Sunday, 30 November 2014

How to Predict the End of the World

Image: Albrecht Dürer (public domain)
Predicting the End of the World: how hard can it be? After all, isn't it all laid out in the pages of Revelation and Daniel and bits of Ezekiel? The cast of characters is well-known, if a little strange: the Lamb, the Beast, a Dragon, Babylon the Great, some angels with bowls and trumpets and scrolls, the Antichrist, the Four Horsemen, and lots (and lots) of locusts. Somewhere in there are various events like stars falling out of the sky, people getting boils, the thousand year long peaceful rule of Christ on earth, Satan being loosed from the abyss, and a gigantic city named New Jerusalem descending from heaven. The challenge is simple, really: follow the clues, get the events laid out in the right order, and figure out the start date. Oh, and if you like, write a series of best-selling novels explaining how it'll all look when it plays out on the streets of major American cities...

(Warning: the link in the previous paragraph will take you to information about the Left Behind series, which some scholars believe, in a cruel irony, is itself one of the terrible plagues predicted by Revelation.)

However, if you're looking to get into the Predicting the End of the World business, I feel I need to offer you a few warnings based on the Gospel reading being heard in many churches around the world today: Mark 13. 24-27.

Warning #1: You Will Be Wrong.
Sorry. But it's just a fact. Jesus said, "Concerning that day or hour, no on knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." You'd think if the answer were there in Revelation the angels in heaven or Jesus might have worked it out for themselves by now. Take it from me: everyone else has been wrong so far, and Christians have been predicting the end of the world since Jesus ascended to the Father. That's two thousand years of being wrong. You'd think we'd have learned something in all that time.

Warning #2: You Will Be More Wrong.
At least, if you pay attention to most of the other End of the World people. Most of Revelation has already happened. It's an apocalyptic book, which is a technical term for a style of writing we don't use much these days. It means a book which uses a lot of cosmic symbolism to discuss the events of the writer's own time from a divine perspective. Revelation is about the first and second century Roman Empire, and Rome, and the persecuted Church. Just as most of Daniel is about Jewish persecution under the Seleucid Empire. It's great reading if you want to encourage suffering and persecuted Christians, even today. But as a predictive tool it's about as useful as Leviticus. Or Gone with the Wind. As Jesus also said in today's Gospel: "You do not know when the time will come."

Warning #3: You Will Be Even Wronger.
Most likely, if the other End-of-the-Worlders are any guide. Because you'll start thinking the end of the world is the thing that really matters. You'll preach on it and write books on it and walk around with a sandwich board proclaiming "The End of the World is Nigh!" (Because "Nigh!" sounds so much more holy than "Near!") You'll mark dates on your calendar for the Three Woes and the Millennium. You'll avoid using products with bar codes (which are the mark of the Beast) and put a sticker on the back of your car saying, "In case of Rapture this car will be unmanned!" You won't buy any more songs from iTunes once you have 665 of them, just in case.
And while you're doing that, you'll stop paying attention to everything around you right now. Jesus says, "Stay awake!" but you'll be daydreaming of some distant future filled with plagues and bliss. In your daydreams other people will simply become potential converts to win over to your views or enemies of the truth. And somewhere down the line you'll be so caught up in your End of the World fantasy you'll just stop doing the day to day loving Jesus actually called you to do. So here's a reminder: love is the thing that really matters.

Actually, there's one bit of Revelation I have a great deal of confidence in: the New Jerusalem. Somewhere in there, after all the mess and death and destruction, comes God's gift of an unbelievably massive city from the heavens, large enough to accommodate every man, woman, and child who ever lived on this earth with a great deal of room to spare. If it were a real city today, and it descended on the United States with one edge on the California coast, the other edge would cross the Mississippi, the north would be in Canada and the south in Mexico, and most of it would be sticking out into space. It's a symbol of God's grace and God's love which is beyond comprehension, and when we love God and love one another we begin to sense what it might be like to live in it.

Get out there and love someone. Find out what the end of the world is going to feel like.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

How to Renew the Church

Image: Public domain
What's the real secret to church renewal? Is it mission and evangelism? Leadership? Biblical preaching? Contemporary worship? Coffee and doughnuts? Political action? Well - what is it?

Here's some sage advice from a fourth century monk from the Egyptian desert. Read, mark, learn.

Abba John the Dwarf said,
"You don't build a house
by starting at the roof
and working downwards.
You start with the foundation
and work up."
His disciples asked him
to explain what he meant.
He replied,
"Our foundation is our neighbour.
We start there: by winning our neighbour.
All Christ's commandments
depend on this alone."

Our neighbour: is that the real secret? Loving the folks right around us? What do you think?
Read more ...

Friday, 28 November 2014

Will God Accept Me?

Image: Public domain
There were certain career paths which were considered unacceptable for a Christian in the early centuries of the Church: acting was one, since ancient theatre was often associated with sex work and prostitution. Another (which might surprise or annoy some folks today) was the military. Soldiers were thought to be compromising their allegiance to Christ by continuing to serve in the forces, because of the inherent violence in their profession, and because Roman soldiers were required to pledge oaths of allegiance to Caesar which competed with their allegiance to Christ.

That bit of context might help us enter into the conversation today, between a soldier and one of the early Desert monks.

A soldier asked Abba Mius
whether God would accept his repentance.
The old man spent some time teaching him,
and finally asked,
"My dear friend, if you tore your cloak,
would you throw it out?"
"Absolutely not!" he replied.
"I'd repair it and continue to use it."
"Look, if you care that much about a cloak,"
the old man responded,
"don't you think God would care
at least that much
for one he has created?"
Read more ...

Thursday, 27 November 2014

A Season with the Desert Christians

Image: Public domain
Advent is around the corner, a kind of pre-Christmas version of Lent - at least, a time of preparation and reflection, of fasting, of refocusing. At times like this I'm drawn back to the great Desert saints of the early Church who did so much to shape the way we understand and live out our faith in Christ to this day, and whose lives were mostly just so gentle and beautiful.

So for the month between now and Christmas (and yes, I know I'm anticipating Advent by a few days) I'm going to spend some time on this blog giving space for those Desert Christians to speak. Some of their sayings and stories are more well known, like the story of Joseph of Panephysis who encouraged his disciple to go beyond the keeping of a rule of life and to "become fire"! But I want to dwell for a while with some of the less known stories, some of my favourites which speak of their core values: non-judgement, ceaseless prayer, kindness, simplicity, faith ... and more. (The translations in each case are my own.)

If, like me, you find yourself drawn into these sayings, dwell with them. Some days I'll just present the stories and wisdom. Others I may offer a little extra commentary, although there'll be no explanations. If the words puzzle you, that's OK. They're supposed to drop into your mind like a pebble into a pool; relax, let the ripples spread, and wait for that "Aha!" moment when insight comes. Try visiting with Abba Elias first.

Abba Elias once said,
"People turn their minds
either to sin,
or to Jesus,
or to one another."

Which is better? Ah, now then ...!
Read more ...

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Origin of Prayer

Image: Adrienne von Speyr (public domain)
In The World of Prayer, Adrienne von Speyr has a fantastic passage on the root and origin of prayer in which she considers prayer from a very unique angle: as the fruit of a damaged relationship between God and human beings. It's worth reading in full, and ends with a great argument for regarding the Lord's Prayer as the real "sinner's prayer". One of my favourite passages in the book.

'At root every conversation with God is an embarrassment, a substitute for a much deeper mutual understanding. If we had not sinned it would have been natural to love God and respond to him. In Paradise God asks no questions of Adam; Adam lives simply in God's sight in faith and happiness, and everything he does corresponds to God's purposes. "You shall have dominion," God says to him; no answer from Adam is recorded. It is natural for him to understand God's word and carry it out. It does not occur to him to ask, "O God, how can I have dominion over the animals, and how shall I set about it?"
'God does not question man until after the Fall: "Adam, where are you?" Only now begins the dialogue as between two estranged subjects, which we today call prayer: something which, at some point or another, has its basis in a bad conscience, which draws the best conclusions still possible from a baneful fact, which aims to bring those who are estranged back to God again.
'Thus, in the Our Father, the Son takes sin into consideration. If there were no sin we would not need to say "Hallowed be thy name," for God's name would always be hallowed; nor "Thy kingdom come," for it would be here; nor "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," for God's will would be carried out equally on earth and in heaven. It would be superfluous to ask for daily bread, for all that God had created for man, even before creating him, would be available. And the remaining petitions would not apply...'
Read more ...

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Which Spiritual Practices are Absolutely Essential?

Image: Robert Frank Gabriel via Wikimedia
What are the absolutely essential spiritual disciplines or practices?

I once met a very interesting former monk, William Wilson, who'd written a book called Four Essentials in which he proposed (not surprisingly) four key practices: the Jesus Prayer, lectio divina, discernment, and spiritual direction. It's an interesting selection, and I know from conversations with others that it wouldn't be everyone's choices.

So what are your four essentials?

I'd really love to know; it would help focus my thinking around some resources I'll be preparing in the near future. And if you're going to volunteer some ideas, it would be helpful to know whether you're nominating (a) four practices you have found personally essential or indispensable for you, or (b) four practices you believe would be absolutely key for the spiritual life of almost any disciple of Jesus.

It doesn't have to be exactly four, of course. You may have three or five (although that's starting to sound like an intro to a Monty Python routine...) But trying to pick exactly four might help sharpen your thinking a little.

So - four essential practices. What are they? Go!
Read more ...

Monday, 24 November 2014

Praying the Psalms (Part Two)

Image: Monastic Breviary (Chris Webb)
Listening to the Psalms being chanted in an ancient monastery church is one of the most transcendental experiences this world affords. There's something otherwordly about plainsong (also known as Gregorian chant) which just seems to usher the spirit right into the presence of God.

When I can, I love to chant the Psalms. Most of the time, though, that's just not possible; and even though it's a wonderful way to pray, it's not necessary - of course, you can pray the Psalms with nothing more than a Bible and a loving heart!

There are challenges involved in praying the Psalms. Finding time? Sure, although we often talk about 'finding time' as though there were more time out there for us, somewhere, just hiding under the sofa or in a cupboard somewhere. The truth is we all wake up with the same twenty fours hours in each day, every day, and we all make choices about how to use that time. If we don't have time to pray, it's because we've made choices, not because the universe is conspiring to hide time from us. Want to pray but can't 'find time'? My friend, make some different choices.

In my experience the greatest challenge isn't finding time. It's finding my own heart. Truly praying the Psalms requires entering into their experience, the cry of their heart to God. Which means, in turn, discovering the roots of that experience in my own heart. The Psalmists were filled with joy, hope, praise, wonder, and exultation. Usually I can find that within myself too. But they were also filled with pain, bitterness, despair, rage, horror, darkness, guilt, and anguish. This is all in my heart too, but I try to avoid it, to cover it, to ignore it, to hide it - even from myself. Praying the Psalms requires me to open up these less palatable parts of my Spirit to the merciful and healing presence of the Spirit. It requires a terrible honesty about who I am, and what I'm capable of. Which is hard. So hard.

No wonder monastics, whose lives are rooted in these difficult prayers, like to chant them in Latin. In makes a bitter pill just a little easier to swallow when it's wrapped in beauty and mystery. A spoonful of sugar, if you like. It's a kindness to one another as we wrestle with the Lord in the depths of our soul.

As promised, I've reproduced below the Second Week of Psalms I use in my own daily pattern of prayer.

* * *

Praying the Psalms: Second Week

Sunday
Vigils: 24 • 110 • 45 • 89  |  Lauds: 93 • 63 • 150
Terce: 119.1-32  |  Sext: 20 • 21  |  None: 1 • 128
Vespers: 113 • 118 • 117  |  Compline: 139

Monday
Vigils: 67 • 60 • 107  |  Lauds: 96 • 36 • 135
Terce: 119.33-56  |  Sext: 55  |  None: 86
Vespers: 112 •23 • 34  |  Compline: 4 • 121

Tuesday
Vigils: 100 • 50 • 58 • 101  |  Lauds: 97 • 57 • 146
Terce: 119.57-80  |  Sext: 7  |  None: 144
Vespers: 115 • 84 • 132  |  Compline: 11 • 16

Wednesday
Vigils: 29 • 78  |  Lauds: 98 • 25 • 147.12-20
Terce: 119.81-104  |  Sext: 137 • 28  |  None: 40
Vespers: 104 • 65  |  Compline: 6 • 32

Thursday
Vigils: 122 • 59 • 77 • 30  |  Lauds: 99 • 90 • 148
Terce: 119.105-128  |  Sext: 83  |  None: 74
Vespers: 111 • 125 • 66  |  Compline: 13 • 61

Friday
Vigils: 95 • 88 • 3  |  Lauds: 76 • 51 • 149
Terce: 119.129-152  |  Sext: 69  |  None: 142 • 124
Vespers: 116 • 141 • 33  |  Compline: 39 • 130

Saturday
Vigils: 81 • 106  |  Lauds: 47 • 143 • 147.1-11
Terce: 119.153-176  |  Sext: 18  |  None: 120 • 123
Vespers: 114 • 138 • 136  |  Compline: 133 • 131 • 134
Read more ...

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Want to Hold the Hands of Christ?

Image: Elvert Barnes via Wikimedia Commons
According to a poem attributed to the sixteenth century Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out Christ's compassion to the world;
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.

Tosh. Drivel. Nonsense.

First, it's nonsense to attribute this to Teresa of Avila. I've read quite widely from her many works, and have had the opportunity to meet folks who've studied her many books and letters in considerable depth. I can assure you that poem appears nowhere in any of her texts. And it would be astounding if it did, really. Teresa was one of the leading figures in the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation which laid huge emphasis on the doctrine of transubstantiation: the teaching that the bread and wine at the Eucharist are transformed physically and quite literally into the body and blood of Jesus. Does it sound at all likely that someone with those views would begin a poem with the words: "Christ has no body now on earth but yours..."?

But even if Teresa had written it (can I just mention again: she didn't!) it would still be tosh, drivel, and nonsense. Because Jesus said so.

In many churches across the world today the Gospel reading came from Matthew 25.31-46. In this striking and apocalyptic parable Jesus imagines the world being judged, separated into sheep and goats, based on their love for the poor, the naked, the imprisoned, the sick. Surprisingly he passes up the chance to congratulate those who most loved the needy. There is no speech that begins: "Thanks for caring for the outcasts, guys! You really revealed my love when you did that. Boy, you folks were just Jesus to them! I had no body, no hands, no feet on earth - but you gave me hands and feet, you made my love real. You rock!"

No, his message is astoundingly different. "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me ... as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."

My dear friends, we need to get over ourselves and deflate our egos a little. We're not Jesus in the world, dispensing divine love to the world. The homeless, the prisoners, the sick, the lonely, the refugees, the prisoners - these are Jesus in the world. And you and I have an opportunity to spend time with him, to love him, to care for him. Not to be his hands, but to hold his hands. Interested?
Read more ...

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Praying the Psalms (Part One)

Image: Chris Webb
I pray the Psalms every day; it's become my spiritual food and drink. Folks are sometimes curious what that looks like, so I thought I might share a little about it.

I follow a classic monastic pattern of Psalm praying, which essentially amounts to focused bursts of prayer peppered throughout the day to keep the heart centred on the Lord. There are a number of traditional 'hours' of prayer kept by most Benedictines:

Vigils (or Matins), a longer period of prayer at the very beginning of the day including both psalms and readings.
Lauds, slightly later in the morning, briefer psalms with a focus on praise.
Terce, Sext and None, three very short periods of psalm praying during the working day.
Vespers, an evening prayer to complement Lauds, focused on praying for the circumstances presented by the day.
Compline, a 'closing of the day' time with a brief psalm or two before bed.

Over time these services became rather complex, ornate, and very beautiful. But also quite long - Vigils with all the psalms chanted slowly and readings read reflectively can easily take an hour. My own prayer focuses on what have become the three key elements for me: praying the psalms themselves, meditating on the Gospels, and my own prayer. So I use Vigils to begin the day with Psalm prayer and some Gospel meditation. The other 'hours' I'll often only pray the Psalms; if I have time (especially at Vespers) I come back to the Gospel again, and add some personal prayer of my own.

The rhythm of Psalms I use day by day is that used by a number of Benedictine communities around the world, and follows a two week pattern. Each week includes about two thirds of the Psalter; every two weeks the whole Psalter is covered, with some Psalms used more than once. I'm appending the First Week to this post, and I'll add the Second Week to another post on Monday.

Love to hear your thoughts on all this. How do you pray? Do you ever use the Psalms? If so, how's that been helpful to you?

* * *

Praying the Psalms: First Week

Sunday
Vigils: 24 • 2 • 68 • 72  |  Lauds: 93 • 19 • 150
Terce: 119.1-32  |  Sext: 20 • 21  |  None: 1 • 128
Vespers: 113 • 118 • 117  |  Compline: 91

Monday
Vigils: 67 • 49 • 14 • 35  |  Lauds: 96 • 5 • 135
Terce: 119.33-56  |  Sext: 140  |  None: 86
Vespers: 112 • 8 • 145  |  Compline: 17

Tuesday
Vigils: 100 • 94 • 64 • 109  |  Lauds: 97 • 42-43 • 146
Terce: 119.57-80  |  Sext: 56  |  None: 41
Vespers: 115 • 27 • 46  |  Compline: 71

Wednesday
Vigils: 29 • 37 • 15  |  Lauds: 98 • 80 • 147.12-20
Terce: 119.81-104  |  Sext: 82 • 129  |  None: 40
Vespers: 104 • 65  |  Compline: 102

Thursday
Vigils: 122 • 75 • 12 • 44  |  Lauds: 99 • 26 • 148
Terce: 119.105-128  |  Sext: 52 • 127  |  None: 73
Vespers: 111 • 87 • 48  |  Compline: 62

Friday
Vigils: 95 • 54 • 38  |  Lauds: 76 • 51 • 149
Terce: 119.129-152  |  Sext: 22  |  None: 79
Vespers: 116 • 126 • 85  |  Compline: 31

Saturday
Vigils: 81 • 105  |  Lauds: 47 • 92 • 147.1-11
Terce: 119.153-176  |  Sext: 9-10  |  None: 120 • 123
Vespers: 114 • 103 • 136  |  Compline: 133 • 131 • 134
Read more ...

Friday, 21 November 2014

My Rule of Life: Pray the Psalms (1)

Image: Wolfgang Sauber via Wikimedia Commons
The Psalms. I hardly know where to begin.

Praying the Psalms is a key commitment in my Rule of Life simply because it's become so central to my whole life and to my walk with Christ. The Psalms have been my school of prayer for many years now (I pray through the Psalter every two weeks in my daily offices), and they've taught me a great deal about God, myself, and life. Here's a few of the lessons I've learned:

God speaks poetry. Every single line of every single prayer in the Psalms is poetry. And a great deal of the rest of Scripture is also poetry, particularly the prophetic books in which God speaks so voluminously. That's not an accident. Poetry is a language in which words and images matter. It speaks from the heart in the ancient sense - not just the seat of the emotions, but the very centre of a person's being. Poetry always tries to speak truth, even when it's difficult or painful. And poetry cares about beauty. It's no surprise, then, that God speaks poetry - truth from the heart, in words, images, and beauty - and that his people speak poetry back.

Prayer is for shattered people. The language of the Psalms is beautiful, but much of what is expressed is ugly. It's the truth of the human heart, after all, and the human heart can be dark and ugly. The Psalms are famously replete with shocking curses, maledictions, and expressions of anger, despair, and vengeance. And all this God quite deliberately gathered and placed in the centre of Scripture, as though to say: "Not only can I manage to hear this - I want to hear this. Bring your brokenness and open it to me."

Life is hard. No surprise there, of course. But to listen to some of my Christian friends you'd begin to wonder whether life wasn't simply one glorious blessing after another. It's striking that far more of the Psalms say, "Where are you, Lord?" or "Lord, give vengeance!" than say, "Praise the Lord!" That life is hard, unfair, unreasonable, difficult - we don't want to hear that. But the Psalms speak truth, so that's what the Psalms say.

God heals praying people. Not because praying people are more holy or more Christian. In fact, the people who pray hardest and longest are usually the most messed up, the most broken, the least holy. That's why they need so much prayer. But praying people have stopped trying to fix themselves and the world and have fallen to their knees in desperation. They have become completely open to God, and have nowhere else to turn. Their lives are accessible to the Spirit like never before, and in that moment the Spirit is most able to bring healing and salvation without us trying to resist. As Jesus put it, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." Those who, holding back on the mourning, try to fix the pain, are less open to comfort.

Churches don't always pray well. I love the Church, so this isn't a criticism, just an observation. Most prayers in most churches I've attended don't sound like the Psalms. There's not the same poetry and beauty, not the same gutsy honesty, not the same range of human experience reflected, not the same terrible openness of our own souls. They can be very good prayers (they're usually very nice prayers) but they don't sound at all like the Psalms. Which makes me wonder - why not?

Does any of this ring true with your experience? Got any favourite Psalms? Or passages you find particularly difficult? Have the Psalms helped you pray?
Read more ...

Thursday, 20 November 2014

My Rule of Life: Embrace Silence (Part 2)

Today, just some photos. I mentioned yesterday the silence I'm experiencing almost daily in the chapel at Launde Abbey. It's such a beautiful place of prayer, I thought a few photographs wouldn't go amiss.

The Chapel at Launde Abbey

A View from the Chapel Exterior

A place for listening for God's word

Like Mary, we seek to be open to God's voice

Stillness and beauty fill the Chapel

Read more ...

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

My Rule of Life: Embrace Silence (Part 1)

Image: Public domain
At Launde Abbey, where I spend a large part of my working life these days, we have two half hour periods of silence every day. Communal silence shared in the ancient chapel, where quiet is really quiet. You can hear people breathing right across the room.

I'm finding that hour of silence increasingly important. Embrace Silence is the fourth commitment in my Rule of Life, and as well as being very important to me spiritually it contributes a great deal to my mental and psychological wellbeing.

It's important spiritually because it's in silence that I learn to be attentive to God, to listen. It seems to be a common experience for many people that, as the life of prayer matures, we find ourselves becoming less wordy, less talkative, and more ready to sit and listen to God, to receive, to hear his word. And later still, even that desire to listen is superseded by a longing simply to be present to God, to keep company with him, without either of us needing to say anything for the prayer to be complete. Of course, even those I've known who are deeply immersed in this contemplative prayer will also speak to God and listen for his voice - you never outgrow that. It's not maturity in a relationship to have stopped talking altogether! But over time the talking becomes less and less necessary. It's the companionship that matters.

I also find the silence to be tremendously helpful psychologically. There are times when I wonder whether my brain has been overclocked. It just seems to run at a tremendous rate, racing from one idea to another at great speed, holding multiple unrelated thoughts in place all at once, always discovering new and unexpected connections between the unlikeliest ideas and images. It can be fun sometimes - it's really helped me as a speaker and teacher to be able to think rapidly on my feet, and it's helped me be more creative and imaginative sometimes. But it can also be a burden. It's hard to switch off, day or night. It makes it harder to listen to people properly. And sometimes it seems to run almost out of control, my head buzzing with more than I can cope with. I've noticed that this "overheating" often coincides with the development of a migraine, which is no fun at all.

Silence slows it all down. Helps me find myself again, and pace myself through the rest of the day. Helps me listen more fully to God and others. It introduces a stillness into my mind and heart. And that effect is cumulative - that is, the more frequently I come back to the exterior silence, the deeper it seems to become in my soul.

I find silence hard work. It's certainly a discipline. And it can be hard to enter into it away from the peaceful environment of the Abbey here! But I've learned to love it greatly.

What's been your experience of silence? How do you create it in your life? How has it helped you - or does it not help at all?
Read more ...

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

My Rule of Life: Simplicity

When I was in my early twenties someone gave me a biography of Francis of Assisi. I was so struck by his astonishing and unreserved commitment to Christ, expressed in his openness to absolute poverty, that I had to know for myself whether that kind of life was really possible and what it might be like. So I gave away almost everything I owned and lived in radical simplicity for two years.

Almost everything? Well, I kept as little as I needed to live day by day. A couple of changes of clothes. Bedding. Towel, soap and toothbrush. Three or four books. Plate, knife, fork, spoon and saucepan. A bicycle to get to work. Probably a few other things, but that was about it. No furniture: I slept on a borrowed mattress on the floor. Once during those two years I had to move house; I carried everything I owned except the bike in a rucksack on my back. Moving house took: ten minutes to pack, fifteen minutes to cross town, ten minutes to unpack. Thirty five minutes from start to finish.

I learned a lot during those two years, not least that the Arctic explorer Richard E. Byrd was right when he wrote: "I am learning ... that a man can live profoundly without masses of things." (I picked up that quote from Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline, which has an excellent chapter on simplicity. If you haven't read it, you should).

I learned to love simplicity in many ways: as an alternative to the materialistic frenzy of modern society, as an aesthetic, as an exterior expression of interior silence.

My life is very different now; I'm married with four children, and it doesn't seem reasonable to expect them to live out of a rucksack! So we have furniture, and pots and pans, and I drive a car (a small and old car, but a car nonetheless). But my wife also values simplicity, so most of our furniture is second or third-hand, and we cycle and walk a lot when we can. Our home is very amenable to small people, since there's not much of value that can be broken. And our kids seem to have picked up the idea that life doesn't need a lot of stuff and junk to make it full.

Even so, I keep asking myself: how can I simplify? Do I need all I have right now? If not, why am I holding on to it? (Or is it holding on to me?) Once you've been bitten by the simplicity bug it's hard to shake it off.

How about you? What's been your experience of simplicity? How do you simplify? Do you find it easy, or a struggle? Does it even help you to try? Let me know!

Image: Icon of St Francis at Launde Abbey (Chris Webb)
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Monday, 17 November 2014

My Rule of Life

Image: Chris Webb
My Rule of Life. Thought some of you might be interested to see it.

If you're having any trouble reading the handwriting on the photo, here's the text:

simplify
pray the psalms
meditate on the gospels
embrace silence
be present
live healthily
create margins
love

It's rooted in my understanding of the Gospels and the rest of the Bible, of wide reading in the Christian tradition, of (particularly) the Rule of St Benedict, which is the rule of the community to which I belong. Obviously, though, very much condensed!

These are the things I think really matter, the things that most help me walk well with Christ.

Of course, if you want to know how well I actually live this you need to talk to my wife and children, who are the world experts on me and have no illusions ...

And you? What are you living by?
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Sunday, 16 November 2014

God or Godfather?

Image: Aggiorna via Wikimedia Commons
"I'm gonna make you an offer you can't refuse ... here's five talents ..."

I don't know why it took me so long to notice that Jesus teaches more often by contrast than by comparison. Plenty of his parables begin "The kingdom of heaven is like ..." but then proceed to tell some disreputable story - about a corrupt judge, or a swindling fund manager, or fathers who give their sons stones instead of bread. We quite like stories that end, "... and isn't God just like that?" But Jesus seems to prefer provocative tales that end, "... and if that's how this guy behaves, how do you think it will be with God?"

This morning in our churches we were reading Matthew 25.14-30, often known as the Parable of the Talents. I prefer to think of it as the Parable of the Godfather. It starts with a man going travelling who leaves his wealth to his servants - five talents to one, two to another, one the the third. Fantastic amounts of money; one talent would have taken the average first century labourer around twenty years to earn. This guy hands out about four lifetimes of cash without blinking.

When he comes back, most of his money is handed back doubled, which must have been a pleasing moment. But if we have any doubt about who we're dealing with here, the last servant's words give the game away: "Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours."

Let's be really clear: God's not like that. Please, don't ever preach to me that this guy is just like God. This just isn't a parable about God handing out gifts and expecting us to multiply them - or else! This is pure Godfather. The guy is a mafioso, a brutal and merciless thug who'll do anything to improve the bottom line.

So what about God? Let me say it again: it's about contrast not comparison. The Don gives gifts, rewards improvement and punishes failure. But God? What if the third servant had come back to the Lord without having improved the gift? How would the God of grace responded? Would we then be looking at outer darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth? I'm guessing not. The Lord gives gifts, rewards improvement and forgives failure.

So what have we got to lose? This parable is an invitation to take risks, to step out in faith, to fail and fall flat. As William Carey once put it, "Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God." Well sure, why not? When we mess it up he welcomes us home again and again. And when we get it right he blesses richly.

Why so timorous, Christian? Why so cautious, Church? Think big, walk tall, dream large. The Lord is with us!
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Saturday, 15 November 2014

How Do You Keep Silence?

Image: Public domain
I remember reading somewhere that Gandhi used to keep a day of silence every week (a Monday, if I recall correctly). He maintained the discipline quite strictly, falling silent at midnight and not speaking again for 24 hours. There's a story that when the British were negotiating the independence of India with him one of the crucial meetings was running late into the night as officials tried to nail down all the details before Gandhi's midnight deadline. They didn't succeed - and when the clock struck twelve, Gandhi stood up and left the room without a word. The negotiations ground to a halt for a day; even the nation's future wouldn't be allowed to interfere with this commitment to silence.

I find that compelling. We practice a great deal of silence at Launde Abbey (half an hour of communal silence every morning, and again in the evening), and a lot of our visitors come on quiet days and silent retreats. So I know just how transformative silence can be, especially when shared with others. But it can be hard to maintain the discipline in the face of work pressures, interruptions, and unexpected incidents. From time to time accidental silences drop into our lives, but in general practising silence requires persistent, intentional effort and commitment.

How do you find silence in your day, or week, or year? What helps, and what gets in the way? What do you find most transformative about silence, and what is most difficult?
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Friday, 14 November 2014

Is This Spirituality?

Image: Joellepearson via Wikimedia Commons
So - this is spirituality, right? Take a look at this woman. She's dressed in vaguely Eastern, cottony clothes. She's out in the beauty of nature. And she's meditating, getting in touch with inner peace, opening her chakras or whatever. Spirituality - yes?

Spirituality is such a slippery word; in many circles (including Christian circles) it's come to mean little more than quiet, reflective, introspective and creative activities that appeal to aesthetically sensitive introverts. It's all about silence, candles, icons, labyrinths, soft music, meditation, sunsets, crystals, incense, and smiling little statues of Buddha.

Two things spirituality rarely seems to be about, at least in the popular imagination: hard work and cities.

I find that kinda weird, but maybe that's because of the way I think about spirituality. In a previous post (This is What I'm About) I offered a definition for anyone who might be interested:

Christian spirituality
is the intentional opening of our lives
to the presence of God in Christ
so that, renewed by the Spirit of God,
we can flourish in this community.*

If I'm even close to being right - and I'd be interested in your thoughts about that - then two key elements of the spiritual life are intentionality and community.

Intentionality because spiritual growth doesn't happen by accident. Well, actually I'd want to qualify that a little. There's a great story about the quirky but brilliant Rabbi Shlomo. One day he told his students: "All our most profound experiences of God happen by accident. We can't do anything to make them happen. They're just glorious accidents!" One of the students, perplexed, challenged him: "Then Rabbi, why in the world are we so intent on all these spiritual practices? This meditation, this prayer, this study of Torah? Why make such effort?" Shlomo grinned and replied, "Why, to make ourselves more accident prone!" That resonates with me: the spiritual life is deeply intentional, a deliberate effort to be as open as possible to the accidents of grace.

And community. Because spirituality, in the end, is all about the Spirit of God renewing us into the likeness of Christ, which at root means becoming more and more loving. Becoming the kind of people who naturally love God and love other people. And that can only fully happen in community.

So why not more emphasis on hard work and cities? In other words, on deliberate effort put into a difficult and demanding task, and on the huge, messy, strange and glorious communities of people among whom most of us live?

My hunch: because we don't really get what spirituality is about. In fact, we don't get it to such an extent that we see it as an escape from intentionality and community. So it becomes all about stopping the hard work (experiencing rest, peace, relaxation, softness and gentleness) and leaving the city (nature, mountaintops, retreats).

The wonderful Jesuit speaker Anthony de Mello used to say that people think they want to change, but in fact most people don't really want change (which is painful); they want relief. For many of us, I think spirituality has become that relief, an escape valve, a painkiller. Which is a shame, since in the end it's the only thing that's likely to make any lasting change in any of our individual lives, our communities and cities, and the world at large.

At least, that's how I see it. What about you?

- -

*("this community" being the community of loving people I mentioned yesterday when talking about The Aim of God in History)


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Thursday, 13 November 2014

The Aim of God in History

Image: Casito via Wikimedia Commons
Yesterday I wrote a post (This is What I'm About) which described the two ideas which stand behind most of my ministry and what I think I'm doing with my life. There's a lot of thinking behind each of them that might be worth unpacking a little.

The first was a paraphrase from Dallas Willard. My version runs like this:

The aim of God in history
is the formation of
a community of loving people
with God at its very heart
as its most beautiful inhabitant.*

There's a classic philosophical question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Give it a theological twist and it becomes a question about God's aim(s) and purpose(s): "Why would God create something rather than nothing?"

Well, for me, it's all about grace and love. I don't buy the idea that this beautiful, ordered universe is purposeless, a chance accident. Nor do I think that God's purposes are essentially about sin, judgement, and wrath. That means they're also not essentially about salvation - which might sound wrong, but to argue that salvation is a necessary part of God's purposes is to argue that sin itself is also necessary. God's aims are certainly not centred on the church, so his purpose is not church growth, or calling to ministry, or anything of that nature. Most of this stuff is to do with our aims and purposes.

God's purpose is love, and since love is always a gift (it can only be given, not taken) his purpose is also essentially grace. And the fulfilment of that purpose is seen in God-centred community where people love God and love one another. Hence love is the fulfilling of the Torah, since Torah is an attempt to describe the life of that community in one specific historical context.

Of course, a God-centred loving community of persons will require somewhere to live; they need dwelling space. So to create this community, God needs to exercise hospitality and create an abiding place for them - a guest room, if you like. Take a walk one clear night under the stars and look up into the boundless reaches of the galaxies over your head. That's God's idea of a guest room. That's the true extent of grace.

Something to think about ...

- -

*Dallas' original statement was a little more detailed (too detailed for the back of my business cards!): "The aim of God in history is the creation of an all-inclusive community of loving persons with God himself at the very centre of this community as its prime Sustainer and most glorious Inhabitant."


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Wednesday, 12 November 2014

This is What I'm About

Image: Chris Webb
I had some new business cards made up for my new roles as Spirituality Adviser here in the Diocese of Leicester, and as Deputy Warden of Launde Abbey. I decided to put something on the back which would give some clue about what I think I'm doing. Here's what I came up with: two short lines (the first a paraphrase of Dallas Willard, the second just me):

The aim of God in history
is the formation of
a community of loving people
with God at its very heart
as its most beautiful inhabitant.

And, following from that:

Christian spirituality
is the intentional opening of our lives
to the presence of God in Christ
so that, renewed by the Spirit of God,
we can flourish in this community.

Almost everything worthwhile I do seems to be about helping people either understand the former or experience the latter. So now, at least, I'll be able to hand them something simple to explain what I'm about.

Any thoughts? I'd be open to suggestions for the next printing ...!
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Tuesday, 11 November 2014

What Jesus Really Meant

Image: Vmenkov via Wikimedia
I really do spend too much of my time as a preacher reading the words of Jesus in the Gospels and then immediately contradicting them, publicly and rather guilelessly.

I mean well, I really do. But I still contradict him far too often. It's started to worry me a great deal.

Here's how it goes. I stand up in church and read a passage from the Gospels. Jesus says something difficult and challenging. You know, something like his words to the rich young man in Mark 10: "You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." I sense the difficulty and want to soften it, to accommodate it, to negotiate it for myself and for my congregation. So I stand up and begin to preach roughly along these lines: "Now what Jesus really meant here was ..."

What follows is plausible, pastoral, hopefully thoughtful and helpful, and perhaps in many respects actually right. But the problem is this: it's usually the complete opposite of what Jesus actually said. And so I take the sting out of his words and make them, well, more comfortable. Which is starting to make me very uncomfortable.

Here are a few examples:

What Jesus says ... Sell everything and give to the poor.
What I preach ... Get your priorities straight around money. It's your heart attitude that counts.

What Jesus says ... Let the dead bury their own dead. You, come follow me.
What I preach ... Rabbinic hyperbole. Go ahead and bury your dead. Then follow him.

What Jesus says ... One thing is needed: Mary (the listening contemplative) has chosen the better part.
What I preach ... Martha (the active minister) is the thing we really need. Stay on the church rotas, for goodness sake. But also be contemplative and listen to the Lord.

I've got good reasons for all these interpretations, and I've got a lot church tradition on my side (not to mention to example of most of my clergy colleagues). But really, how often can I undercut Jesus before I'm simply saying he's wrong? I mean, there likely are folks in some of the congregations where I preach who do need to sell everything and give to the poor (even if it's a small percentage of the whole). There are people who need to put discipleship even above their grief and bereavement. There are people who need to stop doing and start listening attentively to the Lord - many, many people, I suspect.

I'm wondering how best to handle this, how to think it through as a preacher. What do you think? How should I handle it? Preachers, what do you do? Sermon-hearers, what do you experience?
Read more ...

Monday, 10 November 2014

What Would Jesus Do ... With My Books?

Image: Tom Murphy VII via Wikimedia Commons
I've been pondering a lot just lately about the disconnect between the normal, day to day business of my life and the (pretty straightforward) teaching of Jesus in the Gospels. The idea that Jesus might have meant me, as a student of his, to live out the things he did and said might not always be immediately apparent to someone who studied my everyday routines. Which is, of course, troubling, and probably deserves a whole separate post of its own. Maybe tomorrow?

Today I'm thinking about books.

I have a ton of books. It's an occupational hazard experienced by a lot of clergy, as far as I can see. I love books in a general and promiscuous way, so I have a lot of novels and reference books and poetry books and biographies and ... well, you get the idea. But specifically I have just a shedload of religious books. Theological masterpieces. Liturgical texts. Devotional classics. Biblical commentaries. Little collections of prayers and multi-volume Greek dictionaries. Ancient works in translation and contemporary gems. Even one I wrote myself ...*

Since I moved last July they've almost all been sitting in boxes in the garage. Our new house is a lot smaller than the old one, and there's just no room to shelve them all right now. So I pulled out about thirty or so I just couldn't manage without (you know, like John Cassian's Conferences, Hans Urs von Balthasar's Prayer, and the Philokalia - the really essential stuff). And the rest are stuck in those boxes.

Weirdly, I've not missed them much. When they were out on shelves they were like members of my extended family; I tried to have a cull before we moved and I just couldn't let most of them go. But now - well, I'm just not so worried.

Now Jesus is big on simplifying and focusing. Give away. Sell, and give to the poor. Choose between God and Mammon. Realise that wherever your treasure is, there's your heart (not the other way round). Seek the Kingdom, trust God for the rest. Simplicity is a pretty key Gospel theme.

The result is, I'm thinking about giving them away. Or at least selling them. Most of them. Maybe all of them. Twenty plus years of accumulated library.

Any thoughts?

-

*Just saying, but my book has a solid five stars on Amazon.com - so it must be pretty good, right? :-)
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Sunday, 9 November 2014

Woke Up This Morning ...

Image: Brandon via Wikimedia Commons
"Woke up this morning..." sang the old blues musicians, and I guess most of us probably did.

I honestly don't know what it was about today; maybe it was just the sun shining unexpectedly warmly in the late autumn. But for some reason I woke up this morning profoundly surprised to realise how truly extraordinary it is to do so. That is, what an astonishing thing it is to wake up, any morning.

I opened my eyes to find myself once again alive in this universe of marvels, which stretches unimaginable distances in every direction clear across the cosmos and is packed with a million wonders in every square yard. I'm alive today, and not through any effort of my own. My life, my existence, is an enormous gift of grace. I didn't give myself life, I simply received it. One day I'll surrender it, and the universe will potter along completely unaffected - so you can tell I'm really not all that necessary to the universe. And yet here I am all the same. Amazing.

"This is the day the Lord has made," wrote one of the Psalmists, "so let us rejoice and be glad in it" (Psalm 118.24). It may not be a great day, not every day. But we get it all the same, without asking and without charge. Must be something in that to rejoice about, isn't there?
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