Sunday, October 18, 2009

Asking big questions - on forgiveness

If you haven’t already, do make a note of the question you’ve always wanted to ask but never had the opportunity to.

As you can imagine the questions that appeared at the end of last Sunday’s service are pretty big questions.

It is the way that reading of the opening words of the Sermon on the Mount ends that prompts the first of those big questions.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “Happy are you when people insult you, persecute you and tell evil lies against you”

How can we learn to be able to forgive people when they do it to us personally? Not easy.

A big question indeed! And one I hesitate to respond to. I am not willing to tell anyone how to forgive. If forgiveness is important it is one of those things we each have to learn, discover, receive, grow into in our own time, in our own way. And I fear it is something we none of us can do in our own strength, but only in the strength that God gives.

Having said that, I do want to respond to the question.

First of all, I want to make a categorical response. A clear response. A definite response.

The questioner starts with a statement from which the question follows.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “Happy are you when people insult you, persecute you and tell evil lies against you.” The questioner then goes on to ask, “How can we learn to be able to forgive people when when they do it to us personally.”

In response, I first want to ask whether Jesus does say that in the Sermon on the Mount. Look again at Matthew 5:11 and 12

Happy are you when people insult you and persecute you and tell all kinds of evil lies against you because you are my followers. Be happy and glad, for a great reward is kept for you in heaven. This is how the prophets who lived before you were persecuted.

This is my categorical response.

Jesus is NOT talking about people who insult you, persecute you and tell evil lies against you at a personal level, in a personal kind of way.

Having outlined the eight general principles of the Beatitudes Jesus now turns directly to those who have decided to follow him and he gives them words of encouragement they are to hold on to when they come up against people who insult them, persecute them tell all kinds of evil lies against them BECAUSE THEY ARE FOLLOWERS OF JESUS.

These words have nothing to do with personal abuse, violent behaviour.

These words are about the persecution of Christians because of their Christian faith.

Contrary to the view of the little girl in Outnumbered who was echoing the words of a hymn, the Jesus of the Gospels, the Jesus at the heart of our Christian faith, is not meek and mild.

He is outspoken in his condemnation of those who are abusive and violent.

At the end of Matthew’s gospel Jesus speaks in no uncertain terms condemning those who are the perpetrators of falsehood, the lie and such evil behaviour. Woe betide you he says, not once, but seven times.

These words in the Sermon on the Mount have nothing to do with lies, abusive behaviour, bullying at a personal level.

Faced with such a situation Jesus would and did condemn outright the perpetrator of such violent, abusive destructive, bullying behaviour. He would respond and did respond to the victim of such behaviour by bringing healing to the damage that had been done.

That did not always involve bringing people together – it is easy to forget that Jesus also recognised there were circumstances in relationships where such damage had been done that it demanded separation of the people involved, and in the instance of it happening within a marriage, divorce.

The first part of my response to this difficult question is to say quite categorically those words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are not about personal insults and abusive behaviour.

So where does forgiveness come in?

There can be no escaping the centrality of Forgiveness for the Christian.

Forgive us our trespasses

As we forgive those who trespass against us

It is very easy to link ‘forgiveness’ with the restoration of a broken relationship. Sometimes the link can be made. Someone does something wrong, shows remorse, is forgiven and a relationship is restored.

But that link cannot always be made. When remorse is not shown, when relationships are broken irretrievably what about forgiveness then? Is it something that is inappropriate? Or is it still something of value?

I wonder whether there is a value in forgiveness for the individual quite aside from anything to do with the restoration of a broken relationship.

I wonder whether Jesus makes so much of the importance of forgiveness because he recognises that inside the individual who is a victim this thing ‘forgiveness’ can actually become part of a healing process for them as a victim.

It is in this context that I want to return to the question.

How can we learn to be able to forgive people when they do it to us personally? Not easy.

Let me share two stories.

At our Ministers conference this year we hosted an exhibition and welcomed someone whose inspiration the exhibition was. The exhibition was simply called ‘The Forgiveness Project’. Our speaker was Jo Berry. Jo Berry’s father was a Conservative MP who was killed in the Brighton Bombing 25 years ago last Tuesday.

She sat quietly and simply shared her story. It was deeply moving and humbling to listen as she spoke of the scale of the impact of what had happened. She spoke of the long long years of hatred, questioning, despair, that had led her to the quest for empathy, understanding … and the recognition of the importance of forgiveness.

Jo Berry's Story on the Forgiveness Project Web site

Roy Jenkins interviews Jo Berry and Patrick Magee on All things considered for BBC Wales.

To some, Lord Tebbitt included, who was so severely injured and whose wife was paralysed as a result of that bombing it was deeply offensive for the House of Commons Committee on Conflict to host The Forgiveness Project and its exhibition and to invite Jo Berry, a victim, and Patrick Magee who had planted the bomb to speak together on the same platform.

Harvey Thomas was interviewed by Ed Stourton on the Sunday Programme last week about the planned event and the importance to him of forgiveness. This is what he said …

An interview with Harvey Thomas.

See the report on the BBC News of this interview and the Forgiveness Project.

Two observations on that story. Harvey Thomas only speaks for himself. In the interview as originally broadcast he went on to speak movingly and supportively and with understanding of Sir Norman Tebbit who considered that meeting inappropriate and called in question the whole purpose of ‘the forgiveness project’.

A second observation. It took Harvey Thomas 12 years before he made the contact he felt was necessary. 12 years. A long time. It took Jo Berry more than 20 years and still she speaks of empathy, understanding, and not so much of ‘forgiveness’.

How do we learn forgiveness? I am not sure it is something to be learned. It is something to be reminded of. That’s why it is good to say the Lord’s Prayer. It is good to come around the table in communion and constantly be reminded of the forgiveness that we are on the receiving end of from God in the wonderful love of Christ, and then to be reminded of the forgiveness that can come in our heart.

We cannot learn forgiveness, we can be reminded of it. And as we are reminded of it, maybe it will creep up on us unexpectedly, in time the kind of forgiveness that can heal up our own wounds can come.

And such forgiveness can be healing.

Another story from the Forgiveness Project web site.

Francis & Berthe Climbié (England)

Victoria Climbié’s life was short and tragic. Born in the Ivory coast, at the age of seven her parents, Francis and Berthe Climbié , trusted her into the care of a relative, Marie-Therese Kouao, who brought her to England to be educated. It was here that she met her death – tortured and killed by the very person who had promised to help her.

Initially, when we first heard about Victoria we could not forgive. We are human beings and no human being is perfect. We were tormented by guilt, anguish and hatred, and could not understand how our daughter’s life could have been destroyed by someone who had promised to take care of her. Victoria was very, very precious to us. We had so many expectations and so much hope for our child. Even so, from the very first day we heard about the death of Victoria, we began praying that one day we would be able to forgive.

If you want to live happily and at ease in this life you have to learn to forgive. It shouldn’t matter if the person is unable to ask for forgiveness or even acknowledge that they’ve done wrong, because forgiveness cannot be based on conditions. So we’re not waiting for Marie-Therese to ask for our forgiveness: whether she asks for it or not we have forgiven her. But while Marie-Therese has shown no remorse, her boyfriend, Carl Manning, did ask for our forgiveness. The sad thing is he hasn’t achieved freedom – not in his body, his mind or his soul. We can’t ignore their culpability. Whatever wrong people do in life there will be a price to pay, but it is not for us to punish. The legal system has its way of dealing with people who are not fit to live among humans.

We have also been able to forgive all those agencies and individuals who were shown through the public inquiry to have failed our daughter. To be locked into a fixed attitude of retribution is to kill a child twice. First, the child is murdered, but if you as the parent then focus only on retribution, you extinguish the very spirit and memory of your child.

Many people in England have asked us why we gave Victoria away. I want to say that we didn’t give her away. In African society children are not just the children of their parents, but the children of their aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters. The greatest privilege of all is for a relative to offer to educate your child abroad. In Africa we are only able to survive because those who are successful feel a duty to help those who are not.

What comfort is revenge? Our greatest desire is that something positive should come out of this tragedy. That’s why we’re opening a school in the Ivory Coast. It will be a centre of excellence providing education for children from all around the world. The sole reason for Victoria coming to England was to get an education. This school is our way of immortalising the spirit and the name of our child.

Let’s keep saying the Lord’s Prayer. Let’s keep remembering the body of Christ broken for us the blood of Christ shed for the forgiveness of sins.

Let’s keep reminding ourselves of this thing called ‘forgiveness’ that Jesus shared with us and was convinced could make such a difference inside our own hearts.

How long do we go on reminding ourselves of this forgiveness? Seven times? Or seventy-times-seven times? It may take a life-time and maybe even more. It is not easy.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Listening and Asking Questions

The questions children ask are not always easy to answer.

Questions to the vicar – a clip from Outnumbered.

The questions the six year old asks will have changed by the time he reaches the age of 12.

But questions will still be there.

When Jesus was 12 years old he went missing in Jerusalem as his family returned from their celebration of the Passover. In a panic his parents search for him …

After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking questions.

That was something Jesus continued to do on into his adult life.

He was good at listening and asking questions.

What do you expect from the questions you ask?

The five year old expects an answer – clear, black and white, cut and dried, simple answer.

I suspect the twelve year old will not only ask different questions but also be prepared for different answers.

And the adult? Do we expect the questions we ask to have simple, black and white, cut and dried, straightforward answers?

Not only do we find Jesus time and again listening and asking questions, we also find in the gospels people coming to Jesus and asking questions of him.

What kind of answers do they expect?

If they were expecting those simple cut and dried answers, they were in for a disappointment.

Someone has calculated that of the 183 questions Jesus is asked in the four gospels he only gives a simple straightforward answer to three of them.

Is it that he avoids answering in a simple way? Or is it possible that the responses he gives to the questions he is asked are doing something different?

Richard Rohr is one of those thinkers I feel drawn to. A Franciscan he set up The Centre for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, back in 1987. He passionately believes that Christians should make a difference in the world through social care and the service of others. Equally passionately he believes that we can be sustained in that task only by prayer and reflection – the Centre for Action and Contemplation is ‘a place to be still and learn how to integrate a contemplative lifestyle with compassionate service. The Centre’s purposer would b e to serve not only as a forum for peaceful, non-violent social change but also as a radical voice for renewal and encouragement.” []

Felicity and I were talking through with Becky, Lrraine and with Mark Evans this week what we are looking for from our weekend away at Brunel Manor. We sensed that there is a business at Highbury that is great – it’s what church should be about. Great to see the mix of groups meeting and the range of activities we are doing.

Having a church weekend away is not something to add to that business. That weekend Mark and Denise will join us for will be an opportunity to get away together, and find the space for ‘renewal and encouragement’.

In the foreword to what looks an intriguing book with the title ‘The Questions of Jesus’, Richard Rohr reflects on what we expect from the questions we ask. “In the realm of soul and spirit,” he suggests, “there are not really answers as much as there are answering persons.”

Those really deep questions that are so important to share are not about the quest for cut and dried answers; instead their purpose is in Richard Rohr’s words, ‘to lead one into a vital relationship.”

So often people expect ‘religion’ to resolve their dilemmas and give straight answers.

Jesus works very differently.

Asked by Pilate “Where are you from?” Jesus gave him no answer (John 19:9)

Asked by the Herodians who were among those Jewish people who collaborated with the Roman occupation and the Roman power, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” he answered with another question, taking a Roman coin, “Whose head is this and whose inscription?” (Matthew 22:20)

Asked by a certain lawyer, Who is my neighbour? Jesus did not give a straightforward answer. Instead, he told a story, the wonderful story of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10:25-37)

Let’s take one episode in Mark’s Gospel.

17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’

Let’s get the question straight in our minds. So often people mistake the meaning of this question and imagine it to be asking, What must I do to get to heaven?

Listen to the question. What must I do to inherit something … you inherit something from someone who has died while you are still alive. The question is the key one to this Jewish young man … what must I do to inherit from all those who have gone before us who have belonged to the people of God and have shared this remarkable faith of ours, what must I do to inherit that life that begins here and now is shot through with the glory of God’s presence and is not bounded by death? Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

18Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

No immediate answer. But a question in response. Is it a clever put down? Or is it actually straightaway pointing this person back to God. It is Jesus the man at this point directing the young man to the goodness of God. Any questions about eternal life have to do with the goodness of God.

Then Jesus continues. Again, listen carefully.

19You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.”

Were you listening carefully?

Who knows their ten commandments?

Are these the commandments?

Or has Jesus slipped something in?

Six of them are the six commandments that have to do with our behaviour. The other four are to do with God.

But there are seven in this list.

The one Jesus has slipped in is in keeping with all the others.

Do not defraud.

Why has Jesus slipped that in?

Could it be that the wealth of this young man has been accumulated on the back of fraud?

20He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’

What happens next as this conversation unfolds we must not gloss over. Richard Rohr suggests it is one of the most moving of all moments in the whole gospel story.

21Jesus, looking at him, loved him

Was it that look that went behind all the façade, knew him as he was, with all his blemishes, maybe all the blemishes he wanted so carefully to conceal?

That look that loved in spite of knowing so much?

21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money* to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’

A general principle? For this young man it cut through to the bone.

22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

This young man does not instantly follow Jesus. Neither does he go away having rejected everything. He goes away in very deep thought. Grieving.

But that is not the end of the story. What follows on does not offer those who have been listening in to the story a simple, straightforward answer that is applicable to everyone. Jesus conversation has the effect of making them think. Track it right through and it leads to another question.

23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is* to enter the kingdom of God! 25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another,* ‘Then who can be saved?’

The response Jesus gives is not a simple, clear cut answer.

It is a response that makes them think even more deeply.

27Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’

The conversation started with the goodness of God. It finishes with the conviction that for God all things are possible.

And we are left looking in on the conversation Jesus had with the man, the conversation he had with the disciples. And we are left to draw our own conclusions. We are left asking more questions … but these are questions that have the potential to draw us more closely into a relationship with others who are grappling with the same problems, more closely into a relationship with God, and more closely into the way Jesus invites us to follow when he invites us to follow him.

How good it is to ask questions! That’s exactly what Becky and I would like to invite you to do. With the Order of Service paper is another sheet. It is for you to write down those questions you have always wanted to put in church but never had the opportunity to ask!

How good it is to ask questions! Can we move on from the quest for simple answers? Can we engage with answering persons? Can we see the process of asking questions as the way into a more vital relationship with God? Can our questions enable us follow the One who loved to listen and to ask questions?

Read Richard Rohr's Forward to John Deare's Book, The Questions of Jesus

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If you give a little love you can get a little love of your own

A blessing shared at Highbury

Now and the Future at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions

Darkness into Light