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Sacred Rhythms

We’ve just started a new course at Knaphill: Sacred Rhythms is a DVD course that abbreviates the book of the same name by Ruth Haley Barton, an American retreat leader and spiritual director. I’ve been reading her regular emails from The Transforming Center for some while. I’m about half way through the original book.

Why are we doing it? Because people asked at our annual meeting in the Spring for teaching on prayer. Barton says something striking about that: it is young Christians who typically do not ask how to pray, because they get on with it. As we become more mature, we hit  more obstacles in prayer and realise we don’t know what we thought we knew. Ironically, it is the more experienced Christians who may have to come to the point of honesty, asking, “Teach us to pray.”

We had an excellent first meeting this week. The opening chapter or session locates ‘desire’ as a way into discovering why we need to develop the habits of spiritual disciplines that form a rule of life, in which we focus on Christ.

That sounds strange, even wrong, at first. However, Barton begins from the times in the Gospels when Jesus asks needy people like Bartimaeus questions such as, “What do you want me to do for you?” We could come up with selfish answers to that, or the question could expose honourable desires. Yet even if we come up with answers from sinful motives, these are exposed in the light of Christ and that is a first step to coming into a better place. Like Bartimaeus, we may need to ‘throw off our cloak’ to press towards what God has for us – we may need to let go of certain things that are not always sins in order to walk in the way of Christ.

At this early stage, I recommend the course to you.  As a taster, here are the opening three minutes of it.

Sermon: Making Adversity Work

This will be my first sermon back after the sabbatical. I wrote this at the end of January (hence some of the references!). It will appear on the blog Monday 4th May, to be preached on Sunday 10th, the latter being the date I start back.

Text: John 15:1-8

One of my favourite stories is the one about the little girl who asked her mum whether all fairy stories end with the words, ‘And they all lived happily ever after.’ “No,” replies her mother, “Some end with, ‘When I became a Christian, all my troubles disappeared’.”

Jesus’ teaching in John 15 explicitly refutes the idea that the Christian life may be lived without suffering or difficulty. In the image here from a vineyard, each branch is either cut off or pruned. I am no gardener, but neither procedure sounds painless!

Whatever the joys and pleasures of our ultimate destiny when we are raised from the dead to life in God’s new creation, life now unavoidably includes uncomfortable and painful seasons. Some of those times, says Jesus, are actually brought by God for our good.

As Adrian Plass has put it, “Each day is a choice between what you don’t want to do and what you really don’t want to do.” The challenge for Christians is to make those hard circumstances count positively for the kingdom of God.

To do that involves grasping two things mentioned in these verses: what God is doing (pruning) and what we need to do (abiding in Christ).

I am no gardener. I can think of few things that bore me more than gardening. So metaphors in the Bible like this one of God pruning the branches of a vine don’t sit easily with me. Give me a pair of secateurs and I’m more likely to injure myself than accomplish anything worthwhile.

But I do realise that an image of pruning has something to do with cutting away in order to promote health. And on that simple level, I can understand the notion of God pruning us in a spiritual sense. Much as we might prefer God not to, I believe it’s often God’s way either to cut something out of our lives in order for us to grow in the life of the Spirit, or to allow something to be removed from us, so that we are challenged to focus on those things which are truly important.

We may protest about the difficult seasons of our lives – well, I do – but they may sometimes be seasons of the Spirit. Sometimes a bad experience is something to resist and protest against, but not always. God works for good in all things with those who love him, who are called according to his purposes, as Paul says in Romans 8:28.

Whenever an adversity comes into our lives, we have a choice as to whether we will seek the purposes of God in it. Endurance and perseverance are character-building qualities. I do not mean that we should embrace injustice or seek out bad times – that would be perverse – but I do think there is a call not just to look for easy ways out but seek what God is saying and doing in that environment.

So a pruning experience can be a stripping away of things that get in the way of our faith. It can be the removal of hindrances, or of accretions that are weighing us down.

I said in a sermon elsewhere just before my sabbatical that the atheist bus campaign with its slogan, ‘There’s Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life’ looks a bit sick at a time of economic recession. To tell people whose jobs and homes are under threat or even disappearing just to ‘stop worrying and enjoy [their lives]’ is unbearably smug. We Christians are not exempt from the economic downturn, despite what the odd prosperity gospel idiot might say. And without in any wanting to minimise the pain for those who are feeling its effects, the differences for Christians are these: our sense of worth is not in our job, but in being loved by God. Our security is in God, not our ability to generate wealth.

Back in January, Debbie spent a weekend away at the annual Children’s Ministry conference in Eastbourne. I juggled preparing and conducting services with childcare that weekend. We fitted in various fun things, including visits the children wanted to their favourite shops – Claire’s Accessories in Rebekah’s case, Waterstone’s bookshop in Mark’s, and Millie’s Cookies for both of them.  But nothing really made up for the absence of Mum, even though she rang each day to speak to them and say goodnight to them. On the Saturday tea-time when Debbie phoned, she told Rebekah that she had bought some presents for them. Rebekah’s reply was devastating and moving:

“Mummy, I love presents, but I’d rather have you.”

When God prunes us, not only is it a time of removing sin from our lives, it’s a time when he pins us back to that question: would we rather have him than all the goodies?  The writer to the Hebrews calls us to ‘lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely’ (Hebrews 12:1), and sometimes the ‘weights’ are not sin. Good things can weigh us down. When God prunes us to make us more holy, he is sometimes asking us whether we want him more than the goodies.

It isn’t that God is a killjoy. The same passage in 1 Timothy where he tells the wealthy not to put their hope on the uncertainty of riches, he tells them to trust in God ‘who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment’ (1 Timothy 5:18). God not only understands we may enjoy certain things, he made them for our enjoyment. But he will not permit these created things to be his love-rivals for our affections. And for that reason he will sometimes prune us of good things.

So when we enter a season of our lives when the good life seems to be disappearing, we need to seek God in prayer about it. Is this something evil that should be opposed, or is God pruning us so that ‘we may perfectly love [him]’?

Just as ‘pruning’ was a difficult image for a non-gardener like me, so ‘abiding’ is an awkward one for somebody who was never good at Biology or Botany at school! For Jesus is using an image here of the branch remaining on the vine. He’s talking botany.

One one level, it’s absurd: how can you tell a branch to remain or abide in the vine? It just happens. Well – it happens, provided the flow of sap to the branch remains. In the physical world, neither the branch nor the vine are conscious beings, and so cannot be given commands or expected to choose certain actions. The idea of a branch choosing not to remain connected to the vine is ridiculous.

And it’s similarly ridiculous for the Christian disciple to contemplate not being vitally connected to Christ. Yet Jesus urges his followers to remain, to abide. Of course, the analogy is limited, but maybe that’s the point: we humans are foolish, and easily detach ourselves from the source of spiritual vitality and health. When the flow of sap stops, the branch falls off, or needs cutting off.

As I said near the beginning, the choice is being cut off or being pruned. Each is painful. But assuming we have chosen pruning and are willing to endure that for the sake of greater spiritual fruitfulness, then how do we ‘abide’ while God ‘prunes’?

Not surprisingly, this comes down to a disciplined approach to the spiritual life. Regular habits of prayer and meditation on the Scriptures are essential parts of this. Yes, it can be difficult to find time, but we make time for food even when we have to eat on the run, and it’s critical that we make time for these habits, without which we shall starve. We don’t all need to do them first thing in the morning, as some books tell us, but we do need a time.

The disciplines are not merely personal and private, though. Even prayer and biblical meditation need not be solo practices. Often they are helpful done in fellowship with others. The ‘sap’ doesn’t always come to us directly; sometimes it arrives through others.

Then, there are those practices which we are used to conceiving of in a corporate form: worship and the sacraments. We don’t sit in private cubicles at worship and Holy Communion; we are deliberately together to encounter God within us and among us, and to build each other up.

But we can’t even stop there. Abiding in Christ involves not only receiving the sap, it means allowing it to work. So prayer, Bible reading, worship and taking the sacraments are not simply passive practices. They are meant to lead to action. Spiritual nourishment is designed by God in such a way that it is health-giving when put into practice. It decays without use. We need to respond to what we are given. This means there are both public and secret disciplines.

The public practices are by nature fairly obvious. They involve every way we demonstrate the love of God in Christ to others. So pastoral care within the church, when done in response to God’s love, is a spiritual discipline. So is care for the poor, praying and campaigning for justice. Evangelism, too.

Then there are the secret responses we make, the ones where Jesus condemned those who did them for show as having already received their reward in public adulation. Giving to someone in need. Or fasting as a sign that something was so important it was worth going without the basics of food in order to underline prayer. And some forms of prayer itself are best done secretly rather than showily.

Abiding in Christ is everything we do to keep in tune with him and sustained by him. Sustenance involves taking something into us, and some of the disciplines I’ve mentioned are blatantly ones where we put ourselves in a position to receive from Christ. 

Others, though, are about the outworking of what we have received. Jesus expects much of those to whom much is given. Some Christians emphasise prayer, others action, but both are priorities. Abiding in Christ is a matter of both receiving from Christ and giving back to him and others.

Both the receiving and the giving are practised in easy times and hard times, when life and faith are going well, and when we are facing opposition and even undergoing pruning. They are, after all, disciplines, not just activities we engage in because we feel like it.

Many are the ordinary routine actions of life that we maintain regardless of whether we feel like doing them, but we continue with them for the sake of our well-being and the flourishing of others. So are the spiritual disciplines of abiding in Christ, too.

I’ve heard some people speak about marriages as if marriage ‘didn’t work’ – implying that marriage was something that happened to them. But relationships take work and effort, and our spiritual relationship with Christ doesn’t just happen, either. It does happen to us in the sense that God makes the first move towards us. Furthermore, his approaches are sometimes of a ‘pruning’ nature.

But it then requires faithful response from us, through good times and bad. And that’s what abiding in Christ is all about.

New Year Sermon: A Vision Of Jesus

John 1:1-18

Having children has had an effect on my mental health. Not just the increased stress; I find my memory is not what it is, and I don’t like to think that has anything to do with age! Debbie will ask me to bring three items in from the garage, and I will remember one. And while I’m sure some of that is down to the way that I as a typical man like to concentrate on just one task at a time in contrast to typically feminine multitasking abilities, I have to admit that there are just too many times when I forget things I would previously have remembered. Senior moments seem to have started in middle age for me.

And you may be thinking I’ve had another memory failure in the choice of John 1:1-18 as our reading tonight. Didn’t we have it in the carol service? Yes. Didn’t we have it on Christmas Day? Yes: it’s the traditional Gospel reading for Christmas Day, and so if anyone has a memory relapse here, it’s the compilers of the Lectionary! And don’t I go on and on about verse 14 when talking about mission, ‘The Word became flesh and lived among us’? Yes. I’ve remembered all these things.

But when I saw that these great verses occurred again today, I saw an opportunity. This passage, known as the Prologue to John’s Gospel, gives us – to use an overworked word – an awesome vision of Jesus. This passage is for me the Mount Everest of the New Testament. And we have a chance here to let its towering vision of who Jesus is inspires us at the beginning of a New Year.

So I thought I would take some of the great images of Jesus here and explore each of them briefly, so that we might bow before his magnificence and kneel before his wonder. It’s a fitting place to get our bearings for the new year.

Before Jesus is named at the incarnation, he is the Word. Before time and for all time, he is the Word. He is the creative Word, involved in creation. As in Genesis God spoke and it came to be, so in John ‘all things came into being through’ the Word. So when the Word becomes flesh and speaks to the created order, he is continuing his work of creation. 

For Jesus, then, being the Word doesn’t mean words without action. There is no division between truth and deed. One leads to the other. We can see that in another way as well as Jesus being the Word through whom creation comes into being and is sustained. For John 1 has resonances with Proverbs 8, where Wisdom is spoken of in similar terms to the Word here. Now we might associate the word ‘wisdom’ with wise words or philosophy, but to the Hebrew mind wisdom was not merely intellectual. It was moral. Wise words maybe, but words connected with action. That’s why the Book of Proverbs is full of advice on how to live.

Now if Jesus the Word is the Wisdom of God, then he is not an abstract philosophy, he is the One who supremely shows us how to live. When we call Jesus the Word, we aren’t simply ranking him among or above the great philosophers of the world – although he belongs there – we are saying that he speaks in such a way as to show us the paths of life.

What does this mean for us? Something quite down to earth. It is a renewed commitment to walking in the ways of Jesus. Not only has he died for our sins and been raised to give us new life, he lays down the yardstick for living the new life he grants us.

I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but in recent months the great majority of my sermons have been based on passages from the Gospels. I have concentrated on those four books where we most clearly get the voice of Jesus. It’s why Anglicans and Catholics stand for the Gospel readings at communion.

Not that he doesn’t speak throughout all of Scripture – of course he does – but the central biblical documents are the Gospels, and if I am to be any kind of Christian, I must tune into Jesus’ life-giving words and align my life accordingly. That would be a worthwhile vision for a new year.

In reception class at school, Mark and his friends have had to learn forty-five ‘action words’. They learned the words by learning the associated actions. (Except Mark knew them all already, including how to spell them.) Jesus the Word is an ‘action Word’. He is not ‘mere words’ but ‘the Word in action’.

The image of Jesus as light tells me something about his supremacy and victory.

On the one hand, his life is ‘the light of all people’ (verse 4) and he is ‘the true light, which enlightens everyone’ (verse 9). Whatever light may be found in this life has its source in Jesus. The old saying is that all truth is God’s truth. If something is good, beautiful, pure and life-enhancing, then it is from Jesus, whether it is overtly religious or not.  We Christians need not be afraid of truth, wherever we find it, because its origin will be Jesus, who is light to all people. Conversely, we may find goodness in many places but none will outshine Jesus.

So do not worry about truth. Sometimes the world’s discoveries seem to contradict our faith. In time, however, we shall either see how they harmonise (dare I suggest evolution and creation?) or that the world’s claims for truth were over-rated. Let us remember that whenever an intellectual controversy strikes this year. Jesus always brings light. 

But better than that, says John, ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it’ (verse 5). The word translated ‘overcome’ is one of those rich, multi-layered Greek words. You could say, ‘the darkness did not overcome it’, but you could also render it as ‘the darkness did not understand it’, or ‘the darkness did not come to terms with it’.

Sometimes understanding is a way of coming to terms with something or controlling it. But darkness can never master light. Even a tiny speck of light cannot be extinguished by the surrounding darkness. And John tells us that the darkness in creation can never master the light of Jesus.

Now that, surely, is Good News for us. The light of Jesus can never be put out. Light and darkness are not even two equal and opposite forces: light is superior! So whenever the life of faith is discouraging – whether due to internal reasons or external pressures – we have good news. Jesus triumphs!

And this is not just a private pious hope for us to enjoy. In the world, when dictators ravage their people, we know they cannot finally prevail. When governments and armies rampage with their forces of war, we who believe in the light know that their darkness is not the final word. It is good news to proclaim to the world as well as the church that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it – nor will it. 

John makes a staggering claim about Jesus when he says that ‘we have seen his glory’ (verse 14), especially as he also acknowledges later that ‘No one has ever seen God’ (verse 18). Moses wanted to see God, but he had to hide in a rock and glimpse just a little of God’s glory from behind. Isaiah saw the Lord, but became stricken by a knowledge of his sin and his people’s sin. Claiming that we have seen divine glory in Jesus, then, is a monumental claim.

What might such glory look like? The Queen of Sheba saw the glory of King Solomon: it consisted of wealth, property and expensive possessions, as well as his famed wisdom. If we took a tour of Buckingham Palace, we might hope to see some royal glory, but not all of it would be on display, and that which was would be a matter of high culture, fine art and items from the most exclusive of suppliers.

Similarly, our popular culture has a crude version of glory. We see it in magazines like ‘Hello’, ‘OK’ and ‘Heat’, when they invite us inside the mansions of the rich and famous. Money, possessions and property are still a popular measurement of glory.

Jesus could call on all the resources of heaven to show dazzling glory that would make Bill Gates look like a pauper. But that is not the divine glory John describes. His glory is ‘the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (verse 14).

The glory of God is not in the splendour of heaven or the armies of angels: it is in grace and truth. The awesomeness of our God is in the grace and truth brought by the ‘father’s only son’. For grace and truth are the family likeness. The glory of God is not in palaces but a manger. The glory of God is not in the amassing of wealth but in the humiliation of the Cross. The glory of God is not in fulness of possessions but in emptiness – Christ emptying himself of all but love, and the emptiness of the tomb on the first Easter Day. The glory of God comes not in the violent conquest of enemies, but love for enemies and forgiveness for sinners.

What does this mean for us? For Jesus, showing divine glory in the form of grace and truth is a matter of the family likeness: he is ‘God the only Son’ (verse 18). We are children of God in a different sense according to the passage: Jesus gave us the power to become God’s children when we received him (verse 12). In Paul’s language, we are adopted children. The family likeness doesn’t pass down easily – not in the same way that our little Mark looks so much like a red-headed version of me. For adopted children, it’s a matter of being open to the influence of the parents and the existing family (which of course is vital in other families, too).

So we are called to reflect God’s glory of grace and truth in also being humble, loving and forgiving of those who wrong us. However, it’s not an easy matter. It’s something that only comes as we grow in grace, and that means being part of the community of God’s family and being consciously open to the work of the Holy Spirit who imparts the character of God to us. (We call it the fruit of the Spirit.) We don’t work this out alone, but together under the influence of the Holy Spirit. That’s why not all the great spiritual disciplines are private actions, but many are also corporate practices, as in fellowship we seek to be open to grace in order that it may transform us and we may share it.

Jesus the Word, then, is the great ‘action Word’ in creation and ethically wise living. To encounter him who is the very Word of God is a call to our own action in response.

Jesus the Light is good news for the church and the world. Wherever we are enlightened by the truth, it is the work of Jesus. And the victory of his light over darkness is good news for all who may despair when evil advances.

Finally, Jesus brings the Glory of God in grace and truth. He reveals God as so different from the petty obsessions of the world, and calls us to receive and share grace.

These three aspects of Jesus – Word, Light and Glory – constitute just a sketch and not even an oil painting of our spiritual Everest. But I pray that even these sketches might give us enough vision of our incarnate, crucified and risen Lord to inspire our discipleship in this new year.