Spiritual Speed Limit

I am always amazed by how often a Confession Father has to encourage people to pray and to read their Bibles.

Now I know that modern life is pretty busy and pretty hard to get organised and balanced, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the person who doesn’t do those things because they find them uninteresting, or even unpleasant.

Communicating with God ought to be one of the most beautiful experiences we can have. Imagine with me, for a moment, that tonight as you prepare for bed Jesus Himself appears in your bedroom. “Come, sit down beside Me My child,” He says gently. “There is so much I want to hear from you! Tell me, how is your life at the moment?”

What would your reaction be? “Oh, sorry Jesus (yawn). I’m really tired tonight. So do You think we could do this some other time?” I don’t think so.

We seem to have an amazing talent for turning something beautiful into something really boring. We do this by letting our time with God degenerate into a routine; or a heavy duty; or a footnote to ‘real life’. We look at the Agbia as a timesheet – so long as I tick off the boxes as completed I’ve done my job. Finish them quick and you’ll have more time for fun things. Read a bit in the Bible and tick that box for extra bonus points.

Time with God is a journey where the travelling itself is almost as important as the destination. There are two ways to go for a drive in the country. One is to drive at maximum speed because you just want to get to where you are going. The other is to drive more slowly and enjoy the scenery along the way. I think that spiritual practices are meant to be more like the leisurely drive. There is so much to learn and so much to enjoy along the way – why rush to the finish?

Why not make the journey your own; stamp your individual mark upon it. Do you like singing? Sing your Agbia prayers. Use tunes that you enjoy, that bring the words to life for YOU. Are you a thinker? Forget the ‘word limit’ on your Bible reading. Just read until you have enough to mull over and contemplate and transform into daily practice.

So take your foot off the accelerator for a little while and cruise gracefully along the highway of prayer, stopping for a leisurely lunch at Cafe Bible. I can confidently recommend the honey scones…

Fr Ant

Zephaniah’s Zoo

Reading the second chapter of Zephaniah, I found it interesting to see how the overthrow of the evil nations is often portrayed in the Old Testament as a victory for nature. The plants and the animals resume their domination of lands that once were ruled by mighty kings.

It implies that man is, after all, pretty weak. Even his greatest constructions fall to the gentle ravages of time and nature combined – the empire created by God, nature, always wins out in the end. The fragile pelican shall sit as king upon the great pillars, and the mournful cry of the bittern shall replace the trumpets of the King. These inhabitants at least, shall praise the true God, unlike their human predecessors.

It is also a metaphor for getting back to basics, for simplicity, for ‘meekness and humility’. The simple life in touch with the land and the seasons and the beasts somehow instils in us a mode of connection that we miss when we are surrounded by our own creations in the city. Perhaps it is because we can no longer clearly see God’s creation? Perhaps it is because our own urban creations make for an incredibly unbalanced life, one of rush and anxiety and unfocussed vision that leads us to look too much to things that don’t matter? In the city, where is the wonder of the Milky Way at night, bisecting a sky dazzled with uncountable stars? Where is the gentle serenity of a silent walk in the fields with nothing but cows and dandelions for company? Where is the profound meditation that comes from these experiences, building up day after day to a well of wisdom?

It reminds me of a story I once read about an American father who takes his son to an impoverished third world country to teach him about poverty. The child comes home and thanks his father for showing him just how poor he really is. For the child, the simple life of the impoverished citizens, with time to spare, surrounded by people who love you with a love undiluted by material cares and the beauty of nature for your roof, walls and floor is a life of untold wealth. His own life comes a very poor second!

Simplicity.

A topic worth coming back to…

GBU

Fr Ant

The Challenge of Change

Change dominates our lives. I wonder sometimes if it was always so, or whether we happen to live in an age in which change has particularly accelerated? More likely, the latter.

As a child, water was never in your thoughts – it was something to be used when needed, and wasted happily – how could we ever run out of water??? There was no need to worry about switching off unused lights. It was cheap, and it didn’t do anyone any harm. Big cars were all the rage, never mind the amount of petrol you burned up, or the tons of fumes you spouted out – the earth was big enough to deal with them. No need to lock your doors or close your windows when you went out. Toys and bicycles left on the front lawn for days would still be there when you needed them. And you could pick up a hitch hiker by the road without fear for your life. Kids roamed the suburban streets alone, played in public parks and went to public toilets on their own.

It sounds like another planet.

Today, out lives are taken up far more with technology, which makes wonder too. Technology is a good thing to have, but when you have something, do you really have to use it? Just because it’s there? Someone was joking recently about being addicted to their navigator. Sure, it’s a novelty at first, and then the convenience of it makes it quite useful, but at what price? What price do we pay for our technology addictions?

1. The brain loses skills. Why work out a sum in your head when a calculator can do it for you?
2. The body loses health. Why walk when you can hop in a car to get there?
3. The spirit loses life. Why think of the unseen world when there is so much to interest you in the seen one?

That is certainly a change I have noticed over the years, not least in myself. It can take quite a degree of will power to say, “Stop! I know the technology can do it faster / cheaper / easier, but it isn’t just a matter of getting it done. It’s also a matter of doing. And it is in the doing that I as a human being grow and develop, whether in mind, body or spirit.

I recall HH Pope Shenouda III commenting once on the criticism that today’s Coptic monks live a life of luxury compared to the days of the ancient desert Fathers. Today, they have a nice bed in their cells, a sink with running water (hot and cold). glass windows, and so on.

His response was, yes, that’s true, for this is the way of life from which they have come. But that doesn’t stop the individual monk from choosing to live an ascetic life. He can fill up one jug of water in the morning and make that his ration for the whole day, just as an ancient Father would fill up his jug from the spring in the morning and have to make do with it for the whole day. He can desert his bed and sleep on the floor. He can leave his windows open.

Our life isn’t only the environment we live in, but what we make of that environment, how we use it. Yes, our environment has changed. It has become more crowded, more insecure, more complicated. But that doesn’t mean that our lives have to follow the same trend.

Think about it…

GBU

Fr Ant

The Blog in Your Own Eye

How hard can it be, really?

As a priest, I often hear people complaining about others. For a multitude of motives, people will come to complain to Abouna, perhaps because he is ‘in charge’ at Church, or perhaps because they think he will fix the person up, or perhaps (I hope not) because they think it will benefit them somehow to tarnish the reputation of their enemy in Abouna’s eyes.

Before I go further, I should probably point out that it doesn’t work, just in case you’ve ever been tempted to think it might be fun. Priests in general do not hold a ‘bad idea’ about anyone. We tend to take the view that all of us, (including the priests) are sinners grappling with their own weaknesses and all equally in need of God’s mercy and grace.

But I wonder why some people do so enjoy picking out other people’s faults? We all do it. It’s an easy trap to fall into. But why do we do it?

Does it make the critic feel superior, perhaps?

Or perhaps it makes him feel better about himself: if you can’t rise to the level of others, the next best thing is to bring them down to your own level.

Does it make him feel intelligent, something like: “Oooh, aren’t I clever for picking that up, when the person I’m criticising clearly has no idea!”

Or is it a sort of passive way to get back at someone. You know you can’t punch them in the face, so you fantasise about condemning them.

Does it distract him from the painful subject of his own faults?

I think I would be very unhappy if my self-esteem depended on putting others down. How miserable! And what a waste of time! Surely my self-value is not relative? Whether I am a good person or a bad person depends on who I am, not on how bad others are. If all around me were evil, horrible people, and I was no worse than a simple liar, that doesn’t make me a saint, simply by comparison!

The danger in finding lots of specks in other eyes, of course, is that I might never focus on the log in my own eye. This has two rather undesirable consequences:

1. I will never be able to repent from my sins, for I will never become aware they even exist.

2. When the time comes for me to be judged by the real Judge, He will apply the same degree of mercy to me that I applied to others. Uh-oh…

Now I am getting worried. I’ve been writing a lot of opinions on this Blog. Sometimes, they have been quite critical. Have I been focusing on the specks in the eyes of others, while all the time neglecting the blog in my own eye?

Fr Ant

PS A person whose vision is obstructed by a log is unlikely to have the ability to see something as small as a speck anyway. Think about it….

My Golden Chest

What is it like to be one of those whose names are written in the Book of Life? The following is only a fictional metaphor of how I see it:

I found a golden chest one day, buried in the field. It was small and it was covered with grime, but in curiousity I dug it out and cleaned it and opened it up. And what did I find inside but nine little jewels sparkling like the sun. They had names on them: love and joy, peace and patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and gentleness and self-control.

I closed the chest and hugged it to my heart. It was too beautiful for words. It was what my heart had long desired without ever realising it!

Nearby, I noticed something glimmering in the sunlight under a bush. I went to explore, and there I found some more magnificent gems. These were a brilliant diamond named Truth, a bright red ruby labelled Faith and a soft blue sapphire with Humility inscribed upon it. I opened my chest and added them to my collection. I was the happiest man in the world! How could a poor man like me have come upon such unimaginable wealth?

But it wasn’t wealth in the normal sense, I realised. Wealth is only wealth if you are ready to spend it to buy something else you need. Here I had everything I needed, and I would NEVER part with my chest, nor the smallest of its contents. If wealth is to already have everything you need, then I was the wealthiest man in the world!

The days and years passed, and I kept that chest clung close to my heart at all times, for I loved it. Whenever I needed nourishment or encouragement, help or comfort, I would find it in the contents of that golden chest.

And I clung to it with everything I had. It wasn’t easy. For sometimes, it changed…

I clung to it grimly when once I was swimming across a deep swirling river and the golden chest suddenly turned into a heavy stone that weighed me down and seemed to be sucking me into the cold dark depths. But I would not let it go. Better to drown and have my golden chest than to live without it.

And I clung to it when it suddenly changed into a life preserver, full of a Spirit lighter than air, that smoothly lifted me back into the fresh clean air above the river, and dried me off and took away my fears.

I clung to it when it became icy cold and threatened to freeze my heart to the hardness of stone. It ached and hurt more than I can describe, yet I clung to it with all my strength, for what is my heart without my golden chest? No, I would not let it go.

And I clung to it when a fire was ignited within it and engulfed it, and my heart with it. A roaring blaze, an ecstasy of undiluted Joy that scorched my heart with its power, for hearts like mine are not made for such temperatures. Yet I clung to it, for to let it go would have shrivelled my heart far more than any flame.

And I clung to it when it became a soothing ointment, after the ice and the flame, that was balm to my heart and brought the sweetest, sweetest relief and pleasure.

I clung to my golden chest through these and many more trials besides. I clung to it, because I had invited it to become a part of me, and it had accepted. To lose it would be to lose myself – I would no longer be me, but someone else without it. If I had let it go, my heart would had gone with it, for it had become one with my heart, and there was no instrument or surgeon in the world who could separate them from each other.

My Golden Chest is me, and I am my Golden Chest. I will never let it go, whatever happens. In fact, I don’t think it possible any longer for me to let it go. And I am most content that that should be so, for I love my Golden Chest with every fibre and sinew of my being.

Fr Ant

Is Anyone Hungry?

Last night at the CCP we were talking about the nature of serving God and of the person who serves God when an interesting contemplation came up.

In the passage about the end of the world, in Matthew chapter 25, Jesus tells those on His right side, “I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, I was a stranger and you took Me in, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you visited Me, I was in prison and you came to Me”.

I find this image quite beautiful. You can almost imagine the surprised expressions on the faces of these people. “When did we do these things for You?” they ask honestly. (It would have been no good just being quiet and hoping He would not notice that this was a case of mistaken identity!) They couldn’t remember ever seeing Jesus and doing something for Him. Perhaps they couldn’t even remember doing those things for “the least of His brethren”. The reason for this apparent amnesia is that they did these services without even thinking about it. Do you remember what you had for dinner last Tuesday? Unless you’re some sort of obsessive gastrophile, the answer is probably ‘no’. Eating is such a normal, basic part of life. For these people, helping others is just as normal and basic in their life. It is something they did without even thinking about it – it just came naturally.

That’s what it takes to get to Heaven.

But that’s not the end of the story. Think about those things that Jesus ‘was’ when they served Him. Sound familiar? In fact, they are all the things we ARE, spiritually speaking. Spiritually, we are hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick and in prison:

Hunger: we ache for the empty hole in our lives to be filled with the love and the purpose that God gives.

Thirst: we are parched with yearning for the sweet cool living water of the Word of God, the Truth that satisfies.

A Stranger: we are strangers in this world, lost, without a place to rest, not belonging, trying to find our way home.

Naked: our sins leave us exposed before God’s penetrating gaze, and like Adam and Eve before us, we feel the shame that sin brings, and need Him to clothe us with His mercy and forgiveness.

Sick: our thoughts are those of a fevered mind, infected with the plague of worldliness and selfishness, desperately in need of healing and comfort.

Prisoner: we have allowed ourselves to be taken captive by the merciless enemy, the devil, who enchains us cruelly – who will set us free?

So you see, it was not our service for Him that was really important in this whole exercise, but His for us! He saw that we needed all those things, and desperately. He came to us, and did all those things, or at least, He offered to, if only we would accept. And those of us who accepted were so changed that they couldn’t help doing the same things back to others. Much like a little child whose parents always say ‘please’ and ‘thankyou’ to her at home, so she goes to school and says ‘please’ and ‘thankyou’ to her teachers and fellows.

The key, if you trace the story back, was when the human soul accepts the service offered by Jesus, accepts His feeding, giving drink, clothing etc.

It’s that simple.

And it’s that hard. Do you accept Jesus’ service each day? Do you choose to come before Him with your hunger and thirst and take from His hand His life-giving spiritual nourishment?

When I was little, we got a pet cat simply by feeding a stray for a few days on the back verandah. It decided to adopt us and make our house its home. So devoted was it that we actually ended up getting three generations of cats, and only broke the relationship when we moved house. The person who gets used to coming to Jesus every day (if not every minute) soon also may choose to make His House his home. He becomes part of His family, and remains with Him to the end of his days. Does this describe you?

We started by talking about serving others. We ended by finding that it is we who are in need of service from Christ. If you do not feel that you have this kind of relationship with Him, don’t just sit there … do something about it!

Fr Ant

My Sole’s Desire

If ever there was an unsinkable sin, it is pride.

Just when you think you’re finally getting the upper hand, in it pops into your heart again like sand from the beach in your shoes. That’s the darned nuisance of it! It is too small to notice, until it builds up and grates on your sole (soul). And when you finally pay attention to it and start shaking it out, it just never seems to go away. You can’t SEE anymore of it, but once you put your shoes back on and start walking – there it is again, annoyingly irritating!

And if, by some miracle of grace you manage to free yourself from its clutches for a little while, don’t get too comfortable …

It lies in wait, silently stalking the unsuspecting prey. Let him feel secure … let him think himself safe … the safer he feels, the easier to hunt him …

Sure enough, just when you thought it was safe to go outside …

BANG!!!

Back to square one, yet again (sigh).

Why is it so hard?

Is it because we so easily confuse our need for self esteem with its correlating vice, the need for the approval of others? Or is it because we think so little of ourselves that we need to invent things to feel good about? Why must I be great / special / popular / successful / wealthy / powerful / admired / (fill in your own brand of pride here)???

Why can I not just accept that this is who I am, this is how God made me, and that He knows what He’s doing? If I could drum it into my thick head that God actually loves me as He made me, and stop trying to impress Him, or me or anyone else, life would be SO much simpler. “But by the grace of God, I am what I am” said St Paul.

Perhaps that’s what it takes. He said that because he knew that all his life he had to live with the knowledge that he had previously been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent, gentle Christians. That sort of burden weighs you down so much that there isn’t a lot of room left for pride underneath it.

When we are most broken, then we are closest to God…

Perhaps, then, the answer lies in learning to know myself truly, learning to understand my profound weakness on the one hand, and God’s immeasurably greater mercy and love on the other.

Oh well … “In your patience possess ye your soles”.

Fr Ant

An Axe To Grind

If the axe is dull and one does not sharpen the edge, then he must use more strength; but wisdom brings success.
Ecclesiastes 10:10

There is a lot of power in this simple little observation. When you hear it, you think “Well that’s pretty obvious!” yet it is amazing how often I will keep on chopping with a blunt axe, apparently more willing to invest more and more energy into each blow for less and less result, rather than simply taking a few moments out to sharpen it.

This applies to many things in life, but perhaps most especially to one’s spiritual life. How many people persevere unthinkingly with an unfruitful spiritual activity – with empty prayers, for example, or disasterous ways of dealing with others – and never think to stop and sharpen the axe?

Ten minutes to think and pray about praying could make the world of difference for all the hours of praying I have yet to do in my life! Ten minutes of analyzing what I did wrong, that so upset someone today, could save me dozens of lost hours trying to solve similar future problems, as well as saving both of us the horrible negative feelings that go beside these disputes.

I often desire the sharpness of my axe that will smoothly and effortlessly cut through the red tape of life. Yet far less often do I trouble to stop what I’m doing and walk over to the sharpening wheel.

Fr Ant

“… To Wide Critical Acclaim”

“Wow, that was a great sermon today, wasn’t it!”
“Yeah, and last week’s was really good too!”
“Oh really? I missed that one.”
“It was mad! One of the best I’ve heard.”
“The one two weeks ago wasn’t so good though. Not enough oomph, you know? I thought it was really dry.”
“No, I remember that one. Yeah, they let the standard drop a bit sometimes, don’t they?”
“I’ll tell you what, though, I went to St Fruitious Church a while back – not happy Jan.”
“Why?”
“Oh, the sermon was a real dog. No life in it, you know? Doesn’t rate compared to our sermons we get. I don’t really know how the people at St Fruitious put up with that.”
“Yeah, I know. We’re really lucky here. Nothing but the best quality, hey?”

The dialogue you’ve just read is fictitious, but I am sad to say it’s not far off some real world discussions I have heard. Attitudes like this bring a question to my mind: What is the purpose of a sermon?

Having heard the two parishioners above, you might be forgiven for thinking that a sermon’s main goal was to entertain you. Change some of the nouns in that dialougue and you could be listening to two people discussing the latest movies. That is what film critics do. Their job is to assess the value of a movie, and then report on it to the public. I am not a professional film critic, but I imagine it must make it a little hard to just sit back and enjoy the experience when you have to be on the lookout for faults and shortcomings, and make sure you remember them for future reference. When I hear people talking about the ‘quality’ of a sermon, and comparing sermons, and so on, I get a little worried. I wonder whether they have benefitted from the hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit, or whether they missed out on hearing that voice because they were too busy being merely ‘critics’.

Most of the priests and servants I know have a very simple rule about speaking in public (and in private too, most of the time!) It is this: DON”T SPEAK. Don’t let yourself speak. Pray with all your heart that God will be kind enough to put you to one side, and let His Holy Spirit speak instead of you. It is remarkable what a difference this principle makes.

I have had the experience (all too often) of going into a talk all full of confidence, based on my hours of careful preparation and research, only to find that it fizzles into a whole lot of gibberish, and no one gets anything out of it. On the other hand, I have also had the experience of finding myself forced to give a talk I haven’t prepared, realising that I am totally incapable of doing it, begging and pleading for God to come to the rescue of these poor people who must endure sitting and listening to me, and then finding that it turns in to one of the best talks I have ever given. In these situations, it is not uncommon for me to find that I myself needed to hear those words the Holy Spirit brought out of my own mouth – it’s almost like I too am in the audience, listening to His words attentively.

Now please don’t get me wrong – I am not describing some sort of mystical trance state here! I am simply remarking that the Biblical principle of “When I am weak, then I am strong” applies really well to this situation. Which makes me think a little further … who are we little humans to be critics of the words of the Holy Spirit? Is it our place to come out of a talk or sermon and give the Holy Spirit a mark out of ten?

“Great sermon today – I’d give it 8 1/2.”
“Oh, come on. Surely not! The stories were old and that’s the fifth time he’s used repentance as his theme in a month. I’d give it 6 1/2.”

Somehow, that just doesn’t seem right…

Perhaps a better response is to do what all true movie lovers do – just sit back and pay attention, and let the sermon seep into your consciousness. Open your heart and mind as well as your ears and eyes. Be on the lookout for that phrase or idea that God wants you to hear today. Don’t get sidetracked with irrelevant details like how the speaker delivers his speeach, or whether he has a nice voice or not, or whether you’ve heard this before, or any of the multitude of other criteria that critics use.

God speaks to us in many ways every day of our lives. Some of these ways are subtle and hard to pinpoint, while others are quite obvious. We all expect to hear Him speaking to us in a sermon or talk – that’s a pretty obvious place for Him to speak! Don’t waste the opportunity by being critic.

Fr Ant

Roof Ruminations

Those of you who know me might know that I am interested in the stars.

The sky at night has always fascinated me, ever since I was little. I could lie for hours on my back on the ground just gazing up at that velvet dark blue canvas with the multitude of delicate sparkles of light and occasional faint wisp of silvery mist. I can totally agree with the Psalmist who wrote The heavens declare the glory of God …

I find many things to think about when I look at the stars. Their distance astounds me and humbles me. The closest star to us is Proxima Centauri, a little over 4 light years away. That means that the light we see from it today left the star over four years ago, in 2003, and has been shooting towards us all that time a tthe speed of light (300,000km/hr). The furthest objects visible in the most powerful telescopes, quasars, are 12,000,000,000 light years away. How big is the universe? Unbelievabley, mind-blowingly, unimaginabley HUGE!!! So how big are we, the great human race? We are nothing. We could blow up our whole planet and the universe wouldn’t even notice – we’d be no more than mosquito’s sneeze in the grand tale of time.

That’s a good thing to remember, for we sometimes think we are the centre of the universe. Sometimes we even think that of ourselves individually, not even as a human race. That’s just not true. The greatest among us is still no more than a little blip in this cosmos. Again, the Psalmist asks God What is man, that You are mindful of him, or the son of man that You visit him? We could extend that to ask, What are the problems of man, that You should care for them? Yet God does care. The God who made this big, big universe shows me His love by caring for my tiny little problems in the midst of this huge cosmos, and I find comfort in the fact that He who moves the galaxies can solve my little problem pretty easily.

Lying on the ground at night, gazing into the depths of space, you can sometimes convince yourself that you are indeed on the surface of a planet hurtling through the void. Yet night after night, as the sun hides his shining face and the little specks of light begin to peek from behind their veil of light, you find they have not moved. In our lifetimes, the stars do not move. Planets do, and the moon does, and perhaps the odd comet or so, but the vast multitude of the heavens is there, day after day, unchanging, unmoving, fixed in their places, it seems eternally. No power hungry dictator, no mad scientist, no crazed anarchist can ever change them, or even touch them. It makes you realise just how feeble we are on this little planet, but I also find it a greatly comforting thought, for it reflects the unchanging steady nature of God Himself. I find the stars reassuring every night, in their regular places, and so also God reassures me every day, as I move through my human phases while He remains always a solid rock to navigate by.

Next time you happen to be outdoors at night, take a look up at the sky, and remember the One who created it for us, the most incredible roof anyone ever designed …

Fr Ant