Sunday, 24 March 2019

Meeting God. 3rd Sunday of Lent, Year C

Ex 3:1-8.13-15
What would you say if someone asked you whether you had met God?
As a priest, this is question I sometimes get put me by random strangers, sometimes on a train station platform, or in a pub. Quite how I start my reply depends on the questioner, whether he is hostile or curious, whether he looks ready for a long conversation or just a one-liner.

The answer, of course, is that I meet God every day, and that I meet Him in many different forms. I meet Him in the love of neighbour, I meet Him in prayer, I meet Him in sacraments. I meet Him in unexpected acts of goodness I receive, that remind me that there is a source to all goodness.
And, almost in reverse, I meet Him unexpected events that bring me low, sometimes in sickness, when my weakness and smallness reminds me that there is One Who is great and strong.

But when people ask, “Have you met God?”, what they usually are thinking of is something like the drama of what we heard in our first reading, of how God spoke to Moses in the burning bush. And my reply to that line of query would be twofold.
First, ordinary people having mystical experiences is more common than people are often willing to publically talk about. (Cardinal Newman once said, much is lost by people keeping their personal experiences of the divine to themselves.)
Second, this said, it is not in the strange and unusual that we should look for God. The Bible records many such occurrences. But even in the Bible the texts repeatedly make clear that although God only very occasionally makes dramatic appearances, He is with them ALL the time, even in the undramatic parts of our lives.
One of the messages of the Bible is that God is active, God is near, it is HIS world, and He is with us all the time -the tragedy is that so often we are not aware of Him.

How then are we to become more aware of Him in the everyday?
It is, above all else, in moments of PRAYER that we can encounter Him, and carry that encounter into the rest of our lives, so that we then recognise Him in the other moments of our lives.
Pope Francis speaks often about the need to “encounter” the Lord; about how the apostles experienced great “joy” when they encountered the Lord (Evangelii Gaudium n.13).
There is one place, in particular, that the Lord has chosen to make Himself present to us, and that is in the Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament upon our altars.
This week, between Friday evening and Saturday evening, Pope Francis has repeated his Lenten call for churches across the world to be open all through the night, for there to be, “24 Hours for the Lord”. Our church will be one of those churches. We’ll start with 7pm Stations of the Cross Friday night and close just before the Saturday evening vigil Mass. In between there will be continual Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament: the consecrated host (that was once bread and has been changed by His very words into His Body, His very self) will be raised for display on the altar that we might gaze upon Him and Adore Him.

Pope Francis is offering this opportunity to the Church as a specific gift for Lent.
Lent is a time of ‘prayer, fasting and almsgiving’ -this, in particular, is a special way to pray.
The Lord Jesus prayed and fasted for 40 days in the desert. We need to be doing extra prayer in this season if we are to join Him.
This is a special opportunity, so please come! We need people to cover each of the hour slots from 8pm Friday to the following Saturday 6pm.
The Pope wants us to encounter the Lord here.

To return to where I began, “Have you met God?”
Many us of have had mystical experiences of meeting the Lord, but this, really, isn’t the point.
The point is that we can ALL meet Him, in prayer, especially in the Eucharist,
and that meeting Him here enables us to see Him everywhere else.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Transfigured Human Flesh, 2nd Sunday of Lent, Year C

Lk 9:28-36; Phil 3:17-4:1
Recently I came home to find that someone had put a leaflet through my front door advertising a slimming program. At first I wondered if someone has chosen me specifically. Had someone noticed that my size 15.5” neck shirts have become significantly tight this past half-year? Has someone overheard me mumbling to myself about whether I need to “upgrade” from a 32 to a 34 inch waist trouser? I don't know, but the leaflet was there, all alone, waiting for me.

Diets, as many of us know, are easy to start but harder to stick to. People often start with good and clear intentions, but often after just a week it's all gone!
We’re now just over a week into Lent, and I want to make the very obvious comparison between Lent and such diets. We have finished the first week; we are now in the SECOND Sunday of Lent. Possibly some of us have failed to stick to our resolutions, maybe some of us are wavering. What we need now is a VISION of something to keep us going, or to re-start us on the path.
And, in fact, this is what the Church always offers us on this 2nd Sunday of Lent: we are given the Gospel account of the Lord Jesus transfigured in glory, we are shown His transfigured human flesh on the mountaintop, a vision of what OUR transfigured flesh will look like if we follow Him through the carrying of the Cross to the glory of the Resurrection.

Now, the dieting leaflet that was put through my door similarly had a vision of transfigured human flesh. As is typical, the dieting leaflet had a photo of someone whose body looked absolutely perfect, with words to the effect of, “YOU can look like THIS, in just 40 days on this diet”. Great promises. High expectations.
A 40 day diet... or 40 days of Lent.
Let me point out some similarities and some differences.

Both offer a vision of transfigured human flesh.
Both make a promise.
Both have a trainer: your diet coach, or, the Lord Jesus.
Both involve self-denial and typically abstaining from the pleasure of food.
Both involve suffering: “The Cross” is intrinsic to any form of training and discipleship.
You can't be an athlete unless you undergo the suffering of the gym. You can't be a disciple unless you undergo training. You can't be a follower of the Lord Jesus, He said, you cannot be His disciple unless you take up your cross daily and follow Him (Lk 9:23).

Having noted similarities between Lent and a diet, let me also note that there are very significant differences:
The Lord Jesus has PROVED the truth of His promise, by His many miracles, and in particular, by His rising from the dead,
Whereas far too many diets seem to lack such proof.
In addition, as our training coach, the Lord Jesus ACCOMPANIES us in our suffering much more deeply than a diet instructor. A diet instructor might also be someone who diets, as he or she might tell you to. But the Lord Jesus suffers not alongside us, but WITHIN us, and He strengthens us with His grace. When He tells us that to be His disciple we must “take up our cross and follow Him”(c.f. Lk 9:23), we only ever call our sufferings a “cross” because of their UNION with the Lord Jesus –a union that is spiritual and internal, not just an external example.

A final difference, however, and a difference that is crucial, is that these two practices are aimed at two every different goals. Dieting is aimed at the health of the body, which is a good thing, but a passing thing, not the thing of highest importance. In contrast, the prayer, fasting, and almsgiving of Lent are aimed at the good of the soul. And, even saying this is only partly true: they are NOT aimed at “the good of our soul” in the manner of some self-help improvement course. RATHER, they are aimed at UNION with the Lord Jesus.

To conclude:
A vision of transfigured human flesh,
One: a diet, with slimming world -but that flesh will, even after the diet, eventually fade;
Two, fasting and self-denial, with Jesus on the mountaintop, a glory that can ours if we follow His way of the Cross, if we follow Him through Lent.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Into the Desert, 1st Sunday of Lent, Year C

Deut 26:4-10; Lk 4:1-13
This year I feel particularly ready for Lent. Not ready in the sense of being prepared, but ready in the sense of needing a fresh start.
The word ‘Lent’, as you probably know, comes from the old Saxon word for the season of ‘spring’. The word thus focuses us on the new growth that we start to see in this season:
The daffodils are out, tulips are appearing, buds are in the trees. Life is starting afresh.
Spiritually, likewise, this season of Lent is about new growth.

There is an irony here, however, in that to cause our souls to grow we go into the DESERT
-we go into a place where there is little growth, little water, little nourishment.
Why? Well, we might note that the soul is not like the body, it works differently.
But, both body and soul find their true SOURCE of life in the Lord Jesus.
We go into the desert to go be with Him.
He spent 40 days fasting and praying in the desert, and so do we in Lent.

The desert is a place of little food.
In Lent, in union with Jesus, we fast. We “give things up” for Lent -which is a small form of fasting.
We need to go into the desert because the ABUNDANCE of things we experience can DISTRACT us from the Lord.
My chocolate, my alcohol, my TV, my snacks -all these things are good in themselves, but the abundance of them distracts me.
The “noise” of all these pleasures stops me hearing the Lord.
When I deny myself in this season of Lent I QUIETEN my soul.
I reduce that “noise”,
so that as my desires are intensified (as I lack the things that normally satisfy them), my desires might remember that there is a deeper reality that I seek: the Lord.

If this is going to work, then it needs to accompanied by prayer. This is why prayer and fasting go together.
They went together with Jesus in the desert. Even more, do WE need them to go together.
In this season I need to add some extra prayer, even if only small.
Something realistic that I can stick to, but something extra. Something that can make this time in the desert not merely training my desires, but re-focusing them on the only thing that reality matters: God.

Faith and hope need to be part of this.
Our first reading was a creed. It reminded the Jewish people of how God had been active in their lives in the past, how He had led them in the past.
He had called Abraham out of the Chaldees.
He had led Moses and the people out of slavery in Egypt.
For forty years He had led them as they wandered in the desert.
He brought them to “a land flowing with milk and honey”(Deut 26:9).
The church reminds us of this text to remind us that, in Lent, God guides us STILL. He leads us still.
If I am going into the desert, I need the confidence that comes from believing and trusting Him, otherwise the desert will overwhelm me.

Finally, love. Faith, and prayer, and fasting, all this should change me, make me more loving and giving.
And so we give to the poor in the season.

So spring, Lent, new growth.
We go into the place of desert, this place of little life, to encounter in a new way the Lord who is the source of all life.
That removed from the distractions of pleasures, we might find our greatest pleasure: the good God.
Let us go forth in faith and confidence - the land of milk and honey awaits on the far side of that desert.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Lent Talks: Finding God in Ordinary Life

A series of evenings examining 6 key tools for finding God in everyday life.

Audio and slides of the talks are available below, and/or the Apple Keynotes for the talks can be downloaded from a GoogleDrive folder here

(1) Sanctifying Ordinary Life

God has entered ordinary life by becoming incarnate in Jesus. As a result, every aspect of ordinary life can be a place where we can find Him and be something that is brought to Him
A Word document summary of the talk is available here
A PDF of the talk slides can be viewed here

(2) A 'Plan of Life'

Holiness does not happen by accident! This evening's session will examine how to develop "a plan of life" that is a specific and progressive strategy for adapting the tools used by the saints into something small and do-able enough for you to meet God in the hours of your day.
A table mapping out this 'plan of life' can be viewed here
A PDF of the talk slides can be viewed here

(3) Being 'sons in the Son'

The goal of the Christian life is to become adopted as a child of God, adopted in Christ as 'sons in the Son'. This doctrine underpins our whole identity as Christians and determines what we are seeking for in 'holiness'.
A PDF of the talk slides can be viewed here

(4) Order and 'the Heroic Minute'

Living a 'life in the Spirit' does not mean living a life of disorder! Tonight's session will examine how to identify the 'hinges' that enable us to put patterns of order and discipline into our lives -the order we need if we are to be free for Christ to enter in.
A PDF of the talk slides can be viewed here

(5) A Personal Relationship with Jesus Christ

Do I relate to God in the impersonal remote manner characterized by Islam, Buddhism or the pre-Christian religions? Or do I know and love Him personally, "as a friend knows a friend"?
A PDF of the talk slides can be viewed here

(6) Self Denial and Mortification: the path to new life

Before entering into Holy Week, our final session will look at the place of self-denial and mortification. 'Mortification' means dying to ourselves that Christ might come to life in us.
A PDF of the talk slides can be viewed here