Tuesday, 31 August 2010

The Greenbelt 2010 Soul Space Meditations

So another Greenbelt has come and gone and hopefully we've all returned home with new ideas and new challenges. Thank you to those of you who asked me to put these up on line. These are the meditations from Soul Space on the theme of the Art of Looking Sideways. Please feel free to pass these on but please reference back to this page. Many thanks.

The Art of Looking Sideways: Number One
Looking Sideways at Chaos

There is an on-going battle, it seems, between order and chaos. One might argue that wars have been fought over it. Order sometimes means, ‘What my country thinks is the right way to govern’, and you might even wonder whether both the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts were the result of the democratic ruling powers perceiving the alternatives as being chaotic and trying to impose order.

It happens on every level. Have you cleared up after someone, or been cleared up after? Converting chaos to order seems to be a human drive.

The battle between order and chaos is also a continuing theme throughout the Bible. In fact it’s there right at the beginning, and is only resolved right at the end. For the Jew, and for the early Jewish Christians, chaos was represented by the sea. If you read scripture carefully you can get an idea of the understanding of the universe that the early Israelites had. To them, (and you can read this in the first creation story in Genesis 1), the world was flat. Over the world, God had created a dome across which the sun, moon and stars moved. That dome kept in check the waters of chaos, the blue behind the sky. Underneath them, the earth kept in check the waters below, which sometimes bubbled up, and were seen in the seas and oceans. God’s judgement, seen in the flood story beginning in Genesis 6, was to allow the waters of chaos access to the world. So in Genesis 7:11 you see the ‘...fountains of the great deep burst forth’ - the waters of chaos coming up through the earth, and ‘...the windows of the heavens were opened’ - God letting in the waters above through the dome. Altogether this chaos, permitted in by God, destroyed much of what was present so that a new beginning could ensue.

This battle between the waters of chaos and the ordering of God continues right through to the end of the Bible until the penultimate chapter of Revelation, chapter 21 verse 1, where the new heaven and earth were created, with the very telling line, ‘... and the sea was no more.’ In other words, chaos had been wiped out; the battle was won, and there was no longer any threat.


Is it is all really quite as clear as that? Might it not be possible that chaos is a tool of God, not his (or our) enemy? Chaos keeps us on our toes, and more importantly chaos provides us with the space for wisdom to grow. It challenges us to see things differently, and that, I believe, is the point.

There is a lovely passage about this in Proverbs 8:22-31 concerning the creation of wisdom by God.
The passage describes how wisdom was the first thing that God created, before there was any physical creation. The most telling line, in this context, is verse 29:
“...when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command... ...I was beside him.”

This refers to the waters of chaos, as well as to the physical oceans, and what it suggests is that God permits chaos, not so that it will reign, because that would be unholy. No, he sets it strict limits, something that any scientist will tell you is the only way in which we can have stability and life, but nevertheless chaos is present because it keeps disturbing the order so that wisdom can spring afresh.

So what, then, does this have to say to us? Well I think it speaks volumes about change and movement. It is possible, up to a point, to hold chaos completely in check, eliminating anything new and keeping ourselves as safe as possible. Does that sound like a policy statement? And yes, we will feel safe. But we will also stagnate. We will have lives that are about as interesting as a brick. We have to try new things in our lives in order for there to be disturbance and a stretch towards a new equilibrium. If we don’t do this, then we give wisdom no occasion to grow. I’m not saying that it will be comfortable, and nor should it be the permanent state for anyone to exist in: chaos is a place we cross through, not somewhere we reside. But unless our equilibrium is disturbed from time to time, and unless we take steps to ensure that happens, then we cannot grow and become more than we are. God has determined that our wisdom shall grow through risk, not through safety. Far be it from us to ignore this underlying principle in God’s creation.

Does your life feel chaotic at the moment? Have you wondered whether that’s because God is taking you into transition or offering a new perspective?
(Or maybe you’re just too busy!!)
God bless us and disturb us.

The Art of Looking Sideways : Number Two
A sideways look at church purity, unity and division

Are you an artist?
Can you mix colours effectively?
Or maybe you completely understand the frustration children feel when mixing different paints always seem to result ultimately with the same shade of dark brown...

One of the most amazing things about colour is the way in which all colours, shades and hues are derived from pure white. I’ve never forgotten an experiment we did as school children with dividing up a circle of card into seven equal portions. Into each portion we painted the different colours of the rainbow. We then pushed a pencil through the middle as a pivot and set the circle spinning. To our amazement all the colours blurred into white demonstrating some basic physics to an astonished group of ten year olds. This, of course, is fundamental to why rainbows appear when sun shines through rain, as the almost white light from the sun is split into its component colours by the water droplets in the air.

But what has this to do with church?

Remember all the snow we had in February? When we think of snow we often think of white, and the phrase ‘...as pure as the driven snow’, because bright whiteness always reminds us of purity. Indeed there are pictures all through the Bible of God as being clothed in dazzling white, so intense that we can’t look upon him.

Then there’s the church and the call to be pure as the Bride of Christ, also dressed in virginal white. However in order to understand this call to church purity we need to recognise what I’ve shown above, that white is a compound of many colours. If we ignore this we miss out on what shape the church is supposed to take. For example different types of people tend to gravitate towards different types of churches according to their personal preference. Is that really helpful? Should we give in to that part of human nature that only wants to be around people like ourselves? Ultimately that turns into a very lonely existence because everybody will disagree about something.

What might it be like if there was less choice in where to worship?
Would we manage to cope with a far more diverse array of people?
Or would churches still tend to be just as monochromatic with everyone still expected to conform?
Could charismatics, liberals, evangelicals and traditionalists exist as one community of worshippers?

What would a church be like if no tradition was allowed to feel that theirs was the ‘right’ one?

This would be hugely challenging because it would mean being actively welcoming of diversity and never just slipping into simple grudging acceptance. This would mean accepting the noisy children, the loud opinions, those who can’t sing in tune, those who sing loudly, those who dress in a style very different from our own personal preference, those whose politics are different from ours, and so on.

Shouldn’t we celebrate those differences as a sign of a healthy church?

If we ever get to the point where everyone present is genuinely satisfied with the church services, will we truly have failed?

Might that not mean we will have become monochrome?

If we do not celebrate the multicoloured nature of society and styles of worship, then we will quite literally lose any hope of purity, because pure white only exists when one blends all of the colours together.

How rainbow-coloured is your church?

What could be changed? Might it be you?

The Art of Looking Sideways: Number Three
A sideways look at good news

Why are we so fascinated by bad news, and should this be different for Christians? For an earlier generation it used to be said that everyone knew where they were when Kennedy was assassinated. For us it’s more likely to be that you remember where you were on 9/11.

Sandra and Dave (not their real names) were on holiday in Spain, waiting for two friends to fly out and join them. They knew nothing of the events taking place in New York but it just so happened that their two friends were in the air at the time of the first jet hitting the Twin Towers. Had their plane been a later one they would never have made it since international airspace was rapidly closed down. As it was, when they arrived the news was all over the airwaves, except that Sandra and Dave were on holiday and had no idea what had been taking place until their friends landed, a little late and rather flustered, and began to explain the events. The next few days were strange since, having not taken the slightest notice of the news on holiday, they were now clamouring to find out anything they could. But with no TV they had to rely on trying to get English newspapers. And so they bought anything that they could to find out what had happened? Why was that?

Partly, I suppose, it was to do with the concern about getting home if flights were still grounded. Those of you who knew someone trapped on the continent by the volcanic dust cloud a couple of months ago will understand. But that wasn’t the only reason...

One reason, I believe, that we are attracted to bad news rather than good news is simply down to threat assessment. All animals maintain an awareness of their environment because we all fear the unexpected extinguishing of life. Watch the birds in your garden when they’re on the bird table. There will be a quick peck and then a look around as the bird assesses the current threat level, then another quick peck followed by another look around. All animals are doing it all of the time, and so naturally we are attracted to bad news because when something bad happens to someone else we want to know about it in order to assess whether what happened to them is a threat to us too. I imagine that the modern cultural obsession with safety has heightened this awareness amongst westerners. However, that is only an evolutionary biologist’s view, and that is not, I believe, the whole story. There is also a deeply spiritual side to it too.
Paula Gooder translates 2 Corinthians 4:4 likes this:
In them the god of this age has blinded the thoughts of the unbelievers so that the light of the good news of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, might not shine forth.

Who is the ‘god of this age’. Some might interpret that as meaning the devil, but Paula pointed out how unlikely it was that St. Paul would have referred to satan as a ‘god’. It is far more likely that this refers to the same kind of things as we colloquially refer to as ‘the gods of the age’, such as money wealth, power, status etc. You see the idea of threat runs far deeper than a threat of death. I think we have also become very concerned with the threat to our money, our status, our power. Maybe we are concerned about bad news because we have become spiritually blind. All we can see are the material trappings of life and our greatest fears revolve around losing those material trappings. Perhaps good news doesn’t concern us because we’re more worried about losing what we have than we are about celebrating anything good, and for this reason we persist in seeing the bad news despite strong scientific evidence that if we have a positive outlook on life then we will be in a better state of mind and health too.

From a spiritual perspective that sadly means that it is possible for people simply not to recognise the glory of God pouring forth into this age. We need therefore to be the ones who do see it and point it out to people. We’ve become well trained by our animal instincts and cultural influence to see the bad news because of the threats to the trappings of western life. This is why we need to be transformed, or to put aside the ‘...ways of the flesh’ as St. Paul puts it, which contrary to popular thought isn’t all about sex but is basically about what I’ve just said; the concerns for material life.

So here’s a challenge: Put this down and think of ten positive things that have happened in your life today or very recently. Then give thanks to God for them. In this way you are seeing the glory of God, and you have some good news to share with someone else. Try it again tomorrow. And the day after. We can be changed into people who see the good news and give thanks for it rather than those who persist in worrying about losing what they already have. We can become ‘good news’ people because we are content with what we have.

The Art of Looking Sideways: Number Four
A sideways look at marriage

Love sets us free. Yet marriage is all about commitment. How do these two go together? If anything, people assume that being married actually ties you down.

You know.... ‘the old ball and chain’ ....

So if marriage is all about commitment, how can it set you free?

We collect baggage as we go through life. All of us. It happens. For some this can be a heavier load than for others, but it’s true of all of us. Mostly it’s to do with trying to figure out who we are and trying to live with what other people say about us, or how they react to us. Everyone has an opinion about you, and that ties you up, putting boundaries on who you can be.

The result? Maybe we feel insecure about who we are and who we should be, and we can often feel like we’re walking a tightrope, or treading on egg shells as we try and work this one out. So other people’s opinions of us can bind us up and stop us fully becoming the person God invites us to be.

But marriage changes that, because here is someone who promises us that they will love us for the person that we are, with no strings attached. In the arms of our God-given lover we do not have to try and be anyone else. We can get on with the process of becoming free to be the person God created us to be, and when that begins to happen then the whole community benefits.

Marriage should set us free because we are loving and being loved unconditionally for who we are. This kind of loving for each other, with passion and commitment, should be a genuine reflection of the love that God has for us...

...which is why it sets us free!

When you love someone like that, you’re learning to love them like God loves them.

1 Corinthians 13 contains these phrases:
Love is patient and kind.
Love does not insist on its own way.
Love bears all things. Love hopes all things. Love endures all things.

That seems like a tall order for love doesn’t it, but the reason that St. Paul can say those amazing things about love is because of the kind of love he was writing about.

We only have one word for love in the English language:

I love jelly and ice-cream. I love my car. I love my wife/husband.
Definitely not the same ‘love’.

St. Paul, writing originally in Greek, had a choice of words for the different kinds of love, and the word which he used, agapĂ©, was for the type of love that chooses always to love, no matter what happens. It’s the kind of love that rises above emotion and feeling and depends instead on decision. That’s why it’s so important in marriage.

We all know that there will be days when we won’t feel all that loving towards our partner, but this kind of love can still say, absolutely and positively, “I love you, for who you are, not what you’ve done, and regardless of how I feel today.”

Committed love like that... It sets you free.

One more thing. As love sets us free, it also calls us back again and again into commitment to the person we love. Over the years you will grow and change, and who you are in twenty years time will be different from who you are now. Remember that the love St. Paul writes about can cope with and actually rejoice in the changes that love brings about, because it’s based on commitment and promise.

Love sets us free to be who God calls us to be, and that will help you to love each other even more as love’s roots grow deeper and deeper, binding you together like two mighty oaks growing side by side in such a way that, as their roots entwine, it steadily becomes harder to know where one ends and the other begins.

If you’re married or hoping to be soon, is your relationship setting you free through commitment? If not, what needs to change?

Do you love your beloved for who they are...
...or do you want them to be someone else?

The Art of Looking Sideways: Number Five
A Sideways look at the idea of Religion as a Crutch

Have you ever broken a leg or injured yourself in such a way as to be unable to walk unaided?

I saw an elderly woman on a beach clambering over rocks using crutches, not just sticks, but crutches for support, and then going all the way down to the beach for a paddle. Her family were obviously worried but she had determination, you could see it written all over her face. I could imagine her as an athlete in her younger days and wondered how much she must mourn the ability to stand unaided on her own two feet. Without her crutches she could not have got far.

Do you wonder whether the same is true of our beliefs? Many people do, and maybe we fear that we only believe to get us through the hard times (even though we’ve got a bit sick of the ‘Footprints’ poem). Some think that Christians can’t stand unaided; that we’re too weak and feeble as people and that we need Christianity as a crutch just to get through life.

Is that true? Or is it actually the other way around? I find myself wondering whether that’s just an excuse for not engaging with the real challenges of life through their spirituality. I wonder whether, far from being a crutch, our beliefs drive us to take responsibility rather than run away from it. Take the sacraments for instance, and I think the best way I can describe this is by imagining the old British Railways logo of the two interlocking arrows. Now turn them through ninety degrees so that the first one points down and the next one points up, and then keep on adding down and up arrows. This is how sacraments work. For example let’s think about the sacrament of confession. Now this is not something that we do terribly often in the Anglican church as individuals (although we all do it together on a Sunday), but it is available here and many Anglican priests are happy to offer this ministry. Now in worldly terms the idea of coming to a priest so that he or she can listen to your confession and then tell you that you are forgiven sounds like a real crutch for the weak so that they don’t feel so bad about themselves. The reality, however, is that confession is perhaps the ultimate in taking real responsibility. First there has been the down arrow, the gentle conviction from the Holy Spirit that something needs to change, that something needs to stop and be put behind us.

Then comes the act of responsibility, of going, in confidence, to a priest and explaining what has been done wrong, or bringing an awareness of it to church on Sunday, taking responsibility for it, and recognising that forgiveness is needed. That’s the up arrow, of reaching towards God. There then follows another down arrow in God’s willingness to forgive and restore, and this is then followed by another up arrow as we give God thanks for his grace to us. Can you see that in asking for God’s forgiveness this is absolutely not a crutch. In fact it’s quite the reverse, it’s throwing away the crutch and taking responsibility for what was done wrong and seeking God’s forgiveness. I should add that sacramental confession to a priest is not a requirement of the Anglican Church, and also that it is not the priest who is forgiving the person. The priest is simply affirming to the person that God forgives them, and in so doing the person receives in themselves forgiveness which can be helpful for those struggling with guilt and for whom confession on their own has not allowed them to sense God’s forgiveness. It is most definitely not intended to be a way in which the priest takes power over someone and it is quite possible for people to seek God’s forgiveness without the aid of a priest. Regarding confession, Anglicans believe that, ‘None must, All may, Some should.’

A similar thing takes place at the Eucharist. We come to God acknowledging that we need his sustenance (and corporate confession is a part of this). Once again it might be thought that this is a crutch, but instead it is taking responsibility for ourselves. It is responding to the Holy Spirit’s invitation, (there again is the down arrow), and approaching God, the up arrow, recognising that to live as Christians we need his spiritual sustenance which we receive through the sacrament of the Eucharist. As we take the bread and wine into us, so we are making God more a part of who we are. Recognising our need is a mark of honesty, of responsibility and responding to God. It’s not about handing over the reins so that we don’t have to make decisions for ourselves. After all no one who eats normal food is accused of using their morning cereal as a crutch to get through the day! Making breakfast is an act of taking responsibility for one’s physical needs and taking communion is an act of responsibility for one’s spiritual needs.

Christianity is not a crutch, it is a way of life that demands we are honest with ourselves and take responsibility. Do you?

The Art of Looking Sideways: Number Six
A sideways look at routine

Some families go back to the same place year after year on holiday.
Why? Is it rhythm or routine?
I guess it depends on where they’re going and why.

Paul, David, Fiona, Ruth, Georgina, Simon and their families meet in North Cornwall every year. Partly it’s about being together, and they’ve done this most years for as long as they remember, but it’s also because they all love the sea, and in particular surfing. Some of the older members are too frail to cope with the rough and tumble of the Atlantic rollers, and some of the younger ones don’t dare go in beyond their knees yet. But for the most part they share a great joy in getting in there and being thrown about by the waves, testing themselves to see whether they can still catch the surf on their boards.

Their happiness is dependent on one thing, the tidal nature of the sea.
What makes the tides?

It’s the gravitational dance between the moon, the sun and the earth, so that the waters are inexorably drawn up and down the beach, with the time of high or low tide gradually moving forwards by a little under three quarters of an hour each day. But which is it, rhythm or routine? You see those two words capture similar things, yet are quite different from each other. Without any shadow of a doubt there is a cyclical nature to the movement of the moon, earth and sun, and it’s totally and utterly predictable. But is it rhythm or routine?

When the leaves fall from the trees, as they soon will, it’s because the sun is dipping lower and lower on each arc (or rather because the northern hemisphere is seeing less of the sun from this part of its annual orbit). The trees need to conserve energy for the long winter ahead so the leaves have to be dropped. But is it rhythm or is it routine?

Next year, sometime in the early spring I can guarantee that I will wake up early every morning with the sound of birdsong as nature rises from its long sleep and territories are marked out by our feathered companions as they begin the cycle of life again. But is it rhythm or routine?

Contrast the different types of music we might listen to. Some dance (house) music is geared up especially to repetitive beats, with the ‘snare’ sound always on the second and fourth beat of the bar, or for even more intensity, it may be a bass pulse on every beat. Contrast that with a Latin American piece or an African Djembe-driven drum circle. Which is rhythmical and which is routine?

If rhythm is an engine of life, what is routine? Is it just what keeps our lives ordered when all creativity has broken down? Which is it that drives us; rhythm or routine? The difference, and being aware of it, is as vital to life as the rhythm of your heart is. A heartbeat changes. It never remains static under normal conditions but adjusts according to your needs. Run faster and the rhythm will change; sleep and it will slow down. It’s never routine because in routine there is no change, no creativity, no life.

So what are our spiritual lives like, rhythmical or routine? Are we like the Franciscans, following a daily rhythm driven by prayer, or has it become the dull monotony of recitation. What about church? What kind of services do you prefer? Some prefer the more liturgical whereas others are drawn towards services that are individually crafted. But is it their different rhythms that draw us, or has it become routine?

God is the God of life which means rhythm. It means change and movement is at the heart of our spirituality, or at least it should be. Do you feel excited about the future? That’s the joy of rhythm, but if you’re concerned that it will be more of the same old, same old, then that is the temptation of routine. We don’t need routine, we really don’t. But we all need rhythm.

Which do you have more of, and what will you do about it?

The Art of Looking Sideways: Number Seven
A sideways look at sex

Ever wondered what St. Paul meant when he said that your body is a Temple for the Holy Spirit, and what effect a statement like that should have on sex?

In a bygone age sex was reserved for married people. In the West, childbirth outside marriage was deeply disapproved of, and with no reliable means of contraception, few took the risk. The public shame and possible dishonouring of the family name meant that most people thought twice about sex, or they married quickly if they got caught out, with everyone politely talking about the ‘Honeymoon Baby’.

But all that’s changed. Sex outside marriage is no longer a source of guilt and shame for most of the western world. And for those really looking hard for Biblical inspiration, there’s not a great deal to go on. St. Paul might have written, ‘Keep the marriage bed pure’, but that was simply to guard against adultery. The best advice you got was to get married because it was better than to burn with desire the whole time, but even that suggested that it was expected that sex took place inside marriage.

Is that still right?

How you answer that perhaps depends on what you think sex is for.

Is it just for fun? Then maybe it’s on a similar level to a new Wii game.

Is it an expression of desire? What for? The person or their body? (Is there even a difference or is one an expression of the other?)

Is it a social tool? A means of control?

What if it’s something else? What if sex isn’t just about physically expressing love or desire? What if sex is, or at least can be, sacramental?

OK, so what’s a sacrament? The standard dictionary description is that a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward grace from God. Or to put it another way, what we do on the outside is symbolic of what God is doing on the inside. Think about taking communion. You take bread and wine. You ingest them. Your body works on them and makes them into part of you. That’s symbolic of what God is accomplishing in your spirit. Jesus referred to the bread and wine as his body and blood, however you want to understand that, so as our bodies are making the bread and wine part of our physical selves, so on a spiritual level by taking communion we are making Christ a part of our deepest selves.

It’s impossible to talk about sex and sacraments without talking about marriage. In that service vows are made, rings are exchanged, hands are bound together and documents are signed. These are all outward visible signs of God joining the two together so that they become one flesh.

Joined to become one flesh? Does that sound anything like sex to you?

Is sex to marriage, what communion is to faith?

Talk to any Christian couple who have been married for years and ask them to describe what it means for the two to be one. Look for the old couples who finish each other’s sentences. Ask about the mysticism of marriage.

You see the other definition of a sacrament is that it effects what it symbolises, or in other words something happens on a spiritual level when you do something physical which is sacramental. Sometimes you’re aware of it; sometimes not, but that doesn’t make the mystical experience at the altar rail, or the oneness of the afterglow any more or less spiritual.

Is sex always sacramental?

In truth I don’t know. Maybe sometimes? Maybe not? And the last thing we need is more guilt. God knows the church has been too good at that over the last two thousand years. So much for being ‘set free’!

But this is about a sideways look at sex, and thinking differently.

If our bodies are Temples to the Holy Spirit, places where She resides and makes Her home, and if sacramental sex is the celebration of two people joined to be one, how should that affect what we do in our relationships?

Because if sex is always sacramental, then it’s always about two being made one.

The Art of Looking Sideways: Number Eight
A sideways look at power

This year has seen a shift in British politics. But the real question that I think we have to ask ourselves is how did we make the decision about who to vote for? Who did we want to be ‘in power’ and why? For me, the biggest question mark remains over that phrase ‘in power’, because as Christians our context must surely lie in these very familiar words:

“For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours...”
“For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory...”

Who’s ‘in power’ in our prayers?

So how should we feel about voting for an earthly political party to be ‘in power’?

I think that before we look at our potential local and national governments, (because it would be very easy to stand in judgement), we should perhaps begin by looking at ourselves since politicians are just flawed human beings like the rest of us. It’s likely that all of us pray this prayer at least weekly and possibly daily, but I wonder how much we mean it, for this is a ‘giving-up’ prayer. It says that all this thing called power that humans seem to want actually belongs solely to God, not to us, and to pray this prayer means that we are giving up our claim on the object of our desire: power. What makes this so difficult for us is that it goes against our instincts. I’ve just been watching a programme about a monkey sanctuary and the difficulties which the keepers go through when they occasionally have to introduce a new animal to a pre-existing and stable group. What maintains the stability of the existing group is the power of the dominant male, keeping unruly behaviour in check, and if a new male is introduced it can often require a power-struggle in order to establish a new order, or re-establish the old one. We cannot deny our shared common heritage with the other higher primates, and so this struggle to establish a power base and hold on to it is second nature to much of humanity (even if we don’t acknowledge it to ourselves), and whilst this may seem like a very male dominated argument, it’s worth noting that the alpha male is usually accompanied by the alpha female (and in fact in some species it is the alpha female who chooses who will be the alpha male!), so women should not think themselves to be unaffected by this drive for power. Yet to pray this prayer is to lay aside those claims; to declare that all power is God’s.

Now this is all very well, but surely there have to be leaders; people in positions of power? Are we sure about that? Or should we be saying that there are positions of authority that need to be filled? ‘Surely’, you might say, ‘we are dealing in semantics now?’ I would beg to disagree; there is a significant difference between power and authority. Power belongs to God alone, as we have prayed many times in the Lord’s Prayer, but God does give authority to some. However there needs to be a recognition that it is God’s power that some are given authority to wield, and I use the word ‘wield’ rather than ‘use’ on purpose. When someone thinks they have power, they are under an illusion. They may have been given authority but they have no real power. The difficulty is that those with authority often don’t seem to have the humility to realise that they merely have authority rather than real power. However when you meet someone who has been given authority and wields it in a Godly and humble power you rapidly become aware of the shallowness of the search for power.

I will never forget meeting Michael. He had a position of authority in the church.

But you’d never have believed it!

The contrast between him and some of the power-wielding businessmen and scientists I had dealt with in industry was very distinct. They liked their power and some seemed addicted to it and extremely protective of what they had, but Michael was different, and even now it’s not easy to describe. He was a very gentle man who was quite capable of giggling. He was also wonderfully fallible and quite capable at laughing at himself. What marked him out was the way he wielded the gentle and holy authority that seemed to flow from him in such a loving way. There was a sort of holy confidence about him. I looked up to him, not because he was powerful, but because God had trusted him with authority, and I suspect that was because he had given up his claims to power. He was a servant.

So we have no power really; none of us, whatever illusions our jobs or roles in society may have spun for us. But there are some, who recognise that the power is God’s, whom God will trust with authority. They don’t have to be perfect, they just have to be servants and to know where power really comes from, and that it is not theirs and that it should not be pursued.

What do you feel about power? Is it something you want? Did you think you had it?

Are you someone God could trust with authority because you are developing a servant heart?

Saturday, 21 August 2010

12th Sunday after Trinity - Entering God's Presence

Hebrews 12:18-29
You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. (For they could not endure the order that was given, ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.’ Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.’) But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven! At that time his voice shook the earth; but now he has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.’ This phrase ‘Yet once more’ indicates the removal of what is shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.

Luke 13:10-17
Jesus Heals a Crippled Woman
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

The Statistics are alarming. Despite some churches bucking the trend and growing, overall in this country, the numbers attending church are reducing and that the church is struggling. Why? Is it because we were not keeping pace with the culture of the world in which we live, and what should we do about it? And what worries us most, the haemorrhaging of numbers that the church has seen in the last two generations or the general loss of faith?

The reason I mention all this is because of the reading from the letter to the Hebrews today which was also written to address a difficult time in the life of a church. Now let me be quite clear that there are a huge amount of unknowns surrounding this letter. We don’t know who wrote it, but we do know with almost absolute certainty that it was not written by St. Paul.

The style and use of language is all wrong throughout the book, and although a number of suggestions have been made, such as Apollos, Silvanus, Luke and Priscilla, we really have no idea except that whoever wrote it spoke much better Greek than any of the other New Testament authors.

Likewise, we don’t even know who the letter was sent to. It isn’t actually addressed ‘To the Hebrews’; that’s simply a title that a later person gave it when they were probably as much in the dark about the intended recipients as we are.

The probable reason for the title is that the book draws very heavily on Old Testament theology, so we think it was sent to a church made up of Jewish Christians who were on the verge of giving up their Christian beliefs and returning wholesale to their Jewish roots.

So its reason for existence is helpful to us because it seems to have been written to address a massive loss in self-confidence, much as we seem to be facing in the church today. The situation he is addressing is one of falling numbers and exhaustion in the face of persecution and struggle, and whilst we’re not exactly persecuted in this country, the rest of it sounds familiar.

His solution seems quite radical. In our context, with a similar outlook, much of the effort in revitalising dwindling or struggling congregations has been through reinventing the culture of the church service, so that we have services that are more in keeping with the culture of our time. I agree with that principle, but Hebrews makes me wonder if it goes far enough. You see for the writer, his solution was all about theology!

I suspect that one of the reasons we don’t read this book very much is because of that theological depth combined with a need to know something about the Old Testament, a foundation that so many of us have neglected, and so I would like to commend it to you as a book you should read from start to finish. But I do find it interesting and challenging that, faced with a church in difficulty, his solution was to teach them more about what they believed in.

And that brings us to the reading itself in which the writer offers his readers two choices. The first choice we are offered is to approach God on Mount Sinai. This is all Old Testament imagery. Many of you have said to me over the years that it seems amazing the way in which we seem to see two different sides to God in the Bible.

In the Old Testament God seems to be angry, fearful and distant. We seem to be exposed to his raw power more often than not, and the experience is not necessarily comforting. The writer’s suggestion is that on the first mountain what we see is God as revealed through Torah, the law. God is exposed in all his radical holiness and humanity trembles because of its sin.

God is so very holy that no one may approach because no one can cope with that much raw power and perfection in our current state. Even Moses, who shared such an intimate relationship with God, was scared to approach. The truth is, this is truly how God is. On our own we simply cannot approach him because of his power, glory and holiness, and our weakness and infirmity.

Remember that I said that this letter is likely to have been written to Jewish Christians, who were struggling and contemplating returning to their Jewish roots? The imagery that the writer is using indicates his message to be this: ‘Look, if you return to trying to reach God through the Law, Torah, this is the face of God that you must cope with because you will never be good enough. Torah was intended by God to reveal our shortcomings, not to set us free.’

That’s really the theological principle that underpins the whole New Testament. The Law binds us by revealing to us that we cannot be perfect because we cannot keep it. God’s intention has been to teach humanity that it cannot make itself good enough.

The writer then turns his readers’ attention to a second mountain, Mount Zion. Here we find a celebration taking place. It’s a festival and the angels are having a party in the presence of the firstborn, that is the new believers. Here the people are in the presence of the living God and enjoying it, not terrified of it. The contrast with the first mountain is stark, but why the difference? It’s all there in the theology of this verse:

“and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

Abel, if you remember, was murdered by his brother, Cain. In Genesis 4:10 God speaks to Cain and says, ‘Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground.” On the first mountain there is blood shed which is the blood of animal sacrifices that cannot take away sin. Abel’s blood reminds us of justice that cannot be fulfilled.

But on the second mountain there is the blood of Christ which is the blood of the new covenant, the blood which takes away sin. The first mountain shows us that we can never be good enough to be in God’s holy presence, yet on the second mountain we are able to be with him because Christ’s blood is from the final sacrifice, the one that truly made us pure in the sight of God.

It’s not easy to understand because in some ways we would like a kind of scientific description of why it is we can be in God’s presence through Christ’s blood. After all, we’re just as guilty as people who sinned under the law! What changed? The answer is that God offers us grace through Christ. He chooses to see us, and let us see him, through the lens of his Son.

Do you remember the total eclipse a few years back and how we were warned not to look at the sun directly, but to use a piece of specially smoked glass? In some ways it’s like that. In our imperfection Christ acts like a piece of smoked glass to keep us safe in the presence of the Father. We can’t look at him directly, but we can look at him through Jesus, and he at us.

This is one of those places where we have to recognise the uniqueness of Christ as opposed to other worldly religions. Through whatever shape or form we try; be it meditation, praying a prerequisite number of times a day, fasting, pilgrimage, crystals, magic, you name it; whatever we want to try, if we want to dwell safely and joyfully in the presence of God we can only be in that place through Jesus.

The stark choice the writer is offering is between trying to be good enough to fulfil the law under the old covenant, or accepting that we can never keep the law and instead finding forgiveness in Christ and therefore being welcomed into God’s presence. He is telling his readers that they are already on the second mountain, Mount Zion, and are in the presence of God through Christ.

But, he says, if they go back to trying to live under the Law, then they will have to return to the Mount Sinai Old Testament way of reaching God, which is to say they will not be able to stand in his presence as they now do.

What then does this reading have to teach us? Well in many ways it’s quite disturbing because it strips away any sense of self-importance or achievements in becoming righteous. The truth remains the same for us as it was for those who received the letter: There is nothing, absolutely nothing whatsoever that any of us can do to be good enough to enter the presence of God.

Our only entry into God’s presence is via Christ and the free-gift of grace that he offers us. We are invited in through Jesus, but we have not even earned the invitation. This passage should be about us humbly acknowledging that we can only enter God’s presence through the grace he offers in Christ. We need to take this on board because it is only when we recognise this that we begin to live lives of gratitude to God for what he has done for us.

And we do need to enter that place, because the writer finishes this section with an apocalyptic warning about what is to come, that God is going to shake the heavens and the earth, so that only that which is a part of his kingdom may survive.

I think this passage is actually quite Old Testament in its imagery, even if the message is very New Testament. Ultimately it warns us not to take lightly that which we believe, but that we should be stirred to worship in reverence and awe. Theology can sometimes be very heavy, and maybe we prefer our message to be light and easy to take.

Yet here we find reminders of grace and warnings of what the future holds and a question as to how we will respond. So how will we respond?


Think back of the last week and think of all the good things you have done. Have you helped someone? Have you sent money to Pakistan? Have you kept your temper in a situation when you might normally have lost it?

Now think back over the last month, and do the same thing. What good things have you accomplished? Be honest with yourself because no one is listening in to your thoughts. If you think you were good, be honest about it.

What has your life been like? Has the direction been towards doing good works and serving others? Or at least have you tried to be a good person?

Now imagine that God is here in person, and his awesome majesty so fills this church that the building begins to shake. Become aware of his awesome perfection and terrifying purity and holiness. Ask yourself now how good those works that you did seem in comparison with that. You cannot bear to look at him because he’s brighter than the sun, so bright is his glory.

Here, indeed, is the power behind the universe. Are your so called good works good enough to bring you into his presence? Or do you fear dissolution because of the power you are confronted with.

Now, from the side of the church, picture Jesus walking across in front of you. And he stands so that he is directly between you and the Father. The shaking stops. The noise of majesty is quietened and you realise you can look up. And although Jesus is standing in front of you, what seems to happen is that you can see through him to the Father standing behind him.

And the Father is smiling at you, because he is looking at you through the perfection of Jesus, God and human, and you are not being judged on whether your works are good enough, but are able to be treated as being as perfect as Jesus is, even though you’re not.

This is how we come into the presence of God. The Father is smiling at you, his child, because he sees you, and loves you and desires you to be in his presence. So let that be the inspiration for us to live good lives for others, not to buy grace, but to respond to it.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Festival of the Blessed Virgin Mary : Promises, promises...

Galatians 4:4-7
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

Luke 1:46-55
Mary’s Song of Praise

And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

Fifty something years ago my parents made some promises to each other. I was born forty four years ago as one result of those promises. Forty three years ago, at my baptism they made more promises for me which I made for myself about thirty three years ago when I was confirmed. Twenty one years ago I made some solemn promises to Alison, and then eight years ago I made further promises at my ordination.

Our lives are marked by promises of which these are perhaps some of the more notable ones, and today, as we celebrate the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I want to think about what promises mean to us for reasons that will become clear as we go on. But first, why do we even make promises? The more cynical might claim that promises are made to be broken, but we all know deep down that someone who makes a promise and honours it is someone we can have confidence in.

Likewise, not keeping our promises is likely to be a source of lasting shame deep within us, and probably most people know of occasions that they can think back on where they wished they had acted in accordance with what they said they would do.

So why do we make promises? I think it’s to do with trust. When we say that we will do something in the future, or that we will go on doing something that we have promised, it’s a way of bringing some kind of stability to the future. It builds and develops families, friendships and communities, and I suspect that broken promises are the main reason for rifts in any of these

Promises are what makes marriages work, when two people promise that whatever comes they will always be there for each other. It makes the relationship stable because two people know that they can depend on each other. Promises are the cement in all of our relationships. And promises are what glue the Bible together, revealing for us just one more way in which we are created in the image of God because he, too, has made promises.

As I mentioned a moment ago, today in the church calendar we celebrate Jesus’s mother, Mary. One of the most famous pieces of poetry in the world are the words that Mary said when she met her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth was pregnant with John the Baptist, and Mary with Jesus, and the joy they shared led her to speak out the words that we now call the Magnificat which forms today’s reading from the Gospels.

From our perspective today, the most important line is the summary at the end in which Mary says that God has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants forever.

Long before Jesus was born, long before Mary and Joseph met; long before all the prophets had lived; long before even Moses, God met with Abraham and promised him that his descendants would be a nation that would bless all the world, a promise that we believe came to fruition in Jesus because all nations could be adopted into God’s family through him. God has a history of making promises, and all of those promises have been leading up to this one end; that each person is offered the chance to become a child of God, a member of God’s family.

That final part of the promise was achieved by Jesus, the Son of God, being born of Mary so that by his life, his death and his resurrection, we could be adopted into the family of God. That was what we uncovered in the reading from Galatians where St. Paul told us that God’s promises had all been building up towards his adoption of us as his children and the sending of his Holy Spirit into the depths of our being calling God ‘Abba’, which is a deeply respectful and intimate term, somewhere between Daddy and Father.

I often say that we are created in the image of God, and this is just one more proof of that, that our making of promises is a reflection of how God makes promises. But the differences between God’s promises and ours are that God always keeps his promises. What’s more, our promises can pretty much all be traced back to God taking the initiative.

Take marriage for example. We might think that the promises originate with us, but they don’t. The vows we take are in response to God’s promise that humanity should be comprised of male and female that they should compliment each other and help each other. We make vows to each other in response to the order God has delivered us.

In baptism there is an even greater sense of responding to God because of the words we had in Galatians, that through Jesus God promises to adopt us as his children. And Mary’s Magnificat is, in its entirety, a song of praise about how God keeps his promises.

Here’s just ten of God’s promises to us(and there are plenty of others!):

1. God promises you can be one of his children.
“Yet to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God - children born not of natural descent, not of human decision, but born of God.” John 1:12-13

2. Salvation is promised as a gift, (not something we can earn)
St. Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, it is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9

3. The Lord promises he will never leave us.
Jesus said, “...And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:20b

4. Nothing can come between us and the love of God.
St. Paul writes, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39

5. Love lasts forever
St. Paul writes, “...Love never ends”. 1 Corinthians 13:8a

6. Love is a mark of God’s children
St. John writes, ‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves knows God and is born of God.’ 1 John 4:7

7. The Lord will always be there for us.
“If I take the wings of the morning, and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” Psalm 139:9-10

8. God hears our prayers for help and comes to us.
“I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.” Psalm 40:1-2

9. The Lord promises his Holy Spirit will live within us to help us to live.
Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit when the Holy Spirit has come upon you... and you will be my witnesses... to the end of the earth.” Acts 1:8

10. Our eternal future is assured.
Jesus said, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” John 14:3

How do they make you feel? I don’t know about you, but when someone makes a promise to me I want to respond in gratitude with a promise in return. I wonder what promises we might make to God. You see, as I have said on several occasions, I believe God forges the future in collaboration with us. He doesn’t want to make promises to us and for us to sit back and just let them happen.

The future comes about when we respond to God’s overtures, much as a beloved responds to a lover’s overtures. Our God is wooing us the whole time, and making promises, and I think that just as a lover expects the beloved to respond, and feels spurned if they don’t, so God desires us to respond to his promises by making our own.

Each of us has been baptised in one denomination or another. How well do we keep to our baptism promises to turn from evil and to turn to Christ, submitting to him and coming to him?

Mary knew that God keeps his promises to us. So how much time do we spend thinking about whether we should be keeping ours to him? Amen

Friday, 6 August 2010

10th Sunday after Trinity: Where your treasure is, there is your heart


Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
The Meaning of Faith
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

The Faith of Abraham
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. By faith Sarah herself, though barren, received power to conceive, even when she was too old, because she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Luke 12:32-40
Jesus said, ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.
‘But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’

What is the most important thing in the world for you? One of my brother-in-laws loves sailing. For a while he and his son became a very successful and quite competitive pairing. My nephew also looked like he might have made the junior national squad, and for several years their weekends were full of loading up the boats on to their trailer and then driving off literally all over the country to compete.

In terms of their weekends, they put all of their resources into being the best they could be, and they worked hard to be able to afford the best boats for their class. The most important thing to them was being the best competitive sailors in their class, and they often were. Had my nephew wanted to make a career out of it, he quite probably could. When something is that important to you, you put your heart and soul into it.

When I was younger I wanted to race cars. Now this might seem strange from someone who drives an old Volvo estate, but I promise you, that’s out of necessity. Sadly I have a drumkit, percussion and Ali’s harp to cart around and there’s not really anything else big enough to do that job other than a Volvo. Or a truck.

But both my Father and my Grandfather were club level racers so I guess that competitive spirit is in the blood, and I really liked the idea of racing and used to go and watch club-level racing at the weekends, dreaming of the day when I could do it.

But then I started to look at the dedication of the drivers. Even at club level motorsport it requires dedication and a big budget. And then when you look at those at the top level, and you find people like Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton for whom almost their entire focus of their lives is on winning and being literally the best and fastest drivers in the world. That’s real dedication. Apparently to drive at that level requires the fitness of a world-class marathon runner.

Two thousand years ago Jesus made a very simple observation. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. There’s no judgement in it, it is simply seeing how we are. It’s human nature. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Whatever it is that we most want, that’s what we will put all of our energies into achieving.

So let’s ask the question again. What’s the most important thing in the world to you? In order to answer the question honestly, all you have to do is have a good look at your life and see what you put most of your energies into. Now to be honest, this can be quite painful. Being truthful with ourselves is usually uncomfortable because it means we uncover hidden motivations that perhaps we’d rather weren’t there.

If you put all of your heart and soul into being a good parent, that’s where your treasure is. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all; that’s a good thing. But what about if you’re putting all of your heart and soul into being the most important? Is that such a good thing? It’s not that ambition is wrong, but is there someone who’s having to make way for you? Who’s getting trampled on?

You see the problem is that when we put all of our energies into our own reputation, or success, or wealth, those things are so fleeting. What will there be of any lasting value?

Last week we heard the parable of the rich man who was going to tear down his barns and build bigger ones to hold all his huge harvest, only for God to demand his soul of him that night. What then of his bigger barns? Who would get what he had saved for himself?

Today’s reading is really an extension of that as Jesus tells us to look at what’s most important to us, and then asks the question whether, in the eternal scheme of things, our treasure is really worth anything of actual lasting value? Possessions aren’t; when we go, they get left behind. Power? Well that’s useless to us on the other side of the veil, and when we go the next power-hungry person will just move in and upend all that we have put in place.

So what is there that’s really of lasting value? For that we have to turn to the reading from Hebrews, and this is where it becomes very difficult for us because our human nature rebels against what the writer is saying.

If I were to sum it up it is this: Our faith leads us to believe that after death we will inherit the kingdom of heaven, a kingdom not yet seen but of which we are already subjects. This earthly place is not our home, and so we should live as subjects of the place we will inherit when we die rather than residents of this planet. The place we will inherit is so amazing, so wonderful and so all-consuming that we should put all of our earthly energies into living as people of that place.

Now that’s not so easy to take is it. Back in the Gospel reading, Jesus made it clear that if our treasure was in heaven, then that should dictate how we live on earth so that we live to meet the needs of others. The writer to the Hebrews underlines this by reminding us of people who have died in faith because they were seeking the homeland, heaven, that they hadn’t yet received.

And this is where the rubber really hits the road. You can tell the strength of someone’s belief that the kingdom of heaven is their real home because that belief will become obvious in the way they live. Where their treasure is, there is their heart. So if someone has the values of their real homeland, of heaven, then they will live that out in the here and now.

But this is where it gets more complicated. The easy preach is to tell you do the impossible which is to sell everything you’ve got, much as Jesus said. But he must have been using hyperbole, as many Rabbi’s did, to make a point. We have to ask ourselves what our possessions mean to us. Jesus could only conduct his ministry because he had some well-off people, like Mary Magdalene, who supported him.

And she supported him because, although she had access to money, she was open-handed with using it for something she believed in, ie supporting Jesus’s ministry. So what about us? For example, let’s think about the things we acquire. Why do we buy what we do? What are our motives?

I know of a Christian who agonizes over every piece of art that he buys because he wants to be sure he’s buying it for the right reason. If it is a work which inspires him then he knows that it can help him to grow as a person by broadening his horizons in his appreciation of it, but he has to be sure that he’s not buying it simply to show off, or to feed an acquisition habit.

Do we give to the poor? I hope so, but why? Because we feel we ought to? What would be the effect if our real treasure is in the kingdom of heaven? Then everything that we own here on earth, and any quests for power influence or wealth will be obvious to us as merely transient.

That’s why Jesus was able to say that we should be able to sell our possessions, because basically in the grand scheme of things they’re pretty pointless. Only... only it doesn’t always feel like that does it. The truth is that it’s very difficult, extremely difficult to live like this because it requires that we believe in something we can’t see; that we have faith that there is this other place which we will inherit on our deaths. But what is the proof?

You see we live in a culture which is dominated by the scientific method, whereby the truth of something depends on being able to prove it. That’s the culture of our time and so that’s how we’ve learnt to measure truth; can it be proven? I have to say that with hand on heart the answer is no, I can’t prove it to you. But look at the lives of the best of us and ask yourself, where does their inspiration come from to live like that? Look at those whose lives are drenched in prayer and ask yourself, don’t you recognise something in them that sets you yearning?

Ali and I had a meal with a clergy friend of ours not so long ago. Before we left she asked if we could pray together. As she prayed Ali and I both felt a sense of holy power flowing out from her. She is a woman of great faith, although just as flawed as the rest of us.

But her flaws don’t matter. Her faith revealed itself in that humble, holy power that flowed out of her. If you know someone like that, you’ll know how inspiring they are. So is it true? I can’t prove it; that’s why we have faith. But this is I do believe; if you spend time praying regularly you will discover a treasure far beyond anything you can imagine here on earth, and it will be worth giving up everything to have to reach out for it.

That’s what the writer to the Hebrews was saying, that we have a great hope in the kingdom of heaven, and that there is a great joy in this. Christianity should not be built around a sense of dreadful guilt that we’re not good enough and we really shouldn’t be doing this, or that, and certainly not the other. Ahem...

Instead we should grow in our relationship with the Lord in such a way that we get a vision for the future of what awaits us, and that should inspire us in how we should live now.