Monday, 2 March 2015
Thursday, 26 February 2015
March 1 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Second Sunday in Lent
Texts: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 13-25; Mark 8:31-38*
[The Lectionary offers as an alternative gospel passage, Mark 9:2-9, relating to the Transfiguration, without suggesting any alternative Lessons to go with it. There may be some advantages in having the Transfiguration a week after the Baptism, but I have never found them particularly convincing. On the contrary, it seems to me that the "consequence" of Jesus' decision in the wilderness to resist the temptation of other ways is his suffering and death on the cross: hence it is more appropriate to have the reading concerning the first of his predictions of his Passion.]
Theme: Something simple and straightforward, unadorned, seems more appropriate for the Season of Lent. Perhaps "Trusting in God" is what it is all about this week (and every week?). More theological, perhaps, could be "Life in Death", or "Life out of Death", but that may be getting ahead of ourselves. "Taking God on Trust" has some rich possibilities.
Introduction. We begin this week with one of the multiple "annunciations" to Abram (a.k.a. Abraham). Read chapters 15-17 and count them for yourself. Today's version reminds us that Sarah was not the only one who laughed hysterically at the very thought of having a child at their age. So when Paul waxes lyrical in his letter to the Romans about Abram's unquestioning faith in God he is guilty of re-writing history just a tad. But the point is clear enough. The question is always about the authenticity of the revelation, not about whether something is or is not feasible. If the message is from God we rely on it in faith, however crazy it might seem to our logical brain. That is a lesson Peter had to learn the hard way in today's gospel passage.
Background. Once again this week the ODT World Focus came up trumps with a reprint of an article from The Guardian headed "Get high and higher grades". It taught me a wonderful new expression "cognitive enhancement" which is to intellectuals what "performance enhancement" is to participants in the Tour de France. The article opens with the anguished cries of an Edinburgh student named Suzy, still three months away from her finals exams, already feeling the pressure. "I feel like I wouldn't even have a chance if it wasn't for modafinil," she says.
For what? "Modafinil: a prescription-only medication for narcolepsy that the NHS' website describes as a central nervous system stimulant [that prevents] excessive sleepiness during daytime hours". It's apparently the "narcotic of choice" for this generation, according to the author of the article, and not just among tertiary students. In the USA students in high school (no pun intended), where drugs of this kind are widespread, call them "study aids". The article goes on to raise the many ethical issues surrounding the use of such drugs, and the near-impossibility of drawing reasonable boundaries. In Duke University in North Carolina the student body lobbied the authorities to amend the academic honesty policy to make it clear that "using drugs to enhance academic performance constitutes cheating". Which sounds all very right and proper, until the next question comes along: what about antidepressants, or medication for ADHD or anxiety? And then there's caffeine and nicotine, both well-known "cognitive enhancers", apparently. And what about sleeping pills, since a good night's sleep before an exam is also a great aid to cognitive performance in the exam?
Of course, there are medical worries about side-effects, and little is known about the effect of long-term use of these drugs. But the ethical issues arise because of the increasingly competitive nature of society. That in itself deserves far more reflection and consideration than the drug-use itself, but is unlikely to get it. Given the burden of student-debt, the increasing exploitation of unpaid internships, and the sheer difficulty of securing well-paid employment in their chosen fields of study, the author finds it understandable if today's students see nothing wrong in seeking out such "study aids": "And in this scenario, if you were offered a small white pill that held the promise of enhanced productivity, greater focus, more hours in the library, and, ultimately, the potential of a better degree, well, it's not hard to see the attraction."
Ah, yes, the lure of the pill! The simple fix to the complex problems of being human. The dream of a Nobel Prize winner whose name now escapes me (the co-discoverer of the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule) was to create a pill that would enable us to eat as much as we wanted without getting fat! So much easier than resisting the temptation to give full reign to our greed! We live in a society that refuses to accept the limits of our physical nature, including those that are a natural part of the ageing process. Here's another question from the article that all of us of a certain age might wish to ponder: "if you take one of these drugs, are you enhancing yourself? Or restoring yourself to what you were?" The implication seems to be that the latter is more acceptable than the former, but is it?
The whole article is well worth getting hold of and pondering at some depth; but for me the most interesting bit comes near the end. Here is a quote from Anders Sandberg, a computational neuroscientist at The Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, who strongly believes that cognitive enhancement "is absolutely part of our future": "But we could be thinking about enhancements that make our lives happier and more fulfilled. We asked people if they would take a supplement that enhanced their kindness and empathy and only 9% wanted that."
Today giving birth regardless of age is no longer a laughing matter: it's a scientific challenge, one it seems, that some are determined to meet (I think the present record is 62, isn't it?) If only there was a pill that Jesus could have taken to avoid the cross, wouldn't that have been tempting? Even Peter would have gladly swallowed that. Who wouldn't?
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16. As hinted above, I've never quite bought into the idea of Abraham as a paragon of unquestioning faith. What I call "Abraham's Annunciation Saga" goes on through 4 chapters, and includes, let me remind you, his own plan B, which resulted in the birth of Ishmael (chapter 16), and took place after God's first promise to Abraham (chapter 15). Then months and quite possibly years later God again promises Abraham an heir, spelling out that it will be Sarah who bears him, prompting, not thanksgiving and praise, nor Mary-like submission to the will of God, but outright disbelief accompanied by hysterical laughter. So, with all due respect to St Paul, Abraham's faith went through a long and difficult gestation period. But here, surely, is its true value for us. Such faith does not come easily to us either – it usually requires years of struggle, often because we struggle with the wrong question. The real and only question should be: is this truly the voice of God? But so often we take the same route that Abraham takes in this passage: how can this be? In his case (and even, with deep respect, Mary's case) the obstetrical difficulties distract him. He does not doubt that God is speaking to him, but he doubts that what God is saying is feasible.
Taking It Personally.
- Take time this week to go slowly through the whole of Abraham's Annunciation Saga (chapters 15-18), looking at it as a prolonged struggle of faith. Are there any parallels, do you think, between this story and the story of the Temptation of Jesus in the wilderness?
- In broader terms, what does this saga tell us about the faith journey? How might the birth of Ishmael represent our human tendency to seek apparently easier, but false, paths to spiritual growth?
- Looking back over your own faith journey so far, what parallels do you see between Abraham's experiences and responses and your own?
Romans 4:13-25. This is a wonderful (if rather difficult) example of a biblical reflection carried out by a master teacher. (The author of the Fourth Gospel is also very good at this.) The issue for Paul is clear: how can we be weaned off the idea of earning God's love through obedience to his Law, thereby understanding that our relationship with God is about grace on his part and faith on our part? Who better to call in aid than Father Abraham himself! One of his great virtues is that he "pre-dated" the giving of the Law to Moses. So whatever difficulties we may have in seeing Abraham as a model of immediate and faithful response, we can at least rely on the fact that his virtue owed nothing to lawful obedience. He (and Sarah) came eventually to believe in the promises of God through faith. Moreover, those promises extended way beyond the birth of a son and heir – they extended to many generations of descendants and could never have been entirely fulfilled in Abraham's lifetime. Yet, says St Paul, he believed: and it's worth us pausing to remember that St Paul is writing this when the "children of Abraham" were still very small in number, certainly not "countless as heaven's stars".
Taking It Personally.
- Read slowly though this passage in the light of the Genesis story. Notice how St Paul is reshaping that story to suit his theological purposes. Does that bother you? Or is it more important to "get" the truth that St Paul is drawing from it?
- Is "hoping against hope" the same as "believing against belief"? Is that what we are being asked to do in stories of this kind (and "miracle stories" in general)?
- Reflect deeply on verses 24 and 25, the conclusion of St Paul's argument. What does it mean to you?
Mark 8:31-38. It's a pity the Lectionary begins at verse 31, when the passage only makes sense if we start at verse 27. It is in response to Peter's proclamation of faith in Jesus as Messiah that today's action takes place. It is also through Peter that we see the struggles of faith so well illustrated: having asserted his faith in Jesus as the Messiah, he then proceeds to argue with him – contradict him – as if he is just another wrong-headed mate! The one through whom the Spirit has just spoken now becomes the mouthpiece of the devil. Notice that Jesus does not explain why he must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the religious elite, and be killed, nor what he means by rising again three days later. He simply states what is going to happen to him. And then he spells out the consequences of all this for those who would like to become his followers. The passage is about the way things are, not the reasons why they are that way. It is about his acceptance of what must be; and the question for each of us is whether or not we are prepared to accept the consequences of becoming one of his followers. It is a stark yes-or-no choice. We are not invited to negotiate terms of enlistment. For this reason this passage could be said to be the very heart of the gospel – the most important part of it.
Taking It Personally.
· A great passage for praying with your imagination. Put yourself in the story near Jesus. Hear Peter assert that Jesus is the Messiah. What tone of voice does he use? How do you react to those words? How do you feel about Peter at that moment?
· Now listen to Jesus as he announces what is to happen to him. What is your immediate reaction? Shock? Horror? Fear? When Peter protests do you join in, or at least nod vigorously?
· How do you react when Jesus rebukes Peter?
· Now listen to Jesus as he addresses his would-be followers. How do you feel at this point?
· Are you one of his followers today?
Thursday, 19 February 2015
February 22 NOTES FOR REFLECTION First Sunday in Lent
Texts: Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
Theme: The most obvious choice would be "The Temptation of Christ", but in my view we should resist it. It's too easy. "Facing Temptation" or "Resisting Temptation" would be better. For reasons that will become clear shortly, I'm going for "The Temptation of the Body of Christ".
Introduction. If there is a common thread running through these three readings this week it is surely about the essential foundation upon which confession stands. We do not come before God in fear and trepidation "hoping against hope" for a fair outcome – much less, a lucky break. To pinch a phrase from our funeral liturgy, in confession we come before God "in the sure and certain hope" of forgiveness. Our reading from Genesis, therefore, is very much post-Flood: punishment is in the past, and now we have the gracious promise of God our Creator to the whole of Creation that never again will God give up on us. The baffling verses from Peter extend God's forgiveness in Christ backwards in time, so to speak. Even those who died in their sins are not beyond the saving reach of Christ. And we finish with some helpful swot-notes from Mark: forget the details, he seems to say, and just grasp the basic facts that Jesus was baptised, tempted to deviate from his mission, but did not do so.
Background. Most of us, if we think about Lent at all, think of it as a time for personal (individual) stock-taking, reflection, remorse, confession (in the strictly private Anglican sort of way), and perhaps a vow, or at least a desire, to do better in the future. We also have some sort of "race memory" that we ought to "give something up for Lent" – something like cake, chocolates, or alcohol – but to what end is not always entirely clear. One of my favourite priests, who had a well-earned reputation for enjoying such delicacies, once told his congregation that he had no intention of giving up any of them for Lent, but he was intending to give up gossiping, grumbling and criticising during the Lenten Season, and invited them to do the same. They assumed he was joking and laughed.
Over the years I have tried to teach the idea that in corporate worship we confess our sins as one body, not as individuals. In large part our three Eucharistic liturgies support me in that. In the first one, we "call to mind our sins", and we confess that "we have sinned in what we have thought and said..." In the second one, there is an unfortunate lapse into individualism – "I will confess my sins to the Lord, I will not conceal my wrongdoing" – but the rest of that section returns to corporate confession thereafter. The third liturgy makes the point most explicitly: "We come seeking forgiveness for all we have failed to be and do as members of Christ's body." There in a nutshell is my case, and now in support I call my first witness.
He is known to us as Pope Francis. Just before Christmas I saw on the TV News a short item about the Pope's address to the pre-Christmas gathering of the Curia in the Vatican. Not for him a few polite words thanking them for all their hard work and bidding them safe travel and a good break over the holidays. Pope Francis took the opportunity to share his thoughts about the "spiritual diseases" that all-too often afflicted the Curia. The full text of his extraordinary address was published on line by The Tablet on 30/12/2014; and if you are looking for something to use as a Lenten resource this year, I recommend this. I can't do it justice in these Notes, but here are some points that struck me.
He began with Paul's image of the Church as one Body, and he applied it to the Curia. The Curia is a complex body comprising many congregations, councils, offices, tribunals, commissions, and so on, made up of people from diverse cultural, national and linguistic backgrounds; and yet it is called to be one body within the Body of Christ, and must act as one body. It can only do this, he said, if every member understands that without Christ we can do nothing, and that means that each member requires daily nourishment from a diet of prayer, scripture, and reflection, and the "assiduous receipt of the sacraments". Without such practice a member will become a mere "bureaucrat, a formalist, a functionalist, a mere employee".
And that was just to warm up! He then proceeded to list what he called 15 "curial diseases" (spiritual diseases that can afflict any body of Christians), and he certainly didn't pull his punches. Included on the list were what he called the "pathology of power", manifesting in a sense of superiority, power games, and even "rivalry and vainglory". Others he called "Spiritual Alzheimer's" (forgetting what God has done for us), and "Existential Schizophrenia" (basically, hypocrisy). Two that particularly struck me were not, perhaps, quite so dramatic, but certainly familiar within my experience. The first he called "the Martha complex", throwing ourselves into work and more work, and forgetting the "one thing that matters". How often have we been too busy to go on retreat, keep a scheduled appointment with our spiritual director, or even have our daily prayer time?
The other is "excessive planning". How many times at parish or diocesan level have we thought that one more plan, one more seminar or conference, one more study, one more flow-chart or pie-chart will help us up the 5-step, 10-step, or 12-step ladder that leads to a "successful" church! Prayer, waiting on the Spirit, retreats – who has got time for all that stuff?
So perhaps this Season of Lent, in addition to our own spiritual stock-take, we should encourage one another to look at our own faith community, and our own diocese and our own wider church. We, too, may need to remember that we are a complex body, comprising congregations, social agencies, schools, colleges, offices, and a whole lot more. Are we afflicted by our equivalent of curial diseases? Are our social agencies so busy helping "their clients" and pursuing Government contracts that they have forgotten their need for daily nourishment? Are our schools so committed to teaching their pupils "useful" subjects" that they are neglecting their special character as cells in the Body of Christ? And are our local faith communities really distinguishable from other clubs and social gatherings of kindly people?
This Lenten Season may we all daily "come seeking forgiveness for all we have failed to be and do as members of Christ's body".
Genesis 9:8-17. It is fashionable, particularly among many "Greenies", to accuse the Church of propagating a message of exploitation of natural resources, often quoting Genesis 1:28 in support of their criticism. Today's passage is generally overlooked by such critics, yet here we have the clearest possible statement that God's covenantal commitment is to the whole of creation, and not just to humanity. (Pedants might want to suggest that the covenant is limited to the animal kingdom, and that plants are not mentioned, but pedants should chill out and enjoy rainbows more.) More importantly, as people of faith should we not, whenever a rainbow appears, see it as a reminder of God's mercy to all of us? And, like the author of our next reading, see it as a reminder of our baptism?
Taking It Personally.
· Call to mind the victims of the terrible tsunamis of recent years, and pray for those who are still trying to rebuild their lives after such devastation.
· Pray for those, especially in the South Pacific, whose lives are threatened by rising sea-levels. What can we do to help?
· Where was God in those tsunamis? Where is God in the rising sea levels? What is the purpose of praying about these disasters, past and pending?
· Reflect on the whole Noah story. What is it really about? What does it mean to you?
1 Peter 3:18-22. I have never met anyone who claims this passage as his or her favourite passage of Scripture: in fact, I'm not sure that I have ever met anyone who claims to understand it. But as I have pondered it today I keep getting in my mind the wonderful icon of the Resurrection showing Christ bursting out of Hades pulling Adam and Eve out with him. And if those two can be saved by the resurrection of Christ there is surely hope for those who laughed at Noah until it was too late! But whatever we are to make of verses 19 and 20, the message of the other verses in this little passage are wonderfully clear and encouraging. Through baptism we become "people of the ark" saved from death; we become like those brought out of slavery through the Red Sea; we become the people of God through the saving action of God. Let us remember all this every time we see a rainbow, and give thanks!
Taking It Personally.
· Give thanks for your baptism.
· Reflect on verse 21. Write out your own version of it. Bring out in your own words what it means for you. What difference has your baptism made to your life?
· What would you say to someone who is worried about a friend or family member who has died unbaptised, or as an avowed atheist? Would verses 19 and 20 help?
Mark 1:9-15. In just 6 verses St Mark covers three major events. He begins with his account of Jesus' baptism. Verse 10 is subjective: Jesus "saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him". There is no suggestion anybody else present saw it. Verse 11 is, by implication, also subjective: the voice addresses Jesus alone. The second episode, the temptation in the desert, is even more terse. It is recorded as an objective account: but who, other than Jesus himself, could have been the source for this story? Thirdly, we have the launch of Jesus' public mission. Notice that there is no indication of the time lapse between the second and third episodes. I am also struck by the use of the word "came" in both verse 9 and verse 14. Where was "Mark" in each instance? Change the word "came" to "went" in each case and you'll see what I'm driving at. If Mark was a resident of Galilee, then, from his point of view, Jesus "went" to the Jordan to be baptised; if he was not a resident of Galilee, then Jesus "went" to Galilee proclaiming the message. The use in both cases of "came" is perhaps theologically rather than geographically correct: it stresses that wherever we are we experience Jesus coming to us rather than going from us. The language of verse 12 is particularly strong, echoing the language of exorcism. Jesus does not seem to have any choice in the matter. The "wild animals" could be literal, or symbolic of Jesus' human instincts and emotions. The whole thrust of verses 14 and 15 is to show continuity between John and Jesus.
Taking It Personally.
- Go through each episode separately and slowly, beginning with the first. Try to visualise it. What impression of the Holy Spirit is conveyed by the image of the dove descending on him? Have you ever experienced the gentle presence of the Holy Spirit resting on you? What might that voice sound like? How would you describe it? Have you heard a voice from heaven speaking to you?
- When you're ready, move to the second episode. Now what impression of the Holy Spirit are you left with? Is the Spirit within or outside Jesus? Have you ever felt "driven" by the Holy Spirit to go somewhere or to do something?
- When are you most aware of being tempted to do something, saying something, or think something ungodly? Do you more readily associate temptation with doing something you shouldn't, or with not doing something you should?
- The "Good News" has been proclaimed in this country since 1814. What exactly is the "Good News", and when did you last proclaim it to anyone? When will you next do so?