I was looking in my library for good comforting words to offer to a friend who is ill, and finding that most words of Christian comfort are over-concerned with the reputation of God and not enough with human trouble, when I picked up a book which I had neglected for too long, The “Showings” or “Revelations” of Julian of Norwich, a 14th century anchorite (hermit) in the Church of St. Julian in that city.

I had to study her book for my degree in English language and literature, but found that she, as a mere woman and Roman Catholic, was ignored in my subsequent theological study. She has become more prominent of late due to the rise of feminist theology, and to the fashion for spirituality, rightly so, because she is one of the great minds and spirits of the Christian tradition. As she wrote in Middle English, I have translated here a passage for my friend regarding prayer.

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After this our Lord showed me truth about prayer, in which showing I saw two topics in our Lord’s communication: rightful prayer and surer trust. (For still many times our trust is not full, for we are not sure that God hears us, as we imagine, due to our unworthiness, for we feel we are absolute zero. So often we are as barren and dry after our prayers as we were before.  Our daft feelings are therefore the cause of our weakness, as I have felt them myself.)

Our Lord brought all this suddenly to mind, when he showed me these words and said, “I am the ground of your asking: firstly, it is my will that you shall have it; secondly I make you desire it; then I make you ask for it, and you do seek it. How then should it be that you do not  get what you seek?

In these four reasons our Lord showed a mighty comfort, as may be seen if we examine the same words.

In the third reason, where he says, and you do seek it, there he shows what great delight and everlasting reward he will give us for our seeking. And in the fourth reason, where he says, How then should it be that you should not get it?  this is said as if it were impossible, since it is completely impossible that we should seek mercy  and grace and not have it. Indeed, everything that our good Lord makes us seek, he himself has designed for us from before creation. Here we can see that our asking is not the cause of the goodness and grace he does to us, but only his his own goodness, a fact he showed truly in those sweet words that he said, “I am the ground.” And the good Lord wants this to be known by his lovers on earth, so that the more we know, the more we shall ask, if we understand this wisely, as our Lord intends.

Asking is a true, gracious and enduring will of the soul, united and fastened to the will of our Lord by the sweet secret working of the Holy Spirit. Our Lord himself, he is the first receiver of our prayer in my view, and he accepts it very thankfully. As he enjoys it so much, he sends it up above and places it in a treasury where it shall never perish. It is there before God with all his holy saints, continually received, forwarding our needs. And when we enter into our eternal happiness it will be given back to us as a small instance of joy, with endless, dignifying thanks from him.

Our Lord is very glad and merry about our prayer, and he looks for it, and means to have it. With his grace he makes us like himself, as much in our present condition as we are in nature, for that is his blessed will. For he tells us, “Pray seriously, pray inwardly. Although it seems unpleasing to you, still it is profitable enough, even if you feel nothing. Pray seriously, pray inwardly, even if you feel nothing, even if you see nothing, yes, even if you think you cannot pray. For in dryness and barrenness, in sickness and feebleness, then your prayer is most pleasant to me although it seems unpleasant to you. And so are all your living prayers in my sight.”

So, in respect of the reward and endless gratitude that he will give us, he is covetous to have us praying continually in his sight. God accepts the goodwill and trouble of his servants, however we feel. Therefore it pleases him that we work in prayer and good living by his helping grace, always reasoning with good judgement, as we direct all our faculties to him, until we possess in complete joy the One we seek, namely Jesus.

Showing 14, chapter 41 of The Showings of Julian of Norwich

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This seems so good to me that I will provide some more tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This might be the last of my 10 commandments for would- be followers of Jesus, and it’s certainly got plenty of evidence to back it. Jesus was scathing about those who wanted to support him but could not leave their comforts behind, even if these included attendance at family funerals. “Let the dead bury the dead” he said, scandalously, reserving particular scorn for people who tried out discipleship but gave up, likening them to crofters who only managed to plough half a field.

In fact he was up front with his warnings, asking people to pick up their crosses and follow him.  The Pythons parodied this utterance memorably in the Life of Brian. But he was  was not suggesting mass crucifixion, or even as some believers think, that we all have our crosses to bear, but rather that his followers might have to oppose the Imperial power to the peril of their lives. Jewish jihadis made this choice, but Jesus was asking it from peaceable people.

“Foxes have holes, the birds of the air their nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” He couldn’t have made it plainer that he was not promising comfort.

There is a radical edge to Jesus’ ministry: in the name of God’s kingdom he was opposed to the way of the world, not out of asceticism – he liked eating and drinking- but out of passionate opposition to its injustice and hypocrisy. He did not teach people to bear with the world’s wrongs, but to fight them with truth and lovingkindness.

It’s helpful to compare Jesus to his great disciple, St Francis, who was similarly brusque to any brother or sister who looked for a comfortable life. But Francis was an ascetic; he loved poverty and the spirit; hated riches and the body. There is something almost unhealthy and pathological, in Francis’ dislike of comfort. Jesus, however, loved people, companionship, and the welcoming table, but accepted  that his mission would mean deprivation of these good things.

A liking for comfort is not contrary to the example of Jesus; thinking you are entitled to it, is.

 

This is a tough one for me, as all the worst things I’ve done have been products of arrogance, of times when I was feeling well-appreciated and could do no wrong. But I did wrong through misusing the power I had over others. Looking back I burn with shame at the memory of what I did or said.

So I have no difficulty in accepting Jesus’ frequent warnings against arrogance, especially his put-downs of pharisees and even of his own disciples. In his teaching about charity he criticised those who drew attention to their own goodness, urging that they should not be conscious of their kindness: “don’t let your left hand know what your right is doing!” That surely cuts off any self- congratulation. His prohibition against judging others is primarily an attack on the arrogance which allows one sinner to castigate the sins of others. And his response to the desire of some of his disciples to lord it over others, goes to the root of the problem: “The rulers of the gentile nations lord it over their people, but it is not so amongst you. If anyone wants to be great he must be the willing slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” God’s “Humane Ruler” (Son of Man) with whom Jesus identified, was a slave not a tyrant.

Jesus’ persistent advocacy of the importance of children and of the kind of adults he called “little ones” ran counter to the taken-for-granted hierarchies of his society, and of too many branches of his church today, where unchecked power has led to the abuse of children and vulnerable adults. This example points to the link between arrogance and power. An arrogant person who has no power at all is a joke. But arrogance is usually a perception that you do have power in relation to another person and that it can be exercised to your advantage. Even in trivial matters you can feel a savage pleasure in doing so.

The arrogant of the earth are already busy deciding how the ever- scarcer resources of a warming planet can be used to secure their own life-style and privilege. We should not be fooled by the fact that some of them deny climate change. That’s for public consumption. They have already worked out whose territories and resources they will plunder when push comes to shove. Their arrogance must be constantly exposed and challenged.

Even more vital for the future of humanity however will be the example of those who have learned from Jesus or any other teacher, how to number themselves with the little ones and to serve the common good. There is an entirely erroneous view that humility entails ineffectiveness. The protests in Hong Kong at present by large numbers of ordinary people refusing to kow-tow to power while working together for the common good, are nothing if not effective; as was the humility of great leaders like Nelson Mandela or Luther King; as was the witness of a certain carpenter from Nazareth, who said, “Whoever welcomes this child welcomes me and the One Who Sent Me.”

I think my friends would agree that I’m not noted for the moderation of my disapproval; my language of condemnation tends towards the robust. Nigel Farage is a performing fart; Jeremy Hunt is a capon; and Boris Johnson? Johnson is always and only an asshole. I like the genuine English “arse” and would often use it in preference to an americanism, but there’s something about the brutal specificity and casual contempt of “asshole” which expresses my reaction to Johnson. In fact, it seems to me that part of his strategy in this election is to come out boldly as an asshole:

”My competitor tries to come on as a good guy, believe that if you want; but I am happy to stand before you as an asshole, the same kind of asshole as most Tory voters, knowing that you will trust me as one of you.”

I would be quite happy to defend this judgement in public, but I have to reckon with a higher court of judgement: Jesus said that the man who called his brother an asshole would be in danger of hellfire. He did so in the context of radicalising the commandment, Thou shalt not kill. He was not content with a prohibition of actual violence but looked at its causes such as contempt, hatred and hate – speech. Would he have warned me about my “robust” language? I think so, because it arises from my standing in judgement, my sense of superiority, my righteousness and my contempt, all of which he wanted his followers to uproot from their hearts.

But wait a minute! Didn’t Jesus condemn his opponents in fairly robust terms? His description of the scribes and pharisees as hypocrites comes to mind. Nobody likes to be called a hypocrite. But in Jesus’ time the word meant “play actor” which is robust enough but is simply an accurate depiction of the kind of insincere legalism he was attacking. Jesus obviously was not against tough-talking, of which his Bible included some good examples, especially by the prophets. Amos once compared rich women to a herd of cows. His own blunt descriptions of his disciples as slow-minded, blind and small in faith, plus his put-down of Simon as Satan show that his frankness extended to friends as well as foes. So how come he condemns people for saying asshole? First of all I have to admit he didn’t actually specify “asshole”; the precise quotation gives the Aramaic word “raqa” which is variously translated as “fool”, “idiot” “worthless,” and may be pretty forceful. I think Jesus was forbidding self-righteousness and contempt: these are on the road to violence.

It’s a tough call but I see the point, particularly when I think of some of Johnson’s robust speech, his “picaninnies with their watermelon smiles,” for example, where I can see clearly the contempt which wants the approval of other bullies. If I want to protect others from this sort of abuse, I should not use it myself.

And Jesus asks me to remember that Boris is my brother, however little I, or he, might like that description

 

It’s been fashionable for quite some time to treat the notion of God’s rewards and punishments as an embarrassment to liberal faith, and to leave it to fundamentalists who are only too keen to use it. For my own discipleship of Jesus, however, it remains essential.

For a start, the record of Jesus’ teaching in the four gospels includes many sayings that promise rewards or threaten punishment. Jesus seems quite at ease with a God who balances the persecution that will come to disciples, with eternal life in the age to come. Thinking of God’s judgement on those who harm the little ones, he says it would be better if those men had not been born. Nor is Jesus embarrassed by this topic; he returns to it often in quite a blatant way.

Of course, one can say that all of this is a primitive way of speaking and that Jesus was just using these human-all-too-human notions in a metaphorical way: he didn’t mean anyone to take them too literally. But in fact the contexts in which he said them are serious; and all talk of God is metaphorical. How could it be otherwise? So we may regard the “fire prepared for the devil and his messengers” as a metaphor for God’s punishment of those who have failed to care for the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters, but the warning of that punishment still remains.

Jesus had no illusions about life in this world: he knew that it was unfair, with evil people prospering and good people suffering. He knew that fatal accidents could happen to anyone. The reputation of the Creator God required him to be a source of restorative justice, giving laughter to the poor and tears to the careless rich.

There’s a great story about Nazruddin, the Islamic mad mullah. Two boys come to him, saying that they have found 12 glass marbles. They ask him to divide them fairly between them. “Do you want me to use Allah’s justice or my own?” he asks. “Allah’s of course,” they reply.

So he gives 11 to one and 1 to the other.

If God’s justice is limited to this world, Nazruddin’s cynical parable cannot be gainsaid. Indeed if our imagination is limited to this world, the doctrine of a just God cannot be sustained. True, the book of Job has a good try at it, but Job allows himself to be bullied into surrendering his just complaint. For me, the millions of human beings who at any time cannot raise their heads from misery, are a refutation of God’s goodness, maybe even of God’s existence, if there is no restorative justice beyond this life.

But how can we dare to postulate anything so nebulous as heaven and hell? Are we not falling into speculation which ends up counting the number of angels that can dance on a pin-head? Well, Jesus, who had at least as good a grasp of reality as me, had no difficulty in imagining that the ever-present Father was present to both the living and the dead, delivering a justice which would be merciful but robust, including rewards and punishments.

In any case, whatever lies in store for me after death, I quite look forward judgement, when at last I shall know the truth about myself, It’s like my appreciation of an exam and its result; I want to know in truth how well or badly I’ve done. In the case of God’s judgement, I want to know if I’m as big an asshole as I think or….might it be otherwise?  And just as I shan’t complain about being rewarded any good I’ve done, I won’t protest too much if my wrongdoing gets its comeuppance.

Luke 9: 52-55 tells a revealing little story about Jesus’ attitude to people who held beliefs that were different from his own. When he was heading to Jerusalem as a pilgrim, villagers in Samaritan territory did not welcome him, since they did not accept Jerusalem as the main holy place of their religion. Refusing hospitality to Jerusalem pilgrims was their way of making their point. James and John, disciples of Jesus, then asked if they should call down fire from heaven on these heretics. Jesus turned and rebuked them. He did not want them imagining that God would back their prejudice.

I read in my newspaper today of a splendid group of Christians in USA called the “Return to Order Campaign” who have denounced a new film based on a book by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. The film stars David Tennant as the demon Crowley and Michael Sheen as the angel Aziraphale who cooperate to prevent the coming of the Antichrist. The Christian group complain that this “makes Satanism appear normal, destroying the barriers of horror that society still has for the devil.” Even worse, “God is voiced by a woman!!” The group has form for they have previously expressed outrage at an ice-cream company called “Sweet Jesus.”

I can imagine a returning Jesus being charmed by this and buying ice creams for the disciples.

On another occasion he refused to criticise other healers who were using his name, indicating that he saw them as supporters.

Christianity has been weakened by a sectarianism in which groups of believers designate others as heretics and agents of the devil. This is the result of dogmatism that is not wholly absent from the pages of the New Testament. A religion of the word is always in danger of thinking the word of its message is more important than the word made flesh “ who dwelt among us full of grace and truth.” If there is a genuine point of separation in the tradition of Jesus, it is between those who say “Lord, Lord,” and those who “do the will of the father.” The Christian community ought always to value people who act in the spirit of Jesus’ father even if their doctrine is a bit dodgy, rather than those whose doctrine is perfectly orthodox but have neglected to act in the divine spirit.

Over the centuries the mainstream churches have rightly upheld the doctrine that God is revealed in Jesus his son, but have failed to take seriously enough the teaching and character of that man.

Jesus said that if you looked at a woman lustfully you had already committed adultery in your heart. It sounds like mince. Firstly it makes some strange assumptions:

1. That women didn’t look lustfully at men, or if they did, it didn’t matter.

2. That men didn’t look lustfully at men, nor women at women, or if they did it didn’t matter.

3. That unmarried men and women are maybe excused a bit of lustful looking provided it isn’t directed at a married person.

4. That the intention is as bad as the deed.

5. That it would be ok to look lustfully at your wife.

These assumptions are so foreign to current thinking that maybe I should just admit that Jesus was mistaken in this matter. Well, let’s see if we can understand his words mor fully.

In Jewish society of Jesus’ time, women were not considered equal to men. Their roles were clearly defined from childhood; their marriages were arranged; they were the property of their father, or their husband. Men could have more than one wife but women could not have more that one husband.Women ran the household but were economically dependent on their men. The evangelists note that women “followed” Jesus, and were accepted by him. Luke suggests that Mary chose the dignity of discipleship rather than the caring role of her sister Martha, and was approved by Jesus. Jesus’ friendship with prostitutes is more evidence of his disagreement with societal attitudes to women. Many of the peculiar assumptions noted above can be understood if we read Jesus’ teaching as a response to societal prejudice: He was defending women from the patriarchal lust of men.

The Greek of Matthew 5:28 means literally “looking at a woman to want her or to lust after her” which designates much more than a casual glance of sexual appreciation. It indicates a purpose, even if in a specific instance there may be no way of fulfilling it. It expresses a consumer attitude towards women as sexual commodities. Jesus’ disciples were not to congratulate themselves for avoiding adultery, but rather to interrogate their own attitudes.The outward act proceeds from a  inner determination which is itself formed by societal injustice.

Jesus is not saying,”This woman belongs to another man and you must not think of stealing her; he is saying,”what prevents your seeing this woman as a person and treating her as a sister?”

Given that, even today, our society expects young women to dress as sexual commodities – what else is the meaning of high heels or the little black dress? – Jesus’ teaching is still relevant.And yes, he did think that the consumer attitude to women was as bad as the actions it prompted because he wasn’t daft enough to think that sexual misconduct was simply fuelled by uncontrollable desire, or that promiscuous shagging was, as a former Episcopal Bishop of Edinburgh judged, “an act without a moral meaning.”

And of course, where there is greater equality between the sexes (however many there are of these) Jesus’ teaching will apply to women and transitioning people, as well as men, challenging the notion that in a consumer society all are equally entitled to whatever sexual commodity they prefer.