The Annunciation Trust

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An affirming source (3): Yielding

[See Part 1Part 2]

… yielding …

When we are freed from the idea of God as “an alien will” we can fall back into an utterly relaxing Presence that is our “affirming source”. The alien will is jealous and requires attention and conformity to an arbitrary set of standards. The affirming source is not alien, not demanding, not jealous because we are what it is. We do not have to do anything to earn this. We do not have to work for it. There is no rivalry.

If God is “an affirming source”, then simply by being we are God’s will (the primal “Yes”) in action. When someone asks, “What is God doing?”, the answer is, “You are what God is doing!” You are what God is doing when you do what comes naturally to humans – the everyday matters of living, breathing, walking, eating, talking, loving, sleeping. You are freed from anxiety because you already are what is required. You can relax – which is another way of talking about “yielding”.

“Yielding” is not easy for humans. We don’t believe we are good enough. We like to be in control. We have lost confidence in authority and cannot trust those in power to be for us. We take our lives into our own hands. We hold ourselves safe.

While independence and autonomy is laudable in many human affairs – it is part of becoming adult and taking some responsibility for self-care and the choices we make – as an absolute it is simply not the case. None of us can really be ‘off grid’. Like a foetus in the womb of the Earth, we are utterly dependent upon the light from the Sun, the air that we breath, the earth we walk upon, the fact of being (for we might not have been at all).

We are here because there is an act that draws us into being and affirms our being. So we do not have to be our own origin; we do not have to try to be self-creators. There is a level of affirmation bringing us into, and holding us in existence, which we do not have to work for.

p. 72

Through yielding (relaxing) into our dependency, we are “emancipated” from bondage to the gods – the self-improvement narrative. We do not have to justify or prove ourselves. There is no one to appease or impress. That we exist at all, like a mountain or a tree, is justification enough, impressive in its own right.

God is still awesome, still terrifying, still unknowable. God is not only my being, but the being of the vast, seemingly illimitable Universe that reminds us how insignificant we are. And yet, as we yield (relax), as we feel our way back into ourselves, into this body, we come to know ourselves in a visceral, embodied way, and we come to know God.

Later in Being Human Rowan Williams writes:

You can watch your breath, you can be conscious of your diaphragm rising and falling, conscious of the movement of life in you, and if you think at all about it you might just think, ‘Well, for this time as I breathe in and out, all I am is a place where life is happening.’ The breath moves in, the breath moves out; I am a place where life is happening. And if I am a place where life is happening, I am a place where God is happening.

p. 103

[Coming soon(-ish): Part four]

[Syndicated from thisbody.info.]

An affirming source (2): Emancipation

stars

… yielding not to an alien will but an affirming source …

The trouble with an alien will is that it is … alien, other. How can I know, respond to, and, in time, love something that is so far from and other than me? I will look outside myself, beyond this life, to another realm to know who to be and what to do. Then I am separated, as it were, from myself. Separation slips into anxiety: What is required of me to be acceptable, good enough, holy enough for God? How can I be more like God? I am in a catch-22 situation because I can never know the answers to these questions if God is alien.

Conversely, if God is “an affirming source” everything changes. If God is the source then I am because God is. God is the ground of my being. God is the source, and is a source that affirms. God is not alien, and not wilful. Surprisingly, it is rather like there being no god at all. What a relief!

This one, fundamental idea is at the very heart of a way of being in the world. I belong and I have everything I could possibly need. It is how I want to live. In essence, this is what I want to convey as a spiritual director and writer.

This is not identity: I am not God; I am not the Universe. This is belonging: God is what I am, my home, my birthright, “my place in the family of things”. God is the stuff I am made of; just as the Earth is the stuff I am made of; as stardust is the stuff I am made of. When I look at the stars (as I did last night) I know I belong: this body is made of the same matter, despite the loneliness of separation by distances too vast to imagine let alone traverse. Loneliness signifies kinship. And so I can call everything and everyone a sister or a brother, for that is what they are. Nothing is alien now.

God is “an affirming source.” God says, ”Yes,” to me and about me. Could it be that God’s first ‘word’ was “Yes”? And that I am, and you are, and everything is because of this “Yes”?

If God is “an alien will” there is always a tension between who-and-what-I-am and who-and-what-God-is. If God is an affirming source then I am who-and-what-God-is. There is no possibility of separation between God and me. I am not separated from myself. I can relax.

I look to and gaze at God, not to find out how to live and what to do, but to see revealed there the depth of the reality of who and what I am…

… and, more fundamentally, that I am.

I will never finally know who and what I am. But I know that I am – my presence as this body, as the being of God in this little scrap of the world, the outworking of God’s “Yes”. This is the cradle of joy.

[Coming soon: Part three]

[Syndicated from thisbody.info.]

An affirming source (1): an alien will

Christians are adopted into a dependent relationship to that which Jesus called ‘Abba, Father’. Our human identity therefore becomes one in which we both acknowledge in prayer this dependence and respond to the gift that sets up not only our being but our renewed being in Christ; and in acknowledging that dependence we are empowered to ‘do the work of God’, to be ‘in Christ’, as St Paul puts it. It’s about an authority that emerges from yielding not to an alien will but an affirming source– recognising that we are here because there is an act that draws us into being and affirms our being. So we do not have to be our own origin; we do not have to try to be self-creators. There is a level of affirmation bringing us into, and holding us in existence, which we do not have to work for. … [We] are empowered, emancipated, to use the transforming energy we can exercise by acknowledging our dependence upon an unconditional source of affirmation.

Rowan Williams: Being Human, p.72–3 (my emphasis)

I love Rowan Williams’ writing, though I find it frustrating at times because I am too impatient for the dénouement. The opening pages clear the ground, set the scope, and dispel misconceptions. I want to know where we are going. Are we there yet, Rowan?

Correspondingly, when I pray and meditate. The first 20 minutes can be off-putting and frustrating. What am I doing here? Is anything going to happen?I have learnt that I have to hang on in there.

Bam!
Bam!

And then: Bam!He hits me with a sentence like a Marvel Comic knockout. He articulates a thought so clearly and succinctly that I am knocked back on my heels and I have to stop – dazed, ears ringing, seeing stars – and recollect myself.

… yielding not to an alien will but an affirming source …

Let’s have that again.

… yielding not to an alien will but an affirming source …

These few words are the fulcrum of a foundational life-question with which I struggle every day. By habit, I anticipate the presence of “an alien will” under whose gaze I am not good enough nor doing the right thing. Shame (I am not ok) and guilt ( I’m not doing it right). Every day, in every prayer, “an affirming source” says (I paraphrase), “What the f*** are you talking about? That is not what I meant at all. That is not it at all.”

I struggle to withdraw my transference (to give a psychoanalytic skit on this) … Once upon a time, I heard the message that I was not good enough, and that my life would go to pot if I didn’t behave right and make the right choices. God was one more “alien will” who would give me the same message. … And so it goes. I know I’m not alone. It is hardly breaking news.

But it is a rookie error to see God as one more voice in our cacophonous culture of voices clamouring for attention. It kills the life, stifles the Spirit. If God is an alien will then I can never relax. Even if God is utterly benign and has my best interests in heart and mind, nevertheless I have always to be alert to ‘His’ will.

Most religious language (“the Father, the Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth”) and teaching, at least in its immediate sense, conveys this notion. The conservative churches; the so-called ‘traditionalists’; those who have to align their lives to one reading of scripture, one way of praying, one way of loving, one way of living; those whose “goodness carefully worn / For atonement or for luck” is measured in observance; even the dear old, exasperatingly inoffensive, middle-of-the-road Anglican church’s meagre fare: all this is underpinned by the image of the alien will that must be obeyed, appeased, or impressed. The task is to find out what this god wants me to do and how to live in accordance with ‘His will’. And a worrying number of people seem to have answers to these questions for others. An idea of God and Christianity is being peddled that is, at its least offensive, merely disenfranchising and dehumanising, but too often is, frankly, about power and control.

The common and erroneous notion is that God is an “alien will”. ‘He’ (it is almost invariably ‘He’) is out there, gradually beating a retreat as the telescopes delve deeper into the Universe. Perhaps God is dark matter? Perhaps there is no god? My suspicion is that this is the god that vociferous atheists denounce  – and rightly so – and that your common-or-garden secularisthas an alien will in mind when they say they don’t believe in God.

There they stop; for what else is on offer to put in its place?

[Follow this with Part two: Emancipation.]

[Syndicated from thisbody.info.]

Why did Jesus feel the need to repent?

I recently attended a church service, where the Gospel reading was the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan river. The preacher noted that John proclaimed that his baptism was a sign of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and, in passing, commented that because Jesus was without sin he would have had no need of John’s baptism.  He is not the first to be puzzled as to why Jesus felt the need to be baptised by John: Matthew in his Gospel was equally puzzled. I understand the confusion: if you are thinking of Jesus as the Cosmic Christ or the Risen Lord then you might well think of him as being without sin. [see my article ‘Which Jesus’] But it seems clear that the man Jesus of Nazareth did feel the need for John’s baptism as a sign of his repentance, and I wonder what it was that he needed to repent of?  The Gospels don’t tell us, so ultimately we’ll never know, but I find myself intrigued by the question. 

Jesus often taught people by telling them stories. I wonder where he got the ideas for his stories? Some appear to be derived from images in the Old Testament, like those about a vineyard. Others seem to have been drawn from everyday life in Galilee, like those about a sower, the giving of a party, a shepherd searching for a lost sheep, or the gathering of crops at harvest.  But in my experience the best stories are often derived from personal experience and I wonder if some of Jesus’ stories might have been?  The story of his baptism, which only he could have told, must be one but I wonder if there might be more?  I am thinking of two other stories that stand out for me, because they are seem more focused and detailed than the rest. 

I remember, many years ago, reading the suggestion that the story of The Good Samaritan’ may have had its origins in an event that happened to Jesus himself: that he had been attacked and beaten up while on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem, and that it was his experience of being ignored by religious people whom he’d expected to help him, and looked after by a man whom he’d viewed as his enemy. that caused him to rethink his views about who his neighbour is.  The suggestion was that eventually he told the story in order to challenge the conventional view about who was one’s neighbour, hoping that what had changed him might well change others too. As indeed it has. 

I find that suggestion very plausible. Not least because there is at least one other story in the Gospels that tells of how a personal experience persuaded Jesus to change his mind about a conventionally held view. I refer to the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman who begged for Jesus to heal her child and whom Jesus initially refused to help because she was not a Jew, until her persistence changed his mind. Again it was a foreigner who was the catalyst, and in this case a woman.  The Gospels tell us that Jesus was often surprised by the faith shown by foreigners, and even remarked that they showed more faith than his fellow Jews. It seems that God taught him things through them that he hadn’t learnt from his Jewish inheritance. 

It was while I was pondering the preacher’s words about Jesus having no need for John’s baptism of repentance, that I found myself drawn to his story of ‘The Prodigal Son’, and suddenly the lights came on. Again it’s a story with quite a bit of detail, it has no obvious Old Testament antecedents, and its unlikely to have been an everyday occurrence in Palestine.  Might this also be a story from Jesus’ own experience?  Might it be that he had left home as a young man taking with him his share of his inheritance?, that he subsequently squandered it and so had to undertake the ritually unclean work of looking after pigs owned by a non Jew, before coming to his senses and returning to his father where to his surprise he found forgiveness and a celebratory welcome he had not anticipated?  Clearly this is conjecture, and we’ll never know what the origins of this story actually were. But again it does seem plausible to me, and it would make sense of a number of other things as well. 

[1]. Crucially, it could explain why Jesus felt the need for the repentance offered by John’s baptism. He had received his father’s forgiveness, but his behaviour had resulted in him being ritually unclean and he no doubt felt the need for God’s forgiveness too. 

[2]. The words that God spoke to him at his baptism ‘you are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased’ could easily be imagined as the gist of what the father said to the returning prodigal. The message is likely to have been the same.  If so, it would be overwhelmingly powerful for Jesus to be received and welcomed by God in exactly the way his earthly father had received him. It could be the reason why he spoke of God as ‘Abba’, a Jewish child’s familiar name for its father.  No wonder he had to go away by himself into the wilderness to ponder the implications of this. Was what he had learnt to be true for him also true for others too?  And if so did his Heavenly Father want him to share what he’d learnt ? Was not this the essence of the Good News of God’s Kingdom that he left the wilderness to preach about? 

[3]. It could lie behind Jesus insistence that we sort out our personal relationship problems before asking for God’s forgiveness, because that had been his experience. 

[4]. It might explain why Jesus consistently sought out those whose life experience left them as outsiders in the Jewish community, and his concern, in God’s name, to include them. By his behaviour he had made himself an outsider, but he had then found himself graciously accepted, included and affirmed. 

[5]. It might lie behind his realisation that humans are not made unclean in God’s sight by external matters like working with pigs, but only by what lies in the human heart. 

[6]. It might lie behind the visit Jesus made to the country of the Gerasenes, where he cured a man and sent the evil spirits that had possessed him into a herd of pigs. Maybe this was where Jesus went when he left home, maybe he knew this herd of pigs, these people, and this man who was possessed. Maybe that was why he felt the need to go there? 

[7]. It might also in part explain those scenes in the Gospels when Jesus’ family clearly think that he’s not in his right mind and want to take him away, and which lead to him disowning them, ‘Who are my mother and brothers?’  If Jesus had behaved like the prodigal son it is easy to see that this might not have gone down well with the rest of his family, whatever his father might have thought, and especially his brothers. And if he then capped that by claiming a religious experience at his baptism, in which God also delighted in him as His beloved Son, you can see how they might have been concerned. 

The more I ponder the above, the more I sense that there is truth in it, and if that’s correct, several things seem to follow: 

[1]. It rehabilitates Joseph from being a peripheral figure in Jesus’ story, to being a vital & central one. Certainly as important as Mary. 

[2]. Jesus whole life-story becomes a powerful example of the truth that ‘nothing can separate us from the Love of God’, not even what looks like failure and humiliation.  In that it prefigures Jesus’ death and resurrection.  

[3]. It becomes not just a piece of abstract theological truth but the direct consequence of Jesus’ lived experience.   

[4]. It encourages us to treat our own experience as one of the most powerful ways through which God can and does speak to us.   

[5]. More: an acknowledged sense of failure has the potential to be the best thing that’s happened to us. And beware those who seems to have no acknowledged sense of failure. 

As I’ve said, this is all conjecture. There are alternative hypothesises which could explain all the points I’ve made, but they’re conjecture too. We will never know the truth of it.  But the question of why Jesus went to be baptised by John remains intriguing, and surely merits exploration, not least because it challenges many of our assumptions about Jesus.   So I apply the criteria ‘If this is true does it enhance and deepen my understanding of Jesus? And does it deepen and enhance my own relationship with God? For me the answer is ‘Yes’ to both, and so I intuitively sense that there is truth in it.   

Are we there yet?

Prayer space

Every day I go to my chair and I sit in the early morning light or dark. I set down my glass of water. I look into Your face. I’m pretty consistent about this. I get anxious if it is put off or I miss the appointment.

Every day I struggle.
I come with feelings of failure and inadequacy and waste.
I come wanting to be fixed.
I come to be sorted out.
I come wanting to know.
I come longing to be lifted up into a realm of light and eternity.
I come knowing there is so little time.

Every day,
if I give You the chance
amidst the barrage of longing and complaint,
You tell me to put all this to one side.
I can almost see You sweep the table
__________________________________ bare
with Your arm.
Every day You tell me,
“I just want to be here with you.”

Every day I struggle not say,
“But what about this?
and what about that?”
Every day I struggle to accept that
what I am is what You want.
It is not that I am enough,
“just as I am,”
but that any idea of being enough is a foolish mistake.
What could ‘enough’ possibly mean to You?

Every day I struggle to shut the fuck up and just let You be with me.
“Take a breath,” You say.
I want to know where this is going.
“This is it,” You say,
“We are here.”
I don’t get it. I never do.
I say, “Are we there yet?”
“Yes,” You say, “Yes.
We are here.”

I take a breath.
I feel it for a spell. Then,

“Yes, but…”

The timer goes. The hour is up.

It is never enough.

[Syndicated from thisbody.info.]

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