Lost for words

3 May

I was reading Paul’s letter to the Romans where in one place (9:13) he quotes from the O.T. book of  Malachi  (1:2f) where it says that God says “Jacob I loved and Esau I hated”.    They were twins born of Isaac and Rebecca and  I assumed that it really meant, God preferred one to the other, and that would have appeared to be the case because of the role that Jacob had as father of the chosen people and ancestor of Jesus.  Immediately I wanted to assume that the text really was a way of saying one is preferred to the other, and for a moment or two I felt this was a satisfactory explanation.  But then I recalled the time in the early church when Gentiles were accepted by the Jewish Christians according to the Acts of the Apostles where we read of Cornelius and what Peter learnt from God and he “opened his mouth and said to Cornelius the Gentile: ‘Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’” (Acts 10:33f).  But even that seems a limitation of God’s love to just Christians and converts to Christianity.  Yet even if I want to say that God prefers some people to others I feel that limits God’s love.  So if I were re-writing Malachi or the  whole of the Old Testament or even the New Testament (and the apparent teaching of the Church) I would not be able to find the words for the love of God for everything and everyone -I might just say every positive reality is loved by God.  Faced with God I am just lost or words.

Tree and Branches

26 Apr

Perhaps when you think of a tree and its branches you mean to refer to the trunk and the branches.  The relationship between the two is used in John’s gospel  in the parable of the vine and the branches – where the ‘vine’ may be meant to refer to the trunk.  Like the whole tree there is a shared life that comes from the roots of the trunk.  So this ‘parable’ is saying that the relationship of our whole universe and God is that all creation depends constantly on God.  We might think of adding a dimension by saying that we should be like the branches which are constantly searching for the light.  Christians must be careful not to regard themselves as the only one’s who receive life from God; we are just like all others though if anything more responsible for our failings because we should know better.  What a responsibility we have to avoid any diminishment of this life.  The parable is not just a comfort but a demand on how we should live.  However you might prefer to keep the notion of the whole tree including the branches, for the life we have is nothing apart from the life of God!

The Good Shepherd

19 Apr

Those of you who know me, probably know that I came to Scotland to train primary teacher students at Craiglockhart College of Education.  After a few years the college was merged into the Catholic teacher training College in Glasgow with the Notre Dame nuns.  One day there I was giving a lecture to a year group before they broke into smaller groups each with a lecturer to discuss the subject-matter of my lecture.  Sister Isabel was one of the more forward thinking of this order and she was with me in the R.E. department and at that lecture.  Like you most people had heard of the Good Shepherd story that Jesus told, so in my lecture I only reminded the students of it – “There was a shepherd who when one sheep strayed from the others she at once left the flock to rescue the stray”  – no sooner had I said “she” than  Sr Isabel cried out with joy, for everyone naturally thought only men looked after sheep (which was probably true) but it was a chance for discussion about Jesus as a man and it looked as though only men were his companions!!  The Catholic Church more than many other Christian denominations still holds on to the attitude of the first Christians by generally ignoring the contribution of females and certainly of not having them in leading positions.

Easter in ordinary

12 Apr

Some people may be described as religious.  They are those folk who hold and engage in what are called religious beliefs and religious practices, and often they will be using what would generally be recognised as religious language.  These are ways of thinking, acting and speaking which in the case of Christians might sometimes be called ‘churchy’.  People of other religious beliefs, practices and languages are often just referred to as of ‘other faiths’.   All such folk are the sort of people who engage in religious activities and hold and express their beliefs, hopefully, without any embarrassment  – indeed generally with pride.  Such ‘religious’ people generally see the work of their god in their everyday encounters and indeed in the universe everywhere and over all time.

But this doesn’t account for everyone in our world, for there are people who would not be called religious or ‘practicing’.  Some of these might be very enthusiastic about some human activities in which they engage or which they follow and talk about with genuine interest, and even with excitement and enthusiasm.  And there are some so-called non-religious folk who more calmly just get on with the simple task of daily living for themselves and maybe with their families and friends, particularly with those who think as they do.

Now I want to point out that God is in the ordinary, in what we might call the secular happenings, activities  and ‘goings-on’ – in that part of the world and of life that would not be called religious and that would even include the difficulties and problems in our lives and of our world.

For Christians the feast and celebration of Easter can easily be limited to the past  events in the life of Jesus especially after His crucifixion and death – the celebration of  His life in heaven.  But when challenged to expound on this, I would hope that they would extend this impact of His risen life to their religious activities and everything they do in life (apart from sin).  Easter is the celebration not just of His rising from the dead but also – and rather more importantly, the actual and continuous life of Him as God throughout and within the whole of creation for ever.  In other words I am stressing the real presence of Jesus in absolutely every human activity – every going-on – in our universe past, present and in the future.  Easter, if it means the risen life of Jesus, should mean for us the genuine reality of God in the ordinary, everyday activities of our lives – indeed of the whole of reality.

I was inspired with the enthusiastic realisation of this when re-reading ‘Easter in Ordinary’ by Nicolas Lash (1988) – a great academic at Cambridge University whom I had the privilege to know at Seminary in the 1960s.  He ends his book by referring to a 17th century poem by George Herbert, whose poetry gives the impression that we can find God pretty much anywhere, that we can speak of God in virtually any language, especially the language of ‘plainness’, simplicity and the ordinary –  ‘Heaven in ordinarie’, as h poet Herbert called it in the 17th century .

Jesus’ present presence

5 Apr

The celebrations of Jesus’ resurrection can go way beyond what we have in the New Testament about ‘appearances’ of Jesus after His crucifixion.  These accounts are often treated as the ‘good news’ of Christianity.  But really we need to considerably expand our understanding of the celebration of Jesus – His life as God.  Seeing God in the accounts of the appearances about 2000 years ago needs to impact upon the present – on the lives we live today here and now.  We often speak of the resurrection of Jesus in the past tense: “He has risen.”  But we must go way beyond marvelling at past events.  The message of our Easter – of Christianity now – is in the present tense, meaning He is present, alive and active in our world, in our lives here and now – today and each day.  He is present not just in a general sense, but actually and individually in my life at this very moment and in yours and everybody’s – actively in the whole universe every moment.  Sin is an absence, a gap in creation like a powerful vacuum, where nothing is, although powerful and hindering timely progress.  With Easter (and always) we raise our awareness that Christ – God the creator – lives on and is actively creating here and now in our world of time.  That means He is in every one I encounter, in every act I perform (save sin) and in the whole of reality.  It is that reality that we must care for more rather than just thoughtlessly use and destroy. God’s creating, from our standpoint, is an ongoing process which from God’s timeless reality is  (or will be eventually from our standpoint) complete and beautiful.  So let’s have Easter joy now and forever.  Amen!

“He is not here!”

29 Mar

The angel’s message at the tomb was right and it reminds us, not just of the resurrection but more importantly of where Jesus is – namely in every person who ever lived and in every one I encounter in my life etc.  But don’t you just love the stories of the discovery of the empty tomb?  One is about Mary Magdalene who goes to tell the men what she heard, who then investigate.  But another story in Matthew is about Mary and another lady being told by an angel “he is not here!”  Both are great stories and show the significance of women at the very start of Christianity.  It is even more exciting for me because I always think of angels as beautiful women – though in the bible they are always taken as male.  However there is a development beyond this revelation that He is not  here, notably only in Luke’s gospel.  This tells us that some of Jesus’ male followers are leaving Jerusalem heading for Emmaus.  They are joined by a stranger with whom they have plenty to talk about.  When they arrive they ask him to join them for the evening meal.   It is during this that they recognise Jesus in the breaking of the bread!  So this Easter we rejoice in the role women still play in the world today with their understanding, compassion, revealing to others the good news, and we should all learn that even in strangers whom we meet, Christ is present.  And because of this we are so missing the socialising that is such an uplifting element of our lives.  But actually as I go out each day for an exercise of walking I am now seeing the same folk again and again, and even those I pass whom I don’t know or recognise generally smile and often say hello or some such greeting.  Christ is risen and ever-present in our world!  He is not ‘not here’ thank God!

Passion and prayer

22 Mar

There are all sorts of things you can pray about and pray for, as well as numerous prayers that have already been composed that you can say, but I want to suggest another pattern for what prayer actually is.  I remember the joyous days of being youthful and of all those days, especially of being with the young lady who would become my wife and who is now in the (even more) beautiful world beyond this.  Prayer can be for me, just like much of the good relationship I had with her over many, many years.  Sometimes we would just be aware of each other’s presence whatever we were doing.  Sometimes she would say something she liked about me, and I something about her.  At other times we would talk about the future – what I would like to do, what she would think of that, what she would like me to do, and I responded to that – not always by doing it and sometimes later regretting that I hadn’t.  Sometimes she had a brilliant idea of how to see things, or of what it would be nice to do.  Often she would respond to my suggestions about what to do.  And in addition to these and other ways of communicating, sometimes we would just be silent together, aware of each other or just confidently to fall asleep.  It is only now, after all that, that I now realise this is not dissimilar to the relationship I should have with God.  So many different ways of communicating with each other – I with God and God with me.  So it’s  not just what we pray about, or what prayers we say, but just how we share life with God with all its experiences and ups and downs.  Prayer might just be how I am aware of God and how we relate to each other.  And yet sometimes there is annoyance – disappointment or anger between the best of lovers and friends which is often expressed (rathr than bottled up).  Didn’t Jesus cry out in prayer once to His loving Father,  “My God, my God why have You forsaken me?”  according to the passion account in the gospel?

Lent 5 cycle B the covenant

15 Mar

The reading from Jeremiah is one which has always struck me in some way as special.  The covenant mentioned in it, is not the first  relationship of God with our world – I should say universe.  Jeremiah has God say  (“it is the Lord who speaks”) this pact will not be like the ‘salvation’ from Egyptian dominance with the miraculous crossing of the sea. .  In a way the very creation told at the beginning of the bible is the establishment of a relationship between God and the world – portrayed as broken by the eating of the forbidden apple.  The relationship is renewed with the salvation of Noah and other creatures from the flood (from human misbehaviour).  Again God has a special relationship expressed in the same way with Abraham and his descendants, but that was broken his descendants forgetting God in Egypt.  After a generation struggling in the desert, the promise to Abraham seemed fulfilled with  the battle of Jericho and the entry into the ‘promised’ land.  The nation it became, got a renewed relationship when God chose David as their king, after their much troubled history.  But David and succeeding rulers were disappointing, and eventually were exiled by the Babylonians.  It is at this juncture that Jeremiah writes of  the promise of a new covenant relationship to be established in the future – our first reading for the 5th Sunday of Lent (cycle B).

It seems easy to understand Jeremiah when we compare it to Jesus’ words from the gospel of John which we have today.  For example it says “anyone who loves their life looses it, but who hates their life in this world will live with eternal life”.  This seems a bit harsh until we realise that it was just a Greek language way of emphasising the need to prefer – to prefer the one to the other – to aim chiefly for eternal life in the life we have here and now and how we live it.  Translations are best not word for word accurate, but best to capture the sense and meaning of the original.  We have a covenant relationship with God now that we are trying to fulfil and it is the life of Jesus that exemplifies just how a human can do this.  It can cause one many difficulties when living as a good human, but that’s just what Jesus did – and it wouldn’t turn out well for him by human standards, which so often judge by health, wealth and prosperity.  But by those standards many of us are failing especially during Covid lockdown, so let’s live by Jesus’ standards as best we can!

Lent 4 B The ideal human

8 Mar

The history of the Jews had a very low period referred to as the Babylonian exile.  It was exile because they lost possession of the land given them by God – it was through their neglect and ‘misbehaviour.’  The psalm that we have as a response to the first reading will most likely be known to you – its opening line is “by the rivers of Babylon” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=ta#35A4) sung by Boney M in the 1970s.  I write this during the Covid-19 lock down which is not unlike a kind of exile – a loss of our normal way of life – work, socialising and celebrating, but what they lost was not socialising – in fact it brought them together more with family and extended families.  With these readings we cannot but reflect on our past behaviour.  Even if that was not what we would normally call criminal, it was destructive of our homeland (mother earth).  And we are all guilty to some extent , by what we buy, what we eat, what we throw away, the pollution of the atmosphere, unnecessary travel – I could go on. The gospel imagines Jesus speaking to Nicodemus, an enquirer and searcher for answers and truth.  The answer to all this is in Jesus.  I prefer not to think that Jesus died to placate God and free us from His wrath, which doesn’t give a good image of God – the God we should believe in.  God sent His son as an ideal human being.  Let us pause and think what this ideal means.  It is not a successful business man, it is not a person who just gets on well with everyone; the ideal human is not well educated, not widely travelled, not hailed and loved by everyone, not famous, not even successful by human standards!  Jesus is the ideal human, because He just loved everyone, did good when and where ever He could and even did not receive acknowledgement from the majority of people, even treated as guilty of crime and – yes – executed.  This is not the normal successful kind of life we imagine. But there are good people – indeed our present situation can help us realise just how many such there are.  This is not just the NHS workers, but also people helping neighbours, a parent surviving with spouse and children through difficulties, waste collectors — in fact just so many good people who can seem quite ordinary. Let us make sure we are one of these in the best way we can, and not one who contributes to the environmental damage that is ongoing, or the thoughtless who risk spreading disease…  Yes we are suffering just now, but can we not learn from suffering even as Christians by reflecting on the end of Christ’s life on earth.  Let us seriously change and come out of this ‘exile’ not just remembering the past with Boney M. but making a better future – the one God is trying to create and we are often hindering.

Lent 3 B Cleansing the ‘sacred’

1 Mar

I think when I was taught R.E. years ago, I would have been able to recite the 10 commandments but now I had to look at the first reading to be reminded what they are.  The full reading includes the rule that we shouldn’t have images or religious statues – which Catholics particularly ignore.  But it also says that later generations will be punished for the misdeeds of predecessors, and this I think is certainly born out by our history – past carelessness about the environment is seriously damaging us now, and even causing the early deaths of lots of us.  But even the shorter reading means you shouldn’t covet what your neighbour has, yet I would love to be as good as some of the people I know.   So lets be careful about taking past rules as too applicable when taken literally in our situation today.

Paul, fairly near the beginning of his 1st letter to the Corinthians passes over the wisdom  and the miraculous in favour of preaching about our saviour being crucified.  But I think we should not so much celebrate this, as regret the circumstances that brought it about.  It was the majority of the enthusiastic followers of Jesus who misunderstood him, thinking he would release them from Roman domination and bring them – the chosen people – to be dominant in the world.  Jesus’ trouble making in the Temple over the misuse of religion, gave many of His followers the expectation that He would cleanse their religion of its selfish leaders and of the dominance of the hated Roman authorities;  it was this attitude that would contribute to Jesus’ arrest and execution – crucifixion!

Whereas the other gospels place the ‘cleansing of the Temple’ (as the incident is called) just prior to Jesus’ last days, John’s gospel has it at the beginning of a three year period of public ministry.  When wondering why this seemingly unlikely timing we must realise that John is not writing history but preaching about Jesus’ impact on people wanting to live ‘good Christian lives’ as we might say.  In John’s gospel it comes immediately after the story of the marriage feast at Cana and I think John wants to contrast the two events.  The wedding at Cana is really a secular party in someone’s house, celebrating the marriage and love of two people, with friends and relatives – with feasting and wine.  This contrasts with the celebration of the feast of Passover in the sacred temple with the need to buy offerings as gifts and to change money to donate to the Temple; a celebration controlled and encouraged mostly by the priests, scribes and Pharisees, at which people were expected to attend.  At Cana Jesus’ presence and contribution is quite subordinate to the celebration – even His miracle of water into wine is only knowable by the servants.  In the Temple scene Jesus’ activity is ‘unavoidable’ and He has a good bit to say.  At Cana the servants just quietly do what Jesus suggests but in the Temple the ‘religious leaders’ are indignant at His actions.  Let’s try to be like the guests at the wedding celebrating the beautiful things in life – though knowing they are all due to the influence of Jesus!