Monday, 26 February 2018

Praying the Jesus Prayer. Some notes.

What is the Jesus Prayer?
A very simple repetitive prayer, which helps us to focus, to centre the mind on Jesus Christ in routine things of life. Nothing magic about the words. At its heart is nothing less than the invocation of Jesus’ name.

Several versions
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me/us
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, mercy on us and all the world
Lord Jesus have mercy

The Jesus prayer in the Bible
Matthew 9:27 (two blind men) “Have mercy on us, Son of David”
Matthew 15:22 Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession” – note how she asks for mercy on her and then prays for her daughter. Why? Because she loves her daughter
Matthew 20:30 Two blind men:  “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us”
Mark 10:47 Bartimaeus: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (cf Luke 18:39)
Luke 18:13 Tax collector: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
It is a monologia or monologic prayer.
eg Abba Apollo: ‘As man, I have sinned; as God, do you forgive.’
St Diodochus of Photike (C5th) is the first to write about this Jesus-centred spirituality’.

How do we pray the prayer?
Throw ourselves on mercy of God – doesn’t depend on how we pray the prayer. If we say that God had mercy on me because I prayed the prayer correctly, then we are trusting in how we prayed the prayer and not in God who has given us mercy.

a)         Free use.
Praying the prayer as we walk, at night when we can't sleep, doing exercises etc!
Way of a Pilgrim.
Way to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess 5.17)

b)         More formal use
Prayer said more quickly in Gk tradition, and slower in Russian tradition. Let words flow ‘like a small murmuring stream’ (Starets Partheny of Kiev (1790-1855)
Sitting upright or standing. Tolleshunt Knights (Archimandtire Sophrony Sakharov, 1896-1993)
Caution: Do not practice the prayer for more than 15 minutes, especially if you connect it with your breathing, unless you have a spiritual director, father, mother etc.

Four ways of praying this prayer.

1. For a specific thing: The blind man seeking sight.

2. As a meditation:
Lord – salvation/assurance (this is the prayer of a believer - 1 Corinthians 12:3), surrender
Jesus – the name of Jesus. The name given by his parents. The importance of names: Hallowed be thy name. Jesus teaches them to pray in his name (Jn 16.23-24). Peter speaks of the name of Jesus (Ac 4.10,12). Paul: at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow (Philippians 2.10)
Find it very hard to focus on this word: Imagine that I am blind man calling out to Jesus. Dynamic presence of Jesus: to call upon a person by name is to render that person dynamically present.
Christ – ties in with Old Testament, the promised one, the ruler of God’s world. He came to save us and deliver us.
Son of God – inseparable from the Trinity; shows us divinity. Shows us to whom we are calling and what we are called to become.
Have mercy on me – Of course that can be for anything: for help in trouble, for someone in need, for a Godly sorrow, for true repentance, for a deeper love. It is a cry which affirms that God’s loving kindness and compassion are greater than my brokenness and guilt. Eleios – mercy. Elaion – olive oil. Bad etymology, good theology. Not dark and somber, but full of light.
A sinner – but this is the main reason we cry for mercy - because with the publican I am a broken, inadequate, weak, mortal sinner. I am unable to love. I am under the wrath of God

‘They asked the Abbot Macarius, saying, ‘How ought we to pray?’ and the old man said, “There is no need of much speaking in prayer, but often stretch out thy hands and say, ‘Lord, as Thou wilt and as Thou knowest, have mercy upon me.’ But if there is war in thy soul, add, ‘help me’. And because He knoweth what we have need of, He showeth us His mercy.” [Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers, p157]

3. As the bedrock of all prayer:
When we pray this prayer we can go no deeper – although we might use technique (prayer beads, breathing), it is about the abandonment of self and technique.
Spike Milligan, on falling over, ‘Thank God the ground broke my fall’
This is the prayer that rests on Jesus. We can drop no further. 
The prayer which underlies all my prayers.

4. As a way of going deeper into God
The prayer as a way of life, so that it – the calling on Jesus - becomes closer to me than my breathing. 
It begins with focusing on the words but ends in up encountering God beyond words.
Story told by Cure d’Ars of old man who spent hours in church. ‘I’m not asking God for anything .. I just sit and look at God, and God sits and looks at me.’

‘There came to the abbot Joseph the abbot Lot, and said to him, “Father, according to my strength I keep a modest rule of prayer and fasting and meditation and quiet, and according to my strength I purge my imagination: what more must I do?” The old man, rising, held up his hands against the sky, and his fingers became like ten torches of fire, and he said, “If thou wilt, thou shalt be made wholly a flame.” [Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers, p158]

St Diodochus of Photike (C5th): ‘The intellect requires of us imperatively some task that will satisfy its need for activity. For the complete fulfilment of its purpose we should give it nothing but the prayer Lord Jesus. Let the intellect continually concentrate on these words within its inner shrine with such intensity that it is not turned aside to any mental images’

 ‘When using the prayer, we seek to still our imagination. Instead of calling to mind incidents from the life of Christ, we dwell upon his total and immediate presence. When visual images occur, we set them aside. We do not engage in chains of reasoning or a string of resolutions. We think solely of Jesus himself’ Kallistos Ware

St Romuald of Camaldoli (d 1027), ‘If your mind wanders, do not give up; hurry back and apply your mind to the words once more.’

John Climacus, ‘Contain your mind within the words of prayer’

Hesychasm: Stillness, rest, quiet, silence. ‘Silence in the religious sense signifies God-awareness. What matters in silence is not our external situation but our inner disposition. It is a matter, not of keeping our mouth shut, but of opening our heart to God.’ Kallistos Ware. [Rowan Williams speaks of the silence of expectation – like birds before the rising dawn]. It is not isolation but relationship.

Helps to prayer:
1.         Soul friend, spiritual director/father/mother
2.         Prayer rope. [YouTube: The Jesus prayer with Bishop Simon Barrington-Ward]  Holy Spirit and silence. St Isaac the Syrian (C7th): ‘I do not want to count milestones, but to enter the bridal chamber’. Gives us something physical to do.
3.         Praying with each breath.

Is it self-centered?
There is a real danger that all of this is incredibly individualistic – but actually the person who has become like Christ is set free to love – they weep when others weep and they rejoice when others rejoice. Your burden becomes their burden.  
1. Woman who prays, ‘Have mercy on me, my daughter is sick’
2. When we pray the Jesus prayer, we forget self and concentrate on him.
3.  St Seraphim of Sarov: ‘Acquire inner peace, and thousands around you will find salvation’

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Jesus in the wilderness

Mark 1.9-15

Today I’d like to look at just two verses (v12-13). Jesus is in the wilderness.

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

The wilderness is a dry and barren land. It is hard. When we are in the wilderness we are weak, vulnerable, empty and lonely. We cannot depend on any of the things that we would normally rely on, and we are subject to forces that are much more powerful than us

The wilderness is the place where we know our poverty of Spirit: we are not in control, and the things that we normally put our trust in are useless
It is the place of mourning: where all that we cherish is lost to us, whether habits and rituals, comforts, possessions or people.
It is the place of meekness: where we are stripped of pride, where all our achievements and successes and status count for nothing.

We may find ourselves in the wilderness, in the desert, because of circumstances.
It could be loss and bereavement, a broken relationship, unanswered prayer, sickness, the crashing down of our dreams and hopes, a career failure, a moral failure, a breakdown or when we are simply brought low.
Or we may find ourselves in the wilderness because of a conviction.
We have heard the call of God to go into the desert.  
That might include a call to do something or go somewhere new, to move out of our comfort zone.
And, especially at this time of Lent, it might include fasting – maybe going without food for part of a day, for instance missing breakfast and lunch, or maybe going 24 hours without food; or it could be simply temporarily giving up some of those things that we look to provide us with comfort or meaning: buying things, social media, alcohol, work, doing good, even maybe speaking!
In my previous parish we used to have a silent retreat. For 48 hours a group of us went away to a retreat house, where we were together but did not speak – apart from in a few services. It was very special, but for people who were not used to it, it was scary. They thought how can I possibly do that? It was like a barren desert.

In Mark 1 we are told that Jesus was driven into the wilderness.  
It may have been through circumstances, but I suspect it was through a deep inner conviction that that was where he should have been.

And you will notice that unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not tell us what the actual temptations are that Jesus faced. As far as Mark is concerned all that is important is that we know that Jesus was tempted by Satan.
And I note that Jesus was tempted for 40 days.
Maybe he had that sense that he was to identify himself with the people of Israel, who had spent 40 years in the wilderness before they came into the promised land; or with Elijah who travels for 40 days before coming to the Mount of Horeb where he meets with God.

But 40 can also be a symbolic number. It can stand for ‘a long time, but a time with a definite end’. It rained for 40 days and 40 nights at the time of the flood; the spies are in the land of Canaan for 40 days; Moses was on the mountain receiving the law for 40 days and nights, Goliath challenges Israel for 40 days; Jonah gives the city of Nineveh 40 days to repent; and there are other references to 40 days. And if that is the case then these 40 days could refer to Jesus’ entire earthly ministry. The Spirit ‘drove’ Jesus from heaven to earth, where he was tempted by Satan, was with the wild beasts (crucifixion) and the angels waited on him (and we think of the angel who appeared to the women at the resurrection).

That is speculation. What we do know is that Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days.

And we see here that

1.      The wilderness is a place of temptation.

When we are stripped of everything, we begin to discover what is central in our lives.
We can turn to God, or we can turn from God.

And although Mark doesn’t tell us here which temptations Jesus faced, he does later speak of the great temptation that Jesus faced: the temptation to avoid going into the ultimate wilderness place – of going to the cross.

In Mark 8, Jesus tells his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and die. Peter rebukes him. And Jesus replies, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’ (Mark 8.33)
That is the temptation Jesus faced all through his life:
-          to use his power to save himself from going into the wilderness in obedience to God.
-          to avoid walking the way of the cross

And for the people of Israel in the Old Testament the wilderness was the place of testing.
In a highly significant passage, Deuteronomy 8, Moses speaks to the people and tells them, “God led you these forty years in the wilderness in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna ..  [He did this] to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good” (Deut 8.2,16).

They had to choose. To trust in God and go on or to turn back to Egypt. To grumble against God or to believe that he would provide for them. To receive and obey the law that he gave, or to create their own false gods.

And for us, the wilderness can be a place of temptation.
It is the place where we have to decide whether we turn to God or from God, whether we trust God and whether we obey God.

Please do not think that it is wrong to be tempted.
Jesus, we are told was tempted just like us (Hebrews 4.15).
And the Greek word for temptation and for testing is the same word, Peirazmos.

What is important is that we do not play with temptation.
There is a nice story of a mother who told her daughter that she must not swim in the river on her way back from school. The daughter agreed, but mum wisely decided to check her bag as she left the following morning for school. She found in it her daughter’s swimming costume. ‘What’s this?’, she asked. ‘It’s OK mum’, the daughter replied, ‘I only put it in in case I was tempted’.

More seriously, if you know that something is a weakness for you, just don’t go there. If you know that you are more likely to look at pornographic or inappropriate websites when you are tired, give yourself a rule that you won’t go online after 10pm. If you know when you are with a certain person you do stupid things, don’t go with them. If you know you can’t go past that shoe shop without buying something, don’t walk that way.

The early Christian writers are helpful on this.
They speak about how first comes the thought, then delight in the thought and then comes the action.
The wrong thoughts will come. The question is what we do with them. If we dwell on the delight of the thought, then we are most likely to move from thinking about it to doing it. Instead we are to get rid of the thought and not dwell on it. Pray and ask Jesus to fill you – use the Jesus prayer.
I know it is hard, but we are not on our own. We have a promise that ‘God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you maybe able to endure it’ (1 Cor 10.13)

Oh, and by the way, if you fall and give in, don’t then fall into the temptation of total despair. If you turn to God, confess your sin (even if you have lost count of the number of times that you’ve fallen), and he will forgive you and he will continue to work in you so that you will be able to stand in the future.

The wilderness is the place of temptation

2.      In the wilderness Jesus was with the wild beasts

People have understood this in two ways.

The passage could be taken in a positive way:
Jesus was with the wild beasts – a vision of harmony and the new future creation, when the wolf will lie with the lamb and the child will play with a venomous snake.

And we read of the desert fathers and mothers. Stories tell us how although they were terrorised by demons who often came in the shape of wild beasts, they also lived in harmony with the real wild beasts. Whatever we make of them, stories about St Anthony or St Francis or here of St Sergei of Radonezh, who you often see being accompanied by a bear, speak of the future harmony of all creation.

And the wilderness can be a place of beauty and harmony, of stillness and quiet, of oneness with nature and God. And that is one of the reasons why we can often long for the wilderness.

But I think that when this verse says that Jesus was with the wild beasts, it is speaking of how he was surrounded by danger.

The only other reference in the bible to ‘wild beasts’, at least in my version of the bible, is in Gen 31.39, where Jacob speaks of how the wild beasts have torn apart sheep in his flock.
And Psalm 22, which Jesus quotes as he hangs on the cross when he cries out ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me’, speaks of ‘Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion’ (Ps 22.13)

And it is important to remember the first readers of Mark’s gospel. For some of them the reference to wild beasts was frighteningly relevant. There was a very real danger that they would be arrested and thrown into public arenas to be trampled or torn in pieces by wild beasts.

And there are times when we can feel that we are surrounded by wild beasts, when we are very little and very vulnerable and it is as if we are about to be torn apart.

But the good news is that Jesus has been there. He has walked through that valley of the shadow of death. He has been there with the wild beasts and he has overcome, and he can give us the strength to overcome.

3.      The wilderness is a place of encounter with God

Angels, we are told, ‘waited on him’
[icon of baptism]
It is interesting that in Luke and Matthew, the angels minister to Jesus after the temptations.
In Mark it is possible to think that the angels minister to Jesus while he was in the wilderness being tempted by Satan.

You see it is when we identify with Jesus in his crucifixion, when we are desolate, weak, lonely, empty and naked, that we can also be most close to God, and most aware of his presence. Paul writes, ‘’I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3.10)

Last week I read part of a letter from Hugh Latimer. He was one of the bishops who, in the C16th was arrested by Mary. He was in prison, awaiting his execution. They would tie him to a stake, surround it with wood, and then set it on fire. That is a pretty extreme wilderness place. And it was a place of testing for him. He was surrounded by wild beasts. And he writes, “Pardon me, and pray for me. Pray for me, I say, pray for me, I say. For I am sometime so fearful, that I would creep into a mouse hole.” But then he adds, “sometime God doth visit me again with his comfort.”

I pray none of us will ever know anything like that. But we will find ourselves in the wilderness, and we will face trials or temptations, and we will be surrounded by the wild beasts. But James writes, ‘’My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you maybe mature and complete, lacking in nothing’ (James 1.2-4)

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Hope and the transfiguration

We’re well into February, had long periods without sun, the snow is frozen and there is still a long way to go before the spring. 

And life for many is hard. Some of you work long hours without much pay, doing jobs that you don't enjoy. And some are stressed at work or home. Relationships are going pear shaped. Or we face sickness: our own or somebody else’s. This week I spoke with three people who need urgent medical treatment and are not able to afford it.

And for some, it is not just hard but brutal. Again this week I visited the MPC centre and have also spoken with other people working with refugees and people who have been trafficked. I’ve heard of a woman thrown out of an upstairs window because she didn’t please the person who had paid for her. I’ve heard of a grown man breaking down in floods of tears because he finds himself here, having been promised that it was a route into Europe, without any papers, any accommodation and any money. And some of you are working with such people, trying to help and support them, and sometimes it gets a bit too much.

And to make life even worse, we are about to enter Lent! Those who are strict Orthodox will go on a rigorous fast. Those of us who are Anglican will probably give up chocolate! In times gone by, the fast was not really an option. It was a necessity. The food that had been preserved for winter had run out.
And in Lent we remember both the 40 days that Jesus was in the wilderness when he was tempted by Satan, and we follow the journey that he took – denying himself in obedience to God – as he walked to the cross. We see humanity at its worst: driven by hatred, greed, jealousy, fear, cowardice, vengeance. And we see the betrayal, denial, the lies, the mockery and the cruelty 

So it is intriguing that, just before Lent begins, we have this reading from Mark 9:2-9: the story of the transfiguration, when the glory of God is seen on and in Jesus.

The transfiguration is a significant event.
It is mentioned in Matthew, Mark and Luke.
John doesn’t mention it, which is intriguing, but he doesn’t need to. All the way through the gospel he shows us the glory of Jesus.
But Peter mentions it in one of the letters that he writes. He says, “we [were] eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.” (2 Peter 1.16-18)
It is the only event in Jesus life, apart from his death and resurrection, that is mentioned by the New Testament letter writers – so it must be significant

And the transfiguration is very important in Orthodox theology.

The icon of the transfiguration is important. In many of the festival rows it comes not before the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, but after.
It is a vision of the future, when we will be in heaven transfigured as Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus.

It speaks of the transcendence of death: what unites Moses and Elijah is that neither of them is recorded as dying, and they have no tomb. Their bodies disappeared. And yet, here they are, speaking with Jesus about 1000 or so years after they had lived. And they are speaking with the one who will rise from the dead, and whose body blasted out of the tomb.

It speaks of intimacy with Jesus: they are speaking with Jesus. We know what they are talking about because Luke tells us in his account of the transfiguration – Jesus’ death in Jerusalem, and how through his death people will be set free from the captivity of sin and death.

And it hints of future glory, the glory that we will share as we look on the one who is glorious. Transfiguration is what Orthodox theology means when it speaks of theosis, of deification. We will see the eternal Son of God as he is, and we will become like him.

So what we have here, it seems, is a glorious burst of sunlight before the long hard winter. Peter, James and John see Jesus glorified, before they see Jesus led – abused, beaten and battered - to the place of crucifixion.  

Perhaps some of us have had our own transfiguration moments – a time when we have encountered his presence, when we have seen the glory of God.

Now I have no authority for what I am about to say – it is not clearly taught in the bible – but it does seem in my experience that the people who have the most overwhelming and authentic experiences of God, encounters with God are often those people who have to go through some pretty hard stuff in the future.

Think of Paul. He had an overwhelming conversion experience. He sees the risen Jesus – in fact Jesus is so radiant that he is blinded - and he hears the voice of Jesus speaking to him. But when Ananias goes to see him three days later and pray for Paul’s sight to be restored, Jesus speaks to Ananias and tells him that Paul will speak of him to Kings, to Gentiles and to the Jews; and he then adds, ‘And I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name’.

I think of Barbara in my previous church. She was kneeling at the communion rail, and suddenly Jesus was standing in front of her. She said, ‘He was there. I could reach out and touch his robe’. She was overwhelmed by his presence.
A couple of months later her daughter committed suicide.

I just wonder whether Jesus, in his mercy, was giving her a transfiguration moment to get her through what she was going to have to go through

Now please, do not worry! That does not mean that if you have had a transfiguration moment you are about to go through hell. But I do know this: that if we do have to go there, then whatever lies before you, he will be there.

Responding to the transfiguration
Mark tells us quite a bit about how Peter, John and James react to the transfiguration: they are terrified.

Most of us become jelly when we stand in the presence of those we consider awesome.
It might be a celebrity, a VIP, or even just a stunningly attractive man or woman, whatever takes you!
Well, when Peter, James and John see a transfigured Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah they become jelly.

The icon of the transfiguration shows them prostrate.
Here James is covering his eyes, John is being very thoughtful and Peter: He opens his mouth and he speaks, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’.

I love it! Mark adds, “He did not know what to say”. And since most theologians think that Mark’s gospel originated with Peter - Peter was effectively telling Mark what to write - you can almost imagine Peter cringing as he thinks back to the incident, ‘Did I really say that?’

I mean, let’s be honest.
Does Jesus, shining in glory, really need a bracken shelter?
Do Moses and Elijah, who have technically been dead for the last 1000 or so years, need to sit in a bivouac?
Of course not.

And it makes no difference that what Peter is suggesting is something religious. The word he uses for ‘shelter’ is the word that is used to describe the sort of simple huts that the people of Israel had to make every year to remember the time when they were wandering in the desert and living in shelters.

So poor Peter. He is terrified. I suspect he feels he has to say something. And he opens his mouth. And perhaps deep down, Peter is thinking: how can I capture this moment?

You see I suspect that a lot of what we do when we are religious is attempt to capture those moments when we have met with God. We want God on tap.
We think that if we do the right thing in the right way then God will turn up tomorrow in the same way that he turned up yesterday.

Please don’t ever think that you can bottle God.
He’s not a genii in a lantern, and the only thing you need to do is rub the lantern, and out he pops.

God will come to you in a special way, but he will come to you in that way when he chooses to come.

Listening to Jesus
But there is one other thing that I think is very important in this passage.

The voice from heaven says, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved’.
We’ve already heard that at the baptism.
The bit that is completely new are the words, ‘Listen to him!’

That is what this is all about.
We are being told to listen to Jesus, the one who is more important than Moses and Elijah, the one who is the beloved Son of God.

Some of us may have had transfiguration moments, and some of us may have not. It was only James, John and Peter who saw the transfigured Jesus, and Jesus warns them not to tell the other 9 disciples until after the resurrection – because they just won’t get it.

But what is important with Peter, James and John is not that they hear the voice from the cloud, but that they do what the voice from heaven told them to do.
And for that matter, what is important is that we do what the voice from heaven tells us to do. We need to listen to Jesus.

And as we face the difficulties of life, the winter that just seems to get colder and darker and harder, the sheer hard slog of being a disciple of Jesus, the constant battle against temptation, the ongoing struggles we have with our lack of love and spiritual laziness and jealousy and self-centredness and lack of forgiveness and selfishness; as we battle the fear that paralyses, and as some of us face some pretty overwhelming situations .. it is good to remember that all we need to do is to listen to the voice of Jesus.
So can I urge you please this Lent – far more important than giving up chocolate or alcohol – to spend time listening to Jesus, listening to his word. Put aside time, if you can each day, to read some of the bible and to ask him to speak to you. Use the back of our notice sheet, or use one of the sets of readings on youversion – I’ll put a link up on our website and facebook page – or read through one of the gospels. And listen to Jesus.

Because it is the voice of Jesus, the eternally beloved Son of God, which will hold us and protect us and guide us and transform us; it is the promise of Jesus that he will always be with us – whether we have had a transfiguration experience or not – and that he will never allow us to go through something that is too much for us to bear, that he will give us his Holy Spirit, that we are forgiven and that he is changing us, that his kingdom will come, that justice will be done, that there will be resurrection, and that we will one day, like Moses and Elijah, see him in glory and be ourselves transfigured into glory. It is the voice of Jesus which gives us hope.