One Book, One Parish

This Lent, join us in reading together one book, Being Disciples by Rowan Williams, to explore how life and faith intersect. Starting on Ash Wednesday, we will post a weekly reflection from our rector, Simon Mainwaring, on each of the book’s six chapters.

Chapter Six: Life in the Spirit

Wednesday, April 6

Our journey through Lent is coming to its close, as the activity of Holy Week appears on the horizon. We leave the wilderness and make our way with Jesus into the city, and to all that the city promises and threatens. Our invitation at this transition point in the story is to ask how we might carry the gifts of Lent with us forward. As Rowan Williams writes in his final chapter of this short book, the invitation is for us to ponder what our ‘staying alive in Christ’ is to look like from here on forward.

Life in the Spirit is not a subset of the fullness of human living, but the kind of humanity that we choose to live out and live into as a whole being. Most often, it is made up of the ordinary things, the daily encounters and moment by moment choices we have and make either to live in the Spirit or not, to see the human being in front of us not as an opportunity for gain, but as someone who might enable us to become more human; an orientation which in its hope for mutuality holds out the possibility that their humanity might grow in the process too.

Being a spiritual person, then, is becoming a more human person. Yet that becoming requires that we turn to our interior, not to dwell there, but to bring what is on our interior out to the open. As Williams says, giving those feelings about who and whose we truly are, some room to breathe.

This growth that comes when we learn to live from the inside out, is truly where our hope for freedom lies, not only for ourselves but for all people. To be drawn out, deeply as a person in the Spirit, is to be someone who is taught by grace to let go of the projections, expectations, busyness, and the ceaseless pursuit to somehow matter to the world that hem our freedom in and the real growth that such a freedom brings.

In the end, a person who lives in the Spirit is a person who learns to hear the sound of their true name spoken not by themselves, or by the world, but by God. When we pray, when we delve into our deeper beings, we continue to quarry out an opening for God to be at home in us, making space for our longing for freedom to meet God’s longing for us.

Come home. Be Free. Live. These are our Lenten gifts. I pray that you may find them as gifts to offer yourself and all those whom God calls you to love.

Chapter Five: Faith in Society

Wednesday, April 3

I once heard a speaker say that when people tell him that religion and politics should not mix, he asks them which Bible they have been reading. I think the sentiment here echoes that of the prophet Jeremiah when he writes, ‘Seek the shalom of the city, for in its shalom, you shall find your own’.

Seek the shalom, the deep peace of God for the city. As people who coalesce around a theological claim that God reveals Godself in the flesh, in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, there is something inherently political about following Jesus, something fundamentally embodied about the Christian faith and life. You and I, as followers of this embodied God are called to follow Christ into the midst of this world and place on our hearts this world’s concerns. Faith in this sense is political. It is, essentially, more public than it is a private way of life, certainly when we consider faith when expressed in the life of the Church.

So how might we live a public, political faith in a time when faith and politics are so poor relations in many people’s minds? How do we find ways to speak of God’s deep peace for the city such that people might be moved to compassionate action and not merely be driven to pre-arranged political conclusions?

Rowan Williams offers us two core principles for a life of faith lived out in not away from society. First, that we are all equal in the eyes of God. Second, that as human beings, we are created to be dependent on one another if we are to strive not only for the peace of the city but for peace in our hearts also.

The sub-Saharan African concept of Ubuntu captures this well: that a person is a person through persons. As such, the Christian faith has little room for the idea of the individual as the conceptual basis for personhood. For the Christian, grounded in the life in relationship we call Trinity, personhood is only ever a relational thing. We are beings in communion, made for plurality more than we are made for singularity.

Communion, plurality, life together – these are what church is all about. What’s more, because when we meet the other we encounter the incarnation of the mystery of God, we can never exhaust what we might have to say about the other, about the life of the world, about the polis, the city, the political content of our faith.

I pray that in this season of Lent, you might hear afresh how God calls you to love the city, to seek its shalom, to be the hands and feet of Christ whom we are each called to become.

Chapter Four: Holiness

Wednesday, March 27

Have you ever met a holy person?

When we imagine what holiness looks like, we can imagine a person very different to who we think we might be ourselves. Holiness is not something we tend to think is proximate to who we are, indeed by its very definition we might think of it as the distance between who we are and who we are called to become. Understood as such, holiness is a gap, a shortfall in our striving to take a closer walk with God.

What, though, if holiness was not as much about our proximity but God’s? Rowan Williams makes the case that the crucifixion is the holiest event that ever happens, the event where Jesus goes ‘right to the middle of the mess and suffering of human nature’. To be holy, then, is to be absolutely involved, not separated from the human experience. It is not to be set above, or beyond, but to be in the very midst of our hurt and failure and hope and longing, not trusting in our own capacity to be holy enough to somehow realize our potential for human goodness, but trusting in God’s utter solidarity with us, always and at all times present with us and for us.

Trusting God as such, and drawing from such a divine solidarity, a holy person is simply a person who can make any one of us feel that there is hope for our own confused and compromised humanity. The holy person recognizes the inherent goodness of the other, the incarnation of the divine in the lives of those around them. Holy people make God more visible in their capacity to see God in others. They are, in many ways, evangelists – those who proclaim the living good news present before them in the flesh and blood of their fellow human being. Holiness, understood in this way, is something each of us can embody.

Given that hope, in what new ways might you elect to enlarge the world of the people in your life? What ‘new light’, as Rowan Williams puts it, might you see in another that they might struggle to see for themselves? Where might you involve yourself in the world as a person taken with excitement at the beauty of God and the self-giving love of God that is making all things new? However you answer such questions, may this Lent help you deepen your life’s call to make God radiant for this world so longing for light.

Chapter Three: Forgiveness

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

What does it mean to forgive?

Can you imagine a circle of friends in your life who hear and know your needs as they actually are? Imagine what it might feel like to be among people with whom the internal state of your being was more transparent than not, and was offered up to others trusting that such vulnerability would not be taken advantage of but would be a source of mutual relationship and renewal. Picture how you might thrive in such a setting where you could find forgiveness for the person you really are, not merely the person other people believe you to be.

The church is called to be such a circle; honest relationship is its framework and forgiveness is what binds the body together. Desmond Tutu has argued that there is no forgiveness for human community without forgiveness. His own context of South Africa’s long walk to the freedom that followed apartheid stands as a living reminder that the way of forgiveness is both filled with hope, and is also a long and at times terribly hard path to travel. Yet it is the church’s path, the way of Jesus that all people who dare to claim a life in Christ are called to live by.

Rowan Williams urges us to recognize that at the heart of the practice of forgiveness is the recognition that we cannot generate for ourselves all that we need to flourish as human beings either alone or in community. Prayer is, seen through this lens, the habit for life that challenges our arrogance that we could be self-sufficient in the world. When we pray for our daily bread, we acknowledge very simply that we are not all that we need.

To forgive and to be forgiven is an act which in each instance invites us into a more authentic humanity, an act that recognizes that change is possible, and elects to renounce the binary division of victim and perpetrator. Forgiveness asks us to stretch beyond the vision we currently have of the other, and while requiring our decision to step forward, forgiveness is not a power of our own making but the effect of grace that continuously works within us to make new wine within our old wineskin enmities.

In which relationship or circumstance might you choose trust in the power of grace to usher in forgiveness into your life this Lent? Where are you in need of stepping out beyond the paradigms you have constructed of the people who have hurt you or whom you have hurt? How is your life hungry for a daily bread not of your own making?

Chapter Two: Faith, Hope and Love

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

What does it mean to say ‘We believe?’ We say it a lot in the Episcopal Church, every time we affirm our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed, an ancient statement of our beliefs dating from the 4th century. Is belief simply a matter of assenting to what we have to say about God, or does belief go deeper than what the head can affirm or deny?

The word, ‘creed’ comes from the Latin, ‘Credo’. Marcus Borg has argued that credo really means to give one’s heart to something. That might not be strictly accurate, but the sentiment certainly speaks to the nature of theological knowledge, which biblically sees the heart as a place of deeper knowledge wherein we come to know God more fully and go further on our journey toward Christian maturity. The heart is where we feel loyalty and faithfulness, where we come to discover the dependability of our words about God through the faithfulness of God to us in relationship with us. The heart is where we learn that God is a hope that will never go away.

All of this implies that faith is less a process of us mastering something but of being mastered. As Williams states, it is about God’s faithfulness not mine. Faith is the inward journey we go on as we become mastered by Truth. As such, the life of faith is a life that can begin to let go of our need to work out our lives. Williams says, we ‘don’t have to settle the absolute truth of [our] history or story’.

And so, as the visible communities in the world that have committed to speak of such a loving truth, churches also need to be places that are dependable, patient, confident in the promises of God to be still long enough for people to discover those promises for themselves. Such faithfulness in community can be hard at times and requires us to trust that in the end we and the Church are God’s work. I invite you to trust in that too, this Lent: trust that you are the subject of Love’s unalterable gaze, God’s sacred gift now and for ever.

 

 

Chapter One: Being Disciples

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Rowan Williams’ Being Disciples is a book, as Lent is a season, less about what we believe and more about how we live and learn to live the Christian life by something as simple as staying, by abiding, by dwelling with one another and with God. To be a disciple, is to be one who stays, who learns by sharing life, with others, who abides in order to be changed. But what are we staying for? How are we seeking to be changed?

At the heart of the life of faith is the desire to grow in our awareness of the divine, of God’s presence in the world, ever-abundant, yet often obscured by the lines of sight along which we see the world. To be a disciple, then, is to be one who is expectant, awaiting the God who will break through the ordinary of our everyday lives, right within our everyday living. Discipleship is the practice of living expectantly for God to happen in our here and now.

Often this awareness of the presence of God is experienced less as a flash of light and more as a gradual dawn, as the slow arrival of the Spirit, which incrementally teaches us to see reality anew, reconstituted around Jesus. Yet the dawn, the first light, requires a spark, and some air. It calls for our attention to how that light might be kindled. The invitation to a holy Lent is our beckoning to step toward a greater intention for how the scriptures, or the sacraments of bread and wine, or the life we share with one another, might help us see what Christ is gifting us with. We might also be invited in our following of this Christ to go where Christ is to be found most especially: among the excluded and the self-hating, the ones who find it hard to find themselves in the disorder and pain of their own lives.

So, this life of being disciples is one that asks us to pay attention, to stay, to abide as God abides among us, often especially in those places we least expected to find ourselves. What is more, these acts of a contemplation become the roots of a transformative life that might not shake up the world, but might help infuse the everyday with a little bit of the eternal love of God, as we allow, as Williams writes, a ‘God-shaped hole to take place around’ us. For this, as he goes on, is ultimately what the disciple seeks: ‘how to be a place in the world where the act of God can come alive.’ May that becoming a place where God comes alive be what your life seeks this season of Lent, and may God bless you as you wait, and watch, and grow in God’s grace.

 

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