Monday, 21 May 2012

A selected diary of a sabbatical 1

I found leaving the parish and coming away on retreat to the Orthodox monastery of St John the Baptist at Tolleshunt Knights much easier than I had expected. That was partly because I threw myself into the reading of St Maximus the Confessor. I am trying to work out what he writes about love. This first week I have read (a lot), cycled (quite a bit) and spent more than several hours in church.

The community here pray the Jesus Prayer ('Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner') most mornings between 6-8am and evenings 5:30-7:30pm, apart from those days when they celebrate the liturgy. By the Friday morning I was beginning to struggle with the prayers, so I knew things were beginning to work! I was also beginning to struggle generally. This would have been the time when I was preparing to go home if, as usual, I had been staying here for only a few days. So it was lovely to see Alison who came up on Saturday: it reminded me of parental visits and days out when I was at prep school!

Sunday was very Greek. The community here is multi-national (one of the sisters said that there are 17 different nationalities represented), and the services are mainly in English, Greek, Russian, French and Romanian. But on Sundays it seems that the entire Greek population turns up at the monastery for the divine liturgy, lunch, vespers and tea. So most of the services were in Greek. It was lovely seeing the hospitality of the monastery - a family (there are both men and women in the community) with many guests: monks playing football with the children; a 7 year old being given a birthday cake at an open teatime.

On Sunday I also attended communion at St Luke's in Tiptree. I was probably there more in body than in mind! I was welcomed at the door and it seemed a lovely community, although the extended sharing of the peace was rather embarrassing to a visitor (I just sat down after a while), and I did notice in the peace the divide between the choir, servers and clergy in the chancel and the congregation. It made me think a bit about our own situation. The vicar was about to take on several other additional churches, and I noted that she was putting on a 5 session course on helping out in services: including - reading, leading intercessions, what to do when there is no preacher (brilliant!), serving, welcoming. I think it is a great idea! I did spend some time praying beyond the Jesus prayer on Sunday evening: there was a precious sense of His presence: a peace, joy and sense of love, which I so easily lose or forget. I've also found that during the church services I have been able to pray for people as well - not systematically, but as and when they have been brought to mind.

Perhaps one of the challenges of being out of role, and out of job, is that I need to face again the question of who I am. At first, when some visitors from a bible college came to the monastery for 3 days, I wanted to talk with them and teach them what I had learnt from Orthodoxy. But that is not what God has called me to do here and now. And yet there was a god-given opportunity to share what I had learnt from the Orthodox tradition, and I mainly spoke about how the Jesus prayer had come to be at the very centre of my spiritual practice. One of the visitors spoke of her struggles with the prayer ('Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner'). I suspect she struggled with the words 'a sinner'. I couldn't answer. Later, thinking through the Lord's prayer, 'forgive us our sins', I realised that it is not much of a big deal. If I pray the Lord's prayer I acknowledge that I sin - and therefore I am a sinner! The joy of acknowledging myself as a sinner before God is that I have nothing to hide, and yet he still loves me.

I've become very aware of how often I don't say what I really think, either because I don't think clearly at the time, or because emotions ('passions' is the word that Maximus uses) get in the way. It is one of the things that I would love the Lord to change in me. Like many I suspect, I would love to be clear and eloquent, and have the ability to say the right thing at the right time! 'Dear Lord, give us, we pray, the gift of your clarity, not that people will honour or respect us, but that they might meet with and honour you. And if meeting with you means that we must be silent or stutter incomprehensibilities, then so be it. We ask that glory will come to your name through us as you have made us'].

 One of the women from the bible college also spoke of how she struggled with the fact that only the priest went into the sanctuary in the Orthodox church. Again, I needed time to think this through. There are always going to be places or experiences that are off limit to us, at least for the time being. I guess one of those is death. The sanctuary represents heaven, and the iconostasis (that board which holds the icons of the faithful departed and saints) serves as the division between the chancel, where the people are, and the sanctuary. It is the meeting place of God and people. The people receive communion standing in front of the iconostasis, by the 'royal doors' (the doors through which the priest comes and goes into the sanctuary in the liturgy, representing Christ coming from God to us, and going to God from us). Sometimes in the service the doors are closed, to symbolise the separation between the sanctuary/ God/ Paradise and us. Sometimes they are open, to symbolise that Jesus has become the door, the way to God. But the iconostasis can also be seen as a symbol of death. The icons that it holds are windows into the eternal world (in the sanctuary). In a very real sense, as a believer, I am already seated with Christ in the heavenly realm, but in my experience, when I die, it will be like going through those royal doors into the sanctuary, with Christ. I will enter a place that I have never been before, but which I have glimpsed and which I know is glorious.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Love one another

John wrote his letter in order that Christians would love one another. 

He writes in order 'that his readers might have fellowship with him' (1:3) and - one assumes - with each other.

It is easy to get John's letter wrong. We think that when he talks about love, he is talking about loving all people.

Now of course Christians are called to love all people. There is no question about that. We are commanded to become like God, and God, we are told, 'so loved the world that he gave his Son'. In Romans 5:8 we are told that 'God shows his love for us, in that it was while we were still sinners (while we were not his people), Christ died for us'. And when Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, he didn't tell the story of someone who passed by the beaten up man and asked him, 'What do you believe?' before doing good for him.

There was a song that used to be sung at school assemblies: 'And the creed and the colour and the name won't matter, were you there'. It is not true. John makes that very clear. The creed, what we believe, does matter, and the name that we call on really does matter. But when it comes to showing love - creed, colour, name does not matter.

But John is not talking about that kind of love. He is talking of a different kind of love, a very special love.

He is remembering what Jesus said: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another". (John 13:34f)

What we have here is a triangle. If you love the Father, you will love the Son and you will love the children of God. If you love the children of God, you will love the Father and the Son. If you love the Son, you will love the Father and his children

Augustine writes (in his commentary on 1 John 5), and I like this: "Choose to love whoever you will: all else will follow. You may say, "I love only God, God the Father." Wrong! If You love Him, you do not love Him alone; but if you love the Father, you love also the Son. Or you may say, "I love the Father and I love the Son, but these alone; .. Wrong again! If you love the Head, you will love also the members; if you love not the members, neither do you love the Head".

And the reason that a person who believes that Jesus is the Christ will love God, and will love the children of God, other believers, in a special way, is because, according to these verses, they have been born of God. 

'Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God' (1 John 5:1).

Believing, for John, is not just a matter of believing with our head - like 'I believe that the world is round; I believe that the best way to get out of this economic mess is for us to spend more or spend less'. It is more than that. It is a matter of trust. In the Bible faith is rarely faith in something. It is usually faith in someone. So when we say, 'I believe that Jesus is the Christ, that Jesus is the one who was sent by God to be ruler of this world', and when we say 'I believe that Jesus is the Son of God', we are saying, "I put my trust in Jesus'.

Someone told me about when they were seriously, critically ill for about 6 months. She thought she was going to die. The story that kept on coming back to her was the story of the woman who touched the hem of Jesus' garment. Jesus seemed distant to her, but all that she could do, and all that she did do, was constantly reach out and touch the hem of his garment. That is putting your trust in Jesus.

But putting our trust in Jesus is not just for the times when life has gone pear-shaped. It is about a daily walk with him, obeying him (even when we do not understand why he says that something is not right), taking risks for him and with him. It is about trusting him that I do not need to vindicate myself or prove myself, because he has died for me and I am forgiven. It is about trusting him for the future, even in death and beyond death. It is about living as a child of God.

And if we have cried out to Jesus as the Son of God, as our Lord, then we have been born of God, we have been born again.

Some people don't like the phrase 'born again Christian'.  I realise why that might be the case. But John uses the phrase 'born of God' 7 times in this letter. If you believe that Jesus is the Christ then, whether you like the phrase or not, you are a born again Christian.

And it is because you are born again that we can begin to love one another.

1.      We can love one another because we are part of a new family

You were born into your natural family. You were born again into a new family, God's family.

Baptism screams that message at us. I believe that at the parish weekend we may have a baptism by immersion in the swimming pool. It is a picture of death to our old life, and a coming up as a new person, born again, in Jesus. And the prayers make it so clear that a person is united with Jesus and a member of the family of God. And so we say: "We are members together of the family of God".

And if we really are members of this new family, we will love one another as family members. 'If you love the Father', says John, 'You will love his child as well'

I like that. You do not choose your brothers and sisters. Indeed in a natural family, your parents don't even choose your brothers or sisters. You're landed with them.
But God does choose his children.

So whether you like them or not, it doesn't matter. We love the Father. We trust the Father. We have been born again. He has chosen us to be his child. And he has chosen them to be his child. And so if we love the Father, we will love the child. If we don't love the child, then we are saying to the Father there is part of you that we don't like.

Ortberg tells the story of his daughter with her beloved rag doll. It was a beautiful doll, but over the years - with excessive loving it became rather bedraggled. But because of that, she loved it more. One day, he writes, they were coming back from holiday, when she realised that rag doll had been left behind. There was nothing for it. They had to turn the car around and drive back to pick up the rag doll. Ortberg writes, 'There was my daughter, and there was her rag doll. You loved the one, you loved the other. They came as a package.'

And if you love Father God, you will love those who have been born of him; you will love those who have become his children. They come as part of a package. Love God, love my child.

2. We can love one another, because in the new birth we have overcome the world.

'Everyone born of God overcomes the world' (1 John 5:4)

What is going on here?

If we love God, we will obey him. Love serves that which it loves. If you love money, you will seek and serve money. If you love your family, you will serve your family. If you love God, you will serve God. And we will obey God's commandments. And his command is  'Love one another'.

That is hard. It is costly. It is about self-sacrifice, laying down our lives for one another. It is hard, but it is not 'burdensome', says John (1 John 5:3), because we have been born of God and have overcome the world.

And there are two ways in which, because of the new birth, we have overcome the world.

1.      We have overcome the world because the word of God, the word of truth lives in us. 

'I write to you young people because .. the word of God lives in you, and you have overcome
the evil one' (1 John 2:14)

For John, the idea is that the world (all that we see and hear) has rejected the truth about God for a lie. And virtually everything urges us to believe the lie.

A couple of weeks ago there was a radio programme about a senior independent TV executive who had a moment of self-realisation when someone asked her, "Do you really need any of the things that your channel is broadcasting?" So she deliberately watched the adverts and realised she didn't. She then spent a week watching the programmes that she put out and became aware that those programmes set the context for the advertising. So the programmes celebrate lives of pleasure seeking, materialism, wealth and celebrity. And if you buy into the sort of dreams that you see on those programmes then you will want to buy the items that are then advertised in the breaks.

It really is all a lie. Let me list some of them. It is not fridge magnet wisdom, but fridge magnet foolishness.

You can have anything and do anything because you are worth it
You deserve the best
The only people you can really trust are your friends, your family - but most of all - yourself. Believe in yourself.
Life is about shopping and shoes.
There is no such thing as a wrong desire
The purpose of life is to be happy here
The most important thing is to make them respect you
If they don't make you happy, leave them
Your health is all you have got, so take care of it above everything else
Money buys happiness and security - so get money.
You can have love without commitment
You're only worth something if you succeed
You can always look young; you don't need to die
Death is the end, so avoid it while you can and when you can't, sentimentalise it.

If you notice, most of those lies are to do with me. The world says 'You are the centre of the universe'.

But the person who has put their faith in Jesus as the Son of God has been been born again. The word of God lives in them. They have begun to see through the lie. They have overcome the world. It is not all about me. It is not all about created things. It is not all about this life. It is all about God.

And that is why we can begin to love: to forgive and trust and believe and hope and all those wonderful things that Paul speaks about in 1 Corinthians 13. We've begun to realise that we do not deserve anything, so we don't fight for status or respect or our rights. But we don't need to. Because we know that we are forgiven and that we are profoundly beloved children of God.

2. We have overcome the world because God has given us a new heart and a new desire.

When we are born again, God puts his Spirit in us. We are born again of the Spirit. Because we share in the new birth, we will begin to love our brothers and sisters in Christ. The Spirit that he has put in us is the same as the Spirit he has put in them. It longs for them. It longs to be united with them, just as the Father is united with his Son.

I do hope that you have begun to experience this: the joy of worshiping together with other Christian believers, of being with them, of beginning to share our lives. I am not saying that you will like every believer, but you will be aware that you have something in common with them that is far far bigger than all your differences.

So if you love God, you will love your fellow Christians: you will desire the very very best for them.

This is immediate stuff. Don't despise the local. Yes, I know that we are called to love Christians oversees, to support them. But God has put you here - now. And we are called to love one another.

This is practical: John has said, 'If any one of you have material possessions and see your brother or sister in need yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him' (1 John 3:17).

It is very hard to do that as part of a larger congregation, when there are too many people to get to know, and we are not all here at the same time. But that is why we have small groups. So that we can begin to get to know each other, and support each other.

This also involves prayer, sharing the word of God, learning together and growing together.

If you love someone, you desire the very very best for them. And as someone who has put their trust in Jesus as the Christ, as the Son of God, you know what is the best: friendship with God, full life, eternal life.

Why should you get involved in church life? Why should you help with our music, or leading prayers, or setting up for the services, or running a Sunday school group or a creche or toddler group? Why should you read in church, or lead the prayers? Why should you visit people in need?

Not because it is required of you. We wanted to sign up for the sailing club, but discovered that we would have to give up certain weekends to help out on the rota, and we couldn't commit to that.
Not as something to put on your CV (although it is OK to put it on your CV)
But because you love the brothers and sisters and you want to serve them and you long for them to grow - and indeed you can only grow together with them.

It is hard to love. The symbol of the Christian life is the symbol of the cross. That tells me, every time I look at it, that it is going to be hard. But it is not burdensome. We have overcome the lies of the world, and we share the same Spirit.

The story is told of the child who had an older brother who was disabled. One day they were going through the forest when they came to a river. The older brother could not cross, so the younger brother picked him up and carried him across. A by-passer saw them and said to the younger brother: 'that is quite some burden you have there'. The younger brother replied, 'He is no burden. He is my brother'.

As I go away to spend time to think about love, may I urge you to do something far more significant: put it into practice! Remember that as people who put their trust in Jesus, we have been born again. We are members of the same family. We have overcome the world.

Dear brothers and sisters, love one another.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The story of Closed Heart

 I would like to tell you the story of Closed Heart.

Closed Heart saw people in need but did nothing (1 John 3:17). He said, 'They are not my problem' or 'I'm too busy' or 'They probably deserve it'.

Closed Heart was not a bad person. He was just like most of the people around him. He loved the people who loved him, and he did good to those who did good to him. He even helped out with the church appeal: 'Well', he thought, 'I'll do good to God, and he'll do good to me'.

He was a very loving husband to Mrs Heart and a good father to the little Hearts. He even texted through £10 when sports relief came on the telly; and then there was that girl who died when running the marathon (that did get through and touched Closed Heart). He also did a bit for the Alzheimer's society because his mum had suffered with that.

But one day Closed Heart heard of someone called Open Heart. He heard that Open Heart was different. At first he didn't like the idea of Open Heart; 'How can anyone live with an open heart? What about all that love flowing out. It could go anywhere. It could do anything. It is messy. It doesn't follow rules'. But then he heard that Open Heart loved him, even though he had done nothing for Open Heart.

Well, Closed Heart began to read some of the stories about Open Heart: about how he had shown love not only to those who liked him, but to those who nobody liked. He even showed love to those who hated him.

And as he listened and as he read, Closed Heart began to feel sad (1 John 3:20). He became aware that although other people - the people who he was with - thought he had a good heart, he actually had a bad heart. He was nothing like Open Heart. And he began to look at some of his attitudes, and he felt really sad. He thought, 'How could God possibly love me when I am like this?'

So Closed Heart listened more closely to the story of Open Heart. He heard how the Closed Hearts had hated him and killed him.  But Open Heart let them kill him. He had chosen to die for all the Closed Hearts (1 John 3:16). And he heard that Open Heart had said that whoever came to him could be forgiven, could become a friend of God, could have a new Open heart - just like his heart - and could live for ever.

And when Closed Heart heard that, his Heart was broken. 'How could Open Heart do that for me?' And he longed to have that new heart. He longed to become like Open Heart, to have an open heart, a heart that would love not only his friends but also his enemies; not only the cool, beautiful, powerful and rich people but the despised people and the rejects - even though he knew it would mean that it would cost everything. And he began to pray to Open Heart. He said, 'You say you have come from God; I believe you are the Son of God (1 John 3:23). You can do this. You can change my heart'.

And God answered his prayer. A miracle happened (1 John 3:22). It really was a miracle. Closed Heart became literally a new person with a new heart. It was as if he had been born again. He had become an open heart-ian.

So what happened? He started to love the followers of Open Heart - and it showed. After all, they had the same Heart. He prayed for them, especially for those who were finding it difficult to follow Open Heart. He helped them when they were in need (1 John 3:17). He even started to visit someone who he had always thought a bit of a bore, but he knew that they were lonely and, even though they were always complaining when he went to see them, they needed to know that they were loved.

And Open Heart-ian began to look out. He saw people who had got into debt and who were trapped; people who wanted to have a good time but were looking for it in the wrong place and getting in trouble on Saturday nights in town; he heard about young women in the Philippines who were having to sell their bodies because they were poor and knew no other option; he heard about people who were refugees, and about people who had nothing.

And Open Heart-ian decided to do something about it. He prayed for them. He knew that worked because Open Heart was the Son of God and Open Heart had changed his heart. He gave - and he gave generously. It did mean that some of the stuff he had had before he couldn't have now. And some of the foreign holidays had to go. But how could he spend all that money on himself when others were so much in need? And Open Heart-ian got involved. He had had this interest in care for people with Alzheimer's, and so he went to the local  care homes and asked if he could help out as a volunteer.

But Open Heart realised that the greatest need that other people had was the need to hear about Open Heart. Because only Open Heart could change their heart, and help them become friends of God, and only Open Heart could give them eternal life. Open Heart-ian wasn't very good at telling people about Open Heart, but he knew that people were involved in doing that all over the world. And he decided that he was going to pray for them, to give to the work and to do what he could.

And so Closed Heart no longer had a closed heart. He had a new heart: it was very small but it was an Open Heart. It didn't mean that he loved Mrs Heart or the little Hearts less. In fact he loved them more. Some of the jobs that he had refused to do, he now did. His vision for them grew. Whereas before he had wanted them to be happy and to make him happy, now he longed for them to know the greatest happiness: he wanted them to know God. Before he had wanted them to love him and to love the people who would be good for them. Now he longed for them to have open hearts, to be driven by love. Before he had wanted them to have life. Now he longed for them to share in eternal life.