Gaudete in Domino semper

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

From time to time, if we are able to see through the aura of accumulated holiness hanging thick around the heroes of the Bible, the saints and the prophets, we find in them a remarkable ignorance.  They so often have no clue about how the circumstances of their lives actually fit into the movement of God in their time.  John the Baptist, for example, seems so average here.  It’s as if he is conscious of being carried along by a stream, but is not entirely sure of where the stream is going.

David Roche, in his book The Church of 80% Sincerity writes:

The Principle of Delayed Understanding…states that you cannot understand what is going on while it is going on….consciousness always lags behind reality. Here is proof: How many of you are still trying to figure out things that happened in your childhood, twenty, forty years ago? The best you can hope for is to minimize the length of time it takes to catch on….When you think you understand what is going on while it is going on, you are most likely delusional. This is simply a statement of reality and frees us from the need to pretend, to beat ourselves up for not knowing the right words or actions. Don’t worry about not knowing the answer immediately. Don’t confuse yourself with Google.

Half the battle of being a person of faith is learning to live with ambiguity, of accepting uncertainty; the other half is learning how to live with it, of not allowing our ignorance to paralyze us with anxiety or diminish our hope.

Consider the rabbinical story, found in various tellings, commonly known as Elijah and the Cow:

Rabbi Jachanan went on a journey with the prophet Elijah. They walked all day, and when evening came they arrived at the humble cottage of a poor man, whose only treasure was a cow. This poor man ran out of his cottage, and his wife ran too, greeting the strangers and welcoming them in for the night.  They offered them all the simple hospitality which they were able to give in their humble circumstances. Elijah and the Rabbi were given plenty of the cow’s milk, and butter, yoghurt and cheeses.  Satisfied, they were put to sleep in the only bed while their kindly hosts lay down before the kitchen fire.

But in the morning the poor man’s cow was dead.  The Rabbi looked at Elijah, but he was silent.

Again, they walked all the next day, and came in the evening to the house of an extremely wealthy man. This man, however, was cold hearted and inhospitable, and all that he would do for Elijah and the Rabbi was to lodge them in his cowshed and feed them stale bread and water. In the morning, Elijah thanked him for his hospitality, and – noting that one of the walls in the shed was falling down – sent for a man to repair it, paying the bill himself.  Finally, Elijah and the Rabbi were on their way again.

Rabbi Jachanan, unable to keep silent any longer, exasperated with Elijah, begged the holy man to explain himself and the way he had treated the two hosts. 

‘In regard to the poor man and his wife who received us so hospitably,’ replied Elijah, ‘it was decreed that the wife was to die that night.  However, knowing how much the man loves his wife, I pleaded with the angel of death – who never leaves empty handed – that he should take the cow instead.’

‘And with regard to the inhospitable rich man, I repaired his wall because I noticed a jar of gold coins concealed in it, and if the miser had repaired the wall himself he would have discovered the treasure, something for which he is not worthy.  So, say not to the Lord: What doest Thou? But say in thy heart: Must not the Lord of all the earth do right?’

Perhaps you remember how someone else once famously put it: “There are things we know we know; things we know we don’t know; and things we don’t know we don’t know.”  Personally I prefer the sentiment as expressed by the American rock band 4 Non Blondes, in their 1993 hit ‘What’s Up?‘:

And so I cry sometimes
When I’m lying in bed, just to get it all out
What’s in my head
And I, I am feeling a little peculiar
And so I wake in the morning
And I step outside
And I take a deep breath and I get real high
And I scream from the top of my lungs:
What’s going on?!

It’s Gaudete Sunday this week, the Sunday that takes its name from the first word of the introit to the Mass: Rejoice!   On this 3rd Sunday of Advent we are invited to lighten up, to Rejoice in the Lord always, to raise our heads and look for the dawning of a new age marked by the promise of healing and restoration.

This is that half of faith that says: even if I don’t understand, I will trust.  The half that led the disciples up the mountainside where “they worshipped him, even though they doubted” (Matthew 28:17).

Faith is never going to make perfect sense; that’s why it’s called faith.  Thank goodness.  Because in order for faith to make perfect sense it would have to be constrained by a world where everything can be measured and explained and knowable, a world without mystery or profound beauty or unbounded hope.

It is not, and neither are we.

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Manipulation

Relationships often go wrong because of our earnest and misguided efforts to manipulate others toward what is for us acceptable behaviour.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been given a book by someone who didn’t really like me, accompanied with this bit of encouragement: “I really think you need to hear this message…”.  And who hasn’t heard, at a church prayer meeting, something like this: “I think we should pray for all the people who have been waiting on a visit from the minister…”.

We have all experienced manipulation in one way or another, and I can safely say we have all dished it out too. Sooner or later, because none of us is perfect, our faults and shortcomings will emerge and become obvious to those around us, and sooner or later one of those people will find the situation unbearable and take some course of action – well intended, no doubt – to try and improve us….or remove us.

Manipulation occurs when we presume for ourselves a position of authority to judge the motivation and actions of another, and we try – indirectly –  to influence those actions to seek an outcome which gratifies us. It is not enough that the offender is at ease with him or herself, that they have a clear conscience; they have made us feel uncomfortable, and some method must be found to change their behaviour.

Manipulation is indirect, and so does not deal with real issues. What was it Jesus said?  “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’; anything more than this comes from the evil one,”(Matt 5:37) and he adds, “Ask, and it will be given you.” The problem with manipulation is that it tries to maximise change while minimising genuine involvement in the life of another. Someone’s behaviour is questionable so we attempt to bring an atmospheric change around them, hoping the new conditions will spawn awareness or shame, and eventually the desired change. How much easier to hand over a book, withhold a benefit, or promise to “pray for them”, than to go to the individual directly and say: “It might just be me, but I’m having a hard time understanding where you’re coming from, and I wonder if you can help me understand…”

Dallas Willard shares some insight into manipulation in his book, The Divine Conspiracy.  He talks about the “dynamic of request”: “The most important element in the transformation is this: As long as I am condemning my friends and relatives, or pushing my “pearls” (of wisdom and knowledge) on them I am their problem. They have to respond to me, and that usually leads to their “judging” me right back, or “biting” me, as Jesus said. But once I back away, maintaining a sensitive and non-manipulative presence, I am no longer their problem. As I listen they do not have to protect themselves from me, and they begin to open up…Because I am no longer trying to drive them, genuine communication, real sharing of hearts, becomes an attractive possibility. The healing dynamic of the request comes naturally into play. When we stand thus in the kingdom, our approach to influencing others, for their good as well as ours, will be simply to ask: to ask them to change, and to help them in any way they ask us…Asking is indeed the great law of the spiritual world through which things are accomplished in co-operation with God and yet in harmony with the freedom and worth of every individual” (The Divine Conspiracy, pg. 231ff).

Willard adds, “Kingdom rightness respects the soul need of human beings to make their judgments and decisions solely from what they have concluded is best…We do not thrive, nor does our character develop well, when this need is not respected, and this thwarts the purpose of God in our creation.

Unfortunately, in many families (and in many church families), manipulation quickly becomes the entrenched mode by which we seek to influence the other and see their behaviour changed. Many parents do not know how to relate to their children except by manipulation. “C.S. Lewis notes that he has ‘been far more impressed by the bad manners of parents to children than by those of children to parent.’ Parents are seen to treat their children with ‘an incivility which, offered to any other young people, would simply have terminated the acquaintance.’ They are dogmatic on matters the children understand and the elders don’t, they impose ruthless interruptions, flat contradictions, ridicule of things the young take seriously, and make insulting references to their friends. This provides an easy explanation to the questions, ‘Why are they always out? Why do they like every house better than their home?’ ‘Who,’ Lewis inquires, ‘does not prefer civility to barbarism?’.” (Divine Conspiracy, p. 219)

If someone’s behaviour has offended you in some way, go to them directly, without prejudging them. Maybe they are completely unaware that they have upset you.  Ask.  Don’t simmer in your anger and hurt, trying to manipulate them into better behaviour. Do as the Gospels tell us over and over again: make use of the dynamic of the direct request. And if the answer is “no”, trust them and move on.

A Week at the Airport

Just past Dudley’s workstation, off a corridor leading to the security zone, there was a multi-faith room, a cream coloured space holding an ill-matched assortment of furniture and a bookshelf of the sacred texts.

I watched a family from southern India coming to pay their respects to Ganesh, the Hindu god in charge of the fortunes of travellers, before going on to board the 1.00 p.m. BA035 flight to Chennai.  The deity was presented with some cupcakes and a rose-scented candle, which airport regulations prevented the family from actually lighting.

In the old days, when aircraft routinely fell out of the sky because large and obvious components failed – the fuel pumps gave out or the engines exploded – it felt sensible to cast aside the claims of organised religions in favour of a trust in science.  Rather than praying, the urgent task was to study the root causes of malfunctions and stamp out error through reason.  But as aviation has become ever more subject to scrutiny, as every part has been hedged by backup systems, so, too, have reasons for becoming superstitious paradoxically increased.

The sheer remoteness of a catastrophic event occurring invites us to forgo scientific assurances in favour of a more humble stance towards the dangers which our feeble minds struggle to contain.  While never going so far as to ignore maintenance schedules, we may nevertheless judge it far from unreasonable to take a few moments before a journey to fall to our knees and pray to the mysterious forces of fate to which all aircraft remain subject and which we might as well call Isis, God, Fortuna or Ganesh – before going on to buy cigarettes and Chanel No. 5 in the World Duty Free emporium on the other side of security.

At the end of one of my first meetings at my new job at London Heathrow Airport, one of the other participants slid a small book across the table toward me.  “Have you seen this?” he asked, “I think you might enjoy it”.

It was a copy of Alain de Botton’s book, A Week at the Airport – A Heathrow Diary.  In 2009 de Botton was invited to be Heathrow’s first writer in residence, spending a full week exploring the day-to-day rhythms of the airport.  The resulting reflections, including the one above, are delightful.  As one of his commentators says, “I doubt if de Botton has ever written a dull sentence in his life.”

It was only after several days of frequenting the shops that I started to understand what those who objected to the dominance of consumerism at the airport might have been complaining about.  The issue seemed to centre on an incongruity between shopping and flying, connected in some sense to the desire to maintain dignity in the face of death.

Despite the many achievements of aeronautical engineers over the last few decades, the period before boarding an aircraft is still statistically more likely to be the prelude to a catastrophe than a quiet day in front of the television at home.  It therefore tends to raise questions about how we might best spend the last moments before our disintegration, in what frame of mind we might wish to fall back down to earth – and the extent to which we would like to meet eternity surrounded by an array of duty-free bags.

Those who attacked the presence of the shops might in essence have been nudging us to prepare ourselves for the end….  

Despite its seeming mundanity, the ritual of flying remains indelibly linked, even in secular times, to the momentous themes of existence – and their refractions in the stories of the world’s religions.  We have heard about too many ascensions, too many voices from heaven, too many airborne angels and saints to ever be able to regard the business of flight from an entirely pedestrian perspective, as we might, say, the act of travelling by train.

Notions of the divine, the eternal and the significant accompany us covertly on to our craft, haunting the reading aloud of the safety instructions, the weather announcements made by our captains and, most particularly, our lofty views of the gentle curvature of the earth.

And so, in my own first week at Heathrow, as I established my morning routine of riding the U1 to Uxbridge and then the A10 to Heathrow’s Central Bus Terminal, and the reverse in the afternoon, I was accompanied by de Botton’s witty and perceptive insights into the world which was now my workplace.

It seemed appropriate that I should bump into two clergymen just outside a perfume outlet, which released the gentle, commingled smell of some eight thousand varieties of scent.  The older of the pair, the Reverend Sturdy, wore a high-visibility jacket with the words ‘Airport Priest’ printed on the back…

…I asked the two men to tell me how a traveller might most productively spend his or her last minutes before boarding for take-off.  The Reverend was adamant: the task, he said, was to turn one’s thought intently to God.

‘But what if one can’t believe in him?’ I pursued.

The Reverend fell silent and looked away, as though this were not a polite question to ask a priest.  Happily, his colleague, weaned on a more liberal theology, delivered an equally succinct but more inclusive reply, to which my thoughts often returned in the days to come as I watched planes taxiing out to the runways: ‘The thought of death should usher us towards whatever happens to matter most to us; it should lend us the courage to pursue the way of life we value in our hearts.”

The names have been changed, no doubt, but as I read this account I became immensely proud of the airport chaplains I have been called to serve, thankful that in such a place men and women of diverse faiths can be found to aid those travellers who are considering weightier issues than boarding passes, duty-free shops, and where-is-the-toilet.

The notion of the journey as a harbinger of resolution was once an essential element of the religious pilgrimage, defined as an excursion through the outer world undertaken in an effort to promote and reinforce an inner evolution.  Christian theorists were not in the least troubled by the dangers, discomforts or expense posed by pilgrimages, for they regarded these and other apparent disadvantages as mechanisms whereby the underlying spiritual intent of the trip could be rendered more vivid.  Snowbound passes in the Alps, storms off the coast of Italy, brigands in Malta, corrupt Ottoman guards – all such trials merely helped to ensure that a trip would not be easily forgotten.

Whatever the benefits of prolific and convenient air travel, we may curse it for its smooth subversion of our attempts to use journeys to make lasting changes in our lives.

What a rich and wonderful way to spend my commute in my own First Week at the Airport.

Adversity and Authenticity

Wandering through IKEA recently I came across a display. There, in a plexiglass box, was a living room chair accompanied by a robotic machine that was submitting the chair, over and over again, to the rigors of being sat upon. By the time I saw it, the machine had “sat down” in the chair more than 10,000 times. The point of the demonstration, of course, was to impress upon customers how well the chair was made, and to give an indication of how long it would last.

The IKEA chair display points to an important life principle: Adversity is a test of Authenticity.

In Luke chapter 4 we read of Jesus, recently baptized and anointed for ministry, being led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where he is first tested by an extended period of solitude and fasting, and then tempted by the devil. When he emerges tried and tested, he is ready for public ministry.

This lesson from the Gospel is not merely a retelling of what happened to Jesus. In these events we see a pattern for our own experience with regard to almost any calling or commitment: first comes an Affirmation, followed by a test of Authenticity, and finally the process is completed by the exercise of Authority.

This being the First Sunday of Lent, our focus is on the second part of Jesus’ call to ministry, where he is led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days (biblical language for “an absurd amount of time, until the job is completed”).

The first thing we notice is that this isn’t a matter of happenstance in Jesus’ life.  He didn’t just lose his map and wander off into the wilderness. The scriptures make it clear that the Spirit compelled him to this action.

Does it seem a dreadful thing to you that God’s Spirit would purposefully send us into a place in life where our energies flag, where we are alone, where we are tempted, where we are surrounded by wild beasts….and then leave us there for a long time?

But you know as well as I do that this really does happen. Figuratively speaking it happens to all of us at some point in life. One day everything seems to be going along just fine and then suddenly and unexpectedly we end up in a barren place, a place that is unfamiliar, uncomfortable and frightening. How we wish we could escape! How we long to prove ourselves and have things go back to the way they were before! Will I ever make it out of this space, or must I endure it to the end?

Rainer Maria Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, writes, “Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change.”

Adversity is a test of authenticity. Have you declared your love for someone? That will be tested. Have you signed a contract or made a commitment? Trying days are ahead for you. Have you pledged your services to the community? Be wary of rejection. Have you made a 10-year plan for the next phase of your life? Good luck with that.

It is not that those things are immature, wrong or delusional. They are all very good things to do. But the Spirit of God is interested in something far more fundamental than our goals and objectives; the Spirit is concerned that we become mature, well-rounded individuals. Our projects we leave behind; our souls are eternal.

To follow the Spirit into the wilderness means opening ourselves to life’s challenges; to those difficulties that will leave us either bitter or better. We choose. The story of Jesus in the wilderness is a reminder that all of us, even the greatest among us, can expect to have the authenticity of our callings tested by adversity.

What must I do?

The insidiousness of the influence of wealth upon those who have it is aptly illustrated by Jacob Loewen in his account of a seminar on worldview which he conducted for some Indian teachers and their missionary colleagues several years ago. He explained to the group that each culture has at its center an “axle” from which radiates all the “spokes” which hold the wheel together and help it perform its appointed tasks smoothly and without undue difficulty. Wondering whether he was getting through to the teachers, he asked them to name the hub around which the (foreign) missionaries way of life revolved. “Money!” was the unhesitating and unanimous response from the group. The missionaries were visibly taken aback.

 Asked by the slightly incredulous Loewen how they could be so sure that money was the axle of the missionaries’ worldview, the Indian teachers recounted incidents which in their eyes were clear proof that money was at the core of all material and spiritual aspects of Western missionary life and work.

 “What about your fathers and grandfathers before the missionary and the white man came,” Loewen continued to probe, “what was the axle of their way of life?” “War,” came the immediate response. Spokesmen within the group explained that their grandfathers had practised killing because that was the way to get spirit power. Spirit power had been, in effect, the integrating hub of their grandfathers’ way of life. Had their grandfathers been Christians, the teachers explained to Loewen, the Spirit of God would have been the center of their lives, “because He…is the most powerful of all spirits.”

 “And now that all of you are Christians,” Loewen persisted, “is the Spirit of God the axle of your Christian way of life, too?”

“No,” came the response, “our axle now is…money…because that is what we have learned from the missionaries.”                                  – Jonathan Bonk, Missions and Money

Mark Twain once wrote: “You have heard it said, ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket’, but I tell you, “Put all your eggs in one basket….and watch that basket!”.

The Rich Young Ruler had his eggs in a number of baskets, foremost his wealth and his religious observance.

Still he lacks peace; he wants to be sure of how to secure eternal life.

Our quest for wisdom leans not so much on finding the right answers as it does asking the right questions. Ask the right question and the answer often becomes plain.

“What will become of me?” is rarely a good question. It is too remote, beyond our ability to satisfy. More helpful is to ask, “What next step is most honourable, the one that will maintain my integrity?”

Jesus challenges him to put all his eggs in a different basket: “sell everything you have and give to the poor…then come follow me.”

The young man (who is Everyman) falsely believes Jesus is asking him to become destitute. Jesus is merely asking him to align his actions with his words, to be willing to exchange his material security for a more enduring source of purpose and contentment. A choice between something and nothing is no choice at all; a true choice is always between two somethings. Spiritual growth is as much about relinquishment as it is about attainment. Learning about the things we must grasp will do us no good if we don’t learn about the things of which we must let go.

Peter and Andrew, standing there as witnesses, have already demonstrated, by leaving their nets behind, that it can be done, that a life of learning to pray “give us THIS day our daily bread” is not just one viable option among many, but the only way to follow the way of Jesus. Here we see a call to discipleship which is sadly declined and our own hearts – as knowing readers of the Gospel – go out to the young man.

The Rich Young Ruler does what we all do at times: mistake the thing for its meaning, believing his material wealth had intrinsic value. When we give thanks for the many blessings in our lives, we should be careful to thank God not simply for the possessions themselves, but for what lies behind our blessings. For home and hearth, yes, we thank Thee, Lord. But more importantly, we thank you that safety, security and a place to call our own is something that is in harmony with how the universe was intended to be. Some, but certainly not all, enjoy that blessing already. We thank the divine for healthy bodies and minds, but even more that our Creator made us with memory, reason and skill, and the long experience of humanity has secured for us remarkable cumulative achievements in medicine and healthcare. We thank God for our family and friends, but also that we were made to live in community, where laughter and joy and heartache and sorrow are shared.

I can identify

“Gordon!  What a lovely surprise – I didn’t expect to find you here!”

I was standing at a reception in the garden at Lambeth Palace, the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, chatting with a few others who, like me, had been invited to a gathering of international faith representatives.  The posh voice behind me was clearly happy to have discovered “Gordon” in the crowd, the greeting loud enough to break up our conversation and cause our little group, and others, to turn in unison out of curiosity.

As I turned I became aware of an odd thing: it was me who was being addressed, the unexpected focal point of attention.  The look on the speaker’s face turned instantly from one of delight, to confusion, and then to flushed embarrassment.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” he said, “From the back you look just like Gordon Brown.”  There was a ripple of laughter from those standing around, realizing that I had been mistaken for the man who was then Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer (and would soon be Prime Minister).

Later in my hotel room, before changing my suit for more relaxed clothing, I spent a moment trying to eye myself in the mirror from behind.  Yes, I thought, I can see the semblance.  But then, I do need a haircut.

Have you ever been mistaken for someone else?  Or worse, have you ever mistaken the identity of another?  I remember an awkward moment on a department store down escalator when the woman to whom I gave a couple of friendly waves on the up escalator turned out NOT to be the partner of my colleague at work.  Where to look as we drew near and then passed?

“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus wanted to know from the disciples.   And they answered him, “some say you are John the Baptist; and others think you could be Elijah; and still others, one of the other prophets, maybe.  Then he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.””

John the Baptist was a obvious choice, a popular preacher beheaded by the regional king; some harboured the thought that John might come back to life and give the king his comeuppance.  Elijah?  A common belief was that the great prophet of old would make his own second appearance, ushering in the age of the Messiah.  But, barring those two, people were fairly sure Jesus was some kind prophet in his own right, or one of those from ages past making a return.

The question of Jesus’ identity didn’t seem to matter much to the crowd.  They still followed him around the Galilean countryside no matter what they thought about who he was.  Whoever he was, he had a power and authority that brought good to their lives.  The disciples themselves were still trying to work out exactly who Jesus was years after he had gone from them.

The truth be told, the followers of Jesus today, if we take in all the various streams and denominations of Christianity, let alone the millions of individual believers like you and me, also have vastly differing ideas about who Jesus is, in the sense of what he is like, what he stands for, and the significance of his life and teaching.  I confess I’m sometimes embarrassed or confused about the things my co-religionists say about Jesus, or the things they think are necessary to follow in his footsteps.  I’m sure I cause them equal embarrassment at times.

Does it matter, the understanding we have of Jesus?

Yes, actually, it does.  Bishop N.T. Wright, in his book Surprised by Hope, says “One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship…outward to the world around.”  Some of the worst atrocities and injustices in human history have been carried out in the name of Christ, not by people who were simply looking for an excuse to do what they wanted, but by those who genuinely thought they were doing the will of God, who thought they were acting in accordance with the spirit of Christ.

One of the things that surprised me most when I was ordained and assumed responsibility for teaching in the church was the remarkably low level of knowledge many regular church-goers have with regard to the faith they affirm.  Aside from a weekly sermon (and who, really, is listening?) many Christians receive no further instruction or training, go no further than reciting and puzzling over the words of the Creed.

When I was the chaplain of Amsterdam’s NFL football team, the Admirals, I would sometimes pose this question to the guys in chapel: “What do you think would happen to me if you put me, as I am, in for a play, handing the ball to me to run with it?”  Invariably, these men would start to chuckle before they answered the question.  “Dog,” they would say, “you’d be dead!”

“Why?” I would plead, “I’m not too small am I?”

“No, you ain’t too small; you’re just totally unprepared.  You aren’t fit like we are, you don’t know the playbook, you haven’t trained.”

“And you?” I would ask, turning the tables, “what makes you think you are going to be able to make your journey of faith, walk successfully as a follower of Jesus, if you have done absolutely nothing to prepare for that endeavour?”

Calling the crowd to join his disciples, (Jesus) said, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead.  You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am.  Don’t run from suffering, embrace it.  Follow me and I’ll show you how.  Self-help is no help at all.  Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self.  What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?   (The Message, Eugene Peterson)

If we, like Peter, have professed our belief that Jesus is one anointed by God, that he is the one we intend to follow and be identified with, to learn from him and be the kind of person he was, we are going to have to apply ourselves.

I finish with the words of Brennan Manning:

The Carpenter did not simply refine Platonic and Aristotelian ethics, reorder Old Testament spirituality, or renovate the old creation. He brought a revolution. We must renounce all that we possess, not just most of it. We must give up our old way of life, not merely correct some slight aberrations in it. We are to be an altogether new creation, not simply a refurbished version of it. We are to be transformed from one glory to another, even into the very image of the Lord – transparent. Our minds are to be renewed by a spiritual revolution.   The primal sin, of course, is to go on acting as if it never happened. When we are hungry for God, we move and act, become alive and responsive; when we are not, we are dilettantes playing spiritual games. “God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance,” said Abraham Herschel. And intense inner desire to learn to think like Jesus is already the sign of God’s presence. The rest is the operation and activity of the Holy Spirit.

 

A walking stick will do

I sometimes wonder at what point Jesus Christ, looking down on successive generations of those who bore his name, began to get a bit worried that the project he started might seriously have gone off the rails.

Was it when the Roman Emperor Constantine – still a murderous tyrant after his “conversion” experience – elevated his new-found religion to primus inter pares among the religions of the Roman empire and ushered in the age of Christendom with all its presumed privilege and power?

Or perhaps it was a bit later when most of the followers of Christ swallowed hook-line-and-sinker the musings of another Roman citizen, Augustine of Hippo, regarding original sin and just war, giving us both a motivation and a justification for NOT loving our neighbours as ourselves.  “It’s just my nature” was married perfectly to “he had it coming”.

Back at the beginning of the project, when Jesus of Nazareth first started out as a public figure, the approach was somewhat different.  After giving his followers a good taste of what his message was all about (among other things: wholeness, justice, healing, freedom and responsibility), and showing them that standing for these things brought both recognition and opposition, he invited them to give it a try themselves.

And Jesus began to send the disciples out two by two, and he gave them authority over unclean spirits.  And he directed them not to take anything for the journey, except their walking sticks: “No food, no bag, no money in your wallet.  Just strap on your sandals and go, but don’t take an extra layer of clothing either.”

In other words, to walk in the way of Jesus means to embrace simplicity and vulnerability.  Sure, feel free to take the things helpful to the journey itself – a walking stick and shoes – but other than that, travel as light as you can. Avoid those things that make you self-sufficient, that keep you from relying on others. Authority is given on a spiritual level, but it is matched with a distinct lack of resources in the physical world of daily existence; there’s a necessary link there.

The long history of religions, Christianity included, has proven this wisdom: religion is at its worst when entangled with the accoutrements of power.

Of course, all of this is the perfect instruction for our individual spiritual journeys.  The Apostle Paul, writing to the fractured and dysfunctional parish in Corinth, urges them to grow up spiritually by following his own example of vulnerability.  “The Lord told me, ‘My grace is enough for you – for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So I shall most gladly boast of my weaknesses, that Christ’s power may come to rest on me….For when I am weak, then I am powerful.”

Looking back in my own life I know I have been most helped along my journey not by the televangelist with the slick looks, great oration and highly-resourced ministry, but by the simple servant who was willing to admit his or her own struggles and incompetencies.  Not by the one who has all the answers, but by the one whose questions echo in my own experience.  Not by the one leaning on appointments and accolades, but by the one serving quietly, in small and fitting gestures.  By the ones who know that if they are going to make it farther along the road themselves, they are going to have to rely on the help of others.

Where there is love and wisdom, there is neither fear nor ignorance;

where there is patience and humility, there is neither anger nor annoyance;

where there is poverty and joy, there is neither greed nor avarice;

where there is peace and contemplation, there is neither care nor restlessness;

where there is the fear of God to guard the dwelling, there no enemy can enter;

where there is mercy and prudence, there is neither harshness nor excess.

           – Francis of Assisi

I have my walking stick and shoes; Lord, make me to walk in your way.