Recognising love

This is a sermon for the second Sunday of Advent.  The Scripture it references is Philippians 1:1-11.

Last week, we looked at Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, and his prayer that those young Christians would grow in love and holiness; and I suggested that “love and holiness” might not be a bad focus for this Advent season.

This morning, we’ve had a reading from another letter of Paul’s, this time to the Philippians; and it also has in it a prayer that they would grow in love; and this prayer has some distinctive features that I thought might be interesting to examine.

But first I’m going to do something I don’t do that often, and that is to say that our usual translation (for blog readers: the NRSV) of this passage actually lets us down quite a bit here; and I’m going to put up on the overhead my best attempt at a slightly more precise translation.  The English isn’t quite as smooth, but there are some differences that are quite important and which I’ll comment on as we go.

Philippians 1:9-11, NRSV:

And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

My translation: 

And this I am praying, that your love still overflows more and more in recognition and with every kind of perception with understanding, with your putting to the test the better things, in order that you may have integrity and be without fault on the day of Christ, having been filled with the fruits of righteousness through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.

First let’s notice that although we get Paul’s absolutely typical emphasis on the primacy of love here – his prayer is “that your love still overflows more and more” – love is not, for Paul, here a question of feelings, and it’s certainly not something which is separate from or opposed to our rational faculties.  Rather our love overflows “in recognition and with every kind of perception with understanding,” and with “putting to the test the better things.”  Scientists might say that Paul is describing something of the scientific process; noticing phenomena, gathering data, and conducting experiments!   This is a sort of love which is highly cognitively engaged.

And it’s not the sort of abstract or academic engagement which buries itself in books.  It’s a hands-on engagement; the word I’ve translated as “perception with understanding” has to do with what your senses tell you; what you see, and hear, and smell of life; and then what you make of that.  It’s the cognitive engagement of the laboratory rather than the library.

The interesting thing here is that Paul doesn’t specify what we’re meant to be observing and perceiving and recognising.  Apart from a rather vague reference to testing “the better things,” he seems to assume that his readers and hearers will know what he meant.

But my hunch is that he’s talking about observing and perceiving and recognising God at work in the world.  If we love God, we will watch out for the signs of God’s presence at work; we will recognise them when we see them; we will know the worth of the results in people’s lives.

Love here isn’t overflowing in knowledge in the sense of being able to recite facts, but is able to recognise the presence of its beloved.  To know God in that deeply intimate, personal sense.

You know how when you’re infatuated with someone, you mentally track their every movement, and you listen for the first sound of their approach, and you tingle with anticipation of your time together?  That.  That’s the sort of love of God Paul is praying that the Philippians might have.

And that’s lovely, of course.  But it’s not just an end in itself.

Paul’s prayer goes on: “in order that you may have integrity and be without fault on the day of Jesus Christ.”  We love God, we love God so much that our senses and faculties are always alive to God’s presence and God’s actions, and that is how we will  grow in integrity.

The NRSV translation there used the word “pure,” rather than “have integrity,” but the underlying Greek word here is about being sincere, without hidden motives or pretence.  It’s about our actions matching our innermost motivations and beliefs.  What you see is what you get.

So Paul’s train of thought is that if we love God, and we’re able to pay attention and perceive and recognise God as God is at work in and around us, that will help us get our own motivations and actions in line.

How does this work?  Maybe an example will help.

There’s a famous study which was done at Princeton University in 1970. In it, seminary students were told to prepare a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan, and then sent to the other side of the campus to give the talk. One group of students was told to hurry, they were running late; and the other group was told that they had more than enough time. On the way, they each encountered an actor slumped in an alley apparently in need of help.

What was interesting about this study was that the students who were told to hurry did not stop to help the apparent victim; the students who were told they had plenty of time, did stop and help. All of them were seminary students, devout, committed Christians; but being in a hurry to be somewhere else crowded out their ability to love their neighbour.

Now there are all sorts of fascinating things to reflect on in that set of results, but in terms of Paul’s prayer, the students who were in a hurry, had allowed their anxiety about being late, and perhaps making a bad impression (or whatever the social penalty for being late was going to be); had allowed their anxiety to block out their recognition and perception and understanding of what God might be up to, at that moment.

Where is God when someone is slumped in an alley, needing help?  Do I perceive God’s presence, do I act in accordance with my love of God, and thus my love of God’s child, helpless in front of me?

Or do I just not see, not recognise what is in front of me, and walk past, in the process compromising my integrity and incurring fault?

Now the last bit of the prayer is a tricky thing, but Paul finishes with the thought that we may reach the day of Christ “having been filled with the fruits of righteousness.”  Notice that this is passive; we don’t make the fruit, the end result, happen; but rather we are filled, it is something which is done in us by God.  So we love God, we’re aware of God, that awareness corrects our attitudes and actions… and over time that fills ourselves and our lives with everything good which comes from vibrant relationship with God.

This three-verse prayer is not a throwaway line from Paul; it’s an incredibly rich, complex, layered vision of Christian spirituality and discipleship.  It’s worth spending some time really getting to the depths of how Paul sees us growing and maturing towards that last day.

And it all starts with love; that your love (of God) overflows more and more.

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Seasons of preparation

In my tradition, we’re about to start the season of Advent.  It’s a time of preparation; a time when we look forward to, and prepare ourselves for, what is to come.

No matter our tradition, it can be good to intentionally set aside time to focus inward, to build strength and resilience, to prepare ourselves for new challenges.

There are four key themes to Advent which might be worth focussing on in any season of preparation:

Hope:  Hope is an exercise in optimistic imagination.  Not imagination as in fantasising, but imagination as in being open and creative about what might be possible, about what can be done, what relationships can be built, what can change.  Hope is even better when it’s shared with others who are excited about the same possibilities and visions for the future.

Peace:  Peace is the bridge between us and those with whom we differ.  It looks at others across divisions and conflicts, and holds on in loyalty to the idea that the other person or group is worth persevering for.  That beyond the divisions and conflicts lie real people with worth and value, and that our future is better with us in collaboration than in bitter and destructive habits of behaviour.

Joy:  Joy is a fountain of refreshment.  It looks beyond discouragement and sorrow and sees the charm and the goodness of life in all its rich diversity.  It celebrates whatever is true and just and excellent.  It takes delight in human flourishing, wherever and however it might be found.

Love:  Love is what binds us to one another in healthy relationships which serve us all.  It is patient, kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  Willing to sacrifice getting its own way in order to serve the good of the other.

Would it help you to make more room in your life for hope, peace, joy and love, at this time?

Investing in relationships: Part III

This is the third in a three-sermon series on stewardship.  The Scripture it refers to is Luke 10:38-42.

I love this morning’s gospel reading.  If ever I need an excuse for neglecting the housework, there it is!  There is something better than housework, and Mary is commended for choosing it.

This domestic disagreement over the division of labour might not, at first blush, seem to have much to with stewardship, which has been our theme for the last couple of weeks; but you might remember that I’ve been talking about stewardship as investing in relationships.  On the first week I talked about our relationships with God, last week I talked about our relationships with each other, and this last week of the series I want to talk about our relationships beyond our parish community; which I’m going to refer to as mission.  Of course we have relationships beyond our parish which are not about mission; relationships with the wider Anglican church and other churches, but today what I’m interested in is our relationships with the people of our community.

We tend to think of “mission” as something we do, generally by sending specially prepared and educated people somewhere else, or sending money to those specially trained people, so that they can convert the people there to our belief and way of life.

But while that’s a kind of expression of mission which got very popular with colonialism and global empires, it’s not what the Church has historically meant by mission at all.  Mission was an activity understood to belong fundamentally to the Trinity; the Father sent the Son, the Father and the Son sent the Spirit, and the Son and the Spirit were present and active in the world in order to achieve God’s purposes for the flourishing of creation; and that was mission.  In this deeper view, mission is God’s mission; it is God’s self-revelation as the One who loves the world, God’s ongoing involvement in and with the world.  It is about God’s intrinsic nature, God’s activity flowing out of that nature, and that is something in which the church is invited to participate.  Our God is a God-for-people; the church responds by attempting to be a church-for-people where it finds itself.

Mission is God’s “yes” to the world; in the sense that the work of the Church is to express the reign of God in justice, peace and human wholeness. To participate in mission is to participate in the movement of God’s love towards God’s people, since God is a fountain of sending love.

That’s why we exist as a Church; that’s what we’re here for.

So, go back for a moment to Mary and Martha and the housework.  Mary, kneeling at Jesus’ feet, knew what she was here for, what was most important.  But Martha?  Martha was distracted by her many tasks. 

It is so easy for that to happen.  Especially for community groups like small churches.  We get caught up in routines of meetings and reports and rosters and all the rest of it; all the little things that keep everything working smoothly… our many tasks.  And it’s so easy, when we’re distracted by our many tasks, to take our eyes off the ball of what we’re supposed to be doing… which is engaging with our community and context in ways which express the mission of God.

Some of you will be familiar with the 5 marks of mission, which are a statement on mission agreed on by Anglicans at an international level.  They are an attempt to capture what kinds of activities and aims would go to making up this sort of idea of mission, and they are as follows:

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom.
  2. To teach, baptise and nurture new believers.
  3. To respond to human need by loving service.
  4. To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation.
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

These areas are our equivalent of being Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet; they’re what we’re supposed to be focussed on, and what we’re not supposed to get distracted from.

There’s a lot there, of course, and each needs a lot of unpacking to explore what it might look like in practice; so let me just make some brief remarks on each one.

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom.

In one sense, we proclaim the good news just by existing as the Church.  We point beyond ourselves to our reason for being, in response to our loving God.

(Or to put it another way, I remember one former dean of Melbourne saying that the church exists “to keep the rumour of God alive.”  That people look at us, our buildings, our services, our statements and actions, and are forced to confront at least the possibility that there might be a God).

So one question for us here might be, how do we engage better in public discourse where the good news is so badly needed?

  1. To teach, baptise and nurture new believers.

In some ways, I want to amend this one to remove the word “new” and just say, to teach, baptise and nurture believers.  When do any of us stop needing to learn or be nurtured?  I know I haven’t yet!

But this is the point which encourages us to reflect seriously on our study groups and other ways in which we teach and learn; our worship services, quiet days, pastoral care, and other aspects of how we nurture one another.  We might think about intentionally expanding our library and making it more easily available to the public.

On Wednesday night this week I went to a session of the Justice Conference, organised by Tear and other Christian organisations; and the main speaker on that night was focussed on hospitality as radical expression of the reign of God.  How do we enlarge our tables and gather more people around them, to feed them not only with food but with human relationships?  These are important challenges for us.

  1. To respond to human need by loving service.

We’ve done some really good things in this vein this year; packing birthing kits, raising money for local disadvantaged families and for Orange Sky Laundry; as well as our ongoing quiet support of local emergency relief organisations.

More and more I’m aware of high levels of social isolation and loneliness in our local area; our ministry to seniors might well be a good way to begin to do something about that, but perhaps we might also look at what the local council or others are doing, and how we might be involved.

We might also look at the work being done at a diocesan level on the prevention of violence against women; or ask ourselves how the work now being done on disability inclusion might be picked up and worked through in this parish.

  1. To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation.

95 bells for 95 children detained on Nauru; it’s cost us very little, but it’s turned out to be a very effective way to raise awareness of the plight of refugee children, locally and, indeed, nationally.

How else might we be able to challenge our blindness to our own privilege, and begin to provide space for the voices of more oppressed and marginalised groups in our community life?  I don’t pretend to have all the answers but again, I put it before you as a question.

  1. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

Here’s where some contact and cooperation with local environmental groups fits within our mission.  It’s also where we might take thought for our energy use, our choice of cleaning chemicals, our use of paper, and so on.  When I had some involvement with the Student Christian Movement, they had a policy that all shared meals were vegetarian, because of the high environmental impact of farming animals for meat.  I wonder what it would be like if we chose to deliberately shift the balance of our shared meals in that direction?

There are, as you can see, options under all of these headings limited only by our creativity, and I spoke a little bit about them this morning really just to prompt some thinking and reflection rather than to present a fully-formed template for mission.

What I do want to stress is that amongst the many tasks of parish life which distract us, mission is what we’re supposed to be about, and the Marks of Mission are a good aid to reflecting on what really matters.  After all, wouldn’t we rather invest in what’s really going to make a difference in our world, rather than stressing about things which, ultimately, are not the point?

Rather than being worried and distracted by many things, let’s make sure that as we plan our life together, we choose the better part.

Investing in relationships: Part I

This is the first in a three-sermon series on stewardship.  The Scripture it refers to is Luke 11:1-13.

Well, it’s everyone’s favourite time of year again.  That point in the cycle of things where the treasurer makes appeals to your generosity, and I’m asked to spend some time reflecting with you on the theology of giving.

I know – because many of you have talked about it with me – that here you’re very familiar with the idea that giving isn’t just about money, but is also about giving of your time and talents, so I’m not going to go over that ground with you again.

Instead, I want to talk a bit about what we’re investing in; what we hope to accomplish by what we give.

And I’m going to suggest to you that fundamentally, we’re investing in relationships.

We give to God of our time, our energy and our money not just because we like having a building or an institution or even a vicar, but because those are things which sustain the Church as a network of relationships; relationships in which we are accepted, loved, cared for, and through which we can accomplish more than any of us could on our own.

And I think about that in three kind of concentric circles.  First – and what I’m mostly going to talk about this week – there’s our relationship with God, which should be at the centre of our life as a Church.  Then – and this will be the focus next week – there are our relationships with each other; what it means to be a functional community.  And finally, there are our relationships beyond our local church community, which, for a convenient shorthand, I’ll call mission.  (Of course mission’s a bit more complicated than that, but it’s a helpful way of thinking about it).

So; relationships with God, with each other, and beyond our own community.  And by the very nature of relationships, all of them require an investment from us if they are to work and continue to be healthy relationships.

But for this week, let me share with you a comment from Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran theologian.  I saw an interview with her once, where she said her students often ask her what she does to get closer to God.  And she said – with her typical disarming honesty – “Why would I want to get close to God?  Whenever Jesus gets close to me I end up having to love someone I hate, give away more of my money, or forgive someone I don’t want to forgive.”

And it seems to me that that comment so neatly captures our human dilemma, in relationship with God.  We want to be loved, accepted, cared for.  We want to know that our heavenly father’s arms are always open to us.  But at the same time, we’re keenly aware that such an encounter is going to make demands of us, and that we might not like some of them very much.  Maybe it’s safer to stay away.

And so there can be this internal push-and-pull towards and away from God.  This is part of what Jesus is addressing when he says in our gospel reading today: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

In other words, we may not like the process of learning to love those we hate, or forgive those who have hurt us, or relinquish having our own way about something, but it’s something God invites us to, ultimately, because it is for our own good.

There is also the all-too-common problem that many of us have an image of God that makes closeness difficult.  Many of us, deep down where we might not even fully recognise it, believe in a harsh God, one who judges our faults, who demands more from us than we can give, and who is more interested in our obedience than our happiness.

Of course you’re not going to want to be close to someone like that.  Who would?  It would be toxic to continually expose yourself to that kind of harshness.

Now, that sort of deap-seated image of God isn’t something that shifts just because a preacher tells you something different.  It takes time; it takes actual encounters with the real God to dismantle the false image.

What I’m going to suggest to you, as we begin this consideration of stewardship, of how we manage all the good things God gives us, is to start by taking an inventory of your relationship with God.  How are you getting on with God, anyway?  What would it take for that to improve?

It might well be that you realise that in fact, there’s something that’s become a block in that relationship.  Maybe you’re angry with God about something.  Maybe you’re not actually on very good speaking terms right now.  And that isn’t, in and of itself, the end of the world; but be honest with yourself about it, and open to how that might change.  And of course, if you’d like to come and talk to me about any of that, my door is always open.

Of course, each of us has our own individual relationship with God, with all its complexities.  But there is a dimension of that which we share, as we come together to worship.  Our liturgy gives us a solid framework for that, but the liturgy isn’t the relationship; it’s an opportunity to work on the relationship.

And while our own personal relationships with God mostly require time from us, our shared prayer life is often where our talents and treasures find their place.  So many people enrich our worship with their talents; whether with words or fabric or music or the hidden but crucial arts of maintenance.  And having vibrant worship which is able to meet our needs, desires and moods does require material investment also.

By focussing on relationships over these three weeks what I’m trying to do is put the question of our giving in human perspective.  It’s not about numbers in a spreadsheet or tasks on a list or keeping the doors open, but about the quality of the connections between us.   And as we keep exploring that theme over the coming weeks, I encourage you to take that seriously in your own reflections.

St. Francis of Assisi

This is a sermon for the feast of St. Francis of Assisi.

What kind of man preaches to the birds?  Was Francis a bit simple, or was he, perhaps, making a point about his frustration with human congregations?

I suspect something a bit more subtle was going on, but to understand what drove the man famous for his affinity with animals and nature, it might help to start with something he wrote.

Towards the end of his life, Francis wrote a “Letter to the Faithful,” an attempt, perhaps, to make sure that the people aligned with the movement he had started, had some of his words to hold on to, when he was gone.

And in that letter he told a story.  The story – I’ll paraphrase it for brevity – is about a very wealthy man, a man who has become wealthy through fraud and deception.  This man falls sick, and knows that death is near.  Friends and relatives come and advise the dying man, “Put your affairs in order.” His wife and children, friends and relatives, all pretend to mourn. Looking up from his deathbed, he sees them weeping, and decides to leave all his ill-gotten wealth to these family members.

There and then, they call a priest; he says to the sick man, “Do you want to be absolved from all your sins?”  And the dying man replies, “I do”. “Are you ready then to make restitution as best you can out of your property for all that you have done, all the fraud and deceit you practiced towards your fellow men?” the priest asks him. “No”, he replies. And the priest asks, “Why not?” “Because I have left everything in the hands of my relatives and friends”, is the answer.

So the fraudulent rich man dies without making things right for the people he mistreated, and without being reconciled to God.  And rather than being appreciative of what he left them, his family curse him for not making more for them!  So, Francis concludes the story with the rich man suffering torments in hell, his body being food for worms, and his ungrateful relatives remembering him with bitterness and not love.

It’s not really a cheery story, and it’s a far cry from cuddly animals.  But why did Francis tell it?

It helps us if we understand a little bit about the world he lived in.  Francis lived in a time of great social upheaval; the system that had dominated in previous centuries – of nobles exercising feudal power over peasants who were mostly engaged in agriculture – was giving way to the new power of merchant families who ruled city-states; expanding international trade through Italy’s big port cities made those merchants unbelievably wealthy, and completely disconnected from the poor people outside the gates of those cities.  (If we listen to rhetoric about coastal “elites” and impoverished, neglected rural folk in America today, the comparison in terms of mutual distrust and ideological disconnection is actually striking).

So the economic base was shifting, the old social norms were being brought into question, and more and more, the wealthy were getting wealthier by exploiting the poor.  The story of a young Francis stripping naked in the town square to protest his merchant father’s ill-gotten wealth is famous; but perhaps we don’t always recognise how much that was one example of enormous social division of the time.

Many rural towns already had groups of poor people living communally, sharing everything they had in order that everyone might eat; and because this was, after all, medieval Italy, those communal groups thought of themselves as being a bit like a monastery, and called themselves “penitents.”  But the main thing they were repenting was involvement in an economic system which had utterly failed them.

So when Francis started his order – and by the way, he was ordained a deacon but never a priest, so let that be a reminder not to underestimate deacons or the diaconate! – he naturally drew followers from these communities of penitents, and their movement can be seen as a powerful social protest against exploitative wealthy people feeding a lavish consumerist culture, which left the poorest and most vulnerable out in the cold.

Francis and his brothers – and later the women in their companion order, as well – lived in a way which turned those values on their heads.  Choosing poverty – for they lived by begging – was a way of saying that people and things have a value which can’t be priced on the commercial market.  Treating all of creation as sacred, down to the humblest animal, was a way of saying that God’s creation is good in and of itself; and that the worth of something isn’t measured by what someone will pay for it.

What price would you put on sunshine, anyway?  Or the feel of the breeze on your face?

Francis wrote and talked a lot about penance, but what he seems to have meant by it is mostly a disengagement from attachment to stuff.

This was a more complicated social critique than just wanting to turn back the clock and make Umbria great again.  By the time Francis gathered others around him, he had been observant enough to see that the old feudal system didn’t work all that well, either.  He’d been among the lepers who were outcast even from the rural towns, and been horrified at their callous exclusion from human community.

Instead, for Francis, penance was about treating human beings as sacred, each and every one of us. It was about forming communities which treat each and every person with worth and dignity, and which treat the bonds of relationship between us and every other good thing which God created, as sacred.  For Francis, it’s in rightly honouring every good thing which comes to us from the hand of God, that we know grace; and come to overflow with grace in how we relate to everyone else.

This sacredness inherent in every person and creature, is Francis’ vision of human life as it was meant to be, and as it will be when God’s reign is fulfilled.  The community he formed around him was meant to be a sign pointing a corrupt and lost society towards that vision.

That’s the point of the story in Francis’ Letter to the Faithful.  All the luxuries in the world can’t save you, can’t keep you alive, and can’t help you have relationships worth having.  And I think it’s the point of preaching to the birds, too.  The birds who are our fellow-creatures help us praise God, and point us towards more authentic humanity than anything you can buy.  The letter and the honouring of nature are all parts of an alternative value system, and an alternative vision of human community; one in which people matter for who we are, and not what we have.

And that’s a timeless message which still very much resonates in our own day!

 

The text of the “Letter to the Faithful” can be read here: http://www.traditionalcatholicpriest.com/2014/10/05/letter-to-the-faithful-by-st-francis-of-assisi/

Words matter

This is a sermon for the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is James 3:1-12.

When I was a theological student, and working at the Cathedral, part of my job was to occasionally take school groups around, show them different parts of the building, answer any questions and so forth.  Usually they were a lot of fun.  And one day, I was taking around a group of grade three kids, and one of them asked me, “What do you have to do to become a priest?”  I gave some answer at about the level I thought an 8 year old could understand, but even so, she looked up at me with wide eyes and said, “Wow, to learn all that you’d have work really hard, like, all day and all night and not sleep!”

I had, in fact, been up most of the night before writing an overdue essay, so I wasn’t really inclined to correct her!

But looking back on it, one of the most difficult things – one which almost all of us failed in at some point – had nothing to do with study or essays or any of that.  It had to do with the annual college retreat, at which we were expected to observe forty-eight hours of silence.

Arrive Friday lunchtime, settle in, and then silence would begin; and wouldn’t end until lunchtime Sunday.  I think the oddest part was meal times; forty-odd people sitting together around tables, eating and… not talking.  It goes against our every social instinct.

The point, of course, in that setting was to allow each person the mental and emotional space to work through whatever God was doing with them in that retreat time, without being encroached on by others’ thoughts and needs.

We were terrible at it, though.  Some snuck off to have a chat at a nearby café.  Some had whispered conversations in private corners.  One memorable night I had to get out of bed and ask the group of students one floor down (who were getting rather louder the more they drank) to please shut up so I could sleep.

It was not always an edifying example of Christian maturity, anyway.

And our reading from James today reminded me of that.  “No one can tame the tongue,” he said, and certainly our college attempts even just to keep silent showed me how hard it is to discipline our restless speech.

But James’s point is, in a way, even more basic than that.  Words matter.

Words matter.

James wasn’t going to tell people that sticks and stones might break his bones, but names would never hurt him.  He described our words as being able to “set on fire the whole cycle of nature,” by which he meant that every sinful dynamic – every occasion of lovelessness or joylessness or violence –  could find itself sparked by words.  There’s power in our words, and the way we speak to one another can all too easily damage or intimidate or overwhelm.

The flip side of that, of course, is that our words have power, and so used intentionally, the way we speak to one another can heal or encourage or invite, as well.

Even our government recognises that, now; and as a result we’re seeing such an emphasis on respectful relationships in schools, not just for their own sake, but deliberately intended as a way of building a healthier society; with a particular eye on future domestic violence rates.  (I’ve had it said to me – in all seriousness – that churches also ought to focus on such things as respectful relationships, and I take the point.  Just beyond today’s reading, James goes on to say: “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”  But often we forget, and church culture is not always particularly gentle).

But for James this goes beyond a practical matter of keeping a peaceful and prosperous society, and goes to the heart of who we are.  How can we say we worship God, and then with our words denigrate a human being made in the image of that God?  How can we do that, and then claim to have any integrity?

His point isn’t just an exhortation to being more moral in our speech, but his criticism cuts much deeper than that.  If you’re using words to hurt, to control, to intimidate, to dominate, or in any manner which falls short of truly loving and upholding the person in front of you… you don’t really know, or worship, God.

That’s his implication here.  If you really worship God – if you really attune your heart to God’s heart at every opportunity – you cannot look at a fellow human being, lovingly created by God to be the unique person that they are, and so precious to God that Christ’s incarnation and death were not too high a cost for their well-being; you cannot look at that fellow human being as less than precious and deserving the very best words you can muster for them.

Now, let me be honest here.  I’m not perfect at this.  I get grumpy; especially when I’m stressed.  I can be bitchy, especially when I’m feeling powerless in the face of someone else’s bad behaviour.  And I can be overly critical, particularly when I’m convinced that I’m right.  So I’m not saying these things this morning as if I’ve reached James’ measure of absolute maturity and am a perfect teacher.

But James is pointing us towards the remedy for these problems as well.  When we find harsh words, hurtful words, gossipy words, coming out of our own mouths… it’s time to pray.  It’s time to get back to seeking God’s heart, and seeing those around with God’s loving and nurturing attitude.  It’s time to clean out our hearts so that from them can flow refreshment and hope and inspiration for others.  If our habits of speech are showing us hearts which don’t yet love one another, that should be a prompt to get on our knees (metaphorically, at least).

It’s in prayer that we will find the gentleness born of wisdom which James is pointing us towards.  Earlier in his letter James instructed his hearers: “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.”  He’s not talking about esoteric knowledge or insight here, but the wisdom that treats everyone with gentleness, with care for God’s precious creation.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take days of silence on retreat to help us do that (and just as well!)  But we do need to take seriously how prayerful appreciation of one another is supposed to be at the bedrock of our relationships.  That’s how we break the sinful “cycle of nature” and instead create a cycle of mutual building up, a cycle of respectful relationships engaged in with integrity.

And that’s how we create a community of mature believers, who will be able to encourage and nurture others on their progress towards maturity; which is part of what we’re called to be, as the church.  And which is much more important than half the things I had to write essays on, too!

The Quest for Peace

This article was originally written for Orbisology, and can be read here.  

September 21st is the International Day of Peace, and as I come to write this, preparations are under way for prayer services, vigils, and advocacy focussed on that day.

Peace has a spiritual quality; in my own tradition it is described as one of the “fruits of the Spirit.”  It also has very concrete and complex social, relational, economic, political and legal aspects.  All of this means that the quest for peace has about it something of the quality of a “wicked problem.”

This leads my reflections in two different directions; one is to note for you the existence of the organisation, Science for Peace.  You might be interested in checking out their list of current working groups, here: http://scienceforpeace.ca/current-working-groups

The other is to note how often a lack of peace is a failure of compassion.  We do not have compassion for others, especially those we judge to be less powerful than ourselves, and so we feel free to resort to the oppressive use of power in serving our own interests.

So my challenge to you all is; on this coming day of peace, or at any other time, what might you do to seek peace and pursue it?   Whether that’s within yourself, in personal relationships, or on a wider scale, how might you contribute to a more peaceful world?

And if that seems too abstract or overwhelming, here are some questions to prompt reflection:

  • What experiences in my past make it easy or difficult to be compassionate with myself?
  • What is it like for me when people are compassionate towards me?
  • What makes someone deserving of my compassion? Undeserving?
  • What attitudes and emotions surface when I relate to emotionally needy or dysfunctional people?
  • Read an account from someone caught up in a situation of conflict (see here for examples). Imagine yourself in the situation faced by that person.  How does their experience impact your perspective?

 

Come, O Justice, come, O Peace:
come and shape our hearts anew;
come and make oppression cease:
bring us all to life in you.