Tag Archives: Saint Paul

August 8: Another man with dirty hands and clean heart.

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I’ve just been scrubbing my hands after a spot of bicycle maintenance; that and the story of the classic car enthusiast removing every speck of grime from his hands to attend an ordination reminded me of another tale that I heard on the radio a few years ago, before the days of ubiquitous thin rubber gloves.

An Anglican priest, non-stipendiary, meaning he earned his living at another job, as Saint Paul did, was the speaker. I don’t know what his other job was, but it involved getting his hands dirty, the sort of dirt that lodges in the fingerprint whorls and cracks and resists the scrubbing brush. Printer’s ink maybe?

Every Saturday evening this good man would hold his hands in a strong solution of bleach until the residual grime disappeared, ready for Sunday Eucharist. However the result was not good news for his skin.

As I recall the story, his wife intervened, concerned for his health. His hands, she told him, were clean enough to eat with, despite the last ingrained stains, and he was preparing to celebrate the Lord’s Last Supper, a meal with God’s people in his parish; people who knew about his work. They would not be put off by unwashoffable dirt, nor would they expect their priest to contract dermatitis in order to lead them in worship.

He stopped using the bleach. The congregation did not stop coming to Sunday Eucharist. Surely Jesus chose fishermen and a tentmaker as his ministers, but he also chose a man with very dirty hands, the extortionate tax-collector, the future Saint Matthew.

 

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13 May. What is Theology Saying? L: Signs of the times open pathways for the Gospel

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austinThe signs of the times cannot simply be material events or objective happenings. Such things, of themselves, do not indicate anything. They prompt a suspicion that things are brewing, it does not take very much to be aware of that. Sadly that is where most people stop. Whereas the real signs are human actions, human responses to challenges posed by these events. Only people can create realities pointing somewhere, through their words, gestures and actions. The “signs of the times” are these gestures which allow the Lord to be present. There will always be a connection between events and signs. St. Paul’s journeys depended on the existence of sea-routes, and the communications system established by the Roman Empire. But a study of these phenomena would not suffice to help us understand what was going on. Only people can be signs. Anthony in the Desert, Benedict, Francis, Gandhi, Martin Luther King… were all signs who were intimately involved with what was going on in their own world. Their sign value lay in the pathways they opened up for the Gospel life to move through them, relevantly, into the world.

If we are simply looking for new ways to win people to the church, all we need do is take note of modern resources on offer. Make use of the variety of ideologies at our disposal. But our task is different. A new Church demands freedom from the accretions and accumulations of time. We need to sweep away whatever makes the Word inaccessible. Just as individuals need to be set free from their past, so too do Institutions which are made up of individuals. We will only realise the need for change when we discover people who are not being reached. Recognising the signs of the times means risking letting go of much of the past. If Jesus had taken all the Jewish traditions on board he would have made many more converts, but nothing would have changed and the truth would have remained “safely” locked up.

Mission is not something extraordinary, it does not require the presence of genius; simply ordinary folk prepared to do ordinary things, extraordinarily well. When we rely over much on system and method we end up transmitting ideology, religion or culture, rather than access to Jesus Christ

AMcC

Image from Saint David’s Cathedral, Pembrokeshire.

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12 May. What is Theology Saying? XLIX: Church and World are not mutually exclusive.

 

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With our Lenten season we have set aside our long-running series from Traherne, the Little Flowers of Francis, and from Brother Austin. Let’s remedy that last one! There’s a challenge at the end: ‘I know that I can cope with the past because I am still here! So why risk the unknown?’

austinWe cannot contrast Church and World. They are not mutually exclusive. The Church is supposed to be the community that makes God’s promises already present. When we celebrate the sacraments this is a pledge to what we have committed ourselves as community. There is no work blueprint, we are called to be creative through the possibilities everyday life presents. The Church cannot hand-out a programme to us telling us exactly what to do, how to do it and where. The Bible has no such blueprint. We learn more about the future when we respond to what we already know and are presenting solutions accordingly.

The early Church, seen through Paul’s writing, took slavery for granted as a feature of society – while insisting that the slave-owner respect their human dignity. Centuries later we began to realise that we must abolish slavery itself, because slavery as such is opposed to human dignity. We are also coming to realise that what we often call works of charity can be more crushing than poverty itself, that we can eliminate poverty simply by providing jobs and incomes for all. In the same way war was seen as inevitable, and not only killing but torture was therefore justified. With the formation of the UN we are starting to glimpse that war is not inevitable – Paul VI said to the UN with powerful conviction no more war, war never again.

The truth is that the “signs of the times” are those offering the church ever new opportunities to go out and meet others. Individuals may well set out believing they are going to teach, but they will end up learning, as did Paul. The church is given endless opportunities to rediscover itself in ever new light, but they do not happen every day. At certain moments of privilege, the Spirit summons the church to risk: “During the night a vision came to Paul: a Macedonian stood there appealing to him: Cross over to Macedonia and help us”. Acts.16.9.

The “signs of the times” are the external evidence of this call to Discipleship of Christ. Reasoned observation and rational planning have a place. Reason is able to perceive certain things that suggest there are changes requiring further and new steps to be taken. Different moments of time have their own signs. Not everyone sees them. Jesus criticised the Pharisees because their wisdom in this regard was deficient: “It is a wicked and Godless generation that asks for a sign; and the only sign it will be given is the sign of Jonah” – Mt.12.39. There are insensitive people in every age, unable [unwilling] to see the call for something new. To them mission is no more than simply repeating what has already been achieved. This is the fear principle, prompted by the fact that I know that I can cope with the past because I am still here! So why risk the unknown?

Reading  the Word and the World, Zakopane, Poland.

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27 March: Before the Cross XIII: Peace or Power?


osagie.osifo.x.rupertCrucified Jesus between two standing figures by Osagie Osifo

A wooden panel displayed in the Catholic Chapel of the University of Ibadan, carved by Osagie Osifo in 1961. (Willett, F. 2002 African Art London, Thames & Hudson Ltd.)

Here, Jesus is flanked by Mary, his mother, and John the “beloved disciple”, in a moment that could not be more serene. Mary and John both have their eyes closed, and their hands positioned as if in prayer. The object of their devotion is obviously the crucified Jesus, who, raised above and between them, forms the focus of the carving. Adding to the peace and calm of the image are the leaves: trefoil forms (possibly alluding to the trinity of the Christian God), while the simple interlace designs at top and bottom call to mind those of Celtic art. I think the whole composition has something of a Celtic “feel” to it.

Except, of course, that this is clearly an African work, and specifically one informed by the art and history of the kingdom of Benin, now a part of Nigeria. Osagie Osifo, himself from Benin, has fashioned this image deliberately to echo the famous bronzes, “rescued” by a British punitive expedition in 1897 mounted against the Oba (King of Benin) and his chiefs.

The Oba ruled over a highly organised society which, though famed now for its art and advanced understanding of casting bronze, was also extremely warlike. It was a culture where much of the religion and ritual was focused upon the King himself and on his ancestors. Some of these customs have been restored and are practised today in modern Benin. Osifo’s carving of Jesus challenges this in the most radical way.

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https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1990.332/

The Oba stands between two of his officials in this bronze plaque. He holds a huge sword in one hand, and a staff of office on the other. The three figures are helmeted, the Oba appearing the most fearsome of all with his distinctive collar and his domineering stance. His helmet is spiked. Nothing in this image would signify peace or tranquillity; it has only to do with naked power and aggression. By substituting the Oba for Jesus, and the two warriors for Mary and John, Osifo has consciously declared his position: Christ is Lord. He alone is worthy of worship.

Stylistically, Jesus and the Oba might share some characteristics: short legs and long arms, and both sport a similar wrapped garment with its hem rising to the waist at the front. (And there are leaf shapes on the Oba’s bronze background, too). But there the similarity ends. Much as with the confrontation between Jesus and Pilate, here two entirely opposite world-views collide. The one exercises power by bullying and coercion, military might and political clout. The other, relying on the power and authority of a loving Father, chooses to suffer, and dies on a cross.

Osifo’s carving is beautiful in its own right, but for me it becomes all the more so as I consider how it, and how the gospel, subverts the traditional order of things. Paul writes to the church at Colossae:

And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” Col.2:15.

The work is a beautifully contextualised statement on how Jesus challenges that which diminishes our humanity, oppresses us, or distracts us from our true vocation. It is in recognising the truth of Israel’s God and of the one he sent, that we can then see a hope for the world. Without him, insecurity and violence are sure to reign. The carving redeems something of Benin’s art, but in doing so must drastically alter it. Rightly, Jesus is at the centre, and the true power lies – as it should in our lives – in the crucifixion itself.

Rupert Greville

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10 February: Not through vainglory: a response to Virginia Woolf

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Saint Paul never tramped the byways of Palestine with Jesus, but he knew the Jewish Scriptures – to love the Lord your God with your whole being and your neighbour as yourself. He put it this way:

If there is therefore any exhortation in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tender mercies and compassions, make full my joy, that ye be of the same mind, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind; doing nothing through faction or through vainglory, but in lowliness of mind each counting other better than himself; not looking each of you to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others.

Philippians 2:1-4.

You don’t have to be a Christian believer to look to the things of others, to work towards being of one accord with your neighbours. In a diverse society such as the United Kingdom today, that should be obvious. But that sense of solidarity does not predominate in everybody. I feel that it was what Virginia Woolf missed by trying to live the illusion – her own word – that she was somehow superior to others. Vainglory sums it up precisely.

And realising that it was vainglory to affect such superiority – or so I read her ending – she filled her pockets with stones and waded into the river. Woolf was certainly struggling with despair in her last months. The Hamilton Star recently told how researchers from Canada and Brazil created word clouds from her writings in happier times and those last months.

In the cloud created from her final months, the words include: little, miss, war, nothing, never, can’t and don’t. The researchers write that these “negative words” may indicate Woolf’s “thoughts of lack of efficacy, self-criticism, worthlessness, nostalgia, melancholy and mainly hopelessness.”

This is not to deny the mental illness that blighted Virginia Woolf’s life, which surely contributed to her thoughts of melancholy and hopelessness, despite her many privileges. Nor is it possible to compare her suffering with Paul’s time in chains and prison, nor to deny the power of God’s grace to work in her heart. Suicide is an extreme form of repentance, and Woolf was aware, perhaps morbidly aware, of causing suffering to others, and as her last letter shows, she wanted to end that. Let us, for every one who takes their own life, 

be … confident of this very thing, that he who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ.

Philippians 1:6.

 

And let us remember, with thanks, that there is now formal and informal help for those in great distress that was not available to Virginia Woolf.

MMB.

 

 

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27 January: My unwary sentences: Brownings II.

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Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, masters of words both, still contrived to misunderstand each other in the early days of their friendship. It was a friendship largely based on letters since Robert could not risk arousing Mr Barrett’s suspicions as to his motives for visiting Elizabeth if he did so more than once a week. The penny post had been inaugurated five years before, and there were several deliveries per day, so misunderstandings could be sorted out quickly. A lesson for us, with our smart phones, Skype, Whatsapp and so on:
Never let the sun go down on your anger, don’t let resentment set up shop in your heart! (see Ephesians 4:26)
“Do you receive my assurances from the deepest of my heart that I never did otherwise than ‘believe’ you … never did nor shall do … and that you completely misinterpreted my words if you drew another meaning from them. Believe me in this—will you? I could not believe you any more for anything you could say, now or hereafter—and so do not avenge yourself on my unwary sentences by remembering them against me for evil. I did not mean to vex you … still less to suspect you—indeed I did not! and moreover it was quite your fault that I did not blot it out after it was written, whatever the meaning was. So you forgive me (altogether) for your own sins: you must.
For my part, though I have been sorry since to have written you such a gloomy letter, the sorrow unmakes itself in hearing you speak so kindly. Your sympathy is precious to me, I may say. May God bless you.
Write and tell me among the ‘indifferent things’ something not indifferent, how you are yourself, I mean … for I fear you are not well and thought you were not looking so yesterday.
Dearest friend, I remain yours, E.B.B.”
An old Dutch pillar box at Amsterdam Centraal Station. MMB.

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January 19: Week of Prayer for Christian Unity Day 2: Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’.

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Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’ (Matthew 5:37)

  • Ephesians 4:22-25

  • Matthew 5:33-37

Starting point

The letter to the Ephesians presents a call for Christians to be honest and accountable to each other, so that we may grow in community. There is no place for deceitfulness, for it serves only to impair our relationships and so destroy that community. We are called to live an authentic life of faith and stand up for the truth. Our yes must mean ‘yes’ and our no must mean ‘no’ – with no equivocal language or dishonest behaviour. Dishonesty disrupts the unity of the Church for which we are called to pray and work.

Reflection

If I am to speak truth to power,

whose truth do I speak?

Whose justice do I seek

in the space between my right-ness

and that of the ‘other’?

If I say ‘yes’ to justice,

does that make it all mine?

What of the grey between the emphatics?

‘Let me declare boldly,

sure-footedly

that my yes is

a “yes-yes”, and my

no is “no”.’ Says Jesus.

‘Let me draw clarity

in the sand that

defines and refines

knowledge, truth and tales

in such a way

that all are sure.

‘Let me dwell deep

in the place within

where, regardless of the outward form

you know beyond doubt’s shadow,

that truth and justice,

peace and righteousness lie.

‘And let me,

in my boldness

turn widdershins

the hypocrisy of

those who confuse integrity with fake-ness,

who obscure truth with falsehood

and call it news.

‘Let me boldly be good news.’

Prayer

God of justice,

grant me the wisdom to see right from wrong.

Let my heart be guided by honesty and my lips speak truth.

In times of doubt, cloak me in courage the colour of trust.

Birth in me the passion for unity and peace

so that I may be a good news bearer for all.

In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

Questions

  • What does it feel like to have your words distorted?

  • Look at on-line or paper copies of current news items. Can you distinguish spin, or ‘fake news’ – what are the markers of such items?

  • How, in our churches, do we tell, or re-tell our own stories in order to set ourselves in a good light?

Go and Do

(see www.ctbi.org.uk/goanddo)

Not everything we read or see in the news is true. ‘Fake news’ has become a catch-all term for stories that are deliberately made up and also those that have some truth to them but are not reported accurately.

Hold a newspaper reading breakfast for the churches in your area and take time to discuss the headlines and equip yourselves with the skills to discern what is true in this ‘post-truth’ age. Visit Go and Do to find out some steps for identifying fake news that you can discuss over breakfast.

Visit Go and Do to find out about and join the campaigns challenging the negative and scaremongering reporting in the media.

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December 22: O King of the nations.

dec22 pic aKing of the Nations! Most nations today do not have kings, or they are shorn of their power and much of their status. Every now and then there is a story of an African prince succeeding to his position as king and giving up work and home in London, Canada or the United States to enter his kingdom. ‘We never knew’, his work colleagues say. May we know our King when he comes.

Over to Sister Johanna. Dec 22 – O Rex Gentium

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8 November: Trumpets shall sound!

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In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall rise again incorruptible: and we shall be changed.  For this corruptible must put on incorruption; and this mortal must put on immortality. And when this mortal hath put on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?

1 Corinthians 15:52-55

The Artist at Strasbourg Cathedral shows Christ as Judge, but clearly bearing the marks of his death in his hands and side –  he leans to one side, looking down at those entering the cathedral, hands held in blessing rather than condemnation. His attendant angels display the cross, the lance, the crown of thorns.

It seems to me that rather than see him face to face, the condemned condemn themselves, walking away, bishops, kings and queens, prosperous merchants among them.

Can I even look myself in the mirror, let alone my saviour? Can I carry a thorn or two without complaining, let alone my daily cross?

At the bottom are two reinforcements for the Last Trumpet, and between them the bewildered dead are rising incorruptible. Like Jesus, the artist has shown them as fully human. One, at least, has realised something of what is going on, and is dancing.

May we hear the Last Trumpet even now as it echoes back and forth through eternity, and may our hearts sing and dance before our Lord and Judge, and leave the rest to his mercy.

 

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25 October. What is Theology Saying? XXXVIII: We have locked ourselves in the shadow of death

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The evil in unredeemed desire is far deeper than the law could engender – which is why we are told that anger = murder and lust = adultery. The way evil cannot touch is forgiveness. We need to learn to desire without the need to compete, blame or measure ourselves against. We need to be free to relish good wherever it is found – but who decides what is good?

God gave a prohibition for our protection – which we have consistently ignored – not to eat of the tree whose fruit is knowledge of good and evil. But seeing something withheld led to rivalry and envy – we’ll show him – we’ll do it our way. Paul tells us that the Law is not sinful – Romans 7.7. – I was once alive apart from the Law, but when the command came sin sprang into life and I died. Paul sees the Serpent not as the Devil but as sin. Desire is a gift of God, but not when disfigured by envy. We have victimised the Law making it an instrument of redemptive violence, and locking ourselves within the shadow of death.

Desire turned to envy made what should have been the irenic way to life into the sphere of rivalry, envy and exclusion. Now all life is infected [universality of OS] by such distorted desire – they saw that they were naked – all this through ignoring that prohibition that was there to ensure our well-being.

It is my awareness of me as “I” that results from knowing other than me. Paul insists that it is Faith that allows us access to desire redemption, to desire in ways that owe nothing to envious rivalry. Sin means my “I” is not in control but is itself controlled by distorted desire. What is needed is the way of living that Paul describes as: It is no longer I but Christ living in me [controlling my “I”] – Gal.2.20.

Jesus shows that Original Sin is not of our essence, it is simply evidence of a faulty foundational principle [way of life]. Paradoxically, what Jesus was founding was subversion of the notion founding – in the sense of achieving identity by comparison over against others. It is totally gratuitous in every way… something that existed long before our capacity for distorting desire ever happened. Before Original Sin there is Original Grace.

The tragedy of Original Sin is not that it is universal, but in the universality of the new people we discover what is possible for “I” – to become enabled to move from the universal to the particular; whereas conversion requires recognition of our equality as the foundation of human dignity; unity in diversity, equal but not the same. Original Sin is what we are leaving behind when we take new life seriously. We realise the reality of Original Sin through those who have been set free from it. As Jesus told Nicodemus – we must be born into a new way – not going back and starting again. – Jn.3.3. Death was seen as an extrinsic punishment for sin – we all sin, we all die! Death and sin are connected – distorted desire cannot bring life, since only God is life!

AMcC

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