God is Abundant (3)
The First Road: The Way of Abundant Love
Discovering that the Name of our God is Father, and Abundant Love
When I candidated for the ministry in 1990/91 – I was very open about my intentions, my goal and my desire, but I was still very hazy on the details. As I went through the various committees, I had a lot of conversations that went something like this:
What are you going to do?
I will live the Ministry of Word and Sacrament as a Life of Prayer.
Yes, but what are you going to do?
I will pray.
Yes, but what are you going to do?
Intimidated. Call being tested. Wanted to be honest. Fluffed around. Not very convincing. Wish I had had the courage to be very honest indeed and say: I don't know. I am waiting to be shown. There aren't many precedents for this, at least in Methodism. I am making this up as I go along.
Since then, I have tried all sorts of things as ways of living out the calling. Calling is stronger than ever, but I am even less inclined to get bogged down in details of discipline. Because although the detail does matter, that is not where we start, or where we finish, or what should occupy us for much – even most - of the time. In prayer, in worship, in our devotional life generally, what matters is being drawn to the Light, returning to the Light, allowing the Light to shine on us, remaining in the Light, keeping the Light shining in us and letting the Light shine through us. Always. Everywhere. In everything. With everyone. Every day. Forever.
what matters is being drawn to the Source of our life, returning to that Source, allowing the Life to be poured out upon us, immersing ourselves in it, and remaining immersed, floating in it, allowing it to carry us downstream, staying with it and letting it flow around us and through us.
And if you think that is easy, you haven't tried it.
Prayer is reminding ourselves that the Name of our God is Father, Creator, Friend, Love. Prayer is reminding ourselves of the abundance of that love. Immensity of it. Picturing it, imagining it. Intensity, warmth, radiance, power, healing strength, capacity to transform things and engender renewal. Prayer is doing this, and allowing ourselves to know and feel and apply this light to every corner of our being. And then living in the light of that love and grace. Always. Towards everyone. Every minute of every day.
How can we picture the immensity of this love? Its scope and scale and range and reach? How much does God love us?
Notice how Jesus – or Luke - does not keep the focus on us, on what we might do in prayer. Rather, he shifts the focus back to God with a parable. How much does God love us? What does it mean to say that God loves us with a steadfast and enduring love? What does it mean to say that God's love endures for ever? What is the shape of God's love? Its dimension, range, power, depth, reach? How can we describe it? Jesus gives us a picture from ordinary life. Imagine this, he says. The sacred duty of hospitality. So if a friend arrives, you feed him. Even if he arrives at midnight, you feed him. Even if he arrives at midnight and you have gone to bed and you have nothing in the house, you still feed him. Not to feed him, not to care for him, not to meet his needs with an open and generous heart – this is not only the deepest shame – it is unthinkable.
And your other friends, in your neighbourhood, are involved in this hospitality. For a guest to be welcomed in your community brings honour to the community. For a guest to be send away without a welcome would bring shame to the community. Dishonour. The community would have shown itself to have been flouting the deepest laws, the custom, tradition, assumption on which life itself depended.
So you give. And if a friend comes to you at midnight, when you have gone to bed and your whole household is asleep, you still get up and welcome him in, and rouse everyone to provide a meal, and set before him the best food you have. Or the only food you have. And if you haven't any food, you go out and find some. You go to your neighbours and get them out of bed and rouse them – knowing that they will co-operate, even if they grumble, even if they curse you, because it just isn't done to turn a guest away.
And the friend or neighbour will help. They might grumble and complain and moan about you and these people who make journeys and turn up at all times of day and night, but he will help. He might be too angry and fed up to help because he is your friend, or because you are his neighbour, but he will still help. He might only help because he knows you will go on asking until he does so. He might only help in order that you will go away and let him sleep. But he will help. He will help because, deep down, he is your friend, and your neighbour, and he understands the need. He will help because, deep down, however much he is angered or irritated or exhausted by you, he responds to your humanity, and to the humanity of the guest. He recognises a bond, an ideal, and an obligation. The bond of common humanity, the ideal of generosity, and the obligation to show hospitality to a guest. Because we are all in this world together. And who knows, one day he might be a guest himself.
How is this a picture of God? Very grudging, reluctant, imperfect. Not a picture of God at work. A picture of how human beings do things. This is not how God does things. Not intended to be. This is a how much more picture. Look, Jesus is saying: this is how it works amongst us. This is how human beings work. We are often reluctant to give, but we give anyway. We give for all sorts of reasons – out of love, friendship, obligation, trust – and sometimes just to get rid of someone. But we still give. Human beings can be very generous, we value generosity and hospitality. We work to meet each others' needs all the time. Because we recognise the bonds that exist between us; because we value the ideal of the generous hero, the open-handed host; because we understand the duties, customs and traditions that underlie our society – that make human life work. Human beings can be very generous when they put their minds to it. Think how generous human beings can be, then double it, treble it, expand it again and again and again. Because God so is so much more than any human being, and gives beyond our imagination.....
God gives an abundance – wonderfully, marvellously, overflowingly. A full rich measure, shaken down, shaken together and yet still overflowing. God gives again and again and again. Then read again verses 9-13.
Is this only about the Holy Spirit? Yes and no. About the Holy Spirit first and foremost. Chapter goes on to describe the power of the Holy Spirit to deal with even the strongest counter-forces, hungers, fear. Love is stronger than fear. The need to allow the Spirit not only to displace the fear but to fill the place where the fear has been, to inhabit and remould and reshape that place. The fact that the Spirit or the flow of the Spirit is sustained by obedience. It is obedience that nourishes and sustains and perpetuates the blessing. Many are blessed by God, but do not receive, magnify and persist in the blessing because they do not allow the gifts of God to reshape their lives, and they do not reinforce the new shape of their lives through obedience.
God gives, but we have to be willing to receive. Receiving is not easy. All kinds of fears and fantasies and sabotaging behaviour get in the way and prevent us receiving, or persisting in receiving. The work of the Spirit may appear dramatic at times, but much of the time it is quiet, subtle and nuanced. The Spirit does not shout, it whispers, so we have to become still and quiet to receive it. We have to be prepared to clear away the rocks that block up the fountain. And then we have to be prepared to scrape away the sand that keeps silting up the channel, and then we have to be prepared to sit and listen to the voice of the water bubbling between the stones.
Are we willing to do this? To face the work of change? Genuine transformation guided by the Spirit of God? If we are not ready to let God change us, how can we expect God to change the world? If we are not willing to take responsibility for the praying that God wants to do in us, how can we blame the world for not taking steps towards justice and peace? No, the fact is that we do not want to change – we do not want to set out on the journey of prayer – we would rather know that other people are praying for us - special people are praying for us. We know that there is a hidden spring under the stones, but we do not clear away the stones, even though we are dying of thirst. Because our fear is stronger than our faith. We are afraid of what will happen once the water is released in us. What will happen once the flow of the water gets going and begins to change things.
And yet we are called to be living springs. We are called to be vessels of light. Lamps set on lampstands that give light to all in the house. We are called to be full of light, utterly radiant. Shining because there is no part of us that is not light. No part of us that is shadow or gloom or darkness. This is the vision. This is the calling. And this is our hearts' desire. The longing that God has put within us. The longing that is part of what it means to be a child of God, made in the image of God. We can hear that longing. That is why we are here. The inner spring is calling to us. The voice of the waters. The voice of God speaking to us in the inner spring that wells up within our hearts. The inner spring of the Holy Spirit. There. Welling up. But also trapped, blocked, confined, staunched. Because we are too afraid to let it flow.
Tried to support my prayer life through using different methods of prayer. Outgrown them all, or they have proved to be inadequate, or only partial. Not enough. One set of clothes after another. A willingness to be naked, to see ourselves as we are, and to be seen as we are. To set aside all props but Christ, all supports, all consolations but Christ.
We use possessions in the same way, as props and supports and consolations and comfort. Retail therapy. Clothes, or in my case, books. Nothing wrong with having nice things, or even lots of nice things. But can be a prop, an excuse, a way of hiding, a reason for not tackling what needs to happen, what needs to be addressed, what needs to change. We can collect things, rather than sort out emotional stuff. Life Laundry. Learn to live lightly, touch the earth lightly, carry less baggage.
John Le Carre, "A Perfect Spy," the boy Magnus Pym has a friend, Lippsie, who is a German Jew, an exile, a refugee.
"Whatever else Pym knew..... Was contained in her cardboard suitcase, for she never came to see him anywhere without whisking him to her room and foisting some piece of geography or history on him, or making him play scales on her flute.
'See, Magnus, without informations we are nothing. But with informations we can go anywhere in the world, we are like turtles, our houses always on our backs. You learn to paint, you can paint anywhere. A sculptor, a musician, a painter, they need no permits. Only their heads. Our world must be inside our heads. That is the only safe way. Now you play Lippsie a nice tune.'"
How can things be different for us? How can our prayer be different? The disciples did not need Jesus to teach them how to pray – they already had prayers – psalms, songs, traditional words. What they wanted was the depth and intimacy and generosity and abundance that they glimpsed in Jesus' interaction with the Father. They wanted that abundance for themselves. That abundant compassion that would help their words to have an impact, that would fill their actions with power, that would make a difference to the situations and circumstances into which they moved. That was why they asked him to teach them to pray. Because they wanted, not words, not even the words of the Lord's Prayer, but the words of eternal life.
Jesus points them in the right direction. This is a matter of inner attitude, not outward detail. The Pharisees – or some of them, like the one in the story, like the lawyer and others – had become obsessed with the fine detail. With outward circumstances. With consistency of interpretation. What do we do if..... Wanted to legislate for all circumstances so that they would always know what to do. So that there would always be a procedure to follow. So that there would never be any doubt, any grey areas, any areas of confusion. But that is the way of death. Go too far down that road and you are in danger of killing the Spirit with over-regulation. We channel the Spirit with the discipline of obedience. A deep, inner, rigorous and even sacrificial obedience that transforms us. But that does not give us the right to impose a detailed rule on others. Even if they are crying out to us – tell us what to think, tell us what to do. Because to others the detail is just a burden. And the burden kills the Spirit within them. No, what we have to do is to release them, energise them and inspire them to listen to the Spirit within them, so that, led and guided by it, they become capable of seeing what the Spirit is asking of them, and obeying it.
This is why Jesus gets so angry with those who worry about the external things, and who ask about social consequences, and matters of legality and authority and morality. Not because these things are unimportant – far from it. But because for the children of God all these things begin with the love of God expressing the heart of God and the mind of God. Get back to that, stay there, live from there, he is saying. Recapture your vision of the abundance of the Father, of the loving heart of the Father. Keep that image in your mind always, and live from that love, that generosity, that compassion, that hope. Keep that always in your mind and let it feed you. And as it feeds you, let it change you. Let it reshape your life, your priorities. Let it transform the way you think, the way you speak, the way you act. Let the Father's heart pray in you and the words will no longer matter. You will no longer worry about whether or not you are saying the right words. You will speak and you will act, and you will radiate light. And your light will shine throughout the house
What prevents us living lightly from doing this is our fear. Change - loss - fear - anger. We have to be honest about the pain, the fear, the anger. Honest with ourselves, honest with others, and honest with God. But then, having explored and expressed our feelings, God asks us to learn how to turn towards love. How to turn towards a deeper level of trust. Trust that God understands our feelings, and does not judge them, still less condemn them. That God is with us as our companion on the journey through change.
We are asked to trust that though we feel naked, we are becoming clothed with Christ. That though we feel fearful, we do have the resources of courage and resilience within us - the resources that we need - because God has already given them to us. That though we feel we are impoverished by change, that change is all about losing things, we are nevertheless, becoming rich towards God.
We are asked to trust that the life of God flowing through us is stronger than the death we are afraid of. The death of the things that matter to us. We asked to trust that Love is stronger than fear. Asked to trust that as we feel the fear, but continue asking - How can I turn this fear into Love? - the Spirit will not only to displace the fear but fill the place where the fear has been, inhabiting and remoulding and reshaping that place.
We are asked to trust - and obey - as the old song says. To trust, even if we feel fearful. To obey, even if we don't understand why it is important. For the flow of the Spirit is sustained by obedience. It is obedience that nourishes and sustains and perpetuates the blessing. Many are blessed by God, but do not receive, magnify and persist in the blessing because they do not allow the gifts of God to reshape their lives, and they do not reinforce the new shape of their lives through obedience.
This is not easy. In making this journey, the hardest thing is to stay on the road. But it is our willingness to stay on the road that is critical. God does not ask us to be perfect. God knows we will make mistakes. What God asks is that we will stay on the road. God says: I know it is hard, but please don't refuse the journey. That is what the rich man did. He refused the journey, got complacent, thought he had done enough. He thought he had arrived. That he could settle down. He thought he had everything, when in fact he had nothing.
What matters is not what we own, or what we can command. What matters is the quality of our nakedness. A nakedness that is nevertheless rich towards God. Because, although we struggle with ourselves, and with one another, and even with God, nevertheless we stick at it, stay with it, keep going. We do not refuse the journey. We stay on the road.