parenting, our anxieties in the work place or even the violence of our spouses. The world would be a better place if we broke down the images of perfection that we try to create and, by being vulnerable ourselves, make a space in which others can own their imperfections.

When we feel that we have to put on a face, when we are tempted to create a positive image of ourselves or to “be strong” in the face of adversity, we do well to remember that Jesus was open to his weaknesses. After forty days of isolation and fasting all kinds of ideas came to him. After all, he was the Son of God! There was nothing that he could not do! He could turn stones into bread, jump off a cliff with no fear that he would come to harm OR he could use his God-given power to rule the world! Whether we attribute these ideas to an external power (Satan) or to Jesus’ own thought processes, they tell us that Jesus was open to temptation and, though he resisted, he was not so perfect that such ideas did not occur to him. He was vulnerable either to Satan’s influence, or to his own desire for recognition or power. That the story of the temptations is recorded, tells us that Jesus had made it known. Jesus was not afraid to let others know that he too had moments of vulnerability and weakness.

It was Jesus’ humanity that made Jesus so easy to relate to – he got tired, he was frustrated with the disciples’ lack of understanding and he was infuriated by the practices of the Pharisees. In turn the disciples felt free to be themselves – confused, foolish and seeking to be first.

Jesus’ relationship with the disciples and theirs with him was authentic and real. Jesus was fully himself as were the disciples. Neither thought less of the other for having human failings and fears, doubts and confusions.

“Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood.” Self-deceit not only damages and limits our relationships with one another, it also restricts our personal development and constrains our spiritual growth. As long as we delude ourselves as to who and what we are, we make it impossible to have a relationship with God that is meaningful and real, impossible to learn from our mistakes and impossible to realise our full potential.

This Lent, may we have the courage to relinquish our fear of being exposed, may we trust God and those around us with our true selves and create relationships with God and with one another that are honest and real, life-giving and life-sustaining and in so doing grow into our true selves and enable others to do the same.

 

Life-giving, all-embracing Trinity

May 26, 2018

Trinity Sunday – 2018

John 3:1-17 (The gospel set for the day – not the starting point for this reflection)

Marian Free

In the name of the Trinity – boundless and abundant love, creative and life-giving force, all-giving and endlessly welcoming. Amen.

I have just started reading the novel, Gone Girl. The story seems to be about the disappearance of a young woman who has reluctantly moved with her new husband from New York to an uninspiring town in the mid-west. The novel is written from the point of view of the young woman, Amy, and her husband, Nick. Amy and Nick each have an opportunity to tell their side of the story. This means that while the readers are engaged in the investigation into Amy’s disappearance they are, at the same time, given a glimpse into the unraveling of what had appeared to be a perfect relationship – brought about by differing expectations and by different experiences of family.

Human relationships can be messy, complex and destructive, threatened by insecurity, damaged by carelessness and undermined by unrealistic expectations. The inability of some to form mutually respectful relationships is exposed not only in families, but also in communities, nations and the world as a whole. It is only too obvious that our world is not an harmonious place in which people rejoice in difference and seek the well-being of others. Our fractured and broken world is a place in which competition rules and in which suspicion and fear cause people to look inwards, protecting what is theirs and creating boundaries between themselves and those whom they believe threaten our security and our comforts.

Richard Rohr suggests that the Trinity provides the answer to the problem of relationships with each other, within communities and between the nations of the world. A greater understanding of the relational nature of God – Father Son and Spirit, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier might, he suggests, help us to relate better to God and more importantly to one another. He points out that the Trinity is a much-neglected aspect of our theology. The concept is difficult to explain, and most clergy are grateful for the fact that the Trinity is celebrated only once a year rather than on every Sunday of every year. Rohr quotes Karl Rahner who states: “Christians are, in their practical lives, almost mere ‘monotheists’. We must be willing to admit that, should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain virtually unchanged.”

When I first read that quote, I thought that Rahner was right. I wondered how many of us would be truly distressed if we discovered that God was one and not three at all. We might even be relieved to learn that we no longer had to struggle with the conundrum of a threefold God.

On reflection though, it seemed to me that while we may not be able to articulate the meaning, most of us do relate to God who is three but is also one. God as Trinity is something we know intuitively. Over the course of a lifetime the Trinitarian God becomes part of our DNA. Though we tend to use shorthand when we pray – God, Father, Jesus, Holy Spirit, Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier, we simply assume that when we pray to one we pray to all, when we relate to one we relate to all.

The problem – if there is a problem – is that because we take for granted the threefold nature of God, we may not take the time to reflect on the meaning of the Trinity and to consider what it really means to engage with God who is Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver and we (and perhaps the world) are the poorer for this. Perhaps, if we make an effort to struggle with the relational nature of the threefold God, we will be better equipped to share that mystery with others. If we really grasp what it means to worship a threefold God we might discover that the Trinitarian God is a model for all relationships and a solution to all the problems of our fragmented world.

Last year on this day, I read you the poem that is in the Foreword of Richard Rohr’s book The Divine Dance. I confess that I haven’t read the book to its end, but what I have read has been life-changing and faith-renewing. Rohr has helped me to know God in a new way and my faith is enriched by that knowing. In fact, I don’t think that I am over stating it if I say that I feel that I have found my way to the heart of the Trinitarian God. Rohr has helped me come to grips with the Trinity in a way in which all my academic study did not – indeed could not.

I have come to see that God who is three is relational. God relates to Jesus who relates to the Spirit who relates to God, who relates to the Spirit who relates to Jesus, who relates to God in an outpouring of love that flows from one to another and back again. A constant stream of love that in turn creates an atmosphere of love that cannot help but flow outward from the threefold God to the world – drawing the whole world into a loving and welcoming embrace. The love that each person of the Trinity has for the others is complete and without reserve. Nothing is held back, each person of the Trinity is totally open to the other members of the Trinity. Each person of the Trinity is completely vulnerable – having given everything of themselves to the other persons.

In their love for one another, the members of the Trinity create an energy that is life-giving and dynamic, a creative force that drives and empowers all that is good in this world. God in relationship is generous, self-giving and abundant. God in relationship is not remote and disinterested, but is fully engaged and participatory. God in relationship is fully immersed in the world and invites us to fully immerse ourselves in God. God who is relational has no boundaries, but welcomes us into the very heart of the Trinity that we might be caught up and held in the stream of love that flows between the three. The threefold God is not afraid that our presence (or the presence of anyone else) will contaminate their divinity, but rather has absolute confidence that our being in relationship with God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier will serve to enhance and enrich that relationship and our relationships with one another.

The Trinity models the love that can be the salvation of the world – love that heals and sustains, love that delights in the other, love that gives itself entirely without losing anything of itself and without seeking anything in return, love that embraces difference, love that seeks the well-being of the other and love that refuses to exclude anyone from that love.

God who is one could be aloof and alone. God who is two could be self-contained – each focussed wholly on the other. God who is three is other-centred, inclusive, life-giving and welcoming. The Trinity, God who is three invites us all to be a part of this loving community, to allow ourselves to be loved and to give ourselves in love and in so doing, to contribute to the healing of the world.

Love, Laugh, Sing

June 10, 2017

Trinity Sunday – 2017

Matthew 28:16-20

Marian Free

 

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, three in one, one in three. Amen.

Every now and again one comes across an image or a phrase that brings utter clarity to an idea that until that moment had been clouded or obscure. Such was the case for me when I read a poem by William Paul Young (author of The Shack). In the foreword to Richard Rohr’s book on the Trinity The Divine Dance[1], Young has written a poem that, for me, shone a light on the Trinity in a way that nothing else has. It goes:

ONE alone

is not by nature Love

or Laugh

or Sing

ONE alone

may be Prime Mover

Unknowable

Indivisible

All

and if Everything is All and All is One

One is Alone

Self-Centred

Not Love

Not Laugh

Not Sing

TWO

Ying/Yang

Dark/Light

Male/Female

contending Dualism

Affirming Evil/Good

And striving toward Balance

At best Face-to-Face

but Never Community

THREE

Face-to-Face-to-Face

Community

Ambiguity

Mystery

Love for the Other

And for the Other’s Love

Within

Other-Centred

Self-Giving

Loving

Singing

Laughter

A fourth is created

Ever-loved and loving.

The contrast between One alone and three in community spoke powerfully to me. A God who is alone could be aloof and unapproachable and, without others, may not laugh and sing. A God who is two has the potential to be divisive – one pitted against the other, each competing for attention. A God who is three yet one is a God who is community – loving, playful and joyful, inviting relationship, inviting us into that relationship.

It is easy for us to imagine that a Triune God is the invention of the Christian church, that God who was one, suddenly became three when Jesus entered human history. That, of course, is nonsense. God is God. God doesn’t suddenly morph from one to three just because, in God’s great love for us, God entered into the stream of human history.

God has been in relationship from the very beginning: creating humankind in God’s image, choosing and speaking with Abraham, communicating directly with Moses and with the prophets. God the Creator gave Godself to humankind in revelation over and over and over again long before God gave Godself to us in the form of Jesus. At the same time over and over again, God has created a response from humanity, working within us in Spirit so that we might know and respond to God.

From the beginning of time then God has been known and expressed as Godself, as God’s self-communication and as God’s presence within us enabling us to respond to God. It is only since Jesus’ presence among us that we have named God as three persons – Father, Son and Spirit – only since the early days of the church that we have struggled to form a doctrine to express in words something that we have always known in our hearts, that God is Creator, Revealer and Enabler.

As the poem suggests, this is important – not least of all, because a Trinitarian God is a God in community. A creative, energizing force is not alone or competitive, but is a divine dance of love that knows no division or separation and creates, sustains and embraces us. The relationship between the Father and the Son, the Father and the Spirit, the Son and the Spirit, the Son and the Father, the Spirit and the Father and the Spirit and the Son is such that none are separate, but all three together incorporate the relationship between the Father and the Son and the Spirit.

A God who is relationship both demonstrates relationship – a relationship that is inclusive, self-giving and open – and invites us into that relationship so that as God is one, so we are one with God.

The Trinity is a gift and not a burden. Instead of trying to get our head around the doctrine, the how and why of it all, let us simply rejoice in a God in whose being is Love and Laugh and Sing and who includes us in the loving, the laughter and the song.

[1] Rohr, Richard with Morrell, Mike. The Divine Dance:The Trinity and your Transformation. New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2016, 19.

A relationship that endures

May 13, 2017

Easter 5 – 2017

John 14:1-14

Marian Free

In the name of God in whom and with whom we abide both now and for eternity. Amen.

Some images stay with you forever don’t they? One that comes back to me from time to time is that of the actor Kris Marshall curled up in a baby’s cot sound asleep. Now Kris must be about six-foot tall so it is hard to believe that his character fit in the cot, let alone fell asleep, but it was a convincing enough image. The scene I am referring to comes from a British sitcom, My Family about the family of Ben Harper a dentist who is married to Susan who is a control freak who can’t cook. They have three children: dopey Nick (played by Kris Marshal), shallow Janey and clever Michael. Nick has no sense of direction and no career path. Janey is at University but is more interested in boys than study and Michael, who is much younger, is at school and is the intellectual of the family.

In the programme that I am recalling, Nick has moved out of home and Susan and Ben have been fighting over who will use his room and for what. Before they come to any agreement (which was unlikely anyway) Janey announces that she is pregnant.

From Susan’s point of view it is quite clear that now there is no question – Nick’s room must be turned into a nursery. Nick is devastated by the news. The room that he has decorated to his bizarre taste represents more than just a physical space. It’s black painted walls, black furniture and bedding are all a part of his identity. As long as the bedroom remained his bedroom there was a place for him to come home to. Irrationally, he feels that a part of his life is being taken away from him. All the warmth, security and sense of belonging that he associates with that room will disappear if it is redecorated and given over to someone else. Despite his protests, Susan is unmoved. The black paint is stripped, the black furniture removed and the black bedclothes are sent away. Susan spends the day happily painting and Ben spends the day struggling to assemble the flat pack cot.

The next morning, when Susan comes in to admire her handiwork and to complete the redecoration there, curled up in the cot, is Nick – making one final claim on his space and his place in the family. I suspect that it is because he seems so vulnerable that the image has stayed in my mind for so long.

For those who are lucky enough to have a room of their own, it can take on a special significance – it can be a place to escape to, a place in which to express oneself without fear of criticism or a place in which, surrounded by things a person loves, a place of safety.

It is no wonder that John 14 is such a popular reading and that it is the reading chosen more often than not for a funeral. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” or as it was once translated “in my Father’s house there are many rooms.” For those of us who have had happy homes, this image appeals to our comfortable memories and provides assurance for the future and for those for whom home has never been a happy place, it is an image that holds the promise of a home that is warm, safe and secure.

The first century was vastly different from the modern world. Most families lived in one or two room homes. A room of one’s own was a luxury that only the very rich could afford. Jesus’ followers would never have known what it was to have a space that was one’s very own so it is striking that Jesus should use this image to describe the heavenly realm as a house.

Chapter 14 begins what we call Jesus’ farewell speech. In the previous chapter John describes Jesus’ last supper with the disciples. Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet, announced that one of the assembled few will betray him and Judas has gone out into the night. No doubt the disciples were already feeling a little confused and uncertain when Jesus announced not only that he was going away, but also that the disciples would not be able to go where he was going. Their relationship with Jesus has provided a sense of security and a feeling of belonging. Now this has been placed at risk. Jesus is going somewhere and they will not be able to follow.

It is little wonder that Jesus seeks to reassure the disciples that they still have a place with him: “I go to prepare a place for you,” he says. Their sense of belonging and their feelings of warmth and security are dependent, not on bricks and mortar, but on the relationship that they have with Jesus, a relationship that will not be broken or changed by his going away.

One of the dominant themes of John’s gospel is that of dwelling or remaining or abiding. The Greek word μενω (remain, dwell, abide) occurs 40 times. Jesus abides in the Father and the Father abides in the Son. Jesus says to his disciples: “abide in me as I abide in you”. In this gospel dwelling or abiding doesn’t refer to a physical space, but rather to a relationship that is so intimate and so intense that it can only be described as mutual indwelling. It is a relationship that is so close and so personal that Jesus can claim that to see him is to see God. The relationship is so intense that one cannot be separated or distinguished from the other. This is the relationship that Jesus offers to the disciples – they are to be one with him as he is one with God. They need not fear his going away because what unites them transcends time and space and knows no separation either now or in the future.

It is easy to imagine, like Nick, that our security is dependent on a particular space or a particular group of people. Jesus challenges us to see beyond the purely material to the spiritual and to find there a sense of wholeness, meaning and well-being that is not reliant on the things of this world and which endures for all eternity.

 

So easy it seems hard

April 1, 2017

Lent 5 – 2017

John 11:1-45

Marian Free

In the name of God who love us beyond our wildest imagining. Amen.

“If only” must be among the saddest words in the English language. They express regret, disappointment, a certain dissatisfaction with the way things are and a yearning for things to be different. They suggest an unwillingness to accept that life is beyond our control and that it includes the good and the bad. They represent a failure to live in the present and a striving for what is probably an unrealistic and ideal future. Or, as in the case of today’s gospel, “if only” expresses a desire that God would behave in the way that we expect.

There are, as is often the case with John’s gospel, a number of things going on in today’s gospel. Jesus’ life is in danger. The Pharisees have been trying to stone him, which means that for Jesus to be anywhere in Judea, let alone near Jerusalem, is extremely dangerous. According to John Jesus makes three trips to Jerusalem. Apparently while there he chooses to say with his friends, Martha, Mary and Lazarus, whose home in Bethany is only a couple of miles from the city. The siblings are more than friends with Jesus. They share an intimacy that would allow Mary to anoint Jesus’ feet and to wipe them with her hair, and that gives the women courage to tell Jesus that “the one whom you love is ill.” Not only are they close friends, but Martha and Mary have confidence in Jesus’ ability to bring about healing.

When Lazarus becomes ill, they send a message to Jesus, but Jesus doesn’t come. The sisters don’t have the advantage that we have. They don’t hear Jesus’ discussion with the disciples. What they know is that a friend who loves them not only doesn’t come, but fails to even to send a word to explain the delay. One imagines that the sisters are disappointed and confused by Jesus’ behaviour. His failure to honor their friendship and to come to their aid must have taken them by surprise.

No wonder both women reproach him when, long after Lazarus has died, Jesus finally turns up. “Lord if only you had been here our brother would not have died,” they say. We could have been saved this trouble and this grief – “if only you had been here.” Their confidence in Jesus’ ability to heal is unchanged. They simply do not understand why he would choose not to save their brother.

The reaction of the women is often overshadowed by the miracle of the raising of Lazarus, or overlooked because of Martha’s declaration that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, but it is important to notice the reproach and to recognise that, despite their friendship and love, the women are not afraid to let Jesus know that they feel he has let them down. It is probably because the sisters know Jesus so well that they feel free to tell him just what they think.

Both the Old Testament and the New are populated with real people who have real feelings and real failings, both of which are essential to their relationship with God. When we read the bible we don’t get the sense that the various characters on the pages are trying to be something that they are not. We are not given the impression that if a person is less than perfect that God will have nothing to do with them. We learn that from Abraham to Martha and Mary, those who are close to God, those who have a strong relationship with God have no problem in either being themselves or in letting God know exactly what they think. Abraham takes God on when God threatens to destroy Sodom, Moses suggests that God will look foolish in the eyes of the nations if God destroys Israel, the woman at the well was not afraid to tell Jesus that it was the Samaritans, not the Jews, who were the true believers, and Martha and Mary have no qualms in greeting Jesus with a reproach.

These characters have one thing in common – an open and honest relationship with God/Jesus – a relationship in which they are not afraid to tell God/Jesus exactly how they feel, in which they are comfortable to have their doubt and uncertainty, their frustration and disappointment exposed for all to see. They didn’t care if they appeared foolish or uncertain and they had no problem letting God/Jesus know just what they thought. When they were face-to-face with God/Jesus, they were not overcome with embarrassment, self-consciousness or shame. They were comfortable enough in their relationship with Jesus to have their flaws and doubts laid bare.

Over the past four weeks we have met characters who, in conventional terms have been anything but model Christians, let alone perfect human beings. Nicodemus is timid and uncertain, the woman at the well had had five husbands, the blind man came to faith only in stages and Mary and Martha reproached Jesus for being late. During this time, we have observed people who were not confident that Jesus was who he said he was, whose self-interest led them to misunderstand what he said, who took their healing for granted and who scolded Jesus for not responding in a timely manner.

We learn from these characters that if we want our relationship with God/Jesus to grow, it is important that we are completely honest – about ourselves (our strengths as well as our weaknesses), about our questions, our doubts and yes, even about our anger and disappointment. We can take the lead from those in the bigger story that it is not only OK, but that it is healthy to enter into debate with God, to voice our concerns and express our frustration. Our relationship with God is like any other relationship. It cannot grow if there is dishonesty, fear and anxiety, but only if there is openness, respect and trust.

My hope is that this Lent you have learned something of God’s boundless love for you, that you have gained confidence to be yourselves – knowing that God’s love will not be withdrawn – and that you understand that the best relationship with God is one that is honest and true, one in which nothing is hidden and in which we are so sure of our place in God’s love that we are not afraid to let God know what we think, to ask the difficult questions and even, as did Martha and Mary to question God’s reaction (or lack of action) in regard to issues that we think are important.

Being a Christian has nothing to do with being good and everything to do with being in a relationship with God – Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. It is only because it is so easy that it sometimes seems so hard

Foolish questions are better than no questions

January 14, 2017

2nd Sunday after Epiphany – 2017

John 1:29-42

Marian Free

 

In the name of God to whom we can speak as an intimate friend. Amen.

The meaning of life

The meaning of life

We’ve all seen the cartoons about the seeker who climbs up a steep mountain to receive guidance from a guru or wise person only to be met by a smart retort. “What is the meaning of life?” might be answered by “Google it.” or “If I knew do you think I’d be wasting mine by sitting up here alone?” or “The meaning of life is don’t ask don’t tell – and now we’ve both blown it.” or “I don’t know. The computers are down.”

A cartoonist could have a field day with this morning’s gospel. Two disciples follow Jesus on the road and when he asks what they seek, all they can come up with is: “Where are you staying?”

Our gospel reading covers two days. On the first day, John the Baptist sees Jesus and identifies him as “the Lamb of God”, the one about whom he spoke, the one who is both before him and greater than him, the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit – in fact the Son of God. On the following day John is standing with two of his disciples when Jesus passes by again. Presumably these two were not with him on the previous day because John again says: “Look, here he is the Lamb of God.” Without hesitation, John’s disciples abandon him and set off after Jesus.

Jesus appears to realise that he is being followed because he turns and asks the pair: “What are you seeking?” “What are you seeking?” This is exactly the sort of question that a wise person, a guru or the incarnate divine might ask someone who was chasing after him. What are the disciples looking for, why have they come after him, is there something missing in their lives, an emptiness that they need to fill? Why indeed have they left John the Baptist? “What are you seeking? It is a reasonable question. After all, these two have been until now been followers of John the Baptist. They know what John has been saying, so they are not approaching Jesus in complete ignorance. Of all John’s disciples only these two, Andrew and one other, see fit to find out more about Jesus. They must know what it is that they are seeking.

This story is so familiar to us that we may have never really noticed the disciples’ strange reply to Jesus’ question. The disciples seem to be dumb struck. They don’t respond to Jesus’ question by asking something meaningful or profound. They certainly don’t give the impression that they are seeking a word of wisdom or the answer to life’s problems from someone whom their own teacher has identified as being greater. They don’t even ask the question that the priests and the Levites have asked of John: “Are you the Messiah?” Instead they seem to blurt out what must be the first thing that comes into their mind: “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Something that might explain why they have been following him.

“Where are you staying?” I wonder, “If you had the opportunity to ask anything at all of the Saviour of the world would this be the first question that came to mind?”

“Where are you staying?” Did John’s disciples have no game plan when they left John so abruptly? Was it a spur of the moment thing or had John’s teaching prepared them to follow someone else? Were they simply curious – wanting to observe for themselves this ‘Lamb of God’? That they are surprised or inarticulate when confronted by Jesus suggests that they had hoped simply to be observers – to see what Jesus might do and to hear what he might say so that they could decide for themselves whether he really was greater than John. In all probability they didn’t expect to be caught. They were just checking Jesus out, gathering all the information that they could before making the radical decision to leave John and follow Jesus.

An alternative view is that the disciples accepted what John had said, believed that Jesus was the one that John had been announcing and were in fact hoping to become disciples of Jesus but were overcome with awe or terror when Jesus turned to address them. After all, what does one say to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world?

You and I don’t have any of these dilemmas. Thanks to the boldness of Andrew and the other disciple we know that an intimate relationship with Jesus is not only possible but is freely available. Thanks to the gospel records we know that even though the disciples themselves asked foolish questions they were not excluded from Jesus’ company. We know that there is no need for us to be coy or careful because we are assured that our relationship with Jesus is direct and personal. We do not need to be in awe of Jesus, nor do we need to self-conscious about our burning questions. In reality, we have the opposite problem from Andrew and his companion. Our problem is that it is easy to become over-familiar to be so confident and so comfortable in our relationship with Jesus that we begin to take it for granted. We can fall into the trap of treating Jesus as a comfortable friend, forgetting that he is, after all, the Saviour of the world, the Son of God. After all, we are already followers of Jesus, what more is there to do or to know?

How is your relationship with Jesus? Where are you with Jesus right now? When did you last think about following after him? What would you say if he turned right now and asked you: “What are you seeking?” Does your relationship with Jesus have the right balance between awe and familiarity?

Andrew and the other disciple took a risk. They knew that Jesus was something special and they weren’t sure what to say but they didn’t flinch when Jesus turned and they didn’t run away. When the journey got hard they stood by Jesus and when Jesus was no longer there, they carried on alone.

Foolish questions are better than no questions. Any relationship is better than no relationship. The right relationship with Jesus will see us through the hard times and if we work on that relationship the world will see Jesus through our lives and come to seek him for themselves.

 

 

 

No right way to pray

July 23, 2016

Pentecost 10 – 2016

Luke 11:1-13

Marian Free

In the name of God in whom we live and move and have our being. Amen.

There is a story, possibly mythical, about three monks who had chosen a solitary life on an isolated island. One day the local bishop decided that it was time he paid them a visit. On arrival he asked them how they prayed. Their response was to inform him that every day at regular intervals, they recited, “Jesus, Lamb of God have mercy on us”. The bishop thought that that was good, but he also felt that their prayer life could be enhanced. To that end he spent the whole day teaching them the Lord’s Prayer. In the evening, satisfied that he had made progress, the bishop got into his boat, ready to return to the mainland. The boat had barely pulled out from the shore when the bishop spotted one of the monks splashing clumsily towards him. “Bishop, bishop,” he called, “we can’t remember what comes after ‘your kingdom come’.” At that point the bishop realised that the monks had wisely chosen a prayer that suited them. He commended their discipline and recommended that they return to the prayer that had served them so well. Then he went on his way and the monks returned to their pattern of prayer.

In today’s gospel the disciples observe Jesus at prayer and ask him to teach them to pray as John taught his disciples. They probably know how to pray, but they know that it is usual for a teacher to pass on his particular knowledge to his disciples. Jesus prayed and he prayed often. Jesus’ response to the disciples was to teach them the “Lord’s Prayer” as it has become known. In these words, Jesus encapsulates all that prayer is and could be. The words acknowledge God’s extraordinary nature, our longing that the world as a whole would come under God’s governance, our utter dependence on God for all things, our need to be reconciled with our brothers and sisters, our request for courage to do what is right and our belief that God will support us through times of difficulty. In other words, the Lord’s Prayer encapsulates all that we need to say in prayer.

No wonder this prayer so quickly became part of the liturgical life of the church. The Didache recommended that it be said three times a day (8:3) and our formal liturgies – the Eucharist and Morning and Evening Prayer – gather up the prayers of the people with these words.

The importance of a regular pattern prayer was recognised long before Jesus taught the disciples. As early as the Psalms regular prayer is recommended. Psalm 119:64 suggests that we pray seven times a day including midnight (62) and the Book of Daniel recommends prayers three times daily (Dan 6:10).

Prayer is important (dare I say essential) – not because God demands it, but because our lives and our relationship with God are enhanced through prayer. Communicating with God on a regular basis is the only way of maintaining our relationship with God. Building a relationship with God not only enriches our understanding of God, but ensures that in times of trouble or distress we will be practiced at speaking with God, we will know what we can expect of God and we will be able to draw strength from our deep connection with God. Prayer strengthens our relationship with God and at the same time it reminds us of our utter dependence on God, that all that we have comes from God and that we are utterly dependent on God. It helps us to develop the humility that allows God to work in us and through us so that we might play our part in bringing peace and justice to the world.

A practice of regular prayer enables us to see ourselves as God sees us – to identify and recognise our weaknesses and our strengths, to become aware of any jealousy, bitterness or resentment in our lives (and with God’s help to deal with it.) In this way prayer not only deepens our relationship with God but also builds our understanding of ourselves and of our relationship with others.

Simply speaking, prayer is an acknowledgement of God’s constant presence in our lives and in the world. It is important to remember, as the story with which we began suggests, that our style of prayer must suit us and not be something that is imposed from outside. Prayer is not intended to be a burden but a gift and, as the story illustrates and it can be as complex or as simple, as lengthy or as short as we would like to make it. Short repeated prayers like the “Jesus prayer” of the monks are just as valid as lengthy intercessions. So we might find that repeating the “Jesus prayer” suits our temperament, or that making the sign of the cross when we wake or during the day is a sufficient reminder of God’s presence in our lives, or that a pattern of prayer just before we go to sleep might be more to our style. Our personality might suit the discipline of saying the Daily Office[1] or of setting aside time each day/each week for meditation. We might be someone who is good with words, or we might be more comfortable sitting in silence.

No one prayer or form of prayer is better than any other as long as we pray for there is no other way to keep open that channel of communication with God. Whatever and however we do it, the important thing, in the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury, is that we “just pray” – that we acknowledge God’s presence in our lives and allow our lives to be transformed as a result.[2]

[1] Most modern Prayer Books include prayers for each day of the week.

[2] The English Church has developed a website that encourages us to “just pray”: justpray.uk

 


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