Saturday, 20 January 2018

A Sceptic's Guide to Miracles (Epiphany 3)

How do you approach the miracles of Jesus? Believing or agnostic or dismissive? A look at the miracles that Jesus did is obligatory during the season of Epiphany, the Church season that we are in now. Because the season's about God making himself known in the world. So the miracle that usually gets most airing is the first that Jesus did, recounted by St. John (chapter 2 verses 1-11) and that is where he turned water into wine at a wedding.

I've spoken quite extensively about miracles before (here and here) So I only want to add to what I've said before, by thinking about how we might approach what we read of these extraordinary, and some would say unbelievable acts of Jesus. How can we cope with what we read about his miracles in our day to day life of faith? Are they relevant to our everyday following of Jesus?

In particular I'd like to say something about whether or not it's obligatory to believe in the miracles of Jesus to be a Christian, or can we be at least sceptical and at most not believe in them at all and still be a disciple of Christ with integrity and not be classed as 'outside' the orthodox faith?

It's a tall order and I'm conscious that I might be going out on a limb too with my own approach to miracles. So with that, here we go. And I'll try to keep it brief!

A majority, perhaps, of Christians would say that you can't be a Christian without believing that Jesus actually did the miracles, that what is recorded in the New Testament is fact, although it can't be proved. You accept them in faith. After all, to doubt what the gospel writers wrote points towards them having falsified the accounts and to be liars. Early on, commentators on the scriptures said that those who wrote them were people of the highest integrity. Eusebius of Caesaria, the first historian of the Church who lived between 260-340 AD said of the gospel writers, 'How could believers of such character ascribe falsely to their own Lord things he never did? That is why I think it has been rightly said that "One must put complete confidence in the disciples of Jesus, or none at all."' I'd say that probably a majority of Christians would hold this position today.

Others, more influenced by a scientific world view and the Biblical criticism of the last couple of centuries would say that the miracles are part of the myth surrounding the Jesus who actually lived. Being myth, the miracle stories still have value in communicating Truth. And because they can't be proved to have happened historically, then belief that Jesus actually did them can't and needn't be sustained. But holding that point of view as a Christian, they would say, doesn't make you any less a Christian or genuine disciple. I remember the then Bishop of Durham David Jenkins, some thirty years ago, saying something akin to whether or not the tomb was empty on the first Easter day, that it's really neither here nor there; that what's more important is the power and presence of the risen Jesus Christ in one's life today.

As I said, we can't prove, historically, that Jesus did miracles. Add to that, we read that Jesus refused to work miracles to prove who he was (e,g.Matthew 12.39) If Jesus refused to work miracles for the sake of proving something, we needn't take them as proof of anything about him ourselves either. Indeed, agonizing about whether or not they really happened can be a stumbling block to our developing faith, rather than simply reading of them in faith, for the good of and development of our faith. We know that God (Jesus) can do anything. Whether or not he did or didn't do something doesn't make him any less God.

I know that for some a problem can arise when we recite phrases in the Nicene Creed such as - 'Born of the Virgin Mary........On the third day he rose again,' if you don't believe that the miracles actually happened as recorded. Each of us has to live with our own conscience on that one and appeal to God's mercy perhaps.

Personally, I've never really agonized about whether or not the miracles that occurred in Jesus's life
really happened; from his conception by the working of the Holy Spirit in his mother, through his
healing of people and raising them from the dead, through his walking on water and turning water into wine and on to his resurrection. Some I really doubt, others like the healings, not so much. But I've not let that doubt stand in my way, become a 'stumbling block'.

The way I've gone about following Jesus is, above all, to try as best I can to listen to his teaching, try to understand it, and in my own halting way, at which I mostly fail, to live it as best I can. For now, I read the miracles of Jesus as an affirmation in the form of myth, of the Truth of the power and presence of God then and now, the power and presence of God in mine and other Christians' lives. The miracles may really have happened, but I don't need to believe they did. And I leave it to each one of us to decide where we stand as individuals with the miracles and what we mean when we recite the Creed.

That sort of approach, I think, as I said stops the miracles becoming a 'stumbling block' to faith and allows Jesus' teaching, which can be proved through our own lived experience, to become the foundation of faith rather than some of his unverifiable actions which can't be proved in our own lived experience.

The rest I leave to God and his mercy.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Knowing me, Knowing you - aha! (Epiphany 2)

The season of Epiphany is all about God making himself known in the world - Knowing me, knowing you!

When I was a boy I had a book of Bible stories and one story I remember vividly is the one about the boy Samuel being called by God. I've read the story now many times as an adult and I'm always struck by what we can learn from it.

There's a now, old, joke which goes - 'If you talk to God you are religious. If God talks back you are a psychiatric case.' And I can well understand that to those who don't have anything to do with religion, the statement the joke makes might not be very far from the truth. At least for them.

The story of the calling of Samuel can be found in the Old Testament in 1 Samuel chapter 3 verse 1 onward. The beginning of the story, for me, always resonates with how we find the state of the Christian faith and religion in general in this Western world today- 'The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread,' it says. The secular world makes little if any opening for the Christian God to be heard nowadays.

But the phrase 'the lamp of God had not yet gone out,' which occurs in verse 3, seems to chime with the fact that the Christian faith, despite all that militates against it and seeks to quash it, still 'burns' here and in Europe.

We have the impression that it's night time in the story, because old Eli the priest, who, we are told, is losing his sight (another allusion to losing contact with God and the spiritual life?) is lying down in his room. And Samuel is lying down in the temple 'where the ark of God was'. In other words, being in the temple and near the ark, Samuel is just about as physically close to God as he could get.

And here's the twist. Eli, the priest of many years experience hearing God speak to him, years of wisdom and spiritual maturity, whose now old, and with failing sight, weary and despairing of his wayward sons, is in his room presumably asleep and feeling far away from God. Samuel, the boy recently dedicated to God, new to faith, inexperienced, tender, innocent, is nearer to God than he realises but 'Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him (verse 7)

Into this scene, God speaks to Samuel. Samuel, not realising it's God, thinks it's Eli calling him. So he goes to Eli who says, 'no, it wasn't me.' Three times this happens before Eli cottons on to what's happening. Realising it's God speaking to Samuel he tells Samuel to say to God, 'Speak Lord, for your servant is listening'. Samuel does as he's told and his life as a prophet begins.

The story raises lots of questions for me about if, how and when God speaks to us. More importantly still, is the question, how do we know it's actually God speaking? How do we know it's not our over-active imagination or our own ego yelling out to us?

God speaks into lives that are completely closed to Him, as well as into those that are totally open. We read of both instances in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments. For example, in the Old Testament we read that God used the Persian king Cyrus to do His work for Him and in the New we read that God speaks into the life of Saul of Tarsus, so much so that the experience knocks Saul off his horse and blinds him! Both of these men, at the time were closed off to God. One of them opened up. But as I said, the more important question for me is how we know that it's God speaking.

I believe that we can never truly know, but we can become so convinced that we believe we know. St. Paul said, 'I know whom I have believed.' (2 Timothy 1.12) We might be right, but that's where the danger lies too. Because we can't be sure, especially at first, that what we are 'hearing' is coming from a benevolent source or a malevolent one. For again, St. Paul said that 'the devil comes disguised as an angel of light.' (2 Corinthians 11.14) So, is it God or the devil that's speaking to us? Or is it our own ego, that powerful part of us that is our own god wanting to have sway over everything we are and do? And here's where we can listen to the message in what we read of Samuel and Eli's experience, and follow a tradition handed down in the Church for the best part of 2,000 years.

Discerning the 'voice' or word of God has traditionally been seen as a difficult and sometimes dangerous thing. Traditionally it has been reserved for those men and women of maturity of faith and spiritual experience and wisdom who have usually (but not exclusively) been mature in years as well. The word 'elder' has been and still is used, especially in Eastern Christianity, to refer to such people. It's this 'model' we see in the story of Eli and Samuel.

Samuel, unaccustomed to hearing God speak to him thinks it's the voice of Eli. It's a new experience for him. So it's quite understandable that he should be confused.

Eli, even with his spiritual maturity takes time to understand and discern for himself what the voice is and where it's coming from. Samuel goes to Eli three times before Eli understands. But then, from his own experience and wisdom, he gives guidance to Samuel about how to respond.

This model of spiritual guidance has been accepted down the centuries as the one to follow. Being able to discern the voice of God or His word in any situation and then giving guidance or direction, has been seen as a gift or grace of God; a Charism. And so it's not for everybody.

It isn't always easy to find this sort of spiritual guidance. But without such a spiritual guide, all is not lost. We simply need to tread very carefully when it comes to discerning God's voice in our life and especially in acting upon what we believe we 'hear' from God. We must 'test the spirits' as St. Paul said. God can 'speak' to us in different ways, (but that's a subject for another blog post) and we have to learn to discern what are the different 'voices' speaking to us, especially whether they are from God or from some other source. Time will tell us if we've discerned correctly and acted wisely upon what we believe we've heard.

Samuel, with the direction of Eli in the beginning, learned discernment and how to listen well and went on to be one of the greatest of God's prophets.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Will you go the distance? A Question for Epiphany

Today (6th January) is the Feast of the Epiphany. In old language (Book of Common Prayer) it's titled The Feast of the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. Put more simply, it's on this day that we remember and celebrate the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. We'll most likely be celebrating it in church tomorrow.

The 'wise men from the East' (Matthew 2.1) if the story has any historical validity, may have come from as far away as present day Iran. The various traditions and stories down the centuries put them from that sort of region. Marco Polo wrote of his having visited the graves of the wise men in a town in Iran. They may have been Zoroastrians. Whatever they were and from whatever culture they hailed, they were 'foreigners'; very much Gentiles; very much outside the traditions and culture of the Jews. But they'd seen a star, rising, a sign that in their culture was a portent of a new king. And the story says that they followed it.

I love the poem by T.S. Eliot 'The Journey of the Magi' 'A cold coming we had of it. Just the worst time of year for a journey; and such a long journey: the ways deep and the weather sharp, the very dead of Winter,' is how it opens. If you haven't read it you should. (You can read it by clicking here and you can also listen to T.S. Eliot reading it) Because it leaves you, (well it always leaves me) like the wise men after their experience of meeting with Jesus; uneasy, uncertain, as Eliot writes - 'But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their Gods.' I believe that any true meeting with Jesus leaves you, in time, ill at ease, uncertain. And wanting to know more.

We have the impression that the wise men traveled a long way to see Jesus, a long way for that
encounter that was so important for them to experience. It had taken faith, faith in their own religion, faith in themselves, faith in the star. Their faith took them a long way.

And getting there they offered the baby 'out of their treasures' which they'd carried with them, gold, frankincense and myrrh. In faith they offered some of the best of what they had to this new king. Who was an infant living in a house rather than a palace. So that must have taken faith too, after visiting Herod's palace and finding the new king not there, to believe that  the infant they found in such lowly surroundings was a king. We don't necessarily find God in the places we expect, rather, sometimes in the most unexpected of places. And accepting that demands faith.

Our journey, taken in faith, looking for what we hope and expect is God, demands a lot - of faith. Sometimes we have to have the faith to suspend belief to find what we are looking for. And suspending belief is a sort of death. No wonder we are 'no longer at ease in the old dispensation.' Just as the Magi in Eliot's poem weren't sure whether or not they'd seen a birth or a death, so the new birth we are looking for, in ourselves in our encounter with Jesus, means a death too, of much we've
believed, hoped in, dreamed of.

And continuing in that new birth and making the long journey of maturing in the faith, demands perseverance and above all faith. Because it's a long and arduous journey. Don't be deceived. Spirituality is not about being 'spaced out' in your own space feeling good about life, the universe and everything. Spirituality is about giving you and your space over to God and His space. And it takes all you've got for as long as it takes. You've got to go the distance, just as the wise men did.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Happy New Year!

'Behold, I make all things new!' is what God is saying right at the end of the Bible in Revelation 21.5 and there is that vision of a new heaven and a new earth and the 'new Jerusalem' coming down out of heaven. It's a vision of God rebuilding everything and starting again. It's not about patching stuff up, making repairs or improvements to what's already there. It's a completely new beginning, an entirely new project.

We think of starting again and renewing at New Year. We hope, pray, long for and dream about a better life, a better world than what we've experienced up to now. How often have we seen in the soap operas on TV, characters in the Christmas and New Year episodes getting in a taxi and riding off or just walking off to a new life because things haven't worked out or got so bad they are intolerable in their present life? And then years later they might turn up again, completely made over.

Oh that it was so simple! Somehow, real life doesn't often work like that. We can't just walk off or press the reset button as we might on a smart phone or computer and reboot our life. Unlike the soap opera characters, we have a real investment in our own lives and in the lives of others, real connections that breaking will do more harm than good. So we have to look for renewal in all that's less than perfect in our life and carry on with the life we've got.

Yet right at the heart of Christianity is the idea that we can start again. God's incarnation in Jesus was a new start. For us as Jesus followers, baptism, at any age is seen as a new start, slate wiped clean. St. Paul said that 'if anyone is in Christ they are a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come.' (2 Corinthians 5.17) This is no patching up or improvement on the old, it's something completely new.

And in the Church, we use the sacraments of repentance and confession as a way of renewal and starting afresh; at any time. Indeed, we do it regularly at the beginning of most acts of worship in church. Coming to God in worship, knowing that we are always falling short in some way, we claim this way of starting again. And are granted it.

This is not very far removed from what goes on in the secular world of work with annual, monthly and weekly reviews of goals and objectives. Regular assessments are made of performance and things adjusted if goals and objectives aren't met. Shortcomings and shortfalls are faced and action taken on them. It's the way the business world works. It's entirely the same as the way God works with us.

But thanks be to God because he doesn't fire us if we fall short, he forgives, wipes the slate clean and if we treat the process with the respect and the sanctity with which it's meant to be taken, on we go again, renewed, a new creation.

I recall a phrase from an Eastern saint, whose name I can't just remember who said that 'God doesn't judge us for the greatness of our sin, but for our failure to repent'. Which really means something like being judged for not looking at ourselves squarely and owning up to our faults and failures and then taking the opportunity to be become again a 'new creation'. God offers us the opportunity of a new start out of love for us. And that opportunity is open and ongoing all the time throughout our life. We don't need a New Year to wait for it.

But it's always good at this time, at the start of a New Year to think especially where we stand in our relationships with others and ourselves and with God and not just to hope and pray and dream of a new start, but to act. We don't need to hope or dream or pray for what God has already given us in forgiveness and what he continues to offer us in every second of our life.

May you have a blessed, happy and prosperous 2018!

Thursday, 28 December 2017

On the 4th day of Christmas.... - The dark side - We shouldn't avoid it

The Nativity - Gerard van Hondhorst
I said in a previous post that the Nativity story is a story of hardship and heartache from beginning to end. That might have surprised you if you read it.

I wrote that as I was thinking about the Holy Family themselves. It began with the embarrassment and shame of Joseph and Mary at their situation when they found that Mary was pregnant. And even getting through that they had to make an arduous journey to Bethlehem to satisfy the census, only to find nowhere fitting to stay, so they had to bunk down in a cave or shed. If they thought things were tough then, they were going to get tougher, and frightening with it.

We read in St. Matthew's gospel of three Magi journeying to find Jesus. The portents had told them the baby would be a king. In trying to locate Jesus' whereabouts it seemed sensible to them to stop off in Jerusalem to ask the current king, Herod the Great if he knew where the new king would be born? Herod summoned his priests and scribes and asked them if they knew. 'Bethlehem is what the scriptures say', said the priests and scribes. So Herod sent the Magi off with instructions to return and let him know where they find the new king so that he can make a visit.

 Flight into Egypt - Gentile da Fabriano
After finding and visiting Jesus, the Bible tells us that, in a dream, the Magi are warned off telling Herod. So they go home a different way. Joseph is also visited in a dream by an angel telling him to take Mary and the baby off to Egypt until further notice because Herod is going to come for Jesus to kill him.

Hardship, heartache and now fear are visited upon Mary and Joseph. But if it was bad for them, it was even worse for the residents of Bethlehem because they had to suffer what I think would be described these days as 'collateral damage' to the event of the holy birth. Because a power crazed Herod decides he won't put up with the competition and orders the killing of all the children under 2 years of age in Bethlehem. So the chilling conclusion to the nativity story is summed up at the end in St. Matthew's gospel thus:

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 
"A voice was heard in Ramah, 
wailing and loud lamentation, 
Rachel weeping for her children; 
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."
The Massacre of the Innocents - Leon Cogniet

Today, 28th December, the 4th day of Christmas each year, is dedicated to all those children killed in Bethlehem - the Holy Innocents, as tradition refers to them.

For many people, by this time, Christmas is over; they've had a lovely time and all it means now is a return to every day life. For some people, Christmas will have been a time of bereavement either just before, or on the day or in these early days following. And the saddest bereavement of all will be for those who've lost a child no matter what the circumstances.

Today especially, we might remember and hold before God all those children who are dying because of conflict in their homes or as refugees or because of conflict and violence between nations, throughout the world;  those who suffer and die innocent of the situations in which they are caught up.

Yes, for all its joy and peace, right from the beginning, Christmas has had a darker side; a darker side we can't avoid. And we can't avoid all those impossible-to-answer questions that go along with it. It was a darker side in which Jesus himself was caught up right from his birth. For him it would come to a conclusion about 30 years later when he was put to death, still the child of Mary his mother, who wept for him as, in the prophecy, Rachel wept for her children.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

A lovely holiday - Leaving a legacy - St. John, Apostle and Evangelist

The monastery of St. John the Divine, Patmos
Early October and I was spending my 60th birthday on the warm and sunny Greek island of Patmos. It was a real treat for me as it's Greece's holy island and I'd planned to spend some time on my actual birthday visiting the monastery of St. John and the Cave of the Apocalypse. Because this is the island on which St. John, Apostle and Evangelist was exiled later in his life and on which is the cave in which he lived where, in a vision, he's said to have received a revelation of God to Jesus. The revelation was recorded at the time by his disciple Prochorus. It's that record which is the last book in the Bible.

The Cave of the Apocalypse
The monastery is approached by a steep road up the side of a hill. The cave is just below it. When my wife, Linda and I got to the cave there was nobody else there. We found it a smallish space in the side of the hill and when we went in, we were both struck by the 'strength' and depth of the silence. It wasn't at all an eerie or weird silence. If there is a holy silence, this was it. It was a silence that made you fearful of speaking and spoiling it. It had such an impact on Linda that she became quite tearful. It was an awe-full silence. Memorable for all the best reasons.

Eight years and a few weeks later and I'm standing in church on Christmas day listening to what's known as the Prologue to the gospel also attributed to St. John, the gospel reading for the day from chapter 1 - 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.' I was particularly struck by that last sentence - 'The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.'

St. John and Prochorus
The Word and the light being spoken of here is Jesus and his message. And when we look at the history of the last 2000 years and at the world today, it is true that the darkness of those millenia and the darkness of the present world hasn't overcome Jesus and his message. Despite humankind's continuous and continuing attempts to quash and destroy the message through suppression and persecutions and executions, two days ago millions the world over were standing in church celebrating the message together with others out in the world living it. And it's all because the likes of St. John openly received then lived and talked the message in his day and age and left a legacy and example in his life and writings that others could take up and follow.

Today, 27th December is the feast day of St. John the Divine, Apostle and Evangelist. It's maybe a pity that it's in Christmas week where after the festivities of Christmas Day and Boxing Day his day goes by often quite unnoticed. Unlike St. Stephen who we remembered yesterday, St. John died naturally in extreme old age in Ephesus where he was buried in the year 97AD.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

On the Feast of Stephen...When good intentions go wrong!

As soon as Christmas Day is done, with all that's so very pleasant about it,  the Christian tradition takes us straight into the story of one of the earliest members of the Church being killed for showing off his faith in Jesus Christ. We go from a birth one day, to a death the next.

Boxing Day is the Feast of St. Stephen, who was a Deacon in the new church and reckoned to be the first Christian martyr. I don't know what wisdom placed St. Stephen's day on the day after Christmas Day but it's not the only death we remember in Christmas week as we'll see in another couple of days time.

St. Stephen was no evangelist! In the Acts of the Apostles we read that he berated the Jewish council because they couldn't see Jesus as the one they were waiting for. Not only that, he said their ancestors had a history of persecuting the prophets among them. And just to add insult to injury, he accused them of not keeping the law of Moses even though they were the ones who received it. So it was inevitable in the climate of the times, that members of the council dragged him out and stoned him to death. Chillingly, the story tells us that the witnesses of all this 'laid their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul' who'll come to be one of the most feared persecutors of Christians. So you know that this won't be the end of it. Things will get much worse before they get better!

Not only was Stephen not an evangelist, he was no diplomat either. In his zeal for his faith, he did nothing for Christian/Jewish relationships! So it's no wonder they took offence.  Of course the writer of the Acts of the Apostles, to get his point across that this was a holy death, tells us that St. Stephen, like any religious zealot, took it all in his spiritual stride; and just like Jesus at his crucifixion who prayed that God would forgive his killers, so Stephen prays the same.

Today, we give thank to God for and celebrate Stephen's witness and martydom and quite rightly so. But it's a cautionary tale.  Even now, unremitting adherence to ideologies, especially by politicians is putting many more lives at risk, even in our own country, our own towns and streets. Zeal for any ideology, belief, idea, religion or simply, point of view, when not tempered with respect for other peoples' ideology, beliefs, religion, ideas and points of view inevitably, I think history shows us, ends badly both for individuals and nations.

Whilst St. Stephen's faith is an example to us all; the way he went about showing it, at least in this instance, I'm sorry to say, isn't. It might have been better if he'd stuck to what he was good and gifted at - being a deacon! There's a lesson there for all of us, especially our nations leaders I think.