29 February 2008

Reflection – Reconciliation – Renewal

Each year in our parish towards the middle of Lent, we hold a service of Reflection, Reconciliation and Renewal. It is a time for quiet self-examination and worship, penance and prayer. A short liturgy includes readings from Ezekiel 18:21-32, Psalm 103, and Luke 15:11-32. The following is a resource we offer to those who gather, which I have found helpful.

The questions below are offered for you to reflect upon your life by the light of the Gospel. Knowing and trusting that you are God’s beloved child, allow the Holy Spirit to surface where you have behaved contrary to the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ in thoughts, words and deeds. When you have finished your reflection those who feel called may go to one of the available priests at the front of the sanctuary, or to a member of Messiah’s healing team at the back.

In relation to God:
• Is my heart set on God, so that I really love God above all things?
• Are private prayer, reading and meditation on Scripture, and Sunday worship with the community a priority?
• Have I love and reverence for the name of God?
• Am I hesitant or ashamed to witness to my faith in Christ in my daily life?
• Am I making an effort to grow spiritually? How? When?
• Am I living as a person of faith, hope and love?
• Do I turn to God only when I am in need?

In relation to my neighbors:
• Am I quick to forgive and slow to judge?
• Do I use others as a means to an end?
• Do I take care of the poor, sick, and defenseless?
• Am I sincere and honest in my dealings with others?
• Have I been the cause of another’s committing sin?
• Are there any relationships that are causing me concern at this time?
• Do I care for and respect the environment in which I live?

In relation to myself:
• Do I truly live as a follower of Christ and give a good example to others?
• Do I really believe that I am made in the image and likeness of God and therefore am one of God’s wondrous creations?
• Am I too concerned about myself, my health and my success?
• What do I spend most of my time thinking about?
• Have I kept my senses and my whole body pure and chaste as a temple of the Holy Spirit?
• Do I bear grudges; do I contemplate revenge?
• Do I seek to be humble and be an instrument of peace?

28 February 2008

Spending an hour in prayer

Have you ever tried devoting an hour to prayer? Many people I know would blanch at the thought. For that reason if for no other, it makes an excellent Lenten discipline—and the hour goes by more quickly than you might ever imagine. Here are some tips I have found helpful:

Be yourself. Don’t think you have to pray with the eloquence of the Book of Common Prayer. Talk with God like you’d talk with your best friend.

Get comfortable. The stiffer you feel, the more formal your relationship will be. Sitting is fine. If kneeling helps, do it. You might want to take an hour’s walk as you talk with your Friend.

Try praying out loud, though not loud enough to disturb others. Being able to hear yourself pray really helps. You’ll find that your mind doesn’t wander as easily and that you can pray more fervently.

Don’t feel you have to do all the talking. Discuss something with the Lord, then be silent for a time. Sometimes God uses these times of listening to implant his answers in our minds. Gradually you’ll find that prayer can be a conversation.

Don’t worry about sticking to a schedule, or even keeping to the times suggested here. It’s only to get you started, to help you believe you actually can spend sixty minutes in prayer. You’ll find God will guide you in your prayer time. Its not a program, it’s a growing relationship.

Now, go for it. Before you put this down, set a time when you will spend an hour with him. You can’t learn to pray from reading any more than you can learn to swim from a textbook. It’s time to get into the water.

This is an adaptation of a document you can find here. You can find another helpful resource here.

14 February 2008

Bible portraits: Nicodemus (Part 3)

Months passed. We heard from our informants that, not long after we had been there, John had identified the one to whom he had pointed. It was a cousin of his, a young carpenter from Nazareth named Jesus. It was not long before we heard stories about him as well.

His message, apparently, was not very different from John’s. But there were other stories as well: of his healing people, some of whom had incurable diseases or who had been disabled for years; of changing water into wine at a wedding reception—and more disturbingly of his offering divine forgiveness to people; and most recently of his striding into the Temple and causing quite a ruckus, turning over the moneychangers’ tables and setting free the sacrificial animals and birds.

Some of my fellow members on the council were scandalized by this and wanted to have him arrested immediately. I must admit that I was more fascinated than upset. To tell you the truth, I really admired someone who had the courage to challenge the corruption of the Temple authorities in the way he did. So through one of my connections I arranged to meet with him personally—privately, of course, as I did not want to do anything to jeopardize my standing on the council.

So it was that we met at night. In the moonlight I could distinguish the outline of his face and see the glisten in his eyes. Aside from all that I had heard already there was something in him that commanded my respect. I could not help but address him with deference. “Rabbi,” I said to him, “everybody is saying that you are a teacher sent by the Almighty himself. No one could do the amazing things I have heard about you without his divine power and blessing.”

It was almost as if he had not heard me. He looked at me and said, “Now listen to me and listen carefully, you will never see the reign of God unless you have been born from above.”

What did he mean by this strange language? What was he getting at? “Pardon me if I am missing what you are saying,” I replied to him. “But how can anyone be born when they are fully grown? Do you expect people to crawl back into their mother’s womb and go through the birth process all over again?”

“Listen again,” he said to me, “and listen carefully, for what I am saying is of eternal significance. No one can enter God’s reign unless they have been born of water and the Spirit. Don’t let my words about being born from above leave you in confusion. Think of the wind. You can hear it whistling in the trees, but you have no control over where it comes from or where it goes. So it is when it comes to receiving new life from the Spirit.”

I will not repeat to you the rest of our conversation. But I can tell you that when I came away my head was spinning. What did he mean by all this born again talk?

Slowly, as I thought about that night and as I thought about the time with John on the Jordan, things began to come together for me. As a Pharisee I had thought that we could make God’s reign a reality by our strict obedience to the Torah. John’s ministry had begun to make me wonder if there were not a better way, through repentance, through allowing God to wash away your defilements in the waters of baptism. But this Jesus was saying something more, that God’s reign is not a matter of trying to be good. It is not even a matter of being baptized. It is allowing God himself to breathe his Spirit into me and bring me life.

Since then this man Jesus has come twice through my life. It was not very long afterwards that his name came up at a meeting of the Sanhedrin. It seems that there were some who were hailing him as a Messiah, which put him on our list of dangerous characters. Some of them wanted to bring him to trial immediately, but I sought to persuade them to meet with him and hear from him in the same way as I had.

My attempt at reasonableness did not prevail. Soon he was being dragged into a mockery of a trial, where he was sentenced to the most humiliating death, the death of the most common criminal, death by crucifixion. One of my fellow council members, Joseph of Arimathea, persuaded me to assist him in providing the hundred-or-so pounds of spices that would be needed if he was at least to receive a decent burial. Since then we have heard reports that his body was not to be found, and, more amazingly still, that he has appeared to a number of his followers.

As I turned that conversation, and all the events since, over and over in my mind I began to recognize what my problem was. What was keeping me from the kingdom of God was the very thing I relied on—my vain attempts to get there through my own effort. What I needed was not more rules and ceremonies, but God’s Holy Spirit to give me life within. It is certainly not my intention to be intrusive. So pardon me if I ask whether this might not be an issue for you too. And if anything that I have said this morning has touched your heart, perhaps you would be willing to take a moment to pray with me now…

Gracious God,
we thank you that you have not made it difficult
to enter your kingdom:
that you do not require of us
works of righteousness or ritual acts,
but only that we open ourselves
to the fresh breath of your Holy Spirit;
breathe your new life into us, we pray,
that, filled with your presence,
we may know the reality of your reign.

13 February 2008

Bible portraits: Nicodemus (Part 2)

One of our duties, which we take very seriously, is to investigate anyone who claims to be a prophet or to speak with divine authority. So it was that it came to our attention that in a relatively remote location up the Jordan River there was a firebrand preacher who had been causing something of a stir through his controversial message. Such would-be prophets come and go all the time, and more often than not they seem to arise in out-of-the-way towns and villages.

For one thing, the people there are less sophisticated than those in the city, and for another they are far less likely to be apprehended. Some of them make quite fantastic claims for themselves, deluding their simple devotees with messianic claims and firing them up to revolution. And that is the last thing we want. I am no lover of the Romans, but I am not looking for a bloodbath. And that is what it would be, I am afraid, if we ever attempted to rise up against them.

As it turned out, it fell to me to investigate this man John. I didn’t fancy taking the trip up to that part of the Jordan. The roads were not easy and, to tell you the truth, I prefer life in the city anyway. When we arrived, the scene was not altogether different from what I might have expected. A small crowd of poorly dressed, illiterate folk stood on the banks of the Jordan while this fellow John harangued at them unmercifully. He had sharp words of criticism for nearly everybody, all the way up to Herod. We tried to keep a low profile among the crowd, but it did not take long before he had spotted us, and I knew we were in for it.

“You brood of snakes,” he fulminated. “Who warned you to flee from God’s anger? Why don’t you start living as though you really believe what you profess? Just because you are Abraham’s descendants doesn’t give you any special right to presume on God. You are like a useless tree, plenty of leaves but no fruit. It won’t be long before you are chopped up and thrown into the fire.”

Frankly we were accustomed to this kind of criticism. We knew that our insistence on strict obedience to the Torah made us unpopular. So to take the heat off, one of our number stepped forward and asked him directly, “Who do you claim to be?” His reply was immediate. “I am not the Messiah, if that is what you are asking.” “Then who are you?” we pressed. “Do you think you are Elijah, the forerunner?” “No.” “Are you one of the prophets come back to life?” “Certainly not.” “Then who are you? We want to take an answer with us back to Jerusalem. Say something definite—anything—about yourself.”

By this time a silence had fell on the whole crowd. All eyes were on John. Slowly he looked up at us and said, “I am but a voice calling out in the desert, ‘Get ready, for the Lord is coming.’ ”

It all seemed harmless enough. Clearly this man had no plans to incite a revolution. We were about to go on our way when another of my colleagues asked, “If you don’t consider yourself a prophet, why the necessity to go about baptizing people?” Again all eyes turned on John. “I baptize with water. But at this very moment there is another whom none of you recognize, and I am not worthy even to take off his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

We stood by silently and watched, as a number of those simple folk, clearly touched by John’s message, stepped down the bank and into the river to be baptized by him. I will admit to you that I too was moved by that scene. By now it was getting into the afternoon and we needed to be on our way back to our inn.

As I lay in bed that night, I kept playing over the words of that strange preacher in my thoughts and seeing the people as they stepped down into the water. Try as I would, I could not get them out of my mind. I asked myself, what if people really learned to live by John’s message? Could it be that John’s baptism was the answer, that it could bring a higher righteousness than mere obedience to the Torah? Could it be that the Almighty was using this man to bring the day of his reign closer? And what about this one to whom John pointed, the one who, in his strange words, would come after him and yet was ahead of him?

12 February 2008

Bible portraits: Nicodemus (Part 1)

Evenings in Jerusalem can be the most perfect times. The heat of the day has passed. The merchants have closed up their stalls in the marketplaces. The crowds have left the streets. And beneath the starry sky all is quiet, interrupted only now and then by the tromp, tromp, tromp, tromp of Roman soldiers marching in formation in the distance.

This particular evening was one that I was destined to remember. I had made an appointment to meet with one of the pilgrims from Galilee. But I move ahead too quickly. Allow me first to tell you something about myself before I share my story.

My name is Nicodemus. I am one of a brotherhood we like to call the chavurim, the companions. Perhaps you might know us better as Pharisees, the “separate ones”. No one really knows where that name came from and, while we did not choose it for ourselves, it suits us well and we wear it proudly. For we are determined not to be like the ordinary, run-of-the-mill people of this land, or like the Sadducees, who boast of their wealth and cozy up to our Roman overlords. By contrast, we strive to live by the fullest rigors of the Torah.

To join the chavurah you must stand before three witness and take a solemn oath that you will observe every detail of the Law. It contains more than six hundred individual commandments and we are careful not to overlook a single one of them. Not only that, in many cases we proudly go beyond the simple demands of the law, to ensure that we stand in no danger of contravening them.

So, for example, in the case of the Sabbath, we have spent years carefully defining what does or does not constitute work. To write two letters is work; to write one is not. To put up a building is work; to destroy one is not. To tie a knot to tether a camel or moor a boat is work; to tie a knot that can be undone with a single hand is not. I could go on and on, but I fear I would only bore or confuse you in doing so. Yet I want you to understand that for us this is more than a mere diversion. It is our life’s work. It occupies our thoughts and our actions day and night. It is our calling to keep our nation pure from the influences of the heathen. It has been said that if for one day every Jew could live in obedience to the Law the kingdom of heaven will come—and we in the chavurah yearn to bring that day to pass.

In recent months, however, I have begun to wonder whether our strictness can ever really bring that to pass. I wonder whether we might not be guilty of keeping men and women away from the kingdom of heaven rather than nearer to it. All these rules can be too heavy a burden for an ordinary person to bear—and even in us the result is more often the opposite of what the Torah is really intended to produce. It is written that Moses was the humblest man who ever lived. And the prophets instruct us that what the Almighty desires is that we should walk humbly with him. Yet so many of our brotherhood are puffed up with spiritual pride.

This may explain why we have never been a large group within Israel. We do not number above 6000 in all. Even so, our influence is far greater than our numbers might warrant. In recent generations we have been well represented in the Sanhedrin. For the past few years I myself have been one of its seventy- one members.

While the Romans may think they have us under their thumbs, most Jews see us and not them as their government. I will admit that our powers are considerably less than they were before the Romans took possession of our land. We may have no authority in political matters, yet we continue to be the supreme council in all matters of religion—and for all Jews, not only here in Palestine, but everywhere in the world.

09 February 2008

Meditations for Lent

I was amazed when my son told me that if you “google” “Lent meditations”, you will come up with this at the top of the list:

Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light for my path. Psalm 119:105

On the wall of our garage there hangs a flashlight which I keep for emergency use. Quite often when I go to use it, however, I find that the batteries are dead!

Psalm 119 tells us that the Bible is a lamp to our feet and a light for our path. Unlike my flashlight, however, its batteries never run out! The gospel, the apostle Paul affirms, is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. Although originally written thousands of years ago, the Scriptures can still speak to us today with power and relevance.

The twenty-eight meditations which follow are proof of that. Each one is a testimony that God is able to address our twentieth-century needs clearly and powerfully through his word.

It is with a great sense of privilege that I present this series of Lenten devotions, prepared by members of our congregation. They demonstrate the rich variety of ways in which God is touching and transforming lives at St Paul’s. They are not arranged in any particular order, nor do they follow any particular overall theme. Each presents a personal perspective on God’s word.

I hope that you will enjoy them and savor them. Even more, I hope you will take time to read, study and apply the passages of Scripture on which they are based and which have brought such meaning to the lives of twenty-four of your fellow parishioners.

It is the first in a series of simple, brief meditations produced by members of my former parish, St Paul’s Church, Halifax, Nova Scotia, more than a dozen years ago! The rest are here.

07 February 2008

Bible Portraits: The Tempter (Part 2)

I thought I might have nipped it all in the bud before there was any chance of a mishap, had my servant Herod not fouled it up and lost track of him. But, as I have told you already, I can be patient when I need to be and so I bided my time till the perfect moment should arise.

That opportunity came only a short while ago. Thirty years and more had elapsed. He had gone out into the wilderness, to be alone with the Lord God (he has the audacity to address him as “Father”) in fasting and prayer. They are such fools, these humans! To undergo such deprivation when it will get them nowhere!

There comes a point when your hunger can be such that the little round rocks on the desert floor can begin to appear as loaves of bread. That was the very moment at which I came up behind him and whispered in his ear, “If you really are God’s beloved child, sharing his power and like him in so many ways, surely he does not want you to starve like this? Why not command one of these rocks to become bread? Look! There are so many of them around. Do you really think God will miss one of them? Do you suppose he will mind you having a tiny snack out here? And if he does, what kind of god is he anyway? It all sounds rather sadistic to me. Surely God wants you to have some small pleasures in life? After all, if you don’t look after yourself, how are you going to be of any use to him or to anyone else?”

He did not even look around. Without a gesture, without a hint of emotion, he picked up one of those hot rocks, held it in his hand and said to me, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Clever response. I knew the words were not his own. Someone had done too good a job on him as a child, teaching him from that cursed book they call scripture. I had lost round one. But I know their “scriptures” as well as they do. And I have often used them to my advantage before.

So that was exactly what I did. I took him to the temple, to its very top. “Do you really believe those scriptures of yours?” I asked him. “Then how about this one: ‘He will command his angels concerning you’? Or this: ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone’? Surely you are familiar with these? If you really believe them, why don’t you jump? Or maybe you don’t really believe that God will come through for you.” It’s not a line of argument I’d use with an ordinary person. A lot of them say they believe the scriptures, but when their so-called faith puts them in the face of danger or death, it invariably takes a back seat to self-preservation. Every once in a while, though, you come across a fanatic, someone who really lives what they believe. This one was clearly one of them. He was just the type to take the leap…

Or so I thought. Coolly he looked down on the hard paving stones below. Then he turned to me. There was a clarity and an honesty in his eyes that I had never seen in another human being. At that moment I almost began to fear. “It seems to me,” he retorted, “there’s a scripture you’ve ignored: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”

Appealing to his appetite hadn’t worked. Neither had challenging his faith. Clearly I had to take another tack. I took him up onto a mountaintop. It seemed as though the whole world stretched beneath us. So much of that world was mine already, but I will not be satisfied until I have it all, right to the very last wretched man and woman. As we gazed down into the valley below, I made him an offer that I thought no human being could refuse. For as I look into their hearts, I know that, like me, in their own pathetic ways they all want power of one kind or another. “All this I will give you,” I said to him, “if you will bow down and worship me. It will all be yours, to do with whatever you will.”

As he turned to me once again a shaft of bright sunlight shone into the valley below. There was no quaver in his voice. Nor did he did not shout. He merely spoke the words, but with such firmness and authority as I have never heard before. “Get away from me, Satan! For the scripture says, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone.” I will admit to you that I was truly shaken. I have not seen such strength in a man. I had no alternative but to turn and go.

Looking back for one last glimpse out the corner of my eye, I could see angels coming to his side. So that was the trick! The Lord God had his hand upon him! No matter! It only makes me all the more determined. Indeed I have only begun. He will see. I will come upon him with such fury that he will wish he were never born. I will make him curse the very god whom he calls Father, in whom he puts such trust. I will not be satisfied until I take the whole world as my prisoner, until I ascend to the tops of the clouds and make myself like the Most High, until I ascend to heaven and raise my throne above the stars. That is my destiny, and I will have it no other way. I will be God!

Heavenly Father,
our enemy the devil prowls about like a roaring lion,
seeking to devour us.
Protect us, we pray, by your mighty power,
that we may resist his wiles and stand against him,
and that we may be faithful to the One
who was tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin,
our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

06 February 2008

Bible Portraits: The Tempter (Part 1)

I am not accustomed to disappointment. By and large I like to think of myself as a patient individual. Yet I will frankly admit that there are times when even I can lose it—especially with those stubborn types who will not bend to my methods of persuasion.

However, let me begin at the beginning, and tell you a little about myself—so that you may lay your fears aside and see that I am not nearly as nasty a character as my detractors have made me out to be.

What you see now is not what I once was. I was the most beautiful and wise of all creatures. There was none that excelled me, none that could be compared with me. The most precious of gems—name them if you will, carnelian, olivine, jade, beryl, onyx, jasper, sapphire, turquoise or emerald—none of them equaled me in splendor. When I roamed the universe the stars would bow before me. The angels held me in awe. I was the very definition of perfection. I was a god.

One day as I roamed through Eden my eyes fell upon the Lord God (that is the incredibly pompous name he likes to go by) kneeling on the ground, sifting a pile of dust through his fingers. As he molded it, the dry dust began to take shape—a trunk, arms, legs, a head. Then, as I watched on, I saw him bend low and breathe into this creature of dust. What had been dry earth took color. Its chest began to heave. The eyes opened and looked about inquisitively. The Lord God took it by the hand and it rose to its feet.

I will never forget that moment, as the Lord God stood back and looked at the creature he had made. If you ask me, there was nothing special about it, rather ordinary, not much different from a baboon. Incredibly I could see in the Lord God’s expression a look of pride—no, far, far worse than that, of delight, of love. At that moment I knew that my position of supremacy was threatened. The Lord God was giving to it the glory and honor that were rightfully mine. It had none of the beauty or intelligence of an angel. Yet it, not I, would have authority over the creatures of earth—the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea. What was I to do?

I chose my moment carefully. It was obvious to me that they were stupid, gullible creatures, yet I wanted to have every tactical advantage. Catch them off guard, subtly misrepresent the Lord God so as to undermine their trust in him, overstate the pleasures of doing what he had forbidden. It would not take any more than that for me to regain my position of superiority and disgrace those interlopers. Perhaps the Lord God would be so angry that before they did any further damage he would wipe them out altogether. After all, he himself admits that he is a jealous God.

In the end it went considerably more easily than I could ever have imagined. They fell for my line without objection, almost without a thought. And yes, the Lord God was every bit as angry as I had predicted. He cursed them and he cursed me—which is why I look the way I do, but I will overcome that. He threw them out of my garden. But here is what really annoys me. Before he shut them out, I saw him stop for just a moment and give them each an animal skin to cover their nakedness and keep them warm. There was a look of wistfulness, of sorrow, in his eyes. At that moment I knew that he still cared for them, still loved them, foolish, disobedient and vile as they were. And I knew that my task was still unfinished.

If the Lord God would not destroy them, I could find ways to make them destroy themselves. With Cain it was jealousy, with Lot greed, with Jacob his competitiveness; with Moses it was his fierce sense of justice, with Naomi her grief, with David his virility, with Solomon his riches, with Elijah his independence. I could name you ten thousand more, all favorites of the Lord God, and one by one I brought them down. Yet in spite of all their failures, their disobedience, their rebellion and sometimes even their outright hatred towards him, he continued to love them, to yearn for them, to desire them for himself. Now you tell me. Is that any way for a god to behave?

I share all of this with you because I am now in the midst of facing my greatest challenge. I have been watching him since his birth in Bethlehem three decades ago. From the beginning I knew he would be dangerous. His name alone was a giveaway—Jesus, Yehoshua, “The Lord is our salvation”. Ha! Little do they know! One day it will be to me that they cry for mercy. And let’s see if they get it!

More tomorrow…