Archive for November 2011

Wednesday 30 November 2011 – “Introducing others”   1 comment

St Andrew, Apostle

The non-conformist tradition I was brought up in did not mark saints days. Its emphasis was on the “sainthood of all believers” [e.g. Romans 1:7]. Of course it had its saints, its spiritual heroes: Martin Luther, John Calvin, John & Charles Wesley, Charles Surgeon, James Hudson Taylor, Gladys Aylward, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, … the list is endless.

I have come to value the marking of saints days in the church calendar. Sometimes it introduces me to inspiring or thought-provoking stories and bits of church history I did not previously know. The notes for today’s Advent reflection focus on St Andrew (one of Jesus’ 12 disciples) whose feast is today. They talk of him introducing people to Jesus: his brother Simon (later called Peter) [John 1:41] and the small boy with the loaves and the fishes at the feeding of the 5,000 [John 6:1-15 note verse 8]. The notes then go on to pose the challenge:

  • How many people have we introduced to Jesus?

This is indeed a challenging for me at several levels.

It is of note that all the “non-conformist saints” I list above (not all themselves were non-conformists) were either preachers and teachers of the faith or missionaries. In their way they introduced people to Jesus. I was encouraged and enthusiastically did my bit at open air services, in beach missions, outreach coffee bars, and the school Christian Union. I don’t know if any of those activities had any lasting impact on any lives and would have been encouraged at the time that you will often never know but God can use your witness. So evangelism in the sense of introducing others to the (my) faith was a prevalent theme at least until I left home at 18 but diminished in prominence within my perspective after that.

The reasons for this are complex and I certainly can’t remember the exact chronology but here are some of the features:

  • At a beach mission (a children focussed activity based outreach), aged 17, I observed how easy it was to gain the trust of a child and they then to say yes to questions such as “would you like to follow Jesus?”. I really questioned what we were doing in that process and both the spiritual validity and morality of it. (And this is despite having made my own commitment of faith as young as 6 that was meaningful to me.)
  • In the period of my late teens and twenties I was like most broadening my experiences generally but in different styles of church and meeting more people of different faiths and belief systems. When that becomes a shared journey of respect and understanding it begs the question: “what right have I to suggest that my belief system is the one that someone else should adopt?”.
  • There was a wider cultural context developing at the time (or at least my awareness of it was developing). The missionary heroes like those mentioned above were seen as part of cultural imperialism and indeed political imperialism. The tales of the atrocity of empire and destruction of indigenous cultures were under close inspection. This was coupled, or was part of, a wider sense of: you are free to believe whatever you wish to believe but not to impose it on others and the pick-and-mix spirituality of the New Age movement.
  • Then, perhaps a little later in my journey, moving towards a less certain (but hopefully deeper) state of faith it became harder to communicate what I believe. I increasingly encountered situations where “the words get in the way“.
  • Jesus had been key to my developing relationship with God in my childhood but as reported in yesterday’s Advent reflection, the dominant member of Trinity in my personal spirituality became God the Father. How do you introduce someone to God? I would indeed question if that is a human role. I understand with different language and emphasis all parts of the church would assert Jesus as “the way” to God, but at the personal level this created a dilemma. I wanted to perhaps share my current insights not the orthodoxy I was brought up in. However they were largely incommunicable without reference to that orthodoxy. I would like to change Jesus to God in the above question but that seems then to become an impossible question.
  • Having now developed a model of faith as a journey I was concerned if I shared issues of my current place on that journey, especially with someone just inquiring about faith or having a totally different perspective, I might be putting a stumbling block in their way.

So increasingly I saw that the role of evangelist (in whatever form) was not one for me. However I took the stance if anyone asked about what I believed I was pleased to try to share my story and my perspectives. I have enjoyed numerous conversations, usually over a few pints of beer in a pub, about matters of faith. However these do tend to be at the level of philosophy of religion rather than a lived personal faith.

I have a further minor quibble with the question being framed as “how many people”. I can not believe that our worth on the journey of faith is a numbers game. God is not a “bean counter”! God may use one person to only influence the spiritual journey of one other in their life time; whereas someone else my influence thousands and even millions. However my reading of Jesus’ parables and my own images of the divine could not see God as viewing one of greater value than the other. They could both be essential to His/Her purpose.

The Bible passages set for the day were: Romans 10:9-18 and Matthew 4:18-22

In the Romans passage Paul says:

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?
[Romans 10:14 NIV]

However reading on just a few verses from the set passage Paul quotes Isaiah:

And Isaiah boldly says,

I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.
[Romans 10:20 NIV]

Referring back to the scriptures he knew well:

I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me;
I was found by those who did not seek me.
[Isaiah 65:1 NIV]

I am happy to rest in the knowledge that God does not need me to reveal himself to anyone else. If somehow I am used in that process, if I ever know about it, I will count myself honoured and honestly humble admit that it was really nothing of me. To quote an old favourite verse from my teens:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
[2 Corinthians 4:7 NIV]


Posted November 30, 2011 by Martyn Cooper in Advent 2011 Reflections

Tagged with

Tuesday 29 November 2011 – “Knowing him personally”   2 comments

[My normal practice for these and reflections in general is to take some time stilling myself, to use a candle as a focus, and then read slowly the set material and ponder it.  Today to gain some time before heading into the office I did the readings in the bath.  I note that mainly for amusement but also in case it seems to have an impact on what I write.  My mind was certainly jumping a bit but that could also be because of lack of sleep.]

“Knowing him personally”, meaning Jesus, would certainly be important language in the non-conformist evangelical tradition of my upbringing.  It always heartens me, and raises a wry smile, when I see the same things in catholic and evangelical traditions because sometimes we seem to project to the outside world, and some feel internally, that there is a huge gulf, but to my view there isn’t. [Note to self – watch your spiritual pride! I am in danger of thinking my self a knowing liberal looking on, but I am a part of the Church and have much to learn from brothers and sisters of all traditions.]

My initial reaction to the title was that I seem to seek to know Jesus’ teaching more than know him as a person. Although I do contextualise that teaching within an image of the person delivering it.  For example,  where Jesus says:

“How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?”
[Matthew 7:4 NIV]

I imagine him telling it as a joke, an absurdity, with a chuckle.  I remember the source of this perspective.  A fiercely intense but dear nun Sister Irene Mary CSMV , who taught me Religious Education (Divinity as we called it) at school, and remained a friend for many years afterwards.

About 22 years ago I didn’t hear a sermon that had a lasting impact on me.  I say didn’t hear because for reasons I don’t remember I was not at the service where it was delivered by the then Chaplain at Reading University, Peter Jenner.  Peter and I were good friends, he was best man at my first wedding, we spent a lot of leisure time together as well as going to the same church and interacting at the Chaplaincy (I was a mature student at the time).  So although not hearing the sermon I was party to informal small group discussion of it afterwards.  The sermon asked a question:

  • ” Which member of the Trinity do you most relate to?”
It posed the hypothesis that most Christians related more closely to one member of the Trinity [I will save my heretical musings on the doctrine of the Trinity for another blog post].  For me the answer was clear and it remains the same now: God the Father.  And it is not even the fatherly aspects of God I most related to but Him as the creator and sustainer of the universe, the omnipresent God, the power and the majesty but in all that being of very essence Love [1 John 4:8].  So in this context “knowing Jesus personally” does not have a strong resonance in my spiritual life and has not done for many years.  There is another sign of spiritual arrogance here, a besetting sin of mine.  Colloquially put: I go straight to the top man.

[A question for another time is why are these Advent reflections bring up so many points from a period of my life around 25 – 20 years ago? – It may have been a time of substantial growth, a Fowler stage transition.  It could reflect an  impoverishment in my spiritual journey more recently.]

Another thought came to be this morning, lying in my bath, thinking about Jesus.  A standard teaching of the church is the doctrine of Incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas; God present in humanity in Jesus.  As you might infer from the above I am more inclined to the understanding of  the incarnation in its more general (universal) sense, God present throughout , I like to use the phrase entwined with, His/Her creation.

There is a programme on BBC Radio 4 that I like a lot called the “Infinite Monkey Cage“.  It is a light-hearted conversational show about science.   In the edition  broadcast 21 November 2011 (podcast available from the previous link)   Brian Cox, a Physicist, had a bit of banter with the Biologist Matthew Cobb.  Brian Cox made a statement to the effect “Life, that’s just mess!” and went on to contrast its complexity with the relative simplicity of the laws of physics that underpin the Cosmos.  [There was a then a short exchange as to whether the two disciplines would ever converge and simplistically put if the laws of physics would ever explain life. I refer you to the podcast if you want more about the science.  This exchange in question occurs at 20:00 min]

That is just a long preamble to make a simple, but possibly profound, point:

  • Life being mess, Jesus represents God in the mess.
For me noticing that mirroring of the relationship between the Cosmic God and Jesus in the relationship between Physics and Biology (which needs extending to include Neurology, Psychology and Sociology and possibly a few other disciplines too to adequately describe life) is new and ripe for further pondering.

A final thought from this morning’s bath:  The notes for today’s reflection concentrated on the difference in the experience of those that actually knew Jesus when he lived on earth and those that have subsequently known him through faith.  They quote the verse “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” [John 20:29 NIV].  A dominant theme in first 400 years of Church history was: who was Jesus, and what was his nature? This is also a personal journey for all Christians and inquirers since.  I find a link between Church history and my own personal faith development.  I can often find that themes the Church was wrestling with at different stages are mirrored in those encountered in my own journey.  As to the questions: who was Jesus and what was his nature?  There has been a lot of personal wrestling .  However reflecting now on my thinking in recent years perhaps, and only perhaps, I have passed through dogma and am beginning to glimpse some light behind it.

The Bible passages set for today were: Isaiah 11:1-10 and Luke 10:21-24.

Hello again Anthony de Mello   1 comment

When writing my Reflection on Advent Sunday I had cause to look for a web link to Anthony de Mello.  His book Sadhana, and commentaries on it, were a key resource in my early explorations in contemplative prayer.  So I discovered for the first time the online resources of the DeMello Spirituality Center.  I didn’t explore extensively but this quote in their scrolling banner stood out for me:

The master made it his task to systematically destroy every doctrine, every belief, every concept of the divine, for these things, which were originally intended as pointers, were now taken as descriptions.

He loved to quote the Eastern saying: “When the sage points at the moon, all that the idiot sees is the finger.” access 28 November 2011]

I characterise my own spiritual journey over the last 25 years or so – possibly longer – as going through, past, beyond, even around doctrine and dogma to the sublime truth behind.  I am not claiming to have travelled very far but that is the nature of the journey.

I take heart in the fact that it seems to be a journey made by many before me.  I find it too in Fowler’s Faith Development Theory.  This is an academic study of the stages of faith observed in people of different religions/denominations and none.

Monday 28 November 2011 – “Under my Roof”   Leave a comment

Two bible passages were set for today’s Advent reflection: Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 8:5-11.

The title for the day comes for the story in Matthew of the Centurion who had a sick servant and asked Jesus to heal him in and when Jesus said he would come the Centurion says:  “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof” [Matthew 8:8 NIV], the King James version renders it: “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof”.

That sense of having to be worthy, or not being worthy, is not very prevalent in the C21st UK culture in which I live, we don’t pay deference to Kings, Priests or Teachers (I am not saying we should).  We assert equality of rights (I do say we should). In fact I think the most prevalent cultural use of the term worthy is in the mocking deference borrowed from the 1992 film “Wayne’s World“.

What do I mean when I think of (un)worthiness before God?  Most churches have some statement or reflection on unworthiness in the lead up to the  Communion, Eucharist, Mass [delete as suits your sensibilities].  The Anglican church uses one of several forms of The Prayer of Humble Access. The version I am most familiar with includes these sentences:

We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.
But you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy.
[“Common Worship”, Church Publishing House, 2000 p.181]

That prayer in the service has always been important to me.  Even when I was worshipping in a non-conformist tradition if I happened to go to an Anglican communion it stood out.  Now it is part of what I value in a set liturgy.  Familiar words that I don’t have to dissect, that don’t trigger long semantic or theological debate inside my heard.  They just trigger very simple honestly held feelings:

  • I am not worthy
  • You God accept me.

Two other themes came up in this mornings brief reflection but I just park them here for now and might expand them later; I must get on with my paid work.

Firstly, that our images of God are often based on (sometimes distorted by) our images of man/woman.

  • The Centurion could command his troops and slaves so expected Jesus to be able to remotely command whatever was making his servant sick.
  • Isaiah talks of God judging between the Nations.  I feel sure that emerged from his experiences close to the politics of his day.

Then secondly, I am a life long pacifist.  That is a position that frequently has to be wrestled with.  My father volunteered as a medic during his National Service because of his beliefs and my Grandfather similarly was a Conscientious Objector in World War 2.  So this dream/ hope/prophecy in Isaiah of course has resonance for me:

He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.

[Isaiah 2:4 NIV]

Posted November 28, 2011 by Martyn Cooper in Advent 2011 Reflections

Tagged with , ,

Advent Sunday 2011 – The World’s End   1 comment

One reason for establishing this blog at this time is that I had resolved to follow a set of Advent reflections given out at the church I on/off attend. I am awful at any form of self-discipline and that includes sustaining spiritual exercises. However I thought if I set to writing a blog each day I might just sustain a series of short reflection for 28 days.

Advent, by the way, is the period in the church calendar that leads up until Christmas. Different parts of the church use the season to think on different themes.

The material given out for these daily Advent reflections is not one that I would have chosen for myself. [“Your Journey to Christmas” published by Redemptorist Publications]. However countless times on my spiritual journey I have experienced growth when I have yielded to a suggestion to read something I would never have chosen for myself.

I must admit the theme set for today made me groan: “Rapture” in its end of the world sense! I am not enraptured with the rapture. Confining my comments to Christian history alone in every generation there has been some individuals or some part of the church who have felt “the end is nigh”. The much publicised example of Harold Camping in 2011 was cited in the notes. Why this fixation with “the end of times”?

We all face our personal end of the world: death.

Mark’s Gospel quotes Jesus as follows:

31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

The Day and Hour Unknown

32“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.
[Mark 13:31-33 NIV]

If I am honest I set aside thinking about the end of the world. However I think that message of not knowing the day or the hour is one that is so central to thinking about our own death. You don’t have to be religious to gain benefit from thinking about it. Look how popular lists such as “100 things to do before I die” are in magazines and on the internet.

While on retreat in a much-loved place, an Anglican Franciscan Monastery called Glasshampton, probably nearly 20 years ago now. I was working though some meditation exercises on my own in the chapel. I can’t remember now whether they were Ignatian exercises, or those of Anthony de Mello, in fact this is such an obvious one I would expect most spiritual guides of whatever faith or none to have it in their repertoire. After stilling myself, I was encouraged to make a deep sense aware imagining of my own death, not the means of it but the reality of it, and then the funeral. Seeing my coffin lowered into the grave.

I don’t remember much of the detail of the experience, the pictures that came to mind. However I do remember the deep sense of peace I had when I returned to awareness of my surroundings. I am going to die, and it is all right that I am going to die.

Similarly, thinking of the end of the world in the sense of life on this planet. Life here is going to end at some point. Assuming man’s own foolishness does not render the place uninhabitable in the next century or so, it is going to become so eventually. The current scientific view is that the sun will, in its own death throws, swell to possibly swallow the earth it in about 5 billion years. Life would have become impossible here long before that, and there are plenty of other possible events such as asteroid collisions that could result in the same. The scientific consensus about how the universe will die is less clear with various theories of Heat Death (it expands so far and in doing so its temperature tends towards absolute zero) and Big Crunch (it at some point will start to collapse under its own gravitational pull which will eventually result in the reverse of the Big Bang – the universe will disappear up its own singularity). With so many possible causes (I have not mentioned pandemics, food webs becoming unsustainable, collapse of the Earth’s magnetic field, ….), we know not the day we know not the hour when life will end. However it seems very reasonable indeed to assume it will.

In conclusion I come to what I can only call a personal statement of faith. I believe in a God who creates (present continuous deliberately) and sustains the universe. Indeed in my imagining of that I envisage Him/Her entwined with, even innate to every sub-atomic particle and unfolding as the universe unfolds. He/She was there in some way at my conception and my birth and will be there at my death. Somehow God weaves on the whole loom of existence the minuscule thread that is my life. (If that analogy implies a God who pulls the strings it was not meant to.) I have no idea if I will have any conscious existence after death. But in the words of the much-loved English mystic Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well“.

Hello world! Or whoever wanders by!   Leave a comment

The primary audience for this blog is myself.  It is reflections in several senses but one being to reflect back my own words to myself so that I can ask questions such as:

  • What did I mean by that?
  • Is that truly what I believe/think?
  • If that is true how should it impact on my life?

I have no desire to try and make you see the world as I do.   If you happen upon my words and they are used in some way in your own spiritual journey that would be lovely.  However in my own view that would have little to do with my words but more the mysterious interaction between every individual and the divine.

Yes I am theist, I have come to that through a Christian tradition but in my own spiritual journey have also drawn on other world religions, secular philosophies, science and my own academic roots in cybernetics.

Please feel free to comment, question and challenge anything I write.  However let us do so with respect for each other.  We all “see through a glass dimly”, we are all on a journey.  The world would be a much impoverished place if it was the same journey for us all with the same view. Therefore also feel free to share relevant aspects of your journey.

Martyn Cooper

27 November 2011

Posted November 27, 2011 by Martyn Cooper in Purpose of this blog

Tagged with