Temptation and desire

This is a sermon for the nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is 1 Timothy 6:6-19.

Paul wrote to Timothy that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”… well, there’s plenty I could say about that, isn’t there?

Don’t worry.  This part of the letter is intended primarily as instructions for those who are leaders of the church.  Paul’s concern here is people who are acting as teachers and leaders in the church, and receiving material support for doing so, not out of right motives but because they want the money.  In the part of the letter just before the bit we heard this morning, Paul talked about the bad outcomes from this kind of leadership; envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, wrangling among those who are depraved, imagining that godliness is a means for gain.

Well, that makes sense, doesn’t it?  If the only interest I had in you, as a community, was how much money I could get from you, our relationship would be one of exploitation rather than one of love.  I hope that at least some of the time I manage to make it one of love.

But what interested me about the reading, actually, was the way that Paul talks about temptation; and that’s something that we all have to deal with in the Christian life.  He says that “those who want to be rich fall into temptation…”

It makes succumbing to temptation sound so easy and natural, doesn’t it?  It’s falling.  Just like anything falls when it’s dropped, because of gravity, the idea of “falling” into temptation makes it sound like, well, you know, there was all this money and it just pulled me into its orbit and I was a bit helpless to resist it, because, you know, it was there.

And if you think about temptation like that, then really we’re just at the mercy of whatever big temptations might suck us in, because they have that irresistible pull on us, and we don’t have the ability to move away.

But I don’t think it’s really like that – and I don’t think Paul did, either; I’ll say more about that in a second – so maybe it’s worth digging a little deeper than this language of temptation as “falling” and see if we can come up with any ideas that might actually empower us against our temptations.

You see, I don’t think temptation starts with the pile of money or the sexy person or the chocolate or whatever it is that tempts us.

Listen again to what Paul said:  “But those who want to be rich fall into temptation” – we’ve noted that –  “and” he says, “are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires.”

Senseless and harmful desires.

Isn’t that where temptation really starts?  With desire?  Isn’t it my desire to feel that I have some control over my circumstances, or to have nice things, or even to be able to be generous, that makes the temptation of money so easy to fall into?  That is, it’s not the money itself that’s the problem, but what the money means to me; what difference I think it will make to my life.

When I do marriage preparation with couples, one of the things we spend quite a bit of time on is their attitudes to money, and how they want to manage finances.  Not because there are right and wrong answers, but because not having a shared approach to money is one of the biggest causes of conflict in marriage.  And without fail, what comes out in those discussions is that money means different things to the two people.  For example, for one person money will mean freedom, and he or she will resent too much constraint on spending and enjoyment.  But for the other person, money will mean security, and he or she will be anxious about too much spending.  Well, you can see where that’s heading, can’t you?  Cue endless arguments.  But it’s not really the money (or lack of it) that’s driving the arguments; it’s the desires that the money can fulfil, and how those desires are at odds.

And I suspect a lot of temptations are like that.  We have all of these desires – often we’re not really even conscious of them – driving us, and then when something comes along that we think can fulfil those desires, we’re pulled along by it as if we’re falling.  But it’s really our desire that set us up for that in the first place.

Now let me be clear.  I’m not saying that all desire is bad, and that the Christian life is all about suppressing desire.  We’re made to have desires – we are made in the image of a God who has desires – and I think for most of us, the attempt to ignore or suppress our desires mostly leaves us in a very unhealthy place.  More than that, I think desire is a good thing; I think our longings, desires and loves can even be holy things that point us towards God.

After all, if desire is all bad, we couldn’t really have the Song of Songs as part of the Bible, could we?  That book is all about holy desire, and the fact that we have Scriptures like that suggests that we should take our desires seriously as clues to knowing God more deeply, and living for God more faithfully.

So we have desires, they’re a normal and healthy part of us, they can be an important part of our spirituality…. but.  But they can also be “senseless and harmful,” in Paul’s words, and that’s when they set us up for a fall.  So when the tempting thing comes along, we do fall headlong into it.

So where does that leave us?  I’d suggest that it points out to us that our desires deserve to be taken seriously.  Reflecting on our own experiences of encouragement and fulfilment, as well as frustration and disappointment, can give us clues to what’s going on beneath the surface for us, what deeper needs and desires are driving our choices.  And when we recognise those, we can put in place strategies and plans to act out of those desires in ways which are healthy and appropriate, which, instead of seeing us fall headlong into temptation, see us able to sail by unaffected, since we don’t have unrecognised desires driving us off course.

We pray, each time we say the Lord’s prayer, that He would “save us from the time of trial” – or in the old words, “lead us not into temptation.”  And of course it’s good to pray that, but it’s also good to do what we can to responsibly save ourselves from unnecessary trials, by making sure that we are as little susceptible to them as possible.  Our reading from Timothy this morning has given us some pointers on how we might do that, and in doing so, “take hold of the life that really is life.”

Fullness of life

This is a sermon for the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Psalm 79:1-9.

The psalmist said, “We have become a taunt to our neighbours, mocked and derided by those around us.”

I don’t know if that’s been your experience much, but I know that for me, this echoes something that’s been a real part of my experience.  I grew up during the beginnings of the clergy sexual abuse crisis.  For my generation, perceptions of the church have been fundamentally coloured by those events, and by the appalling behaviour of various church leaders in covering up and perpetuating patterns of abuse.

I’ve lost friends over it.  People who couldn’t understand or cope with my commitment to an institution they saw as intrinsically damaging.  And for many others, the label of “priest” goes so tightly hand-in-hand with “abuse apologist” that I cannot speak on any topic – no matter how unrelated – without that perception of clergy as controlling, authoritarian and more interested in protecting the institution than caring for people, shaping how people react to me.

Why do I raise this now?  When you look around and notice that my generation is conspicuously absent from church, I think it would be a mistake to think that this is not a factor.  It’s not the only factor, of course; cultural change, different patterns of social life, suspicion of institutions and authority more generally, have all played their part; but make no mistake, many people simply can’t get past the damage that was done to so many, and the apparent indifference of the rest of us to that damage.

How can we still put our money in the plate when our bishops are corrupt?  They ask.  How can we still be here when there hasn’t been enough real change?

Derided by those around us is right.  And the sting is even worse because they’re not deriding us for something they’ve invented; the abuse crisis, and the church’s utter failure to respond well to it, is real.  To some extent, the church deserves the bad name in the street that it’s currently wearing, and we, as participants in it, need to each work out for ourselves what we do with that.

But while we have some work to do on integrity and authenticity as a church community, there’s probably another task that we have to do, as well.  For a very long time – certainly well into the living memory of this community – the church was assumed to be a social force for good.  It had an assured place in the life of society, and it didn’t have to argue for its existence or its voice in the marketplace of ideas.  It didn’t have to do a lot of soul-searching about its own identity or value, but was able to take those for granted.

That’s not true any more.  The challenges we face – internal and external – mean we have to think about what this church gig is really all about, and why we bother.  In the face of the derision of those who see us as irrelevant at best and damaging at worst, we need an answer that makes sense to us, and that might even be substantial enough to make others stop and think when they hear it.

A crisis is, as they say, a terrible thing to waste.  We have an opportunity here to think about these things in a way which might strengthen us for the decades to come.

So when push comes to shove, when we’re no longer such a powerful social institution, but have become marginalised, dismissed as irrelevant, viewed with suspicion, and so forth, why are we still here?

Why do you come to church?  Why do I come?  What’s the point of gathering around word and table together rather than having a lazy sleep in and perhaps some social time?  Could you put it into words?

The author of today’s psalm, who suffered such mocking, ended up looking to the glory of God’s name as the only answer worth holding on to, the only answer which might be bigger than the difficult circumstances that the Israelite community found themselves suffering.

We might make a similar connection; we might say that the glory of God is abandoned when the church gets it wrong, but that we keep coming back hoping that here, we can get in touch which something which is much bigger than our wrongs.

But let’s be clear.  The glory of God isn’t found in – or served by – the grandeur of our buildings, the size of our bank accounts, the beauty of our artistic treasures or the number of people under our influence.  Those things might be means to an end, but they are not ends in themselves, and it’s when we forget that, that we abandon the glory of God and instead worship a paltry substitute.

So where, then, can we look for the glory of God?  St. Irenaeus famously said that “The glory of God is a human person fully alive,” and that’s a comment I’ve come back to, time and time again.  Jesus said that he came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  I suspect he meant much the same thing as Irenaeus meant about being “fully alive.”  Alive to the fullness of our potential, our ability to love, to experience hope and joy and all the rest of it.  Alive as we were meant to be; as we were created to be.

So why, then, gather around word and table together?  Because we find something here that helps us to be fully alive.  If we’re not offering that, then there truly is no point.  We might as well have that sleep in.  But if the words we read, the teaching we hear, and our encounters with God in the sacraments help us each to be just that little bit more fully alive, then they’re achieving their purpose.  Then we have a point to our existence as a church.  And then we can say – to the people whom the church has broken, the people who care for them, and the people appalled by all that has happened – that we are also broken, but we come back here because we seek something which might speak to that brokenness in a life-giving way.

It’s not an easy way through the hurt and damage of the last decades.  But it is, at least, an honest way.

I think it sets before us two things to ask ourselves, as we evaluate all that we do.  How does each thing we do, have the potential to be life-giving?  Are we using it in life-giving ways, or do we need to refresh our approach?  And what are the things we do or say – or even think – which are life-draining rather than life-giving, and how do we change those things so that we can more fully reflect the true glory of God?

To do good

This is a sermon for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28.

Last time I was here, you may remember that we looked at Jeremiah, and his idea – repeated over and over in his book – that when it came to God, the Israelites had ignored the real deal and gone after a cheap counterfeit version instead.

And I want to pick up that train of thought today, because in today’s reading from Jeremiah I think we see one of the most significant consequences of that acceptance of a shallow pretence at a living faith.  Jeremiah gives God’s words about his people and says, “My people are foolish, they do not know me… They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.”

These two ideas are intrinsically linked; knowing God and knowing how to do good, for Jeremiah, are two sides of the same coin.

Let me say upfront that this is not me trying to say that, for example, all atheists are immoral or anything like that.  It is quite possible to not believe in God and have a sound and robust ethical system.  We’re talking about “doing good” on a different level than what we might consider to be fairly basic moral reasoning.

But before I delve into that too deeply, let me point out that we can find the same argument made in the New Testament as well.  In the first chapter of Romans, Paul makes a fairly sophisticated argument, but what it boils down to in its essence is that rejecting the knowledge of God leads to… well, here are his words: “Though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking… to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.  They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice.  Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”

Goodness me, did he miss anything?  Well, Paul’s rather fond of a rhetorical flourish.

He makes his point, though; leaving the knowledge of God will inevitably, in his view, result in losing the ability to do good.

So if we’re not talking about basic moral reasoning, which we know isn’t an exclusively Christian preserve, then in what sense is “doing good” dependent on “knowing God”?

I’d suggest that “doing good” here means something deeper than keeping to the rules of an ethical code (however you define your ethical code).  It means aligning your whole self with God; recognising that God is, ultimately the author and giver of all good things, seeking to live our lives in such a way that they become an extension of the will of God in the world.

This points us towards the purpose of our gathering for worship; we come together so that we may know God better, and knowing God better, may more closely pattern our lives on God’s life.  Worship isn’t just something we do, it’s supposed to be something that changes us; that sees us leave here having been nudged just that little bit closer to God than when we came.

Ultimately, our worship is supposed to be the foundational act from which all of the things which have been broken or gone wrong can be repaired; because it’s the opportunity to reorient all of those broken or disordered things back towards the creator who made everything, and said that it was good.

And this is what I meant when I said that Jeremiah was talking about “doing good” on a deeper level than we often mean it.  I think Jeremiah, and Paul, and many great thinkers after them, have realised that the Christian life is not meant to just be one in which, as long as we don’t break the rules, we can pursue our own agenda.  It’s meant to be one in which we learn to let God’s agenda be our agenda.

In preparing this sermon, I looked at some Jewish writings on these ideas (I find that sometimes the Rabbis point out aspects of the Hebrew scriptures which Christian commentators typically overlook).  And the author I was reading had an absolutely lovely line to describe how he understood this.  He said that, “The man who worships is a king,” and what he meant by that, is that every person who truly aligns his or her life to that of God, becomes a conduit, if you like, for the reign of God on earth; and as such becomes a living expression of that reign.

This is, I think, something of the same idea that some Christian authors have had when they talk about mission, not as something that we send missionaries to do, but as our human participation in everything that God does.

This is why, for example, we pray after communion, “Father, we offer ourselves to you as a living sacrifice…” What we’re saying is, here, Father; see my hands, my feet, my mind, my heart.  You know my strengths and my weaknesses.  I give them all to you, to do the things that you would have me do.   To be your hands, your feet, your mind, and your heart; in action in the world and in caring for all those around me.

That’s what worship is intended to be; when everything we do, say or think reflects our intention to be living expressions of God’s will at work in the world, that’s real worship.  In a sense, the church service is just the warm up, the place where we come to learn and be reminded and resourced for the real thing, out there in the rest of our lives.

So what I’m saying – what I think Jeremiah is saying – is that when you know God, the real God and not the pretend God that you make up or accept because it’s easier, then you are able, by God’s grace, to let your life reflect the priorities, the cares, and the love of God.  And so you are able, by that measure, “to do good.”  But if you buy into the false God, the shallow God, or the easy version of God, then you end up pursuing your own priorities, cares and passions; and that doesn’t usually end in a very good place.

That might not sound like a very optimistic assessment of human beings and our potential, since it seems to be saying that on our own, we’re inevitably going to get it wrong.  But I do think there’s some hope there for us as well, because it’s saying that all we have to do is get our primary, fundamental thing right – our relationship with God – and the rest will naturally flow from that.  If you really know God, the rest will follow.

So the question it leaves me with is, what do we need, to know God better?  And how will we make space for that in our life together here?

An irreverent musing

I was reading a little bit on Jewish mysticism today (there is much wisdom there, even for a Christian, although it takes work to integrate it into another worldview).  And as I was reading on the idea that there is no place empty of God, I came across the line that “no single blade of grass is without an angel who strikes it and orders it to grow to its full height.”*

Is it impious that my reaction to this, was to wonder whether I could wander out to the backyard and tell the angels at work on the nettles to knock it off?

Am I supposed to transcend my judgmental approach to gardening and see the good even in nettles?  (I’m told it has remarkable medicinal properties, although I haven’t cared to find out first-hand).

Or am I supposed to read grass metaphorically and ponder that all flesh is like grass, and wonder what this might say about the role of a guardian angel?

I suspect this attempt to engage with ancient wisdom is only showing me that I am no mystic!

 

 

*From Zevi Hirsch Eichenstein’s book, Turn Aside From Evil and Do Good: An Introduction and a Way to the Tree of Life.

 

 

Cracked cisterns?

This is a sermon for the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Jeremiah 2:4-13.

“My people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.”

If you wanted to sum up the book of Jeremiah – and it’s a long book – in one sentence, that would probably be a good choice.  Jeremiah spends much of his fifty-two chapters basically finding as many different ways as possible of saying the same thing; when it comes to God, you’ve ignored the real deal, and gone for the cheap knock-off version instead.

We see it several times just in this morning’s reading; “they went far from me, and went after worthless things;” “they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”

It seems that in Jeremiah’s day, it had become common to pay lip service to the God of Israel, maybe even keep some of the outward forms of his worship, but not to let it go any further than that.  Not to let it be a matter of the heart, or of personal or communal life which was in any real way different from their pagan neighbours.

It’s a very human way to be, really.  On some level we might know or suspect that the God-stuff might be important, but it’s very easy to be busy, earning a living, raising children, minding grandchildren, building friendships and contributing to the community… and there often isn’t a great deal of the day, the week or the month left over for things which might be important, but seldom strike us as urgent.

So it might be worth taking Jeremiah’s invitation to stop and reflect.  Do we ever do this?

What might it look like, in the Christian life, if we went to cracked cisterns instead of the fountain of living water?

Let me make some suggestions, not because I particularly think they apply to anyone here, but just as food for thought for all of us.

Wouldn’t it be a cracked cistern if, instead of prayer being an experience of the depths of God’s own life in us, it became just a reciting of words?

Some of you will know that every so often I get asked to preside at the Eucharist for the Community of the Holy Name*.  Presiding there is absolutely unique in my experience, because walking into that chapel full of nuns is to walk into a room filled with intense prayer.  Those are women who know what it is to get serious with God, and who have honed that habit by daily practice over many many years.  The silence is buzzing and you can feel the quiet hum of the Spirit at work.

Now, we aren’t a community of nuns and I’m not saying I expect being in church to be like that for us.  But since we’re taking Jeremiah seriously for a moment, this morning, let me give you this question to think about: is your prayer life a fountain of living water, for you and for those around you?

And wouldn’t it be a cracked cistern if, instead of holding out a vision of human flourishing before God which included everyone – the poorest, the most disabled, the least educated – and committing ourselves to working to make that vision a reality, we instead lived comfortably with inequality, injustice and corruption?

Last week I attended a conference on disability and spirituality.  As I listened to the various speakers or engaged in informal conversation, one thing came through again and again; the church needs to change.  Whether it was people with mobility issues, or intellectual disabilities, or people who were deaf or had autism or whatever other disability, it seemed that everyone there had a story of how the church had failed to include them, and failed to meet their needs.  The amazing thing was that these people were able to see that this was the church’s failure, and not reflective of God’s attitude, and so they were speaking up to try to make the churches accountable.  Their challenge to those of us without disabilities was, have you thought about my needs?  Is your church able to accommodate me?  Will I be welcome if I come?

Let me tell you that I think we – by which I mean the Anglican diocese of Melbourne – still have a long way to go in answering that challenge.

So there is another hard question to ponder:  Is our standard of hospitality a fountain of living water to all who might seek to come?

And wouldn’t it be a cracked cistern if, instead of being an experience of genuine thanksgiving, the Eucharist became simply something we ate?

The word Eucharist itself means “thanksgiving,” and when we come to this table and give thanks, we connect our experience – all the different things that have happened in each of our lives this week – we connect all of that with the reality of God.  When we say thank you to God, we connect our own lives with God as the one who gives us everything good.  We say that what has happened to us somehow comes to us as the gift of God.  And even when things are not good and we have had a rough week, and we come and give thanks, we are saying that even in the dark times God continues to give, and we continue to acknowledge that generous presence in our lives.

And that means that, even in the dark times, we can start to look differently at the world around us.  If in every part of life, God is still at work, with all that comes to us being his gracious gift, then in every object we see and handle, in every situation we encounter, God the giver is present, behind and beyond what we can see and hear and touch.  And that allows us to see everything as being outlined, as it were, with divine potential; what has God given us this thing for?  What is God going to do with it?

So here is another question for us to consider:  Does our giving thanks shape the way we see the world, so that we can recognise all things as good gifts from God?

I could go on, but I think by now you’re getting my point (or maybe it’s Jeremiah’s point).  We can come to church week by week, engage on a surface level, have a cup of tea and some chat, and go home without these things having made any actual difference.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Our deliberate, thoughtful, prayerful encounters with God offer us the opportunity for so much more, for transformed hearts, transformed lives and a transformed community.  We just have to choose; to look for the real thing, and not to be satisfied with the shabby counterfeit.

 

*The Community of the Holy Name is a local Anglican religious community for women, of which I am a formal associate.

 

 

Tradition for humankind

This is a sermon for the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, given in both the “church up the road,” and the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Luke 13:10-17.

Who would have thought that an action like this would spark such an argument?  Healing a woman so that she can stand up straight and is not crippled, after many years… that seems like pretty obviously a good thing, doesn’t it?  So why does it end up sparking such a bitter dispute, with Jesus even accusing the leader of the synagogue of being a hypocrite?

I think it’s all about the interplay of tradition and identity.  Jewish identity is so tightly bound up with Jewish tradition that to challenge one is to challenge the other; and really, in our own way, Christians are just the same.  It’s the living fabric of our traditions which clothes us in our distinctive identity.

But that tradition doesn’t come to us as an integrated whole, of a piece as if handed down from heaven (so to speak).  It comes to us as a whole range of different strands, from different times, different cultures, different sources; and at various times parts of tradition have been challenged, re-interpreted, dare I say reformed; and somehow all of that comes to us, and from it we weave together the Christian faith in a way which is authentic as the Anglican Christians in and around these suburbs.

Does that seem abstract?  Let me give you an example of what I mean.

When we pray the great thanksgiving, the prayer before we take communion, that prayer is in a structure called “Berakah;” its form goes back to the Jewish thanksgiving prayers over meals.  It is, if you like, an ancient form of grace.  That form of prayer, being familiar as it was to many in the early church, became the model for prayers at communion, and we have records of very early liturgies in ancient Greek, Latin, Coptic, Syriac and so forth, in which the structures and the responses are very similar to what we use today.

But they haven’t come to us in a straight line.  The earliest English liturgies were a radical departure from what had gone before, as the English reformers sought to remove English practice from what they saw as corrupt Roman Catholic theology and practices; and those of you who remember worshipping regularly with the Book of Common Prayer will remember how different its overall vibe was.  It was only in the twentieth century that Anglicans in many places, with better access to ancient sources and a desire for more options, returned to those ancient forms of prayer, translated them into English, adapted them, and gave us the range of prayers we have today.

One of the things I love about presiding at the Eucharist – or indeed participating while someone else is presiding – is the sense of these words giving us roots which go back millennia in the living church, and yet coming out now in ways which are about life and growth and joy for us, here, now.  (And of course I need not tell you that for many Christians, the most radical change we have made is the fact that in many churches today you will find a woman leading those prayers).

So even when we are using the same or very similar words, our experience of praying these prayers, in another language, with all the baggage of another culture, is very different to what the experience of the very earliest Christians would have been.

Why am I making such a point of this?  Because this is one way of showing you how tradition works.  We inherit something, we adapt it, we make use of it not exactly as it always was but in ways which make sense and work for us, and in turn we hand that on to the next generation of believers.

But… you knew there had to be a but, didn’t you?  We can’t just do anything we like with it.  Whatever we do has to be coherent with the core truths of Christianity and faithful to our relationship with Jesus as Lord.

And that – to come back to the reading – is why Jesus is calling the leader of the synagogue a hypocrite.  Because although there were many Jewish strands of thought bound up in keeping the Sabbath, the way that the synagogue leader was interpreting them wasn’t faithful to the core truths of Judaism and its covenant with the Lord, (at least, as Jesus saw it).

Because it is clear from the gospels that Jesus didn’t have a problem with the Sabbath as a concept.  As a rabbi steeped in the Jewish Scriptures he would have known about and upheld what those Scriptures had to say about the Sabbath, and its importance in Jewish life.  But his issue is with the way this is worked out in his community’s priorities.  In Mark’s gospel Jesus is recorded as having said that “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”

We could just as easily adapt that saying, and I put it to you that tradition was made for humankind, and not humankind for tradition.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  Tradition is important.  It is the living memory of the community of faith, how we know who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going.  But just as we cannot live in memory, nor can we allow tradition to become something which stops us from being the face and hands and feet of Jesus in this time and place.  The meaning of the memories needs to be worked out, carried forward, and given new expression, so that we don’t become just as hypocritical as the synagogue leader in this story.

So when we look at our traditions, and whether they ought to be kept as they are, adapted, or discarded, this portion of the gospel gives us something of a yardstick for our thinking.  Jesus defended his healing of the woman as being part of the true meaning of Sabbath; in turn, we can look at aspects of our tradition and ask, “Are they life giving?  Do they express the love of God for each of God’s children?  Do they bring joy?  Or are they actively working against those things?”  Or – and this is so often the case!  – are they not doing any real harm, but not actively resourcing our spiritual lives, either; a sort of ecclesiastical clutter which just gets in the way of what really matters?

And when we’ve worked out the answers to those questions, what action can we then take to bring the deeper meaning of these things into sharper focus for all of us, so that we, too, like the crowds in the gospel, can rejoice at all the wonderful things God is doing in our midst?

 

Of interior wounds

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve just come back from retreat.  While I was there, I found this Examen of an Interior Wound, which struck me as quite possibly the most helpful such prayer I have found over the years.  (It comes from the book, Reimagining the Ignatian Examen, by Mark Thibodeaux).  So here I share it with you, along with the author’s remarks:

“If you and I  are honest, at any given moment we can probably identify a wound or two within us.  A wound is some emotional hurt in my heart, psyche or soul caused by something painful that has happened.  Maybe you were insulted by someone.  You felt rejected.  You were fired from your job.  You were unappreciated.  This examen leads us to pray about these wounds.

Quickly read through the whole thing before beginning this examen.  Note that it is a particularly challenging one.  If you’re not in the right space for it, then you might want to pass over this one until a day comes when you are ready for it.

  1.  I begin in my usual way.*
  2. I spend a few moments in gratitude, thanking God for one or two of the blessings, big and small, that I’ve received today.
  3. I ask God to show me a wound in my heart at this moment.  This wound causes me to feel hurt, frightened, angry, resentful, or remorseful.  I allow God to take me to that difficult place in my soul.  Perhaps I find myself painfully – but also prayerfully – remembering the moments that have created this wound.  I courageously sit in the midst of this difficult moment.  Perhaps I ask Jesus to hold my hand as I prayerfully relive the worst parts.
  4. I ask God to show me the strongest emotion I have at this very moment as I rehash this painful experience.  I speak aloud to God about how I am feeling.  I say, “God, I am furious (or sad, or grief-stricken, or confused).”  I sit with God and with these feelings for a moment.
  5. I ask God to show me how this wound might become worse, growing in size or becoming infected.  If I were to allow this wound to lead me away from faith, hope, and love, what might that look like?  Concretely, in what ways might this wound tempt me to behave poorly?  I ask God to help me prevent this from happening.  If I need a particular grace to help me guard against this poor behaviour, I ask for that grace from God right now.
  6. I sit in the silence for just a moment, giving God a chance to do whatever God wants with me right now.  Perhaps, in this quiet moment, God will just place his warm fatherly hand on my head.  Perhaps God will say something to me.  Perhaps we’ll just sit together in the silence.  It’s okay if God seems to be saying and doing nothing at all.  I trust that he will heal this wound in his own time and his own way.
  7. I prayerfully daydream for just a moment, imagining a day when I am no longer feeling wounded about this.  What would that be like?  What might be my attitudes, perspectives, thoughts, feelings, words and actions if I were truly a recovered soul?  What grace would I need to begin to heal?  I ask God for that grace right now.
  8. I ask God to show me how he might make good come out of this hurtful thing.  How can this wound make me stronger?  More loving?  More humble?  More spiritually mature?  How can I become a more effective disciple of God’s love through this wound?  I ask God to make good use of this wound; to use this experience of mine for his greater glory.
  9. If I feel called to do so, I make some concrete resolution to be a person of faith, hope, and love, in the midst of this painful reality in my life.  I trust that God will be there with me through it all.
  10. I end in my usual way.*

 

*A note on beginning and ending in “my usual way.”  The author of this book pointed out that we all enter into prayer in different ways; some might repeat a favourite verse, some might choose silence, or light a candle, or make the sign of the cross, or have a preferred place, and so on.  He did not want to prescribe how this should be done, only make it clear that whatever each person does to begin and end a time of prayer should be observed here.