Sunday, 21 February 2016

Lent 2: Take up your mop


"Wax on, wax off!"

Of course, nobody reading is old enough to remember the 1980s and the dubious joys of Karate Kid, with those famous words from the Sensei, Mr Miyagi, so I'd better explain. Miyagi has taken young Daniel under his wing and promised to teach him the secrets of Karate, but so far, all he's taught Daniel is how to wash his car - "Wax on, wax off" - and Daniel, true to the Hollywood trope of hotheaded youthful protagonist, is getting a bit miffed. Then, I think, Mr Miyagi punches him and voila! - Daniel's hand automatically does the "wax on" motion, blocking the blow. By repetition and routine, even though it seemed pointless to him at the time, he has integrated that physical response: it has become second nature.

All this is particularly relevant to the second Sunday of Lent and the Gospel of the Transfiguration, because today, Mr Miyagi-style, I am going to talk about MOPping. If you don't see the relevance now, like Daniel-san, I hope you will be suddenly enlightened later on.

You know it costs about £30,000 to climb Everest these days? If you ask me, that's a bit steep (boom, boom). Anyway, Peter, James and John have gone up the mountain with Jesus, presumably for free, and seen Him miraculously transformed. He's talking to Moses, representing the Law, and Elijah, representing the prophets, which shows that in Him the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament are fulfilled. He shines with the glory of God, and I wonder whether that cloud was just a cloud, or represents the blinding glare, the dazzling darkness, which protects mere mortals from seeing what is too much for our weak soul's eyes. In any event, the transfiguration is sudden, overpowering; but then the cloud passes - and what is left, the disciples see, is Jesus alone. Just Jesus. Not superman, glowing Jesus, but just Jesus, as He was before. To be liberated by the vision of the glory of God, the disciples had to see it in the ordinary and everyday Jesus. And for us to be spiritually liberated we need to seek God not in extraordinary visions and religious experiences but in an ordinary, everyday routine of prayer.

I see the life of prayer as being something like the martial artist's kata: and yes, I do have some experience of this. I've practised Aikido for a long time, but for two intense years in Japan I was the first foreigner to study a unique, local, classical martial art with the catchy name of Nitō Shinkage Ryū Kusarigama-jitsu. It involves a pair of sickles, at the end of one of which is a ball and chain. You swing the chain around and try either to clock your opponent over the head with the ball or to entangle his sword, and then you wade in with the blades. Well, to practise this art, you had to learn a myriad techniques in swinging the chain: loop the loops, figures of eight, all sorts. But first, you had to learn to swing it in a straight line. Sensei made me stand up against a wall swinging it until it no longer hit either the wall or me. Once I'd got that right, I could try hitting a little bit of white tape on a tyre on a stand. I had to hit it 50 times in a row before he'd let me progress to the next technique. This took about two months. Gruelling, repetitive training. The point is, it had to become natural. Until I'd integrated the movements, until my body had learnt the rules, I would not be able to fight freely.

A musician might say the same thing about scales, especially a jazz musician. Scales are dull and repetitive, but until you've mastered them, there's no hope of ever being able to improvise freely. You have to integrate the rules if you're going to be truly free.

This is true also of prayer, and the Anglican Reformers knew it well. So, they gave us a simplified system, a scaled down version of the tradition for everybody to use, which had only been followed fully until then by priests and monks: the Catholic way stripped for spiritual battle. Archbishop Cranmer took all the old books - the Missal, the Breviary of daily prayer, the Temporale or order for the church year, the Sanctorale or book of the Saints, the psalter - and distilled them into one book for priest and layman alike: the Book of Common Prayer. Now, I told you I was going to talk about MOPping. Well, I recently heard Abbot Stuart of Mucknell Abbey sum up our Anglican way very concisely in three letters: M. O. P. Mass, Office, and Prayer. The routine the Reformers set was frequent Communion - Cranmer intended weekly Communion for all, far more often than the Roman Church offered at the time, believe it or not. He gave us the simple office of Morning and Evening Prayer. Lastly, but very importantly, he gave other prayers for personal use, outside the set times of Mass and daily Office. And that's the routine we inherit to this day.

But, you might say, where do I find the time for all this, to take up and continue this discipline of prayer? And I say, nobody told you that being a Christian would be easy; but there are ways of making time for prayer.

M: The Mass you come to on Sunday, and perhaps you can find a midweek one you could make it to as well, in this parish or near your place of work, even in the lunch hour.

O: As for the daily Office of psalms and readings, you can download the excellent Universalis app onto a 'phone or tablet, or read Common Worship for free on a web browser, or if you don't use these modern gizmos, I can give you a printout of a simplified order on a sheet of folded A4. You can pray it on the train, in the car park, any time in your daily life you know that you are going to have to wait somewhere with nothing else to do - perhaps just once a day, if morning and evening is too much.

P: Private prayer might be a matter of carving out perhaps 30 minutes a week of silence, in church, at home, maybe as you walk the dog in the park or commute to work.

We can all get MOPping - and however dry it may seem at times, however routine, it prepares you for glimpses of God's grace when you are least expecting them: in ordinary people, ordinary places, ordinary bread and wine. Jesus looked ordinary most of the time, but that one time of Transfiguration, because they were prepared, the disciples saw Him in His glory. Maybe it's not too late for you to take up your MOP this Lent.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Lent 1: Are you afraid?


"Are you afraid?" the ad men shout from every screen and billboard. Afraid you can't afford to put the finest and freshest food on the table? Afraid you can't keep the house nice and warm? Afraid you won't be able to get the kids the bigger Easter Egg, the best birthday present they've ever had? Afraid you can't send them to the nice nursery the neighbours daughter goes to? "Maybe you're not doing enough. Maybe you're not good enough. Maybe you're not praying enough," say other voices. "But don't worry," they say. "We can make it all better. Just one little loan won't make a difference, just one little bet on the horses, and we can make your little go a much longer way. Trust us: won't do any harm. Just say the word, and we'll turn your stones into bread" -

- the first Temptation.

"Are you afraid," the politicos shout, and all their media darlings, "of the immigrant? Afraid of the poor man? Afraid of the rich man? Afraid of the evil Muslim, the evil Russian, the evil Tory? Don't worry," they say. "We've got the answer. We'll free the markets so everyone can work: power to the consumer!" Or perhaps, "we'll take from the rich and give to the poor: power to the proletariat! Don't worry about the collateral damage as benefits are cut, or don't worry about the massive loss of tax income as the wealthy flee: just make your mark here, one little vote is all it takes! Just bend the knee to our ideology, and we'll bring in Utopia, give you the power, kingdom and authority over all you survey" -

- the second Temptation.

"Are you afraid," the pimps and pushers say, "of being lonely? Isolated, left out, unwanted, unsexy? Ah, it's Friday night, and look outside: everybody else has got friends, everybody else is having fun - but not you. That's OK. We can fix it. This legal high will do no harm; this little prescription, one a day, will take all the darkness away; just one more drink, just one more shot; or just click here for a thousand friends who'll be with you whenever you desire trapped behind the glass of your 'phone (and you're not trapped at all, of course); or click there to see people doing anything you want them to. From the depths of depression, isolation, ennui, I'll pull you up and get you high. OK, the high won't last long, there'll be a fall, but trust me, my friends will be there to catch you and help you up again (for a very reasonable fee) -

- the third temptation.

The temptations are false promises and easy answers to misguided cravings based in fear and anxiety.

Straight before this wilderness episode in the Gospel was Jesus' baptism. You remember: the heavens opened, the Spirit descended as a dove, the Father's voice proclaimed Jesus His beloved Son. Surely the crowds all around the banks of the Jordan, seeing this, must have expected great things: liberation from the Roman occupation, maybe even by force; profound spiritual teaching; miracles, signs and wonders. Huge expectations. Immediate, magical solutions.

But Jesus does not give them any of this - yet. Instead, He is compelled, Mark says "thrown out," by a movement of the Spirit in His innermost being, to go out into the wilderness, a place of danger and uncertainty, where He outright rejects the Devil's easy answers, even though they are the answers the people want to hear.

Jesus is not the answer. He is not for sale, as yet a another panacea. There are those who try to sell Him - from the prosperity Protestant pastor of the "Lord, won't you buy me Mercedes Benz" school, who says the reason you're poor or sick is that you're not praying hard enough, through to the hardline Catholic who wants you to give your brain to the Church. But Jesus going into the wilderness shows that's got to be wrong. Those people who try to sell Him with the promise of cheap salvation are just more tempters in the desert, along with the pushers of sex and drugs and lifestyles and bling. He went out, without Bible or Breviary, into the dangerous desolation where wild beasts prowl seeking whom they may devour; He went to confront those beasts, to see them for what they were, to learn to live among them and yet to their traps He would never succumb.

Last week, I spoke about the importance of silence in our life of prayer. It seems to me that silence is the gateway to the wilderness of our souls. It can feel dangerous because when we enter it, like Jesus, our eyes are opened to the fears and anxieties which lead us to sin. It forces us to look at ourselves honestly and to see that the waters of our soul's ocean have not settled, they're choppy and swirling with dust and grime. But recognising those dangers and learning to live with them without yielding to sin is vital for our spiritual growth. We have to discern those dangers amid all the clatter of our lives and our busy minds, filled with distractions and fears by the outside world. We need to discern which are real dangers and which are being manufactured by others for their gain but at risk of losing our souls. If we do that, the wilderness can become a place not of fear and desolation, but of beauty, peace and joy, a fertile field for God's grace to bloom. There, we see that we are enough, we are worth something, we are loved and lovable, not because of what we earn or how we look, but because  our deepest being is the very image of God Himself.

Better than giving up chocolate for Lent, give up sin! But don't think for a moment that it will be an easy fix. Jesus does offer us the easy yoke, the light burden, the chance to rest in Him, but at the same time, He says, the Way is hard and the gate is narrow; and that Way to Truth and Life is not through magic fixes, through money trees, Utopias, temporary highs, but through the wilderness, through the place where there is nowhere to hide.

For the Way to Resurrection is none other than the Way of the Cross.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

First sermon at St Michael's, Camden Town - In returning and rest you shall be saved


Christian Egypt, early in the life of the Church: three brothers from the same village want to give their lives in service of Christ. The first, inspired by Christ's healing ministry, goes into medicine. The second, following Christ's proclamation 'blessed are the peacemakers,' goes out among the various warlords suing for peace. But the third is inspired by Christ's frequent retreats into prayer alone. He takes himself deep into the desert to live as a hermit.
Some years pass. The first brother, who has worked tirelessly among the sick, finds that the sick keep coming, and he cannot heal them all; the second finds that however much he brokers peace, the wars around him continue. Exhausted, drained, they go to find their brother in the desert.
They tell him their troubles. Saying nothing, he takes a flask of water from its hanging, and pours it into a bowl. "What can you see?" he asks. But they can see nothing through the murk of the swilling water. Their brother tells them to wait. They're losing their patience. But gradually, the water settles and goes clear, as the dust in it separates out and sinks to the bottom. And when they look in, this time they can see their faces: tired, drawn, stressed. "When you are so busy," says the hermit, "you cannot see yourself clearly, and you cannot see Christ within."
If you rely on your own efforts to heal the sick, to bring peace to the world - to catch all the fish - you won't get very far. You'll end up with empty nets, exhausted. But if you rest in the presence of Christ, trust Him to take the load, He will enable you to bring in a haul of unimaginable plenty.
Well, that's what the Gospel says, and not just here. Jesus Himself says, "come to me, all you that are weary, and I will give you rest: my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” He calls Himself the Lord of the Sabbath, that final day of rest. And God's message to Isaiah sums it up: "In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength." The message is as clear as the water in that hermit's bowl.
So do we believe it? - or do we maybe really think, "well, that's all very well if you've got time, but I've got the shopping to do, bills to worry about, children wanting this and that, then we've got the grand church reopening to think about, the art installation coming in from the V&A, the Legal Drop-in to find lawyers for, the cleaning rota to organise, the list goes on: and 'resting in Jesus' would be lovely, I'm sure, but it's not going to get any of these things done." A bit like Martha, perhaps, banging away in the kitchen that time when Jesus came to visit, getting annoyed because her sister Mary was just sitting there, listening to Him. But you know which of those two sisters Jesus said had the "better part."
So let's clarify and think this through. First, let's be clear about what the Gospel is NOT saying here: it's not just saying, "you look like you need a holiday," "everyone needs a break now and then." The Gospel isn't some string of platitudes for lifestyle advice. When Jesus called Himself "Lord of the Sabbath," He didn't mean "Lord of the Day Off." The Sabbath rest is something much more profound than that: it's the end of Creation, the whole purpose of our existence, to rest in God. Jesus is the one who is always at rest in the Father, and He came to invite us to join in that rest and stillness, not just after this life is over, but here and now. After all, it was from the emptiness and stillness of the Virgin's womb that Christ exploded into our reality. It was from the emptiness and stillness of the tomb that He sprang out in resurrected fulness, to give new birth to the Church and tear down the veil that hides from us on earth the eternal joy and rest of Heaven. That heavenly rest, that peace, that underlying joy, is not some optional bolt-on to the Christian religion: it's at its heart. And you can rest in Christ's peace here and now, you can let Him into your boat, into your heart, let Him guide you to the deep waters of your soul where He will help you cast your net down to haul in spiritual treasures you never even knew were there.
I've only been here seven days, but I can see already, and you don't need me to tell you, that this is a busy church. You work hard, and in the vacancy, you've worked harder still - the DCC, all the volunteers, Frs Oliver, Simon and Jim, Helena, all of you - and I want to thank you all again for keeping the church so healthy, active, and optimistic. It's clear to me that Christ is at the heart of what you're doing here: if He wasn't, you wouldn't have achieved so much! But I think today's Gospel is timely. After all this hard graft, I think it's time for us to rediscover what it is to rest in Christ, to breathe and take stock. Lent, of course, is the perfect time to do just that: to go into the wilderness, or into those deep, still waters, to let them settle, and watch expectantly for Christ's new birth at Easter. The Bishop wants grand new initiatives and new life in this church, and we'll have all that, but only if we first spend some time waiting and listening in the presence of Our Lord. All our efforts must rest in Him.
What I'm talking about, of course, is prayer. Throughout Lent I want us to enter more deeply into the stillness of Christ's presence, to develop the discipline of making regular time for silence with Him. You'll notice from next week a change to our liturgy for Lent, a more contemplative tone, with a chanted musical setting that we're going practice after Mass today. We're also introducing an optional half an hour of meditation with the Blessed Sacrament just before Healing Prayer, on Tuesdays at 12.30. Before being a place that gets you on the rotas working your socks off, I want St Michael's to be a place of sanctuary and peace for you. And I'm going to try to spend Lent more quietly, too, listening to you and the people of Camden Town, getting to know you and your hopes and needs. If you'd like me to come and visit in the next few weeks or to meet up somewhere, Helena will have a book at the back for you to write your name and number or email address in, and I'll get in touch.
But for now, here, pray, take, eat, let Christ dwell within you that you might rest in Him, and see what treasures He can haul in from the deep waters of your soul.