Posts Tagged ‘Trust’

Unity not uniformity

June 1, 2019

Easter 7 – 2019

John 17:20-26

Marian Free

In the name of God who draws us into union with Godself and with one another. Amen.

Ten days ago Archbishop Phillip shared with us the letter sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury to all the Bishops of the Anglican Communion. The letter urged all Anglican Bishops to attend the Lambeth Conference in 2020. Archbishop Justin Welby acknowledged the differences of opinion that led a number of conservative Bishops to organize their own conference in 2008, but encouraged them to attend the next Lambeth Conference to ensure that their point of view was heard. Already four Primates of the Anglican Church have announced their intention not to attend. Last Sunday the ABC news reported that a large proportion of the Uniting Church was planning to secede from the Uniting Church Conference citing in particular the Conference’s making same sex marriage a matter of conscience for individual ministers. During the same time period in New Zealand a group of Anglicans formed their own, separate Diocese under the umbrella of the GAFCON and for at least a decade, Anglican Bishops have been ordaining clergy in Dioceses that are not their own, and parishes have been aligning themselves with Dioceses to which they do not geographically belong.

All over the world, and in a number of denominations, the church is being torn apart by differences of opinion – primarily over the issue of homosexuality and same sex marriage but also in relation to the role of women and the interpretation of the bible. Claiming the high moral ground, the conservatives argue that the liberals have compromised the gospel, a gospel that they believe demands that we adhere to clear, unchanging moral guidelines. Liberals, on the other hand, claim that the gospel demonstrates God’s inclusive love and point to Jesus’ willingness to break the rules to make that love a reality in the lives of those who were marginalized, excluded or limited by those rules.

The issues on which we differ are not always clear cut, but are complicated by such things as local culture, history and the ownership of property. The world wide Anglican communion, which has held together since the Reformation, is now straining at the seams.

Today’s gospel comes towards the end of Jesus’ farewell speech in which he prays for the disciples who must carry on in his absence. Jesus prays that the disciples will be protected from the ‘evil one’ but more importantly he prays that the disciples might be one, as he and the Father are one: ‘so that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (17:20,23). Unity among the disciples, in fact among believers generally, is so important that Jesus repeats the prayer within six verses.

‘May they be one as you and I are one, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’ In Jesus’ mind unity is a prerequisite of mission. A unified community is itself a witness to Jesus and Jesus’ union with God. A unified community does away with the need to proclaim dogmas, to demand adherence to a code of behaviour or to insist on one or another interpretation of scripture. Unity among believers is sufficient evidence of the presence of Jesus among them and of the union between Jesus and God. According to this point of view, creative outreach programmes, exciting, modern music and Bill Graham style evangelism campaigns would all be redundant if those who profess to believe in Jesus could only live in unity with one another.

The question then becomes: “what is unity?” Is it uniformity or is it mutual respect? My money is on the latter. It seems to me that scripture is anything but prescriptive and, even if it were, none of us are able to travel in time back to the first century to learn exactly what Jesus said or what the various writers of the New Testament meant when they recorded Jesus’ sayings. We can’t ask Paul to explain his ideas, nor can we really get an accurate sense of what it was like to be a believer in first century Palestine or the eastern Mediterranean.

Unity is not related to the minutiae of Christian practice but to the broader picture of faith. What Christians have in common is our absolute confidence in the God who raised Jesus from the dead, in the risen Jesus who is present with us and in the Holy Spirit who directs and inspires us. It is our relationship with God – Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier – that unites us. This being the case, we do not have to force others to think in exactly the same way as we do rather we, and they, could learn to trust that we are all doing our very best to submit our lives to the God who revealed Godself in Jesus and to follow in the footsteps of Jesus who is the perfect example of obedience and faithfulness.

If the different parts of Christendom learned to trust and respect each other, to believe that we are all in our own way striving to develop our relationship with the risen Christ, trying to be open to the presence of God and anxious to align ourselves with the direction of the Holy Spirit, the antagonism between the warring factions would diminish and even disappear.

No one truly knows the mind of God and it is the utmost arrogance for any of us to presume that it is we, not someone else who has the first claim on God’s truth. Instead of trying to prove that we are right and that others are wrong, perhaps it is time that we started to mind our own business, to ‘work out our own salvation with fear and trembling’ and to allow others to do the same. If our primary focus was our relationship with God -Earth-maker, Pain-bearer and Life-giver – we might stop worrying abut what others do and do not believe and use the time and effort to concentrate on ourselves – on our own behaviour, our own attitudes and our own weaknesses. If our central concern was the building up of our own faith, we would not be obsessively concerned with externals – who can marry whom or who can be ordained – but with the deeper issues of vulnerability, humility and our dependence on God.

Jesus prayed that we might be one so that the world might believe through us. If we seek to draw others to the faith we must find a way to end factionalism, to cease competing as to who is right and who is wrong, and to seek, not uniformity, but the unity that comes from our shared faith in the Triune God revealed by our Saviour and Risen Lord, Jesus the Christ.

If only …

October 20, 2018

Pentecost 22 – 2018

Mark 10:35-45

Marian Free

In the name of God, who values us for who we are – not for who we might wish to be. Amen.

Few of us are so secure in ourselves that we do not need affirmation. Not being sufficiently confident in our own abilities, we look to others to confirm that we have value, that our talents are recognised or that we have some sort of authority in and of ourselves. People seek this recognition in both indirect and direct ways. A common expression of the subtle approach can be observed when an obviously talented person demurs when complimented. “Oh, it’s not really that good,” they might say, in response to being told that what they have done is remarkable. Such false humility is often a way of fishing for more recognition. The person in question may well be hoping to be reassured. “Please insist that my work is great,” might be the sub-text of their outward modesty.

A more direct way to attract attention and acclaim is to boast about one’s recent (or past) achievements – “Here’s my latest book, my most recent embroidery, my promotion and so on.” (“Please tell me how clever, how talented I am.” This group of people, while appearing to be more confident in themselves and their abilities than the former, are still hopeful that by sharing their successes they will receive praise for what they have done. Even though their achievements are on display, and they themselves are obviously proud of what they have done, their self-belief is sufficiently shaky that their achievement is as nothing if it is not noticed by others.

Another way in which people seek to bolster their own sense of worth is to exercise power over those who are more vulnerable or less able than themselves. By imposing their will on others – whether through bullying or simply through the force of their personality, they have a (albeit false) sense of superiority. (The exercise of power over others allows them to feel that there are some people who have less value than themselves. In turn their own sense of worth is increased.)

Human beings are complex creatures which means that any or all of us might engage in any one of these behaviours to a greater or lesser extent over the course of our life-times.

Of course, all our posturing – whether it is false modestly, misplaced pride or lording it over others – is a waste of time and energy. Other people can usually see through our outward behaviour to the insecurity that drives it. This means that the hoped for effect of our modesty, our boasting or our “authority” is the opposite from that for which it is designed. Instead of gaining respect, we are diminished in the eyes of others who see what lies behind our outward behaviour.

In today’s gospel, James and John are seeking recognition from Jesus. We only have the bald text, so we don’t really know the reasons behind their request. It is possible that they want reassurance from Jesus that they are special, that they want Jesus to affirm that have something to offer him that the other disciples do not. Perhaps they are feeling insecure – in relation to the future, in respect to their place in Jesus’ opinion or their position in Jesus’ community.

It is no wonder the other disciples are enraged. They too are insecure.( Immediately prior to today’s encounter Peter has effectively asked: “What about us? What is in it for us?” (10:28)) Their confidence in themselves and their position also needs bolstering.

It is clear that neither James and John, nor the other ten, have been paying attention to Jesus. Twice in recent times Jesus has presented a child as the model for discipleship. According to Jesus discipleship is not about power and authority. It has nothing to do with competing with one another for recognition or affirmation and everything to do with childlike trust in God. The kingdom is not something to be claimed, but something to be received. A place in the kingdom is not to be earned. It is something we are given.

On the threshold of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the disciples make it blatantly clear that they still fail to understand Jesus’ mission, Jesus’ proclamation and Jesus’ fate. Nothing that Jesus has said has penetrated their thick skulls. This close to Jesus’ suffering and death, they demonstrate by their actions and words that they still think in human terms. They cannot let go of the very human need for affirmation, they cannot believe that Jesus’ choice of them is already an affirmation of their worth and they cannot exhibit that childlike confidence that who and what they are is sufficient in itself.

Over and over again, Jesus has overturns human constructs and asks us to see the world through his eyes – through the eyes of God. Throughout his life, Jesus modelled a complete self-assurance and a self-belief that comes through self-acceptance and the conviction that placing himself completely in the hands of God was the best and healthiest approach to whatever situation he found himself in. Through his submission to death on a cross, Jesus demonstrated that even the most debased and humiliating experience could be turned into a victory.

If only we could accept our own value in God’s eyes. If only we could be secure and assured in ourselves. If only we were so confident of our own worth that we could let go of competitiveness, give up striving for greatness, and be content without recognition – we would be more at peace with the world, and the world itself would be at peace.

If only …….

 

 

God gives – we receive. It’s that simple

October 13, 2018

Pentecost 21 – 2018

Mark 10:17-31

Marian Free

In the name of God who gives us everything and demands nothing in return. Amen.

The importance of life-long learning is that not only does it broaden our minds and our understanding, but that it also it assists in putting misconceptions and falsehoods to bed. Many of us will have been brought up with the “fact” that there was a gate in the wall in Jerusalem through which travellers could pass once the gates had been closed for the evening. This gate, we were told, was substantially smaller than the main city gates and, while sufficient for a person, could only be passed through by a camel if its load had been removed and if the camel itself stooped to its knees. When one really thinks about it, the story has to be apocryphal – can anyone really imagine a camel crawling on its knees, or a weary traveller taking the load off his camel only to replace it once the camel is through the gate? A smart trader would have timed the journey to arrive when the gate was opened in the morning and close to the time that the market was scheduled to open.

There never was such a gate in Jerusalem but the mythology has prevailed. At the same time much ink has been spent in trying to explain Jesus’ statement about the “eye of a needle” – for example, is the word translated as “camel” really meant to be translated as “rope”[1]?

The story of the gate (and the apparent need for it to be explained) goes some way to illustrate the difficulties that many have in coming to terms with the story of the encounter between Jesus and the young man. So little information is provided by the text that we find ourselves adding details that are not there. For example, though we are not told as much, we speculate that the young man was unhappy with his life or that his possessions controlled him. To let ourselves off the hook we make out that Jesus’ direction to “sell what you own” applied only to the situation of the young man. When we focus on the aspect of the young man’s possessions, we miss other details that are significant. Why, when only about 3% of the population live above the poverty line, would the disciples be “perplexed” and ask: “Then who can be saved?” It is an odd response. Surely, they do not think that everyonein the first century Mediterranean is too wealthy to be saved[2]? Is it possible that they (the disciples) think that they won’t be saved?

A further point of interest is Jesus’ reaction to the young man. It is the only occasion in Mark’s gospel that we are told that Jesus loved someone (and that the one so loved turns his back on that love).

Our focus on the needle and the gate demonstrates a certain discomfort around the question of riches and possessions – how rich is too rich? How many possessions are too many? From positions of relative comfort in the Western world we seek to work out how Jesus’ conversation with the young man applies to us and this is important. The gospel has some very clear messages about wealth and our use of our resources.

Without wanting to minimise that aspect of the gospel, I believe that it is important to examine the story of the young man (Mark does not call him ‘rich’) in its context.

We not that immediately before the young man approaches Jesus, Jesus blesses the children and claims that; “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it”. As Hamm points out, one does not earn an inheritance, one receivesit. It may be then that the young man’s question is misplaced. He asks: “What must I do?” Unlike the children who simply accept and receive what is offered, the young man believes that he must earneternal life.

Perhaps the problem lies here. The issue at the heart of this encounter is one of trust. The young man does not trust in the promises of God, he believes that though he is doing what is required by the law that there is yet more that he must do. This explains why he fails to see (or accept) that Jesus loves him. He does not accept that he is worthy of God’s love. We assume that he turns away because his possessions have a hold on him but it is possible that he simply has no confidence that Jesus loves him and will continue to love him – no matter what he does or does not do.

Our concern with the wealth of the young man allows us to pass over the disciples’ almost inexplicable confusion and Jesus’ response; “With mortals it is impossible, but not for God, with God all things are possible.” Mortals, mere humans can never do enough, be good enough to earn God’s favour – perfection, godliness is impossible. No matter – God dispenses God’s favour and love lavishly and indiscriminately. Our task is to trust in that love and to see where that trust might lead us. Along the way we just may discover that there are all kinds of things (possessions, resentments, insecurities) that we might just be able to dispense with.

God’s love is a given. Just as Jesus loved the young man – as he was – so God loves us, just as we are.

God gives – we receive. It may just be that simple.

 

 

[1]In this instance, Jesus is not being original. We can find similar sayings in other ancient texts (Jewish and otherwise). It simply means that something is unlikely if not impossible.

[2]They are right to be confused. In their culture wealth was associated with honour and status and, most importantly in relation to their question, with divine favour. Wealth was a blessing, a sign of being in a right relationship with God.

Children of God, beloved and special

February 17, 2018

Lent 1 – 2018

Mark 1:9-15

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who strengthens us and equips us for all the good and the bad that we might be asked to face. Amen.

Did you notice something missing from today’s gospel? You might have been expecting to hear the details of the three temptations – turning stones into bread, jumping off a cliff and worshipping Satan. These specific details of Jesus’ time in the wilderness (listed by both Luke and Matthew) are missing in Mark’s gospel. They are apparently of little consequence for Mark as he pushes on to reveal Jesus as the Son of God. Probably because Mark’s account is so stark, the lectionary writers have included Jesus’ baptism in today’s gospel. This creates an interesting juxtaposition: baptism followed by temptation, public repentance followed by private battles within, a declaration that Jesus is the Son of God, followed by Jesus being driven into the wilderness.

If we read the account of the baptism on its own without understanding the consequences it becomes a wonderful affirmation of Jesus. Though Jesus alone sees and hears, the events that accompany Jesus’ baptism are quite extraordinary. The heavens are literally torn apart, the Spirit descends as if a dove and Jesus hears the voice of God from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It must have been both an inspiring and terrifying moment. Jesus heard God assuring him that he was doing the right thing and that his relationship with God was of the highest order, Father and Son.

Why then does the Spirit (note: not the devil) immediately drive Jesus out into the wilderness – that godless, inhospitable and unforgiving place – to be tempted by Satan and threatened by wild animals? To experience both physical and spiritual adversity? At first sight, it seems to be back-to-front. Doesn’t it make more sense that Jesus would want to repent after a time of reflection and temptation? Doesn’t make more sense for Jesus to be tested before God tears apart the heavens and sends the Spirit upon him? Doesn’t it seem that it would be more prudent for God to have been certain that Jesus was ready the task before he took the radical step of affirming him as God’s Son? I wonder, what would have happened if Jesus had failed the test? Could God take the Son thing back?

Two things help us to make sense of the order of events as they are presented. The first is the parallel between Jesus’ experience and that of Israel. Before God led the people of Israel out of Egypt into the wilderness, God declared that Israel was God’s Son. God thus affirmed the status of Israel and, through the cloud and the fiery pillar, God provided proof that God would provide for them and would never desert them. Yet, despite such assurance, Israel grumbled against God and relied on their own resources to the extent of making their own gods thus demonstrating that they had little to no faith in God’s promises.

When Jesus is declared to be God’s Son and led into the wilderness he places his trust entirely in God, he refuses to rely on his own resources or to put God to the test. As a result Jesus is able to withstand the privations of the desert and as a result is “ministered to by the angels”. Jesus did what Israel could not – he believed not that God would spare him from trouble, but that when trouble came his way he could rely on God to provide the strength to see him through.

We better understand the order of events when we remember that throughout Jesus’ ministry, he will face hostility and opposition – from demons, from the authorities, from his family and even from his disciples. Jesus’ journey, once begun, will lead only to suffering and the cross. At Jesus’ baptism then, God gives Jesus the resources that he will need for whatever lies ahead – the absolute assurance that he is God’s Son and the implied assurance that, whatever lies ahead, God will be with him. The wilderness is a sign of what is to come. Jesus begins his ministry with the endorsement of God’s love and approval ringing in his ears – an endorsement that sustains him in the wilderness and throughout the challenges and threats that dog his ministry.

At our Baptism we are told: “the promises of God are signed and sealed for us.” And we are assured of the gift of the Holy Spirit. These are not empty words, but gifts to sustain us through thick and thin. They are gifts that assure us that God will be with us every step of the way: sustaining us, encouraging us and equipping us to face whatever dangers, griefs or hardships that might come our way.

Lent, our time in the wilderness, need not be a time of self-flagellation, a time of reminding ourselves how far we fall short or a time of stressing about what we need to do to be holier or kinder, more loving or more patient. Lent can be a time of letting go, a time for reminding ourselves that we can place our trust completely in God, that we can rely on God to be there in our times of need and that we can trust God to hold us up when we feel that we can go no further.

No one can predict what life will throw at us. The question is not whether we will have wilderness experiences, but whether our confidence in God is sufficient to see us through. May this Lent be for us all a time to renew our trust in God, to make peace with the lives that we have and to believe that whatever happens God has, waiting for us, an eternity that is beyond our capacity to imagine.

Our “nothing” will be more than enough

August 5, 2017

Pentecost 8 – 2017

Matthew 14:13-21

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who believes in us and pushes to believe that we can share in God’s work. Amen.

We are so familiar with the story of the feeding of the five thousand that we may not have noticed that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each tell the story somewhat differently. There are many differences, but today I want to focus on the conversation between Jesus and the disciples. Matthew, Mark and Luke agree that the disciples urge Jesus to send the crowds away to find food (and lodging) and all three are agreed that Jesus turns the situation around and says to the disciples: “You give them something to eat.” If there are five thousand men, there may well have been ten or twenty thousand people if they had all brought one wife and two children. Five thousand mouths to feed would have been overwhelming, ten or twenty thousand would have presented and absolutely unimaginable feat. (The disciples must have wondered what Jesus was thinking!)

According to Mark the disciples respond to this extraordinary instruction by saying: “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread?” In Luke also the disciples suggest shopping for bread: “We have no more than five loaves and two fish – unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” According to Matthew the disciples make no mention of buying bread. They say: “We have nothing, except five loaves and two fish”.

This is one instance in which John includes material that is found in the other three gospels, but in John’s account the conversation is quite different. According to John, Jesus takes the initiative. Before the crowds have even reached Jesus and the disciples, Jesus turns and asks Philip: “How are we to buy bread for all these people?” Philip, like the disciples in Mark, considers buying bread and like those disciples recognises that six months wages would not buy enough bread to give each person even a small amount.

John’s gospel gives a clue that may help us to understand what is happening here. He suggests that Jesus is testing the disciples. Now perhaps “test” is too strong a word for what is happening in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but it does seem possible that Jesus is putting the disciples on the spot, encouraging them to take responsibility for their own ministry and stretching them to see what they can do. The disciples are so used to Jesus taking the initiative that instead of doing something themselves they come to Jesus with their problem and expect him to do something about the impending dark and the need to manage such a large crowd. They have seen a need; they should use their own resources to try to meet it. So, instead of responding to their concern, Jesus put the responsibility back on them. “You do it,” he says. Was Jesus just worn out or did he, as John suggests, have another purpose in mind when he refused to act on the disciples’ request?

Let’s try to imagine the scenario as Matthew presents it. Jesus has just heard of the grisly death of John the Baptist. He needs time to grieve – and to process what this means for himself. Jesus tries to escape the crowds and takes a boat to a “lonely place”. However, by now the crowds know what he can do for them, and having seen the direction in which Jesus was heading, make their way there by foot. Jesus’ compassion overrides his need for time alone and he heals those who are sick. Evening arrives and the disciples begin to think about practical matters. Unless the crowd is dispersed now, it will soon be dark. The disciples seek Jesus out and tell him that he should send the crowds away to buy food before it gets too late.

Maybe Jesus has reached the limits of his endurance, maybe he is tired of the burden of responsibility or, more likely, Jesus wants the disciples to begin to take ownership of their ideas instead of expecting him to do everything. Either way, Jesus turns the situation around saying to the disciples: “You give them something to eat”.

The response of the disciples is contradictory: “We have nothing, but five loaves and two small fish.” Five loaves and two small fish is not nothing – it is something and, as we shall see it is something from which Jesus can make something much, much more.

How often do we depend on God to do or to fix something instead of doing what we can to help? How often do we think that we have nothing to offer instead of trusting God to use what we have? How often do we underestimate our own abilities instead of recognising the gifts God has given us? How often are we frozen in indecision instead of believing that God will guide and direct us if only we start moving?

In other words we have no excuse for sitting back and thinking that we are not worthy, or that we are not talented, or that we have nothing to offer, or that we do not have what God wants or needs. Our “nothing” is always something and, as so long as we have the confidence to offer it for God to use, God will ensure that it is always more than enough.

 

 

Held in the hands of God?

December 10, 2016

Advent 3 – 2016

Matthew 11:2-11

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who sees us through our darkest moments and brings us safely to the other side. Amen.

I am sure that many of you will have heard the expression “the dark night of the soul”. It originates from a poem written by John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic of the 16th century. John’s poem, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, describes the journey of the soul towards God. The dark nights (John does not add “of the soul”) refer to times of purification that are necessary on a journey that is a joyful experience of being guided by God. Over time the phrase lost its original meaning and was extended to the expression “the dark night of the soul”. This latter rather than referring to a necessary and joyful time of purification, came to refer to a time of spiritual dryness, a time when God’s presence was difficult if not possible to discern. Many deeply spiritual people experience this absence at some time or another during their lives. For example, Therese of Lisieux, a Carmelite nun had moments of bleakness centred around doubts about the afterlife and we are told that for most of her life Mother Teresa experienced an emptiness and dryness in her spiritual life.

But, as I have said, John of the Cross, does not see dark nights as a negative, but as gifts from God, as opportunities for spiritual growth. His hope is that the person on a spiritual journey will take advantage of these times and rather than trying to fight them or to solve the problem will allow themselves to rest entirely in God. He writes, and I paraphrase[1]:

“DURING the time, then, of the aridities of this night of sense – God effects the change of which we have spoken, drawing forth the soul from the life of senses into that of the spirit—that is, from meditation to contemplation. In this situation the soul no longer has any power to work or to reason with its faculties concerning the things of God. As a result, those on this journey suffer great trials, not so much because of the emptiness, but because they fear being lost on the road and worry that all spiritual blessing is over for them. They feel that God has abandoned them because they find no help or pleasure in good things. Then they grow weary, and endeavour (as they have been accustomed to do) to concentrate on some spiritual practice that used to bring them blessing thinking that their efforts will make a difference and that by failing to do this they are doing nothing.”

He goes on to point out that at these times it is the doing nothing that is important. It is only when they stop striving to do things themselves that they will really be able to experience what God is doing for them. In fact, according to John of the Cross the suffering that a person might experience in this dark night results not from the darkness, but from their trying to escape it. It is their resistance to the gift that God is trying to give them that causes them to experience aridity instead of peace. Instead of trying to learn from the experience, such people struggle to find a way out and it is in the struggle (not in the darkness) that their suffering lies.

As I reread today’s gospel and the poignant account of John the Baptist’s anxieties and doubts, I wondered if, in a later age, his namesake John of the Cross might have identified the Baptist’s experience as a “dark night”. I have always wondered why, when John has so confidently announced Jesus as the one whose “sandals he is unworthy to untie”, should now need to ask if Jesus is the one who is to come. What happened to the John who could, without fear of reprisal call the Pharisees and the Sadducees “vipers”? How could someone who was so sure of his mission and purpose in life, now have doubts? Could it be true that someone who saw himself as a prophet be surprised that he was at odds with the authorities – so much so that he was now in prison?

It was as I pondered these questions that I began to consider the “dark night of the soul” and to ask if this might explain John’s sense of doubt and insecurity.

John seems utterly confident. He preached repentance because he believed that the kingdom of heaven had come near. His message was so powerful that even the Pharisees and Sadducees came out from Jerusalem to hear him. His vision and foresight was such that he identified Jesus as the one “whose sandals he is not worthy to carry”. More than that, he has had the privilege of baptising Jesus. It must have been heady stuff. He must have felt so close to God. He was the mouthpiece of God, he was announcing the coming of the anointed one.

Now however, John is in prison. He is utterly powerless, isolated from what is happening in the world. His has lost confidence in his mission. He is not sure that Jesus really is “the one who is to come”. From prison, John needs reassurance that he has not misunderstood. He needs to be reassured that Jesus is the one and that the kingdom he proclaimed is indeed in the process of becoming a reality.

In his “dark night” John is unable to rest in God, to trust that God has all things in hand. John needs to take action. He needs to be in control. He needs to fight against the darkness instead of letting the darkness hold and transform him. He can’t let go of his sense of mission and purpose and that means that he can’t trust God. He can’t be sure that he was right.

Of course, this is pure speculation on my part. But for me it answers the question as to why John is now filled with doubt. His spiritual journey has taken an unexpected turn and he is not ready. He presumably thought that he had reached a pinnacle in his relationship with God. His confidence in his mission has led to a confidence in himself and a failure to recognise that he still has much to learn. As he is unprepared for this change in direction and, filled with self-doubt, begins to doubt God.

It is this moment that signifies the difference between Jesus and John. John, despite his courage and his prophetic qualities is at this point in his life and spiritual journey unable to let go of his sense of purpose and to completely trust in God. Jesus on the other hand, allowed God to take him to the cross. He was not sure what lay ahead, but trusted that whatever it was, God would have everything in hand and that if he, Jesus, place his trust completely in God, he would come out the other side radically transformed by whatever it was God had in store for him.

Like life itself, our spiritual journeys do not always take the route that we expect. In the light of John’s story, the question that we have to ask ourselves over and over again is this: “Do we really trust God?” and if we do, will we have the confidence and courage to rest in God even when our lives take a direction that we did not expect and that seems to have brought us to a dead halt.

God has our lives in God’s hands. Are our lives in the hands of God?

 

 

 

[1] The original reads:

“DURING the time, then, of the aridities of this night of sense (wherein God effects the change of which we have spoken, drawing forth the soul from the life of sense into that of the spirit—that is, from meditation to contemplation—wherein it no longer has any power to work or to reason with its faculties concerning the things of God, as has been said), spiritual persons suffer great trials, by reason not so much of the aridities which they suffer, as of the fear which they have of being lost on the road, thinking that all spiritual blessing is over for them and that God has abandoned them since they find no help or pleasure in good things. Then they grow weary, and endeavour (as they have been accustomed to do) to concentrate their faculties with some degree of pleasure upon some object of meditation, thinking that, when they are not doing this and yet are conscious of making an effort, they are doing nothing. “

 

 

 

Looking backwards and forwards on Advent 1

November 26, 2016

Advent 1 – 2016

Matthew 24:36-44

Marian Free

 In the name of God who was and is and is to come, who has loved, does love and will love. Amen.

If you have ever had a medical procedure you will know that you will usually receive a list of instructions telling you what you must do to prepare. Some blood tests require you to fast before hand and others do not. A visit to an obstetrician will often require you to produce a urine sample. An appointment for a breast screen will come with instructions as to what to wear and the insistence that on that day you do not use talcum powder. A booking for surgery will come with pages of instructions – don’t drink alcohol, do not eat or drink for a specified period, do not bring valuables to the hospital with you but do bring your method of payment. And as for having a colonoscopy – let’s not even go there! (Those of us who have had the experience know what is involved and those of you yet to have the pleasure, will find out soon enough.)

The point is that there are many things in our life that require careful and thoughtful preparation – travel, meals, study, buying a house, getting married and so on. While some of these need more attention than others, they are all relatively easy in the sense that the guidelines are clear, others have done it before us and by and large we know what is expected or where to go for information or advice.

Preparing for eternity is a very different proposition from preparing for surgery, travel or a job interview. For a start, no one has ever come back from the dead to tell us what it is like or to give us specific instructions as to exactly how to get in. No one, that is, except Jesus and he did not give a straight forward, easy to follow list of directions or instructions. Instead he left his followers to make sense of his teachings and to put them together in ways that made sense to them.

Preparing for eternity or for the return of Jesus, is the most important thing that we will ever do with our lives, but it is easy to put it off because it seems so remote, so far into the future that we imagine that we have plenty of time to put our lives in order. Alternatively, it is possible to become complacent, to believe that we have already done all that is necessary to enter into eternal life.

I wonder how many of us put the same amount of effort into our preparation for eternity as we do for other aspects of our lives. Do we have a check list that we refer back to see how ready we are? Are we really clear as to what is required? Have we put some effort and research into the subject or do we think we already know all that there is to know?

Many of us were brought up with a Christian faith that taught us to be good, that entrance into heaven required sticking within some prescribed guidelines – most notably the Ten Commandments. Along the way, we have learned that Jesus does not want simple obedience to a set of rules. In life, he consistently chose those who did not conform to the societal view of what does or does not constitute “goodness”, he criticized those who placed weight on outward appearances, and he constantly revised the commandments in such a way as to make it clear that it was a person’s attitude to and relationship with God that was the key to eternal life. In other words, Jesus shifted the goal posts and cast us adrift from the safety of clear rules and codes of behavior and left us to find our own direction.

Jesus knew that it was possible to do the “right thing” but to do it for the wrong reasons. He exposed the hypocrisy and shallowness of those whose outward show of goodness hid a lack of love and compassion, a self-centredness and self-congratulatory attitude that blinded them to their own weakness and frailty. Jesus sought out those who knew their own sinfulness and who relied on God’s love rather than their own efforts.

If Jesus were to offer advice for living or guidelines for attaining eternity, he would probably encourage us to seek self-awareness rather than self-righteousness, to recognise our imperfection rather than aim for perfection and to understand that we are no better than the next person rather than striving to outdo them with our “goodness”.

In the final analysis, Jesus’ incarnation demonstrated that our salvation does not depend on anything that we do for ourselves, but on what God does for us. Salvation is entirely related to God’s love for us – love that entered into our existence, challenged our concepts of right and wrong, of power and weakness, of judgment and acceptance, love that endured the worst that we can throw at it, and which loves us still. Love, that on the cross overcame evil and death so that nothing might stand between ourselves and life eternal.

On this, the first Sunday of Advent, we are urged to both look backward to Jesus’ coming in love and forward to Jesus’ coming in judgement, to place our lives in the balance and to see how we measure up.

Are we living in such a way that demonstrates our awareness of God’s love and our inability to deserve that love? Have we thrown ourselves completely on God’s mercy or are we still holding something back – in other words do we completely and utterly trust in God’s unconditional love or does some part of us still believe that we have to do something to deserve it?

Christmas is a celebration of God’s incomprehensible yet unmistakable love for us. Advent is an opportunity to ask ourselves whether or not we trust that love and whether that love has translated into love for ourselves and love for others.

Perhaps, after all, we are better not to prepare, but instead to ensure that we fully accept all that God in Jesus has done for us, such that Jesus’ return will be time of rejoicing and not a time of fearfulness and that we will be truly ready to rest in God’s love for eternity.

 

 

Under the influence

October 22, 2016

Pentecost 23 – 2016

Luke 18:15-30

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who asks that we place our trust in God alone. Amen.

“Under the influence” is an apt description of someone who is an alcoholic. It reflects the reality that their lives are determined by something external to themselves, that they have ceded power over their lives to another. Addiction is like that. It can completely take over a person, often making them utterly unable to think of anything other than the next hit, the next drink, the next bet. Sometimes they are so focused on whatever the perceived benefit of the addiction is, that they are unable to see the effect that their behaviour is having on those around them.

It is only possible an addict to escape the hold of addiction if they recognise it to be a problem. Breaking a habit, giving up substance abuse, takes an enormous act of the will. It means learning to depend on/place one’s trust in someone or something else. “Recovery” will involve will power, grit and determination and the support of others. Some people will never break the habit, they will continue to engage in the destructive behaviour even if it threatens to cost them their jobs, their families and their lives. Nothing else exerts the same power and influence over their lives and in the end, many of them give everything away, because they cannot stop themselves having one more drink, one more bet.

There are of course success stories. Some addicts do realise that they have a problem. They enter rehab programmes, join A.A. and other support groups and they follow the advice that they are given. With appropriate support systems they are able to sever their relationship with their addiction and replace it with relationships that are less destructive and disempowering.

If you have ever known anyone in the grip of addiction, you will know that it is a terrible thing that overcomes all rational thought and decision-making. Whether it be gambling, drugs or alcohol, the addiction takes such a firm grasp that the sufferer can find it almost impossible to break free. They are seemingly able to tolerate their ability to hold a job decline, their health deteriorate and their family fall apart rather than give up whatever it is that has them in its thrall.

Addiction is fairly easily recognised and most of us can feel smug that we have never allowed ourselves to be caught in its grip. In reality though many of us allow all kinds of things to control our lives, some are physical and relatively easy to identify, others are emotional and can disguise themselves in a variety of ways. We can be bound by a need to be in control or by a need for security. It is possible to allow anger, fear, resentment or bitterness to take over our lives, to determine how we live, how we interact with others.

Dependence on anything – drugs, relationships, gambling, wealth – can be limiting and life destroying, (metaphorically and physically). It means ceding control of one’s life to a substance or habit, rather than taking control and making decisions that are life-giving, liberating and empowering. What is more, dependence on substances, activities, possessions or even on our emotional needs for security are a clear sign that our relationship with God is superficial and dependent on much as outward show as it is on a deep and abiding trust in God’s love and care for us.

A first reading of today’s gospel can lead us to think that the story about the ruler is all about money. After all, don’t those who enter the religious life give everything away, didn’t the disciples leave everything to follow Jesus, doesn’t Jesus command the ruler to sell his possessions and to follow him?

It is easy to believe that Jesus’ words to the ruler apply to all of us, but that would be to miss the point. Luke is reporting a conversation between Jesus and one other person. The ruler has come to Jesus with a specific question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

On examination Jesus discovers that the ruler already keeps the commandments – the most obvious way to attain eternal life. Despite this however, the ruler appears to be aware that something is missing from his life and his faith. That is why he has come to Jesus – not to boast in what he is doing, but to discover what it is that he is not doing. Jesus’ reply is specific to the ruler. He has in effect asked what is lacking in his faith and in his life, and Jesus recognises that it is his dependence on his possessions that is keeping him from feeling secure in God’s love, that is filling him with doubts about his worthiness to inherit eternal life. Jesus discerns that the ruler will only be truly free to accept God’s love, if he is to stop trusting in his possessions and to trust in God instead. If in the present he is not sure of God’s love, how will he be able to trust God with eternity?

The problem for the ruler was not so much that he was rich but that he couldn’t imagine life without his wealth, and without his possessions. They had such a hold on him that he could not let go. His desire for eternal life was not so strong that he was able to let that desire determine how he lived. He was so dependent on his possessions that he could not and would not exchange them for dependence on God.

When Jesus orders the ruler “to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor and to come follow him”, Jesus is helping the ruler to identify his dependence on his possessions that prevents him placing his dependence in God.

In response to the gospel there are questions that we can ask ourselves: “Where do we place our trust?” “What are we unwilling to let go?” “What habit, emotion or fear has us in its thrall? And would we give it up for the surpassing power of knowing the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord?”

 

 

Placing trust in God

July 2, 2016

                                                                                     Pentecost 7 – 2016
                              Isaiah 66:10-14c , Psalm 66:1-7,16,20, Galatians 6:14-20, Luke 10:1-12,17-20

                                                                                                                                                            Marian Free 

In the name of God who comforts us as a mother comforts her child. Amen.

When my siblings and I were children we used to be utterly amazed that, when we were travelling, our father could accurately predict when we would arrive at our destination. Often as dusk was falling my father would announce that we would reach our goal at a particular time. Sure enough we would pull into the motel at almost the minute that he predicted. It was only much later, when I had children of my own, that I recognised that this was not a unique or extraordinary talent possessed by my father but rather a simple and straight forward use of estimation based on the speed at which he was driving and the distance to our destination. I realised too that as the driver he could manipulate the speed at which he was driving to ensure that his prediction was spot on and so appear to have supernatural powers. Needless to say with that realisation came the understanding that my father was only human after all! I felt strangely cheated – apparently my father was like every other father . 

It is true for most of us I think that when we are small we trust our parents implicitly. They are for a time our protectors, the source of nourishment and the fount of all knowledge and wisdom.We rely on them to guide us as we fumble around in a world that is full of mystery and stumbling blocks. As we enter our teens not only do we have less need for protection but we also think that we have learned everything our parents could possibly teach us. In our eyes they become fallible, ignorant and restrictive and we become infallible, knowledgeable and responsible.. All our allusions are shattered and we strain to be free from their influence in and on our lives. It is only when we are older, sometimes only when we have children of our own, that we are forced to recognise that our parents are no wiser or more foolish than we ourselves and that much of what we know is due to their patience and care.

That said, the implicit trust that we placed in our parents and indeed the world is difficult if not impossible to regain once it has been broken. As grow we learn that all the love and protection they have offered cannot shield from hurt or from hardships. Once our eyes have been opened to the world as it is we cannot return to the innocence of youth. Once our naivety has been turned to cynicism it is difficult to go back. 

This is why it is so difficult to trust God. We fall out of the habit of trust and are not sure how to fall back in. We create unrealistic expectations in relation to what God can and cannot do and when God fails to deliver we are able to justify our lack of faith. We read scriptures such as those set down for today and allow ourselves to believe that they speak to a different time and place and not to us. ‘Who, in this day and age, really sets out on a journey with nothing but the clothes on their back?’ we think as  will let us off the hook.

A closer look at all the readings enables us to understand what is meant by trust and helps us to see in what way we should place our trust in God in a world that is vastly different from that of the first century Mediterranean.

In the verses from the final chapter of Isaiah we are reminded that while God cannot always protect us from harm, God is always there to comfort us – not dispassionately and from a distance, but as a loving mother might comfort her child. Jesus’ sending out of the disciples provides a warning against becoming overburdened and against placing our trust in things that ultimately cannot save us, and which only build barriers between ourselves and God and between ourselves and others. In a culture in which hospitality is not the norm, expecting others to provide even the basic necessities is unreasonable. Applying the analogy to our own lives, trusting in the material over spiritual will not bring us the peace and joy that our hearts really desire. Only God can truly satisfy the longing in our hearts.

Finally, Paul’s conclusion to the letter to the Galatians sums up what it means to trust in God: “the world has been crucified to me and I to the world” – in other words all that really matters is a relationship with, complete dependence on God.

The world is a volatile and uncertain place. There are no guarantees that God or any human being will be able to protect us from its vagaries. In this world in which so much is beyond our control, we have a choice – to try to build up walls in a vain attempt to shield ourselves from harm or to trust that in good times and in bad God will be there to hold, support and comfort us. Even if ‘we are tried as silver is tried’ ‘God will keep us among the living and will not allow our foot to slip.’

Trust in God is not a childish, sentimental, superficial and self-serving emotion, but a mature, deep, conscious and determined belief that no matter what the circumstances, God has and will see us through.

Trust and doubt

December 19, 2015

Advent 4 – 2015

Luke 3:39-45

Marian Free

In the name of God who inspires our trust. Amen.

I once saw a sign outside a church that read: “When all else fails pray!” At first it took me aback, then I realised that it was an accurate description of the relationship that some of us have with God. Maybe I am speaking just for myself, but I suspect that I am not the only person who tends to rely on my own resources first and remember God second. On a day-to-day basis, I think that I place my trust in God. I certainly believe that God directs my life and that I don’t have to be concerned about the future. However, I have to admit that there are times, especially in times of crisis, when my first reaction is to think of solutions rather than to commit the situation to prayer and trust that God will provide me with an answer.

How far do you trust God? Do rely too much on your own resources or do you have complete confidence in God? Or – do you like most of us – vacillate between complete and utter trust and an anxiety that if we don’t do it ourselves nothing will happen. Most of us have a deep trust that God is with us, but that doesn’t meant that there are not times when we act on our own.

In this tension between trust and doubt we are not alone. Abraham left everything to set out on a crazy journey to a place that he had never heard of, led by a God who was not the God of his fathers. Yet he did not trust God to fulfill the promise of a son and took matters into his own hands. The people of Israel followed Moses into the wilderness only to waver when they got to the Promised Land. Elijah, who put to shame the priests of Baal, had moments when he thought that God had abandoned him. John the Baptist who, we are told, saw the Spirit descend on Jesus, still needed to ask Jesus if he was the one to come. The disciples, who at first so readily followed Jesus, had times of doubt – most visibly demonstrated by their absence at Jesus’ trial and crucifixion and their lack of direction after his death.

Few of us it seems are able to completely let go and let God, few of us are able to surrender ourselves entirely into God’s care. At some points in our lives we find ourselves wanting to take control. We pray: “Your will be done” and then exercise our own will.

Part of the eternal struggle is our unwillingness to trust God and our determination to go our own way. We wonder why the world is as it is, yet fail to see that time and again, we take over instead of allowing God to take charge of world affairs. The story of Eden is played out every day as human being compete with God for control as our desire for independence leads to decisions that have disastrous consequences – for ourselves and for others. When Abraham and Sarah took things into their own hands, it had disastrous consequences for themselves and for Hagar and Ishmael. When the Israelites were too afraid to trust God to lead them into the Promised Land, they sentenced themselves to forty more years in the wilderness. When Peter didn’t accept that Jesus had to suffer, he was accused of being Satan. When we take things into our own hands, it can lead to disastrous consequences. When we act on our own behalf we interfere with and subvert God’s plans for us, we delay fulfillment of God’s promise and damage our relationship with God and very often with those around us. When we fail to place our trust completely in God, we prevent God from directing our lives in ways that lead to contentment and peace, for ourselves and for the world.

Trust exists when one person is willing to rely on another to the extent that they abandon control over the actions performed by the other and thereby risk a certain amount of uncertainty with regard to the outcome[1]. Trusting in God means handing over control and accepting that even though things don’t go the way we hope, God will be with us in the process and God will see us through to the end.

In Mary we have one example of trust outweighing doubt. Mary was deeply disturbed, agitated even by the angel’s announcement to her and her response was to challenge and to question how such a thing might be possible. Yet despite her fear and anxiety, Mary was able to stifle her incredulity and to accept not only that she would have a child, but that somehow in her conservative, closed society that God would find a way to protect both herself and her child.

Mary’s trust was not without cost. Almost from the beginning she had to let go of her promised son. Jesus caused anxiety by staying behind in Jerusalem to dialogue with the priests. On another occasion, he refused to see her claiming that those who believed were his mother, his sisters and his brothers, and all the time in the back of her mind is Simeon’s prophecy that: “a sword will pierce your own soul.” Finally, Mary has to accept and endure Jesus’ conviction and crucifixion.

Like us, Mary could not read God’s mind. When she said: “yes” to God, she did not know where it would lead her. She did not know that Joseph would still marry her, she did not realise that parenting her child would be painful and difficult, she could not have imagined that God would allow her son to suffer a slow and agonizing death and she certainly could not have imagined Jesus’ resurrection and the movement that grew up following his death and resurrection.

Like Mary, we cannot read God’s mind. We do not know what God has in store for us. We will, like her, have moments of uncertainty and doubt. But through it all we can be sure of one thing, that if only we hold fast to God’s promise, if only we have the courage to surrender ourselves entirely to God, not only will our lives work out for the better, but our very surrender to God will contribute to the salvation of the world and the coming of God’s kingdom.

[1] A paraphrase from Wikipedia.


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