UNITY AS A GIVEN

photo/archbishopofyork.org

START WITH UNITY as a given. Then we’ll stand a chance of reaching some agreement in the Church of England. There’ll be no agreement unless we start with unity as a given. We are already united in Christ. God’s achievement, not ours. Start there, a joy-filled place to start, and agreement may follow. Unity isn’t dependent on us. It’s dependent on God. Already given.

Optimistic stuff from Archbishop Sentamu in a wide-ranging address to clergy and lay ministers of the Diocese of Chester at the Cathedral tonight. Invited to speak on The Challenges Facing The Church of England Today we might well have been there all night – given the archbishop’s first-hand knowledge of the size and complexity of some of those (human) challenges. Could have been. But weren’t. For the archbishop didn’t stay with merely human challenges, thank God. He’s an archbishop, after all. And he saved what I thought the best line of a half-hour or so address – yes: a bit like the wine! – until last.

“The Challenges Facing The Church of England Today? GOD“.

Amen! God first. Perfect underlining of our need to start with Unity as a given. As a God-given. As a God-is. Preceded by an archi-episcopal admonition: “if you want to talk about doctrine, ask yourself how your doctrine matches up to Jesus” – (do you love God’s people or do you just like preaching to them?) – God was presented fairly and squarely as the biggest and the best challenge facing the Church. And there, ultimately, I believe, lies the salvation of the Church and of the world: in that Divine challenge, in the Divine invitation to each of us that we remember who God is, and who God is not ( – is, and is not, limited, in both cases, by the provisionality of our human imaginations).

God is not our possession, not a celestial-Santa-Claus-in-the-sky. We may not command God. God is not made in our image. We do not have God all worked out. God is “immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light, inaccessible, hid from our eyes”. And God has already given unity, as surely as God has given life. God is Life, and that “in all its fullness”. Our unity can only ever be in our resting in that Life, in God’s Otherness. Beyond. And yet also incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, as in every single element of the Universe. United elements. Given elements. Given prophets, priests, kings and a Christ. United in God the Word before we’d begun to string words together.

Unity as a given. Perhaps that’s what’s behind the archbishop’s being able, cheerfully, to say: “I’m blessed. I’m the luckiest man in the Province!”

I’ll post a link to the Archbishop’s address if and when it becomes available here

NECESSARY FACILITIES

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani

TWO THOUSAND YEARS after the stoning of Stephen, deacon and first Christian martyr, (remembered by the Church, the world over, yesterday) the Guardian reports that an Iranian prison has said that it lacks the “necessary facilities” to carry out the sentence to death by stoning of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, and that death by hanging is now being considered as an option.

What are the “necessary facilities” with which to make a response? How can humankind in 2011 still be meting out this kind of murderous brutality – and that not only in Iran – but also in places much closer to our own “safe houses”? I don’t have an easy answer. But I do have an account of Stephen’s martyrdom to reflect upon (Acts 7) and will try to do so in the coming year, and in ordinary, everyday prayer, preaching, silence and conversation:

[Stephen] kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

Pray for Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani who has been incarcerated since 2006. Scapegoating in each and every one of its pernicious forms must cease … and there are expressions of “Christianity” that will therefore need to take a good long and hard look at themselves. Whether from the mouth of “God” or the mouth of “Life” itself  the same message rings true: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”.

Did God design the crucifixion of Jesus, or the stoning of Stephen, or the sentence hanging over the life of Ms Ashtiani? Or did we?

HOSPITALITY’S COMMUNION

I’M VERY MUCH TOUCHED tonight. Earlier today I baptised one of Stephen & Joanna’s lovely daughters. It was a joyful occasion, the second such family baptism I’d celebrated with them in recent years. The little candidate had a lovely time. Gorgeous, in a most beautiful white dress, she toddled about the church, sometimes appearing to be deep in prayer as she knelt at the communion rail. Sometimes looking intent, like one of our housekeepers. And all this set in the context of the Eucharist. Baptism and Eucharist, the two great sacraments of belonging. These make for celebration indeed. A holy communion between souls and the Heart – the Life – of God.

And then they headed off to “wet the baby’s head” in that other most important and time-honoured tradition. I wasn’t able to join them for that bit. But if hospitality’s communion had been celebrated in the church in the morning so, too, is hospitality’s communion to be celebrated here in the vicarage in the evening because, bless their hearts, a knock on the door mid-afternoon signalled the sharing of a marvellous and extraordinary gift – the wherewithal for a simply sumptuous 3 course supper, lovingly prepared and shared, and including Joanna’s fabulous home-baked cakes pictured above. This is holy communion indeed. The Lord Jesus, I believe, would smile and smile again upon such a sight and such a gift. Holy communion. In the morning and in the evening. I can almost here him asking “d’ya get it?” … Stephen and Joanna do.

Many, many, many thanks 🙂

RADIANT BEAUTY

Albert Einstein by Roberto Bizama, 2009

BRISK MORNING WALK in suburban Autumn sunlight, through and over ochres, yellows, dark greens and gold. Bright “lovely day”s albeit slightly hunched and well wrapped against the first light frost of the season. I pass a mother, child and pushchair trundling towards the shops – and I remember being the child, in another chair, trundling towards other shops, more than fifty years ago. And even so, everything about this morning seems bright and new. Striding, I observe myself in contemplation and I smile. Or sometimes I frown. Catching oneself in contemplation one usually either smiles or frowns. Either way, one concludes that life is good. Sweet. It’s good to be alive on a day like today. But just as surely, it’s a mystery, too … as others have thought before me …

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery – even if mixed with fear – that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man … I am satisfied with the mystery of life’s eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvellous structure of existence – as well as the humble attempt to understand even a tiny portion of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.

Albert Einstein

From “The World As I See It,” an essay originally published in “Forum and Century,” vol. 84, pp. 193-194, in the Forum series, Living Philosophies.

Radiant beauty. In my heart, and before my very eyes, on an ordinary Autumn morning. This Mystery is Good. Life. God.

AGITATION FREE?

THE STATE OF PERPETUAL AGITATION is one of the features of life in the early years of the twenty-first century, and perhaps a little too frequently in the Church as elsewhere. And we’re learning, fast, that this is not a healthy state: it’s not what we were made for. “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee” is how St Augustine of Hippo put it. And his was a prayer very dear to the heart of Mother Teresa – whose very great (and hands-on practical) love for humankind, and especially for the dispossessed, arose directly out of her love for silence in the presence of the God who created – and is still creating – all of us.

We cannot find God in noise and agitation.
Nature: trees, flowers, and grass grow in silence.
The stars, the moon, and the sun move in silence.
What is essential is not what we say but what God tells us
and what He tells others through us.

In silence He listens to us; in silence He speaks to our souls.
In silence we are granted the privilege of listening to His voice.

Silence of our eyes.
Silence of our ears.
Silence of our mouths.
Silence of our minds.

…in the silence of the heart
God will speak.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta
from No Greater Love

MALKUTA DISHEMAYA

THE KINGDOM OF GOD is close at hand. Turn about and believe it. This sums up what the launch of Jesus’ Galilean mission was really all about. And the declaration caught on quickly, spreading out like wildfire. But the actual words Jesus would probably have used were Aramaic, the common language of the area: malkuta dishemaya – ‘kingdom of the heavens’.

That did not, however, signify the ‘Heaven’ of later Christian hymns or visions of the after-life. ‘The heavens’ is simply one of the substitute phrases that devout Jews preferred to use instead of naming God directly, similar to ‘the Most High’, or ‘the Lord’, or even ‘the Place’. So the Gospel of Matthew, reflecting its Jewish-Christian background, makes great use of the idiomatic ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, while Mark and Luke give the intended meaning of the phrase, which is ‘Kingdom, or reign, of God’.

John V Taylor
Kingdom Come, chapter 2, page 17

What should the ‘reign of God’ look like in British lives at the dawn of the twenty-first century? If we were to ‘turn about and believe it’ (close at hand rather than some future state beyond the grave) what would be the effect upon the life of this world? What would be the effect upon our own lives now? What would Jesus have meant when he taught his hearers to turn about and believe …? What would the reign of God,  in the silence and conscience of our hearts, really have to say to our Western insistence that we live in a state of scarcity when the reality is that, compared to huge tranches of the world’s population we live every day in the midst of super-abundance.

Life in the nearer presence of God “would be heavenly” someone said to me the other day. But would it? Doesn’t drawing closer to God make some pretty challenging demands upon our lives? Malkuta dishemaya. The kingdom of the heavens is close at hand. But are we minded to pay it, to pay God, the slightest real attention? How would the life of the world change if we did? How would my life change if I did? How many fewer burials might take place in East Africa in the coming weeks? What would “Church” look like? Would I be moved to a deeper silence before ‘the reign of God’? Would I come to understand a bit more what is meant by the poetic silent music of his praise? Or will I keep on belting out my own song in the Lord’s strange land?

GOD IS NOT A CHRISTIAN

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ARCHBISHOP TUTU’S new book God is not a Christian was published on the 6th May. I’ve only just spotted it but will speedily make up for the lateness. Here’s a snippet:

Surely it is good to know that God (in the Christian tradition) created us all (not just Christians) in his image, thus investing us all with infinite worth, and that it was with all humankind that God entered into a covenant relationship, depicted in the covenant with Noah when God promised he would not destroy his creation again with water. Surely we can rejoice that the eternal word, the Logos of God, enlightens everyone — not just Christians, but everyone who comes into the world; that what we call the Spirit of God is not a Christian preserve, for the Spirit of God existed long before there were Christians, inspiring and nurturing women and men in the ways of holiness, bringing them to fruition, bringing to fruition what was best in all. We do scant justice and honor to our God if we want, for instance, to deny that Mahatma Gandhi was a truly great soul, a holy man who walked closely with God. Our God would be too small if he was not also the God of Gandhi: if God is one, as we believe, then he is the only God of all his people, whether they acknowledge him as such or not. God does not need us to protect him. Many of us perhaps need to have our notion of God deepened and expanded. It is often said, half in jest, that God created man in his own image and man has returned the compliment, saddling God with his own narrow prejudices and exclusivity, foibles and temperamental quirks. God remains God, whether God has worshippers or not.

An ordinand asked me, ten years or more ago, “why do you think Desmond Tutu is always smiling?” I answered at the time “Because he’s a big, big man” … and today this snippet affirms something else I’ve often said of him … “who has a big, big heart”. Gandhi was indeed “truly a great soul”. So is Tutu. Any human being would do well in seeking to emulate both. And I’m ever ready to say and to pray “Thanks be to Thee my Lord Jesus Christ for all women and men of goodwill.”