Friday, November 29, 2013

Pope hope

Do we live in the age of a second Saint Francis?

Early days, I know, and routine as it's become to lionise the current Pope, the Luther in me wants to dissent on principle... but it really does appear that Jorge Mario Bergoglio - Pope Francis - is a true spiritual leader for our times.

I read a quoatation from his First Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” yesterday, which struck me (quite a few extracts struck me: get a flavour here):

“Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length. Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.”

Pope Francis hugs a man in his visit to a rehab
Touching suffering... wonderfully complicated... intense empathy. Having gone through a degree of ministry burn-out of late, I might have found such words repellent. But no: they refreshed. Is a mark of a saint that he or she speaks words - the same words - that from another would have a different effect?

I posted the Pope's words on Facebook and my brother, a social worker, commented, “I can draw some parallels with my profession here”. My brother works with adults with learning difficulties, work which I can imagine can be tough, long and thankless.

This may be another mark of a saint: he can speak to any and all, man or woman, western or eastern, of any religion or none, with words that will resonate.

I applaud all who “touch the suffering of others”, who embrace human solidarity and refuse the blandishments of self-centredness. I don't always want to want to walk that path myself, but as another saint (Teresa of Avila) almost said, I want to want to.

Speak on, Pope Francis. I, for one, am listening.

(A little theological postscript for those who may question my approach to 'sainthood' in this post. I, along with reformed Christians generally, believe that 'the saints' are all who are being made holy - sainted - by Christ: all His followers, not just a select few. But I maintain it's good to recognise those who have made special progress, who become able to speak to and for humanity, to reresent human potential and beckon us all higher. Call them prophets if you like; call them stars. Like the word martyr - originally a word to describe all Christians as witnesses, which came to be especially used of those who died for their testimony - the word saint can, I think, bear these two levels.)

Monday, November 18, 2013

Another psalm for a desperate time...

...but this one's written by the King.

No not Elvis; King David.

After having written my own desperate psalm yesterday, wouldn't you know it? The psalm I had to write about for my church today was another psalm for desperate times: this one a "psalm of David" - Psalm 143.

David’s troubles make him aware of his own sins. He's oppressed by a nameless enemy – maybe an actual person, maybe his sins – and the result is a collapse of morale. He remembers enjoying God’s goodness to him in the past, but the present, by contrast, seems bone dry and starved of blessing. His dire need leads to urgent prayer. The psalm finishes with a declaration of trust in God and a fresh commitment to be God’s servant.

This kind of psalm teaches me about prayer, particularly prayer when I'm distressed:

It's honest. David tells God just how desperate he is. He acknowledges his own rottenness, but he is also bold enough to argue his case with God: "Enter not into judgement with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you" (v.2). That's pretty bold!

 It's urgent. Not for David a mealy-mouthed ‘If-it-be-Thy-will’ prayer: he demands that God answers – and soon! "Answer me quickly"; "Let me hear in the morning" (in other words, David doesn’t want to wait until the afternoon!) (v.8).

It honours God even in desperation. Despite David’s agony and fear, he ends this prayer by asserting God’s faithfulness: "In your steadfast love you will cut off my enemies, and you will destroy all the adversaries of my soul" (v.12). Even in suffering, David remains faithful to God.

I'm left thinking: my enemies can be people who oppose me in one way and another, my sins and follies, my destructive habits, or mysterious spiritual oppressions. What enemies am I facing at the moment and how can I overcome them? And if I was to rate my prayer life for honesty, how would I fare?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A psalm for desperate times

I am so very angry with you, my God. You have become as my enemy.
I know that you are holy, that you are to be vindicated at the last, but I do not understand your ways.
I am so very angry with you, I can barely speak. I cannot sing in your house.
Songs of happy praise are like ashes in my mouth; words of joy are like stones.
My father, my leader has turned back and what now are all his words worth? What light now in the world?
When vows are cast away, what is there of any worth in all creation?
My brother, my friend is struck down and cannot stand. I have cried to you on his behalf.
Why have you not heard my prayers for them? Why have you remained silent?
All we have built is broken. You have crushed it; the work of our hands blows on the wind as dust.
Storms unleash destruction, winds blow, the waters threaten to overwhelm me.
I know my sin, and my folly is not hidden from me. I cry to my deliverer. Save me O God!
Answer me, O silent sovereign Lord! Demonstrate your faithful love for who have I but you?
Darkness is my companion. My prayer is that I will yet praise you.
May my voice again be raised to you from among the congregation of your people.