The weaned child

The psalmist wrote:

I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.  (Psalm 131:2)

In the hours after my daughter was born, I sat holding her and marvelling at the tiny, perfect, new person.  I traced a finger over her feet, and realised that as soon as she learned to walk on those feet, she would be walking away from me, to explore the world; at first beyond her blanket, then beyond her home, to school, to work, out on a date; perhaps one day, down an aisle to marry, or to make other significant life commitments.  It was my job to hold her hands while she learned to walk, and then to let them go, so she could.

This process of letting go, this transition to a state of greater maturity, is not a once off in life.  We do it over and over and over again, with each stage of development, each shift in identity.  It can be emotionally fraught, both for the parent and the child.  As the child becomes an adult, that inner tension at times of transition does not disappear.

And yet, between these times of transition, there are times of quiet and calm.  Times when, like a weaned child resting on its mother, there is peace for the soul.

Of course, so many of the people we encounter in ministry have in common that they are not in times of quiet and calm for the soul.  They are growing, learning, changing, being challenged and rising to the challenges.  Or they are confronted with illness or injury, and often a profound shock to their sense of identity.  What was once reliable can seem to be shaken, and one can have a sense of starting all over again.

And yet, of course we are not really starting all over again.  Weaning is not a second birth, but a milestone of greater maturity.  Even aging, illness and death are a normal part of human life.  What is needed, in the turmoil of change, is the wisdom to recognise the development that has taken place, and the openness to embrace a new diet.

These, the psalm seems to suggest, are gifts we might bring to caring for one another.  As we look for the signs of growing maturity, and of openness to change, we can hold in trust the hope of new times of quiet and calm, like the weaned child with its mother.

*Psalm 131:2 (NRSV)

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God-breathed

This is the text of a sermon for the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, in the parish where I’m placed this year.  The Scripture text it references is 2 Timothy 3:10-4:5.

All Scripture is inspired by God.

All Scripture.  Wait.  All?  Even the bits celebrating dashing infants against rocks, or commanding genocide, or saying a rape victim had to marry her rapist?  (I’m sure you could add to a list of texts of terror from your own knowledge of Scripture).  On the face of it, this statement can seem an affront both to reason and to human decency; so this morning I want to pause and consider it carefully.

It seems clear that the community who wrote this – what the vicar has been describing in recent weeks as the “school of Paul” – felt themselves to be in disagreement and conflict with others.  From the way this morning’s passage references Paul’s persecution in places like Iconium – persecution at the hands of the Jewish community – it makes sense to think that this Pauline community were in some ways defining themselves over against those with whom they disagreed; and at least some of those “others” were Jews or Judaizing Christians.

There must have been a temptation, when rejecting Judaism, to reject its Scriptures – the only Scriptures Christians had, at this point – as well.  “We don’t need all that Torah stuff; we have salvation through Christ.”  But the author of this text (who I’m just going to refer to as Paul for the sake of simplicity) says no, that won’t do.  The Scriptures are a foundational element of our identity as well.  We may disagree with others about how to interpret Scripture, but that doesn’t mean we abandon it.  Here, I think, is actually something which this parish might find itself sharing with the “school of Paul.”  We’re aware that there are Christians out there who have a more fundamentalist take on Scripture, which doesn’t gel with the ethos and culture of this place; but that doesn’t mean we throw the Scriptures out.

In a way, I’m reminded of a story about King James I of England, when some of his bishops approached him wanting him to push a stronger reformation agenda in the Church of England.  And he told them firmly that it was not enough reason to stop doing something simply because Catholics do it; or else we will end up going barefoot because Catholics wear shoes.  I think Paul’s idea here is somewhat similar; we don’t throw something out just because Jews do it, or we will end up abandoning things which are useful and necessary in the Christian life.  Just as Paul’s community had to deal with wicked people and imposters, we also have to deal with the difficult realities of our own times.  And Paul commends Scripture to us in the strongest terms, as something which equips us to confront and engage creatively with those difficult realities.

So.  All Scripture is inspired by God; or, more literally, all Scripture is God-breathed.  God-breathed is a very loaded term; in the background of Scriptural images familiar to Paul’s audience is the creation of humanity, and how life was given to the first human being by God breathing into Adam’s nostrils.  There is also Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, which are clothed in flesh and brought to life by the Spirit breathing into them.  Paul draws on this imagery to retrieve the same idea; God’s breath is life-giving.  If Scripture, then, is God-breathed, it too has the divine life within it.

This idea carries some practical implications with it.  If we encounter a divine liveliness in the text, we should see the fruit of that in our development in the Christian life.  It’s a bit like, you know when you do a unit of study, and the unit descriptions say things like, “Upon successful completion of this unit, it is expected that students will be able to demonstrate a working knowledge of this, and identify key features of that.”  If the Pauline school were putting together a unit of study of the Scriptures, they might well have written learning outcomes which said:  “Upon successful encounter with inspired text, it is expected that Christians will be able to demonstrate a working knowledge of salvation through Christ, and identify key features of righteousness, and bear fruit in every good work.”  A living encounter with Scripture is going to actually show that life in our lives.

And that’s why it’s a mistake to take this verse to be claiming some sort of complete inerrancy for the Scriptures, as if they were a history – or worse – a science textbook.  Paul isn’t here claiming that God dictated the Scriptures and every word came from Him, unaffected by the medium of the human being putting pen to paper.  That’s a much later idea, and I think a dangerous one.  Rather, Paul is claiming that in Scripture we find everything we need for receiving life from God.  It’s in that sense that Scripture can be described as an auxiliary of the Holy Spirit; an instrument which the Spirit uses in His work within us.

In that sense, a right understanding of Scripture recognises that we have this collection of diverse texts, because of God’s providential care for creation, and particularly for the church; and because of God’s desire to repair and heal all that is fallen and broken in this world.  Scripture’s authority as God’s word for us stands on millennia of God’s persistent use of these texts to bring healing and wholeness to the lives of his people.  As people are touched by the life within the text, we are healed, redeemed and placed in relationships with others who have had the same encounter, able to live and work in the world in a way which truly makes a difference.  When we recognise that people who encounter God in these words become more loving, more joyful, more peaceful, and so on; when we recognise the claims the texts make on our own hearts and minds, then we rightly acknowledge the authority of Scripture.

So what about those difficult texts I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon?  I don’t have time this morning to go into that question in depth.  All I will say is that we don’t ignore those texts, we wrestle with them and grow through that encounter.

It is my prayer that within this community, we may all be able to recognise this fruit of the Spirit of God and the life of God at work amongst us, mediated by Scripture, as part of our living heritage.

Be what you see, receive what you are

The title of this blog post was taken from a sermon by St. Augustine of Hippo, in which he was teaching on the Eucharist, (drawing on the text of 1 Corinthians 10 and 12).  His argument, in updated language, runs roughly like this:

Paul wrote that we, corporately, are the body of Christ.  If we are the body of Christ, when we go to communion, we experience not something alien to us, but something deeply profound about who we are.  In the prayers we say at the Lord’s table, we affirm this reality.  So, then, if the Eucharist tells us who we are, live up to what it tells us!  If we share in one bread, and we are one body, then practice that unity of which the bread speaks.

Augustine went on at length, as bishops are wont to do.  But his basic point seems to me to be worth thinking about.  So many Christians treat liturgy as irrelevant, old-fashioned, boring, empty.  And yet in carefully crafted liturgy, developed over two millennia in living praying communities, we often have access to the best fruits of the most wise reflection on what it means to be a Christian community, to gather for worship, to baptise, break bread and share a cup.  And these times of corporate worship are not meant to be discrete, cut off from the rest of our lives, but are meant to shape those lives in accordance with what we say and do together.  Liturgy at its best is truly transformative, containing within it ethical and missional imperatives which we work out over the rest of the day, or week, (or however frequently we attend church).

Recently, as I went through the process of interviews which would lead to me being ordained next year, I was asked to write an essay on “Why I am ready to be ordained.”  While I was thinking about that, I asked my supervisor, who had previously told me he thought I was ready, what criteria he looked at in making that judgement.  One of the things he highlighted as important was taking what we do as ordained ministers with the utmost seriousness; recognising that it is important, and being passionate about doing it well.

In what Augustine said, we have something of why I am passionate about liturgy, and the two sacraments in particular.  In them, we see and receive what we are in Christ; we are shaped more and more fully into his body here on earth.  This matters, for individual believers, for the church, and ultimately for the world.  And so I am happy to echo him here; seek out worship experiences in which you can be what you see, and receive what you are, which reaffirm and strengthen your God-given identity, and which impel you into the world as the body of Christ.

Madonna of the birds

Madonna of the birds

Some time ago, I came across this painting by Salvador Dali, which he titled “Madonna of the Birds.”  I found it deeply appealing; the use of colour is gentle, and somehow the devotion between the people comes through beautifully.  But more than anything I love its ambiguity; is there a woman?  Or is that a trick of the eye, looking at a random assortment of objects and trying to make sense of it in the mind?

It seemed to me to say something profound about faith.  Sometimes we see what seems to be clear evidence, unmistakable, like looking at the woman’s foot in Dali’s painting.  At other times, our faith is shaken by life events and seems as if it will fly apart at any second, like the birds in the air.  Real?  Imaginary?  Just ambiguous enough to make us think, doubt, ponder?  When you stack them all up, faith’s claims can look like that.

While I am certain of my own faith, I like to be reminded that that certainty isn’t a logical necessity, or the inevitable response of everyone around me.  This picture reminds me of that.  It helps me to remember that faith is a matter of possibility, trust, and imagination (in a positive sense), and that it is these things which we need to engage, to invite faith in others.

I doubt that Dali set out to paint an icon, in the traditional sense of the word, but in his work I sense something of God, and so I keep coming back to it, and finding in it subtle hints to better understanding myself, and the relationships of faith.