An examen for our times

Last week I spent three days at a conference as part of the diocese’s programme of post-ordination training.  One of the presenters worked with us on “spiritual patterns for the long haul.”  What I like about her teaching method is that she doesn’t just tell you about the theory of a way of praying, but gives you the opportunity to try it.

Amongst the many other things offered to us in this time, I was particularly taken with a creative and fresh approach to the examen.  There are many forms of examen, but traditionally the main point is to review the day (or a recent period of time), in the presence of God.  Such a review then leads you to repentance or to thanksgiving or some other form of response to God.

So how do you teach someone who might never have encountered this kind of prayer before?  Apparently, you remind them that as God is always with you, God is with you right now.  And you invite them to imagine that God is posting on God’s celestial Facebook page, a picture of the two of you together at this time, and you imagine what it is that God would say along with that picture.

It’s surprisingly effective.  There’s something very immediate about this imaginative engagement with reviewing your self which gets beneath the surface of daily life to the heart of things.

But – here’s the catch – it’s not a technique I think I’ll use very often.  For me, who has a particular horror of being publicly shamed, even the idea that God might express God’s disappointment or concern in that sort of public format is very distressing.  Like everything, this technique will be wonderful for some people, and other people will be better to move on and find another approach.

But I have to admire the creativity and the effectiveness.  I wonder what other ancient traditions of prayer might have new life breathed into them with a bit of similar lateral thinking?

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Resurrection

One of the great joys of my working week is that there is a group of ministers of local churches who meet together each Tuesday, to read through the Scripture texts set for the coming Sunday, and reflect together on their meaning, as part of our sermon preparation.  Our sharing often goes beyond the boundaries of the texts themselves as we wrestle with the issues faced by our congregations and our society, and support one another in our common work.

This week, as we considered the appearance of the resurrected Jesus to his disciples, we touched also on the fact that the centennial ANZAC day is not far away, and already there is much propaganda from many points of view cluttering our social discourse.  In that context, one of my colleagues remembered this poem and shared it with the rest of us.  Its author, Hermann Hagedorn, had seen action in the trenches of the first world war, and sought to reflect on that experience in the light of his Christian faith.  It is, I think, an extraordinarily beautiful vision, and so I felt moved to share it here with a wider audience.  I would be fascinated to read how others find it!

Resurrection, by Hermann Hagedorn 

Not long did we lie on the torn, red field of pain.

We fell, we lay, we slumbered, we took rest,

With the wild nerves quiet at last, and the vexed brain

Cleared of the wingèd nightmares, and the breast

Freed of the heavy dreams of hearts afar.                                                     5

We rose at last under the morning star.

We rose, and greeted our brothers, and welcomed our foes.

We rose; like the wheat when the wind is over, we rose.

With shouts we rose, with gasps and incredulous cries,

With bursts of singing, and silence, and awestruck eyes,                              10

With broken laughter, half tears, we rose from the sod,

With welling tears and with glad lips, whispering, “God.”

Like babes, refreshed from sleep, like children, we rose,

Brimming with deep content, from our dreamless repose.

And, “What do you call it?” asked one. “I thought I was dead.”                     15

“You are,” cried another. “We’re all of us dead and flat.”

“I’m alive as a cricket. There’s something wrong with your head.”

They stretched their limbs and argued it out where they sat.

And over the wide field friend and foe

Spoke of small things, remembering not old woe                                          20

Of war and hunger, hatred and fierce words.

They sat and listened to the brooks and birds,

And watched the starlight perish in pale flame,

Wondering what God would look like when He came.

What we have heard

This is the text of a sermon for the second Sunday of Easter, in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it is based on is John 20:19-31.

“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” That’s what Thomas said when the other disciples said they had seen the risen Lord.   It was, I think, strange of him to say; Thomas was with Jesus and the others when Lazarus was raised. He already knew, from personal experience, that raising from the dead was a possibility; so if it was a reality for Lazarus, why hesitate at accepting it for Jesus?

Perhaps he was by nature a pessimist (as someone who has also been accused of pessimism, I might prefer to call it realism). On the occasion of the raising of Lazarus, when Jesus announced that he was going to Bethany, it was Thomas who encouraged the disciples to accompany Jesus; “that we may die with him.” Was he the sort of person who protected himself from disappointment by imagining the worst possible outcome in a given situation?

What I find interesting is that despite Jesus’ invitation, the text does not say that Thomas actually touched the risen Jesus. In the end, when he saw Jesus and heard him respond to his struggles, that was enough for Thomas to say, “My Lord and my God!”

I’d suggest that the sharing of this little exchange between Jesus and Thomas is designed to throw a light back on the experience of ordinary believers who would hear and read this gospel. All through the story up until now, Thomas has been following Jesus faithfully, if not fully understanding what is happening; here he sees clearly for the first time.

So what does that have to say to us? Faith is not, in this way of narrating it, something static but rather dynamic, having the potential for growth and change. There is faith based on signs and faith that needs none; faith which is shallow and faith which is deep, faith faltering and faith growing. Faith is not, in this gospel, only a decision made once for a lifetime, but a commitment made anew in every decision.

Faith is, then, a process. But to be really Christian faith it must be a process – however haphazard – towards a truer understanding of Christ, and of God’s grace. It’s not enough just to be on a journey; one must eventually arrive at the proper destination, and be able to echo Thomas in saying, “my Lord and my God.”

What Thomas is being invited to believe in – at the risk of stating the obvious – is the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, and Jesus’ renewed relationship with his friends. Thomas’ failure is not in misunderstanding the nature of resurrection but in requiring a special, individual assurance of it: he wants a proof other than the testimony of the group of believers. But beyond the first moments of encounter, lost in history, it is through the Church that the world comes to belief, not by an ongoing series of special events.

This all suggests to me that faith needs ongoing input. We need one another in this process; because if we forsake one another, it is possible to miss out on the presence of Christ and the blessings that go with him. We cannot tell in advance what light will break forth from God during a particular conversation or worship encounter. We cannot know when a friend will offer a word of wisdom; when the preacher will say something particularly helpful; when the music will be more uplifting than we expected; when the Eucharist will be celebrated in a way in which we finally find healing and forgiveness for some sin or sorrow that has been plaguing us for ages.

When Jesus said “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” he was not encouraging blind faith. He offers himself up to us for scrutiny; not physically as he did for Thomas, but through the Scriptures and the liturgy and through the lives of believers. This part of the gospel puts forward the idea that a persuasive presentation of the story of Jesus can change people’s lives for the better, even provide them with eternal life if they accept the truth in the story. John does not call us to an unreflective faith, but rather one that is led to worship after a good hard look at the life and works of Jesus, and after one has actually encountered this risen Lord.

This gospel bids us to put Jesus to the test, to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” It is a call that many have heeded, and it helped them immeasurably. Jesus Christ is our total foundation, for he is our Lord and our God, whether we recognize him as such or not.

Of course, Jesus also said “As the father has sent me, so I send you.” He calls us to be a people sent out as agents just as he was, and sent to perform the same kind of ministry, offering forgiveness of sin and eternal life through Jesus the way. In the ordination service, priests are exhorted to take up this calling with joy and dedication; but I feel that it’s a very great pity that we don’t put the same words into the service of baptism, because that calling belongs to us all, as a community of the whole, not only to particular people within it.

We all – each of us – receive the Holy Spirit, just as the early disciples did when Jesus breathed on them. This is what makes it possible for us to be the body of Christ, a community of those who take up the work that is still not yet complete. The crucial task for us is conveying – in all the ways available to us, in word, in sacrament, in music and art, in quiet care for one another – the heart of the good news about the risen Jesus, about forgiveness of sins and eternal life. And so I encourage you, my brothers and sisters, this Easter season, to take up this calling with joy and dedication.

The Lord be with you.

Christ is risen! Alleluia!

This is the text of a sermon for Easter morning, in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it is based on is John 20:1-18.

Mary Magdalene stood, weeping, outside the tomb. This was the second time she had stood outside the tomb that morning; the first time, she had run straight from the empty tomb to fetch Peter and the other disciple. But as the men ran to investigate the empty tomb, Mary also made her way back – and I wonder why?

We don’t really know much about Mary’s back story. Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing in Scripture to say that she was a prostitute. A couple of brief comments say that Jesus had cast demons out of her. I wonder whether, on that morning, standing in the garden in the dark before sunrise, she felt the cold fingers of fear that now that Jesus was gone, the demons might return?

I wonder if Jesus’ death was not just the loss of a teacher, a healer, a leader, a companion… but whether Mary wept because without Jesus, her past might overtake her again, plunging her back into whatever mental chaos and trauma she had known?

For Mary, it had been in her initial encounter with Jesus – which isn’t described for us anywhere, but just referred to – that Jesus had evicted the demons, and recovered the identity of the woman underneath. A woman with a name, a woman whom Jesus embraced and valued, a woman who thus discovered herself as a whole person. For Mary, the empty tomb must have loomed large as a dark threat, leaving her emotionally naked in her vulnerability and need.

Why does it matter – you might well ask – why the Magdalene wept? It matters because she’s not the only one to weep.  Like Mary, each of us comes with a back story. Those stories are rich and complex and diverse, and not one-size-fits-all, so I’m not going to generalize about their meaning. But each of those stories has its times of light and shade. There were the seasons in which we were hopeful and energized and it seemed that God had blessed us such that the world was our oyster, in which we could reasonably expect to find pearls. And there were seasons in which we were despondent and the world seemed more like a bed of quicksand in which we were trapped, and the heavens were shut.

We bring all of this history with us to the drama of Easter. If Friday was a time for remembering our guilts, our shames and our doubts, perhaps the door of the empty tomb is the time for remembering our frailties, our vulnerabilities, our fears of failure and of worthlessness.

But this is all a bit morbid for Easter morning, isn’t it? Well, it would be, if I stopped there. But it didn’t stop there for Mary, and it doesn’t for us. The risen Jesus called Mary by name, allowing her to see that the empty tomb was not just a tomb; not a grave for all her hopes and hard-won sense of self; but it was also the place in which Christ had risen. The darkness which threatened to close again around Mary was not a lasting darkness, not the falling of the curtain, but would give way to the dawning of the new day, the day of resurrection, the day in which Mary would discover that there was so much more than she had yet understood in what she had been given.

And by God’s grace, it is similar for us. When we stand in our own moments of darkness, wander through the memories of fear and the shadows of worthlessness, we too can encounter the risen Lord who calls each of us by name.   Who takes the seeds of hope which we have treasured and gives them the light to burst into something new, something more than we knew them to be.

Being willing to accept this, to take this part of the Easter story on board as part of our story, our identity, is – says Rowan Williams – an indispensable part of our relationship with God. He puts it thus: “Like a growing thing beneath the earth, we protest at the darkness and push blindly up in search of light, truth, home – the place, the relation where we are not lost, where we can live from deep roots in assurance. Mary goes blindly back to the tomb, and finds her self, her home, her name… Mary is not dead because Jesus is not dead… and her continuing life will have to do with the daily refusal to accept that loss and oppression can simply be lived with or shrugged off. Growth is in the passionate constancy of returning to what seems a grave… to the dim recollection of a possibility of love, in the hope of hearing one’s name spoken out of the emptiness… If we answer that call, and find our story given back to us, our name and our memory, that story turns the corner into life and promise, and, most importantly, “calling” in the fuller sense. We are given a task to do, given a gift to give. Mary is bidden not to touch or hold or cling to the recovered Lord, but to go to her brothers and tell them that she has seen the Lord.”*

The word of hope is given to be passed on, from Mary to the apostles, from the Ten to Thomas, from Peter to the community, from that community to the whole world. Here is what our encounter with the risen Jesus, fresh from the tomb, calls us to; to be bearers of hope. To bring light into darkness; to release the bonds of oppression into genuine freedom. To seek out the seeds of hope and value and worth in places where people are trapped and lost, and nurture those seeds into bearing fruit.

This is a calling, my brothers and sisters, at which the church has often failed. You know this all too well; I don’t need to tell you. But here we are, in the light of a new morning, the morning of the resurrection, with a chance to begin again. To hear our names and know ourselves as we should be. Let’s not miss the moment.

*The section marked as a quote is taken from a passage in Rowan Williams’ book, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel, (which I heartily recommend).  I have taken the liberty of changing some of the words to fit better within a spoken delivery without, I hope, doing violence to his meaning.