Sunday, December 09, 2012

Look elsewhere

 for the Third Sunday of Advent, 16th December 2012: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

Some people rail against religious self-help groups.
I encourage people to be introspective 
but some I hear them say
"What are these people looking at? What are they trying to find?...Looking at themselves!! As far as I can see"
They may have a point.
Many of us religious people get sidetracked 
looking only at ourselves.
The genuine religious pursuit, 
when we encounter it, must inevitably turn us outwards.
I am struck, for example, 
by two or three great figures of the last 50 years
who have striven to encourage people to turn inward 
and learn to pray deeply and to teach others 
to be deep rather than shallow
Some such are Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen
I think also of BonhoefferMother Teresa, and Jean Vanier.
There are many others 
who have perhaps not caught the public imagination in quite the same way.
All of these people advocate a strong internal, reflective life.
And yet all of them were pushed increasingly outside their cocoon towards an active, converting ministry which many people (myself included) find profoundly attractive.
Nouwen, for example, ( perhaps the most popular of these) 
gave the final years of his life to looking after a profoundly disabled man on a one to one basis.

Many thought this was a waste of a brilliant intellect and a gifted author.
Nouwen, however, saw it as the climax of his life in God, 
and you detect in his writing 
about this young man he cared for, Adam, 
a man who needed twenty four hour support
Nouwen displays a much profounder encounter with God 
and life than any of his other masterly writings were able to convey.

The movementThis is precisely the direction that we are moved in at this point in Advent.
not towards a fanciful introspection
or a sort of namby pamby Christmas card view of life
in which "God's in his heaven and all's right with the world" as Browning penned

Rather we hear Zephaniah
talking about the establishment of a real earthly kingdom 
in which the marginalised,
the poor, disabled, weak and outcast
will be cared for and will be secure (hardly a view of our present world)

We hear John the Baptist 
 inviting people to prepare for the coming of a Messiah
telling them that it is not just about a narrow religious practice
rather it is about practical expressions

        "What should we do?" they ask him

...We should share, we should be honest, we should not cheat

This is a far cry from the sort of introspection 
that the self righteous agnostics often quite rightly condemn, 
which is inward looking and self-obsessed

Likewise in one of the the purple passages we hear Paul saying to us that we need to orientate ourselves in the right way
and he uses the word rejoice to describe that orientation.
It is worth reflecting about the absolute nature of this practice of "rejoicing"
Rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS, in EVERYTHING by prayer and supplication
and the fruit of this is that Lord will become near
and we will discover this profound peace...which passes understanding...that we long for.

So, misericordiae mea
I have to admit that the angry old agnostics may have got it right.
They are right to rail about the self indulgent, inward looking 
that passes for "faith" today.
It is shallow, and to be despised.

But it is not what the Gospel advocates either!The true life of faith 
will indeed seek to pray seriously and carefully
But that commitment will orientate towards others in a spirit of compassion and hope.

This week in Advent
  1. Try to find a time to be quiet to God and make a commitment to try to pray better
  2. In that time look not only at how God leads you in, but also where God is drawing you out. What act of service, care of compassion (plenty of opportunity in this week prior to Christmas) is being set before you? Why not try to do it?
  3. In the spirit of Rejoicing! give thanks to God for anything that stands out as an opportunity for life rather than death.

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