Friday, 26 July 2013

I was thinking about the Lord's prayer this week, and it got me thinking that it's not the world's most advanced kind of prayer.  And maybe that's the whole point....

Luke 11:1-13

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.’
Perseverance in Prayer

And he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

Prayer and Painting...
My grandmother was an artist.  You could provide her with a photograph of anything and she would return with a wonderfully artistic rendition in oils of the subject.  But as a small boy I wasn’t particularly interested in idyllic waterfalls and landscapes.  For me it was all about dinosaurs, which inevitably led to the request, ‘Gran, can you paint me a dinosaur?’  No photos were available for this task.  Yet still she set to, and on my birthday I was presented with a lovely painting, which I still have, of a Stegosaurus.  You can imagine my pride as a small boy.  I could tell my friends that my Gran painted me a dinosaur.  Eventually, though, it wasn’t enough.  My Gran had painted me a dinosaur, and now I wanted to paint one.  So I sat down with my Gran and said, ‘Teach me how to paint this afternoon.’  Bless her, she laughed, knowing that I had assumed that in one fell swoop I would emerge from my lesson as a fully fledged artist.  She had first to correct my assumption that I would become an expert in painting in one afternoon before she had a hope of teaching me how to paint.

And that, I believe, is what we find in the passage here.  Jesus is asked by his disciples about how to pray, and first he needed to correct some of their assumptions.  So what, I wonder, did they assume?  Well firstly we can see from the way the passage opens that they had seen Jesus at prayer, and clearly there was something about that which they wanted to do because he always prayed before doing something special.  And it’s also no surprise that we find this particular story in Luke’s Gospel because Luke has more about Jesus and prayer than any other Gospel.

When Jesus was himself baptised it is Luke who recalls that the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus after his baptism when he was praying.  Mark and Matthew miss that detail out.  When it comes to the choosing of the twelve apostles it is only Luke who says that Jesus spent the entire night in prayer on a mountain on his own before choosing them.

When Jesus asks his disciples who other people say he is, once again it is Luke who recalls the detail that before asking the question Jesus was on his own praying.  And the list goes on.  Luke clearly has a thing about Jesus and prayer and so at key critical moments in his ministry he records that Jesus was deep in prayer beforehand.

Prayer was an indispensable part of his life, and the disciples saw that about him, and so they asked him to teach them how to pray, and I find myself wondering whether they had the same impression about prayer as I had about painting, that all you need is an afternoon with someone and you will come out as a master.  So they say to him, ‘Lord, teach us how to pray.’  Now I find it quite interesting the prayer he teaches them, which in its lengthened form came to be known as the Lord’s prayer.  As I look at this I find myself thinking that this is probably a beginner’s prayer.  This is not the kind of prayer that Jesus would have stayed up for an entire night on a mountainside praying.

Think of it like this.  I say to my Gran, ‘Teach me how to paint a dinosaur Gran’.  So she says to me, ‘First you need to start with a cat.  You draw an egg shape for its body, then add a circle on the top where you’re going to sketch out its head, then two triangles for the ears, then...’  Meanwhile I’m saying, ‘Yes Gran, but what about a dinosaur’, to which she says, ‘Firstly you have to get the basics right...’

And that’s what’s going on here.  This is a really basic prayer, but it’s still challenging.  All it has about it is a series of, ‘God, please do this for me.’  In other words this prayer is simply about teaching us to whom it is that we turn for everything.  This prayer is about learning to become God-centred rather than self-centred. And then, as if to underline this we get a story about persistence.  Now let me hark back to my dinosaur painting art skills, you see the sad news is that I have none.  My ability to look at something with my eyes and transfer that to the movement of a pencil or paintbrush are lamentable.  Why?  Because I was not persistent.  I wanted to draw dinosaurs, not simple cats.  So when my Gran gave me a simple exercise; the artistic equivalent of the Lord’s prayer, I got bored and gave up.  But had I stuck at it, I might have learned the skills at just the right time for my young brain to integrate them.  I didn’t and consequently I have never been any good at it.

And I think that’s where this story of persistent prayer is coming from.  Now it is really important that we don’t think of this as an allegory.  God is not like a grumpy neighbour who will only respond to us if we keep nagging him.  The real point of this story is that in the middle eastern culture it would be unthinkable for a neighbour to refuse to help someone in need.  It simply didn’t happen.  The idea in this story is that the neighbour finally responds because of his fear of what other people would say about him, not because someone is at the door nagging him.  Jesus is essentially saying, ‘Look you would not ever contemplate refusing to listen to a neighbour in need, so how much more do you think God your Father listens to you?’

What Jesus is encouraging here is persistence because it is only by persisting in prayer that we will begin to be any good at it.  So let me underline something.  Prayer is an indispensable part of being a Christian

So how then do you pray?  Well the Lord’s prayer is indeed a good place to start, but remember it really is a beginner’s prayer.  You won’t spend a whole night praying on a mountainside to the words of ‘Our Father’.  But it does demonstrate how we naturally all begin with prayer.  ‘Lord, please can I have...’  Everyone knows how to ask God to do something but few of us have put in the persistence to learn how to listen when God asks us to do something, but listening is just as important as speaking.  Imagine a married couple where they sit down together and both just start speaking at each other..  Prayer needs to be like a rhythm, and a rhythm is constructed of a beat and spaces between the beat.  With no spaces it’s just noise.

So how can you learn to pray?  I'd say look for the silent spaces and inhabit them, listening.  You may wish to wait on God outside, as Jesus often did.  I find, as you can probably guess, that this works especially well for me.  In the non-technological sound of nature I am learning to discern the voice of God.  Or you may wish to use a prayer book.  I recommend Tess Ward’s ‘The Celtic Wheel of the Year’, if you want a book more centred on God’s revelation through the natural world.

Prayer is meant to develop into a place where it is less about asking for something and more about putting yourself in a place where God can interact with you, or as James Allison describes it, prayer is about ‘undergoing God’.  That can be extraordinarily comforting or deeply unsettling, and at its best, prayer should be both of those.

What each of us desperately needs is to make time for prayer, at the very least every other day, and practice.  It is only by doing it often and regularly that we begin to learn how to do it.  It is only by being persistent that we start to hear the sound of the voice of God.  It is only in the silence that we can begin to hear the Still Small Voice of God.

Now I am aware that there are all sorts of things I haven’t dealt with here, like what happens when we ask for something and God doesn’t answer.  We all know how that feels but it’s a subject for another time.  What I really want to hammer home today is that prayer is an indispensable part of being a Christian, and the Lord’s prayer is just a starter prayer.

So you can either aim to learn to pray by persistent practice, or you can be stuck drawing the spiritual equivalents of cats made of ovals and circles because you didn’t put the time in to build the discipline.  Prayer is an indispensable part of being a Christian.  It’s for all of us, and I promise you this, it’s life changing.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Looking in the mirror, self image, and Mary Magdalene (my favourite saint!)

2 Corinthians 5:14-17
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.  From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

Luke 8:1-3
Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

The Mirror
What do you see when you look in the mirror?  I suspect that the answer you give will depend on your perspective.  So let’s go back one stage and ask, if you are standing next to a friend, in front of a mirror, what do you see when you look at them instead of at yourself?  That answer is relatively easy.  What you see is a mirror image of that person, with left and right reversed from how you normally see them in real life, and with their three dimensionality reduced to just two dimensions, the flatness of the mirror.  So with your friend what you see is simply your friend, the person that you know and like.

But now cast your eyes back across to yourself and what do you see?  Now everything changes because your self-image impinges hugely on the image standing before you.  People who have suffered from anorexia and are very thin will usually see someone fat and unlovable, often to the great frustration of those who love them.  People who have been mistreated by others will often see someone who is ugly and unworthy of love.  And for some who have been through severe mistreatment they may even go so far as to take down all the mirrors in the house, or refuse to ever look at themselves in the mirror. 

To a scientist a mirror image is a straightforward reflection but to a person their image in the mirror is anything but straightforward.  It is complex and complicated, shaped almost entirely based on their self-image which is itself shaped on the interactions that we have had with other people. 

And of course the self-image might be mistaken in a different way.  A person can preen in front of a mirror, believing themselves to be entirely beautiful and lovable because their inherent narcissism has blinded them to their true image.  This is the kind of lying-to-self that can be found behind an old man thinking himself somehow to be still uber-attractive to a twenty year old woman.  It is the same kind of self-deception as someone who see themselves as worthless and therefore ugly when they look in the mirror, only now it’s reversed.  But the same thing is still going on, that the narcissist somehow believes they are attractive to everyone and is just as unable to see their true self, and just as unable to accept who they really are, as the person who believes themselves to be unlovable.

All of this, believe it or not, leads us to my favourite saint, Mary Magdalene.  We actually know very little about her, but we can infer a great deal from that information.  In the above reading she is introduced as the woman from whom seven demons had been cast out by Jesus, and near the end of John’s Gospel she is the first person that Jesus reveals himself to after his resurrection.  Those two incidents cover a myriad of possibilities. She also shows up in other ancient writings suggesting that she developed a deep friendship with Jesus and went on to be a leader in the early church.  It has also been suggested that she may even have been a contemporary of Jesus’s mother.  From all of this we can infer that when she had first met Jesus she had been a very troubled woman.  She seems to have been subject to some kind of spiritual oppression although what the meaning of the ‘seven demons’ is can be difficult to fathom.  Whichever way we look at it, it seems likely to me that Mary would have been someone who would have been, if she looked in the mirror, deeply unhappy at what she saw.

So what, then, did Jesus see when he looked at her?  I believe he saw a world of possibilities.  I believe he saw who Mary could become, not who Mary currently was.  Jesus sees people differently.  He sees potential. He can see past the difficulties, the mistakes and the blind alleys, and can see the true self that’s hidden there.  And then he acts, and he goes on acting, in order to bring out the possibilities that he sees. What happens next is up to the person he is looking at.  Mary Magdalene she responded positively.  She allowed herself to be made spiritually clean.  She allowed herself to begin to become the person that Jesus could see.  That went to the extent that by the time of his resurrection Jesus felt that he could trust her as being the person to whom he would reveal himself first, believing that she was now ready to be able to go to the remaining disciples with the message, ‘I have seen the Lord.’

This seems to me to be what St. Paul is referring to when he says in his second letter to the Corinthian church that anyone who is in Christ is a new creation.  The old has gone and everything has been made new.  That’s how it was for Mary.  The old person who was deeply troubled, perhaps unsure of herself, and probably someone who wouldn’t want to look in a mirror, allowed herself to be seen by Jesus and dared to hope that she could be the person that he saw rather than the one that she saw in the mirror, and so the transformation began.

And that’s what happens when a new creation looks in the mirror.  Slowly and gradually they begin to see not themselves, but to see what Jesus sees.  It can be a long process, and sometimes we have to accept that seeing ourselves as Jesus sees us can be a humbling experience because it might just be that we’re not as desirable a person as we think we are.

But nevertheless we can still be seen by him; we can still be transformed, and we can still be made new.  That’s what happened to Mary Magdalene.

So the questions this leaves us with are, who do you see when you look in the mirror, and what do you think Christ sees when he looks at you?  Because if you wish to be transformed into a new creation, then the first step is praying that we can see ourselves as he sees us, and seeing the vision for what we can become. 

Friday, 12 July 2013

Thinking about Science and Faith - with apologies (or gratitude!) to Kant.

When I was working in science I had a colleague who was an atheist.  We would debate long and hard but usually in a friendly manner.  We had little common ground and never reached any kind of agreement, but it was quite fun.  However, over the last decade we have watched the rise of a more militant atheism, a sort of scientific super-rationalism, which believes religion to be completely irrational and as something that should be abolished.  Now it comes with a certain degree of relief that recently we have begun to see a slightly less hard-edged debate taking place as Dawkins et al have become marginalised by their own camp and are becoming more widely recognised as having little understanding of religion and spirituality, preferring instead to point at a Christian ‘Aunt-Sally’ that few genuine believers would recognise as anything more than a crude caricature of their faith.  Nevertheless many of us, from time to time, will find ourselves sat over the dinner table from someone who may be quite aggressive in their atheism.  It’s very difficult to know how to respond to someone who won’t listen to reasoned debate, but maybe it’s worth pointing out a few home truths about the limits of science and atheism.

The most fundamental point about science is this: Science cannot ever prove something to be correct.  I have had long arguments with people about this, but having trained and worked as a scientist this is one area where I think I do know what I’m talking about, so let me repeat it since modern media commentators often seem oblivious of this.  Science cannot ever prove something to be correct. Science can only ever prove that a theory is wrong, it can never prove that it is right.  The best science can do is to say that the results of a particular experiment are consistent with the theory which is being tested.  When commenting on results in the laboratory we would always respond with, ‘The results are consistent with...’  It therefore follows that if anyone tells you that science has proven that religion is nonsense or that God does not exist, that person has shown themselves to have a poor understanding of what science can actually do.  You can ask them to tell you of one thing that science has actually proven.  In fact in the real world it’s surprisingly hard to prove the reality of anything.  Why?  Let me see if I can explain...

Your understanding of the world around you is based entirely on the senses that you have.  We have the main five senses, sight, touch, smell, hearing, taste, and somewhere between four and sixteen other senses, depending on who you talk to.  All of them are geared up to providing you with information about the physical world around you that evolution selected for humanity in order to survive.  So your picture is based entirely on the world according to your senses.  But what if the world has other things within it that evolution didn’t select a detection mechanism for because interactions are less predictable?  Then we would be largely oblivious to them.  You might remember the old VW advert with angels sitting on all the cars.  Whilst I’m not suggesting that’s the truth, if the presence of angels, for example, falls outside our sensing detection mechanisms then none of us have any way whatsoever of knowing they are there.  We simply cannot prove their existence or non-existence.  So what, then, about science and scientific instruments?  Well the same arguments apply.  We have the most incredibly sensitive instrumentation now, with telescopes like the sadly now defunct Kepler able to determine the slightest wobble in a star’s position or the tiniest dip in its light, therefore enabling the detection of planets on stars that would take us many thousands of years to reach because of their distance.  But the flaw is that all of our scientific instruments are geared up to detect things that we are already aware of through our senses.  We’re using light to detect planets around distant stars, but our instruments are just extensions of our eyes.  However, we wouldn’t know how to design a machine capable of detecting something whose existence falls beyond human perception because we would have no idea what to look for.  Even within science there is a growing awareness of this.  For example we now believe that the greater proportion of the universe is made up of Dark Matter and Dark Energy with the visible world accounting for just 5% of all that exists.  The only reason we believe in Dark Matter is because our galaxy couldn’t exist without flying apart if it wasn’t there because of the extra gravitation pull it imparts.  So we can infer its reality from what our human senses enhanced by technology tell us.  But we don’t know what it’s made of and have very little idea how to detect it or measure it.  Science is struggling with this one.  I expect eventually we’ll figure it out, but it gives us pause for thought: If science is having a hard time measuring something that we can’t see and know is different from normal matter and can only infer its existence because of the way normal matter moves, how on earth can science be so arrogant as to say, ‘If we can’t see it or measure it then it isn’t real.’  Science only works with that which can be measured.  Everything beyond that is theory.

So the next time someone tells you that science has shown that God doesn’t exist, ask them to prove it.  You could even ask them to prove that you exist, which again is not as easy as you might imagine because our senses can be easily fooled.  Ultimately atheism is a position of faith, just like Christianity.  For me, speaking using scientific language, I would have to say that my spiritual experiences are consistent with the existence of a loving God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that’s why I believe.  I cannot prove God’s existence, but I also know that it also cannot be proven otherwise.