|Pen and Ink Reflections||
Do you identify with the conversion of Saul, later re-named Paul, which we hear read today? It does not fit us all. Yet it is certainly a striking story, which has powerfully influenced some, especially evangelical, Christian traditions. Indeed, it has sometimes become a classic model for becoming a Christian. It speaks, for example, of a remarkable repentance – or turning around, which is really what repentance means. It speaks of whole-hearted, whole-self transformation of life in Christ; and, above all, it speaks of the transforming power of God’s love and grace. All of this, we may say, are indeed important aspects of Christian Faith, and, as such, the story challenges us, like Saul/Paul, to consider the direction in which we are traveling and what is drawing us and companioning us on the way. All of these things also go to the heart of the sacrament of baptism which we were planning to share this morning. Unfortunately this has had to be postponed due to the baptismal candidate having contracted COVID-19. Nonetheless, it is still worth us reflecting today on the sacraments of baptism and of communion, which we do share together this morning. For, like Saul’s conversion, what do we make of them? How does God’s grace work through them, and in particular moments of our lives?…
As some of you know, I enjoy a practice called Interplay. Interplay is ‘a creative, active way to unlock the wisdom of the body. It is a group activity that uses a number of ‘forms’, physical, verbal and musical, to enable connection with our selves and our community through play. There is a variant of one of these forms that goes like this... Participants are encouraged to choose a place in the room and move towards it with great intent, but moving only very slowly, heel to toe. This is how we often move in life towards goals on which we have set our hearts. But as we all know, life has a way of disrupting those kinds of plans and movements. So, there is another variant of this form, in which participants are invited simply to move slowly as before and just see where they end up and when it seems right to stop. This goal-less movement reflects something of what actually happens in life when we thought we were doing something else. A final variant of this game, invites participants to move slowly and just occasionally take a leap forward, perhaps celebrating that with a whoop. It is great fun, and illustrates how often we forget to celebrate our leaps forward and how much pleasure can be derived from celebrating, even when we do not have a particular goal in mind, and only recognise after it has happened that a leap forward has occurred. Sometimes indeed we may find that the leap has not been forward, but perhaps sideways or even backwards and no less a cause for celebration...
Some of you know that this week Jo and I have been lucky enough to have our three grandchildren to stay, aged six weeks, eleven weeks and two. It has been, to say the least, a lively household. I mentioned to one of my daughters the theme for tonight, and she jokingly said, ‘That’s excellent – I’ll bring the children along then shall I?!’ You can all relax, because she was joking. But it set me to thinking, what do rest and stillness really mean for us, for they have to mean more than just ‘me’ time, away from the busyness of our ‘real’ life...
So, it’s straightforward is it? Ask, seek, knock – and you will get some kind of response – not necessarily the response you were hoping for; but at least a response. And if we ask for the gift of the spirit, Jesus is saying God will always give us that gift. It sounds like a transaction – right words in, right results out, a bit like a vending machine! Yet prayer, and Jesus’s teaching about prayer, is not as straightforward as it might appear, or perhaps as we might hope. On the one hand in this passage Jesus sounds very reassuring – God will treat us better than we treat our own children; we can be assured of God’s care for us and God’s responsiveness to our needs. Keep it simple – ask for what you want and you will receive it, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened. But on the other hand, it really is not quite like that, is it? We all know of others if not ourselves, who have prayed for help, for healing, for relief from suffering in all kinds of terrible circumstances, and it seems as though their prayer has fallen on deaf ears. So, what then? – was their prayer not ‘good enough’; their faith not ‘strong enough’; their moral calibre not high enough? Surely this is not how it works? Yet I have known folk despair of God’s love for them and reject themselves as unworthy and unfit, simply because God has not appeared to answer their legitimate, heartfelt prayers. This is not the kind of God I want to know or associate with – and it is not good enough to say; ‘it’s all a mystery and one day we will understand!”...
One of the strangest requests I received when I was General Secretary of the NSW Ecumenical Council was from the NSW Greens. They were trying to remove the saying of the Lord's Prayer from the opening of NSW Parliament and wanted support on the grounds that the 'Protestant' form used, with the doxology at the end, was excluding of Catholics, as well as of other faith groups. I did not have to contact the then Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Pell, or Jewish, Muslim, or other leaders to know how ridiculous they would have found the argument. For what mattered to all of them was not so much the exact words as the setting of public life in the context of the sacred and transcendent. I was reminded of this at this time of year in more recent times in being involved in planning the annual civic Remembrance Service at St Luke's Toowoomba. Some of the older and more conservative figures would insist on the inclusion of what they called the 'traditional' English-speaking version of the Lord's Prayer whilst others would support the 'modern' form which has been used for many years in Australian churches. Do the words really matter however or is the real substance of the prayer the key?...
If you were only allowed one book from the Hebrew Scriptures, which would you choose? It would be a tough selection, wouldn’t it? At the risk of being called a Marcionite, there are a few books I might dispense with quite cheerfully: not least Leviticus (that continuing bane of some people’s lives) and also Numbers, and perhaps Ezra and Nehemiah. Personally, I’d also be happy to see quite a few other passages put to one side, including the invasion of the land by Joshua. However it would be hard to choose just one book to keep. For Isaiah would be high on my list, together with Genesis and the Psalms, Lamentations and some of the other prophets. In the final analysis however I’d pick Exodus: a book which begins with abject slavery and ends in the glorious presence of God. Along the way, we see all kinds of adventures, highs and lows, encounters and transformations, betrayals and revelations, miracles and mercies: all ending in today’s vision of clouds and glory. Such a core story which encompasses so much about living faith! What a perfect prelude today to this Sunday’s feast of the Transfiguration….