Sunday, 4 January 2015

Do Good. It Matters.

It's weird, but many contemporary Christians talk about doing good as thought it were a bad thing.

There's a long story lying behind this, which runs right through the medieval theology of merit and indulgences, and the Protestant objection to those ideas, and the Reformers' setting out a fresh theological perspective with grace at its very heart. A story that gets reduced to a few (overly) simple principles: (i) we've all messed up; (ii) you can't earn your way back into God's good books; (iii) Jesus repaired the damage through his death on the cross [please don't ask how - that's a really long story]; and so (iv) it's all about grace not works.

The problem is that works becomes identified first with trying to "earn your way into God's good books" and then, very shortly afterwards, with pretty much any good and virtuous acts we undertake deliberately (rather than random accidents of goodness that spontaneously spring out of our Holy Spirit renewed hearts when we're not looking). We end up rejoicing in the lurid testimonies of wicked sinners as testimonies of grace: "I was a baby-eating, drug-dealing, alligator-wrestling, kitten-murdering Hell's Angel until Jesus saved me! Alleluia!" But we caution folks who've grown up their whole lives in wholesome church families: "Don't forget, going to church doesn't make you a Christian." Well indeed, but then neither does baby eating and kitten murdering. And given the choice, you'd think we'd want to encourage the churchgoing a little.

To our post-Reformation ears, Benedict sounds like he's getting it all wrong in his Rule:

"If we wish to dwell in the tent of that kingdom, we must run to it by good deeds or we shall never reach it."
(Rule of St Benedict, Prologue)

Salvation by works, not grace? No, that's just a misreading of Benedict. In fact, just a few lines later he reminds us that all our goodness comes from God's grace at work in us anyway, recalling the words of the apostle Paul: "By the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Corinthians 15.10).

Benedict is simply saying this: Do good. It matters.

It matters that we actively seek to embrace grace and let it reshape us into the likeness of Jesus, who was loving and good. It matters that we seek to be good and to do good. That we look for opportunities to love, to serve, to care, to be kind, to be gracious, to speak up against injustice, to demonstrate integrity, to be honest. It should matter to us, that we live as Jesus taught. It matters to God, who calls us to that kind of life. It certainly matters to everyone else we share this world with, all those who are at the receiving end of our decisions about whether to live well or poorly.

Dallas Willard used to say, "In most churches we're not only saved by grace, we're paralyzed by it." Benedict would have agreed. Friends, do some good today. It matters.

Image: Evert Odekerken via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Here! I'm Here!

Listening leads to hearing, and hearing leads to response. When we become attentive to the Word of the Lord, and that word of grace begins to resonate in our souls and wake us up, we find our spirits crying out in response.

It's hardly surprising: the call of grace is so attractive. The Rule of Benedict imagines God inviting the soul in the words of the Psalms:

"The Lord, seeking his labourer
in the multitude to whom he thus cries out,
says again,
'Who is the one who will have life,
and desires to see good days?'"
(Rule of St Benedict, Prologue)

Who would want to turn down an offer like that? So often we imagine that the basic religious choice is between what is right and what is fulfilling. Religion seems so tedious, so life-denying, so unimaginative. Well, much of what passes for religion often is mundane and uncreative, even downright nasty and oppressive. Of course. It's done by people, and people are messed up.

But Benedict is reminding us that the real, most fundamental choice is whether or not to accept the good life being freely offered to us by God. "Life in abundance," is what Jesus called it (John 10.10). A free and wholehearted yes to grace is the only way to joy, to fulfilment, to life itself. Every turning from grace is a turning into darkness and negation. It's a no to life.

Jesuits sometimes encourage people to reflect each day on the day's experiences and ask what has been life-giving and what has been life-denying. In a twist on that, ask yourself as you go through the next few days: what in me - in my choices, in my response to the world around me and to God - what in me is life-giving? And what is life-denying? Listen to the yes or no being spoken every moment in your own heart.

Image: Teo Sze Lee via Wikimedia Commons
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Friday, 2 January 2015

Wake Up!

It's impossible to start listening for the Word of the Lord without beginning to wake up.

Jesus begins his preaching in the Gospels with a blunt wake-up call: "The time is fulfilled! The Kingdom of God is at hand! Turn around and believe the good news!" (Mark 1.15).

The Rule of St Benedict echoes that call, quoting from a number of different passages of Scripture:

"Now is the hour for us to rise from sleep ...
Today, if you hear his voice, harden not your hearts ...
He who has ears to hear, let him hear ...
Come, my children, listen to me ..."
(Rule of St Benedict, Prologue, quoting Romans 13.11, Psalm 95.8, Revelation 2.7 and Psalm 34.12)

So often we are like sleepwalkers, blundering through a world of mystery and wonder, pain and delight, joy and confusion, and immeasurable grace - all without the slightest awareness, as though waking up each morning to find yourself alive and breathing and inhabiting this vast cosmos were just normal and to be expected, rather than an astonishing gift!

And in the midst of all this, for those who care to see, the presence of God. No wonder Benedict encourages us:

"Let us open our eyes to the deifying light,
let us hear with attentive ears."
(Rule of St Benedict, Prologue)

My friends, wake up and smell the coffee. Smell the roses. Smell anything! Take a good look around and ask yourself just exactly where you are, and who you are, and where all this came from. There are some surprises waiting out there for you, if you choose to look.

Image: Gordana Adamovic-Mladenovic via Wikimedia Commons
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Thursday, 1 January 2015

An Attentive Way of Life


It's the opening word of the Rule of St Benedict ("Ausculta!" in the old Latin manuscripts, like the one on the right), and some commentators have suggested that it's the most important word in the whole monastic tradition - that monastic life is, at heart, an attempt to order life together in community in such a way that we are most open and able to hear the Word of the Lord.

"Listen, my son, to you master's precepts,
and incline the ear of your heart.
Receive willingly and carry out effectively
your loving father's advice."
(Rule of St Benedict, Prologue)

It makes sense. The Word, God's self expression in revelation, in scripture, and supremely in Christ, opens the Gospel. "In the beginning was the Word," writes the apostle John, "and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1.1). And if the Gospel begins with the Word, then hearing and attentiveness must lie at the root of our response. It's the fundamental dynamic of grace: God acts, we receive; God initiates, we respond; God speaks and we listen.

Listening, of course, begins in silence. Let me encourage you to embrace a little more silence in your daily life, beginning today. Turn off the radio and the TV. Put down your phone. Practice sitting still and being aware - aware of yourself, of others, of the world around you, and above all of God. Let the magnificent and terrifying silence seep into your noisy, busy, hectic world. Listen!

Image: J. Henry Middleton (public domain)
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