Wednesday, November 26, 2003

On Prayer

A Word from ++A.M. Ramsey

The Godward movement has many aspects. It includes the use of mind and imagination which we call meditation, it includes the counting of God's mercies which we call praise and thanksgiving, and self-abasement which we call confession. But try to think of it more simply: it means putting yourself near God, with God, in a time of quietness every day. You put yourself with him just as you are, in the feebleness of your concentration, in your lack of warmth and desire, not trying to manufacture pious thoughts or phrases. You put yourself with God, empty perhaps, but hungry and thirsty for him; and if in sincerity you cannot say that you want God you can perhaps tell him that you want to want him; and if you cannot say even that perhaps you can say that you want to want to want him! Thus you can be very near him in your naked sincerity; and he will do the rest, drawing out from you longings deeper than you knew were there and pouring into you a trust and a love like that of the psalmist-- whose words may soon come to your lips. Forgive me for putting this so clumsily. I am trying to say that you find you are "with God" not by achieving certain devotional exercises in his presence but by daring to be your own self as you reach towards him.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Everything You Know is Incorrect

For the Wednesday Healing Eucharist, the 28th Sunday after Pentecost.

2 Corinthians 1:3-11
John 6:47-51

When great pain comes, we feel things about God that our heads know to be wrong. Despite the counsel of Holy Scripture and the fact of the Incarnation telling us that God really deeply loves us, in times of emotional or physical agony we often conclude that God is somewhere up above and far away, implicitly approving the pain of his people. We don’t usually announce clearly, “God is punishing me,” but we might hear or say something like, “I’m sure God let this happen for a reason,” or “Maybe God is trying to get your attention.” Have we heard this before?

The idea that God might crush our bodies or twist our emotions to wring faithfulness out of us stands in stark contradistinction to the theology of suffering presented to us by the Christ of Calvary, who died alone and afraid, his asphyxiating body torn by whips and covered with the spit of Roman soldiers.

The Crucified God turns our notions of suffering upside down by suffering with us. Because the only truly morally upright human ever to live suffered and died, alone and betrayed by his people, we know that those who suffer and die alone and betrayed do not do so by the will of God. Parents who love do indeed chasten and correct their children, but they do not bring about their destruction.

Jesus the God-Man shows us how God suffers with us and suffers for us. He also shows us how to offer ourselves up to God in the midst of our pain. In Christ, God has reached out to us in our fallenness and broken humanity, and bids us offer our fear and pain to Him as gifts in themselves. When we confess to God that we are angry, that we are hurting, and most important of all, that we are deeply afraid, we are offering back to the Father of Compassion a wonderful gift: reckless, daring trust. Confession to God and other believers of our own destitution demonstrates to Him that we know He and the Community He is continually creating and redeeming will not reject us and cast us into outer darkness.

In so doing, we join with the rhythms of Christ’s redemptive suffering. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before his execution, Jesus poured out his fear, pain and confusion to God. To do that very thing is to offer radical trust to God as our gift back to the Giver. It is in this way that the presence of Christ moves into our own suffering, and remakes us as sufferers into the likeness of Jesus Himself.

“Just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives,” says Paul, “so also through Christ our comfort overflows.” When we as God’s new community choose to bear with one another in our fear and desolation, we offer hospitality to Christ as well. It is into that lifestyle that Jesus pours his resurrection life. When this happens, we don’t see his resurrection any longer as a promise of life in the future, after death, but a reversal of the death in our lives now.

Therefore when we also feel in our own hearts the sentence of death and despair even of life, let us rely not on ourselves, but on God who, raises the dead.

As we offer ourselves up to God in the Eucharist, let us be cognizant that it is not just our strength we offer up to him, but our fear and weakness as well. It is into that desolation that he pours out his Spirit when we partake of the bread and wine. This is a God we can trust with our broken hearts. His wholeness will make us whole.


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Your Kingdom Come

28 Pentecost. Tuesday, November 18, 2003. Matthew 17:14-21

This passage makes me nervous; two possible hermeneutical catastrophes come immediately to mind. If we believed deeply in the authority we have as baptized people to bring about the rule of God’s Kingdom, we might do very well to go about laying hands on the demoniacs in our lives and healing the broken. On the one hand, this could lead to a great crisis of faith were nothing spectacular to happen. On the other, if the lame started walking, the blind regained their sight and demoniacs were restored to their right minds, we’d have an even bigger disaster on our hands. To make matters worse, we have yet another confusing suggestion from Jesus, criticizing the disciples for having a faith too small, but insisting that the smallest bit of faith is indeed sufficient to accomplish the largest tasks.

When the disciples brought this epileptic/demoniac to Jesus, he had just come down the mountain after the event we call the Transfiguration – Jesus appeared to Peter, James and John, bathed in bright light and flanked by Moses and Elijah. This served as supernatural authentication of Jesus’ Messiahship. This was not an office of merely “religious” significance, either: anyone familiar with the Jewish scriptures knew that God’s anointed one would be sent to kick Roman backside and restore the Kingdom to Israel under the direct rule of God. Behold, the Messiah illumined by God’s power and glory. The mighty revolutionary and savior of his people then promptly trotted down the hill into the depths of human misery, to bring to bear the strong and loving rule of Yahweh into the lives of the last, least, and left out, who in this case was a seizing peasant boy.

The presence of a demon behind the boy’s ailment reminds us that the struggle was also a spiritual one: in this confrontation, the Messiah establishes God’s kingdom against Beelzebub, dramatically dethroning in that time and place the forces of darkness and death that gripped someone Yahweh loved very much. It is in light of that reality that Jesus commissioned his disciples to carry out the revolution: preach, heal, cast out demons. They couldn’t cast out this one, however. Jesus counted them with the unbelieving, perverse generation around them, because their faith was too small. He then tells them, even though their faith was small, the smallest faith would be sufficient to accomplish the biggest of tasks.

Oh, okay. Huh? Jesus is not the most clear and sensible of rabbis, is he? He leaves us with another riddle that requires us to think hard and pray fervently if we are to obey in any meaningful way.

Maybe the kind of faith possessed by the disciples was the real issue. Maybe they thought they could heal people for God because he had given them special powers for that purpose. Perhaps they hoped that they could accomplish these things through special formulas or magic words. Sound familiar? I would suggest that any degree of belief in one’s ability to accomplish God’s purposes in this way would always be a faith far too small for the God of Jesus Christ.

Jesus instead calls us to faith in a God so big, that even believing in His God just a little bit through the darkness of our own lives will accomplish the impossible. The nature of that God revealed through Jesus dares us to believe that Jesus is bringing about God’s kingdom in power, in ways we never would have expected. He calls all of his disciples to believe that it is God’s will and desire to establish a world that the meek will inherit, where the hungry will be fed, and the poor will become the richest of all; the lame would dance, the blind see, the deaf hear, and the dead be raised.

He has not called us to trust our own abilities, but to trust Him, His will and His power. Even now He continues to break into our dark and fallen world to heal us and set us free – every last one of us. He will not do this work because we lay hands on folks. He will heal because he loves and it is his determined desire to impart wholeness to those he loves. He chooses to do so through the touch of the Body of Christ. May we prove ourselves faithful to that mission, and willing to believe in it despite our deeply entrenched darkness and fear.