Low-Key Religious Experience

1Religious experience doesn’t have to be dramatic to change your life. I know that, because my life was changed by a low-key religious experience.

I gave my life to Jesus when I was thirteen. This was part of a series of events that had been going on for some time.

I had been confirmed a year or so beforehand. Some of the confirmation candidates had stayed together as a youth group, and one of the people in that group was an older girl whose faith impressed me. Also, my dad had been lending me Christian books, and I’d read Dennis Bennett’s Nine O’Clock in the Morning, describing his early experiences in what we now call the ‘charismatic renewal’. Healings, speaking in tongues, works of knowledge and wisdom, baptism in the Holy Spirit – it was all very dramatic. And I found it very attractive (and a lot more exciting than the staid Anglican worship I was experiencing at the time).

But my night of commitment to Christ was the opposite of dramatic. At a youth group meeting, my dad (the vicar) said to me, “You’ve never given your life to Jesus, have you?” After the meeting, I went to my room, sat down on my bed and prayed a simple prayer giving my life to Jesus. That was it.

I realized as I was thinking about it this morning that I actually have no memory of that event. I think I do, because I’ve told the outline of the story so many times. But I don’t remember why I did it. I don’t remember what the thought processes were that led me from Dad’s study to sitting on my bed praying the prayer. And I don’t remember how I felt, before, during, or after.

I must have been at least considering the possibility of something dramatic happening. Think of what I had been reading at the time – the spiritual experiences of charismatic Anglican (Dennis Bennett) and Pentecostal (David Wilkerson) Christians (yes, I’d read The Cross and the Switchblade too). Those folks didn’t exactly major in low-key religious experiences! But I have no memory of anything dramatic – no powerful sense of God’s presence, no speaking in tongues, visions, or voices from heaven. No memory at all. Whatever happened, I’ve forgotten it.

However, something happened, because that day set the course of the rest of my life. Very quickly, Christ and following Christ moved into the centre of my life and became my number one priority. I was an enthusiastic Jesus-freak almost from day one! Dad taught me to pray and read the Bible and I made it a habit, a habit I’ve maintained to this day. I plunged into Christian fellowship, small group worship and study times, and I read voraciously. And four years later I enrolled in a two-year training course to become an evangelist. Later on, I was ordained a deacon and a priest.

But all this began with something so low-key that I can barely remember it!

So don’t feel second-class if your religious experience is low key. God is still at work, at a far deeper level than your emotions. As my friend Harold Percy says, God doesn’t write boring stories; all God’s stories are interesting stories. Including yours and mine.

Everyone’s story is unique. There is no template. There are no standardized conversions. Every conversion described in the Book of Acts is different, except for this one thing: they all describe a process by which person’s life is reorientated toward the God who Jesus revealed to us.

And that’s the most important issue. Not ‘Did I feel Jesus enter my heart?’ or ‘Did I see a vision of God?’ or ‘Did I pray the right prayer?’ The important issue is ‘Today, as I go into my day, is my face toward the God who Jesus revealed to us?’

Everything else is optional.

‘A Better Resurrection’, a poem by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numb’d too much for hopes or fears;
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimm’d with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.

 

My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall—the sap of Spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.

 

My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perish’d thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.

 

(Many thanks to my friend Tim Madsen for bringing this poem to my attention)

‘Easter’ (a poem by Edmund Spenser [1552-1599])

MOST glorious Lord of Lyfe! that, on this day,
Didst make Thy triumph over death and sin;
And, having harrowd hell, didst bring away
Captivity thence captive, us to win:
This joyous day, deare Lord, with joy begin;
And grant that we, for whom thou diddest dye,
Being with Thy deare blood clene washt from sin,
May live for ever in felicity!And that Thy love we weighing worthily,
May likewise love Thee for the same againe;
And for Thy sake, that all lyke deare didst buy,
With love may one another entertayne!
So let us love, deare Love, lyke as we ought,
–Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.

Ten years ago today…

Ten years ago today I started my first (and, so far, only) sabbatical leave. I spent three months in England resting and reconnecting with friends and family, as well a spending time with the good folks from the Anabaptist Network in the UK. It was certainly a transformative time for me and I look back on it as one of the best experiences of my life. I left Edmonton on the evening of Tuesday April 15th 2007 and arrived in London the next day. Here’s the post I wrote after arriving at the London Mennonite Centre:

Hello from the London Mennonite Centre in Highgate, London, England.

Nick and I flew over on Monday night and arrived at Heathrow airport about 11.00 a.m. on Tuesday morning. After clearing customs we traveled by Underground and got here to the LMC early afternoon. We were warmly welcomed by Ed and Phyllis, the hosts, and the other staff and volunteers here. A lot of the people who work here seem to be from Canada or the United States – in fact, English accents are a distinct minority! The director, Vic Thiessen, and his wife Kathy are actually members of Holyrood Mennonite Church in Edmonton, a congregation which is very familiar to Marci and me.

My time so far has been made up of (a) getting started on my study and (b) doing little housekeeping jobs to help my stay in London and in the UK in general run more smoothly. The latter include things like: getting an ‘Oystercard’ to make travel on the Underground and the bus system more reasonable; getting a ‘mobile phone’ (i.e. cell phone) (haven’t successfully done that yet, although there have been a couple of false starts); and negotiating the mysteries of cyberspace to get my Canadian laptop hooked up to the wireless network here at LMC.

As far as study goes there is plenty of material in the library here and a wonderful book service from which I can buy the stuff I need to continue when I leave here on the 30th. I will be spending my mornings reading Anabaptist history and source material from the 16th century, and then another study period each day (afternoons or evenings) on contemporary stuff, especially the issue of the end of Christendon and the insights Anabaptism has to offer about Christian mission in the new situation we find ourselves in today. My first study book is C. Arnold Snyder’s Anabaptist History and Theology, and although I’ve only just begun he’s already helped me make sense of the mass of tenuously connected movements that make up 16th century Anabaptism. I didn’t have a second study period today (owing to a little adventure I had on the Underground – a long delay when the Northern Line was closed for two hours), but when I begin that period tomorrow I’m going to be working with Stuart Murray Williams’ book ‘Post-Christendom’. I’m also really looking forward to Stuart’s book ‘Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition’. All Christian traditions have interpretive grids to help them make sense of the Bible; we all tend to assume that ours is the ‘correct’ grid, and I think it’s really good to check out someone else’s grid and see what we can learn from them.

It was good to spend a day with Nick; he and I sat out in the yard (or the ‘garden’ as they call it here) last night and said Evening Prayer together, and today we had tea out there. We took some pictures too, which I’ll post below. I put him on the train this afternoon, and he is now up in Manchester spending a week with my brother.

That’s it from me at the London Mennonite Centre; here are a few pictures for you.

Nick in the ‘garden’ at the London Mennonite Centre.


Me having a cup of tea in the ‘garden’ behind the LMC. The house used to belong to a doctor and incorporated his surgery; it was built in the 1850’s and is four stories high.


Getting down to work in the library here at LMC. 
 

One of the Reasons Why I Believe in God

So I’ve just discovered the poetry of Mary Oliver.

I’ve been reading what I think is her latest collection of poems, Blue Horses, and about two thirds of the way through it I discovered a poem that describes an experience I’ve had from time to time over the past few years.

This experience is not a rational argument for the existence of God, and I’m sure Richard Dawkins wouldn’t be impressed by it. All I can say is that it’s vividly real to me. Here is how Mary Oliver describes it.

Forgive Me

Angels are wonderful but they are so, well, aloof.
It’s what I sense in the mud and the roots of the
trees, or the well, or the barn, or the rock with
its citron map of lichen that halts my feet and
makes my eyes flare, feeling the presence of some
spirit, some small god, who abides there.

If I were a perfect person, I would be bowing
continuously.
I’m not, though I pause wherever I feel this
holiness,  which is why I’m so often late coming
back from wherever I went.

Forgive me

There it is. If I were an atheist, I don’t think I’d know what to do with this experience. And I’m certainly not trying to explain it. It’s mysterious and wild and completely beyond my control. I can’t make it happen. But if I pay attention, it happens more often. And those are some of the times I feel close to God.

***

This poem is taken from Blue Horses, by Mary Oliver (The Penguin Press, New York, 2014).

holding-mary-oliver-blue-horses

 

The Practice of Resurrection (a sermon for the 5th Sunday of Lent)

A few years ago one of my favourite spiritual writers, Eugene Peterson, wrote a book called ‘Practice Resurrection’. I want to think about that phrase with you for a few minutes this morning.

It’s a startling phrase, isn’t it? Is resurrection really something we can practice? After all, if resurrection is even possible, surely it’s an act of God, isn’t it? We can’t resurrect ourselves! So what does it mean to ‘practice resurrection’? Is that a helpful phrase?

Today’s readings are all about resurrection, which is a little startling because we’re not in Easter yet – we’re still in Lent! But our gospel readings through Lent have been following the great miracles that Jesus performs in John’s Gospel. John actually calls them ‘signs’, because each one shows us something about Jesus, the one who uses God’s name for himself, ‘Yahweh’ or ‘I am’. ‘I am the Gate for the Sheep’, ‘I am the Good Shepherd’, ‘I am the Light of the World’, ‘I am the Bread of Life’. And today, in the last and greatest of the signs, Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the dead, and then he goes on to say “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26a). The other readings set for today were chosen to fit this resurrection theme – Ezekiel’s story of the valley of dry bones, and Paul’s promise that if the Spirit of the God who raised Jesus from the dead lives in us, then the one who raised Jesus from the dead will also give life to our mortal bodies through his Spirit who lives in us.

What is God saying to us through these scriptures this morning? Let me suggest two things. First, in Jesus, we will pass from death to life – future tense. But also, secondly, in Jesus we are passing from death to life – present tense. As we explore these two statements we’ll find out what it means to ‘practice resurrection’.

First, then, the future tense. In Jesus, we will pass from death to life. That’s not the order we normally think of, is it? The natural order is that we pass from life to death. All living things die eventually; ‘In the midst of life we are in death’, as the Prayer Book says. Our bodies get old, they begin to wear out, we’re subject to frailty and disease and accident and violence, and sooner or later, every one of us comes to the moment of death. As Bruce Cockburn says, ‘Everything that exists in time runs out of time some day’!

And then what happens? Human beings have always been fascinated by this question. Is there life after death? Is it possible for a person to continue to exist after their brain has ceased to function, and if so, how? Do we have some sort of immortal part, a ‘soul’ that lives inside us that can survive the death of our bodies? Is life after death a purely non-physical existence, apart from the body and all the pleasures of bodily living, or does it have some sort of physical component too?

In the time of Jesus, many Greeks believed that physical death was a good thing, because it freed you from the sufferings of this world and launched you into a purely ‘spiritual’ existence – no body means no pain, so that’s good, right? In contrast, no Jewish person really thought death was a good thing. The Old Testament uses the term ‘Sheol’ for the place dead people go to, and no one in the Old Testament ever wants to go there. When Jewish people started believing in life after death in a big way, late in the Old Testament period, it wasn’t about ‘going to a better place after they died’. They thought this earth is a good place! They believed that one day God would rid the world of evil and sin, and then God would raise the righteous dead to life so that they could enjoy this world as God originally intended it.

In our Gospel reading for today Jesus assumes this belief. He uses an interesting term for death. “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep”, he says, “but I am going there to awaken him” (John 11:11). His disciples misunderstood him. ‘“Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right”. Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead…”’ (11:12-14).

The early Christians loved this metaphor of sleep, and they used it constantly; in the rest of the New Testament the writers often describe the Christian dead as having ‘fallen asleep in Jesus’. And of course there are two excellent reasons for using this metaphor. First, death does look a bit like sleep: in both cases the person is lying down with their eyes closed, unconscious! But second, and more importantly, sleep is temporary, and the early Christians believed death was temporary too. Jesus had entrusted himself into the hands of his Father when he died, and the Father had come through for him: he had raised him from the dead. And the same thing is promised to followers of Jesus too. “I am the resurrection and the life”, says Jesus. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11:25).

So as we Christians look forward to life after death, we’re not just looking forward to abandoning this world and going to live somewhere else with God, somewhere we won’t have bodies any more. God is not going to abandon this tired old earth that he took such care in creating. The Bible says he’s going to renew it, heal it from the ravages of evil, and then raise his people from the dead so they can enjoy it forever as he intended. How will that happen? How will we all fit into it? I have no idea of the answer to those questions. All I know is that this is what we’ve been promised. As Paul says again in our reading from Romans, ‘If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you’ (Romans 8:11).

And that’s good news! Don’t you love the smell of freshly brewed coffee, or a freshly mown field? Don’t you love the feel of a warm breeze on your skin, or the touch of a lover? Don’t you love the sound of music or the sight of a beautiful mountain view? Those are all physical pleasures, only possible because God designed us as physical beings, with senses to connect us with the material world. And the good news of resurrection tells us that those physical pleasures will not be lost to us in the life to come. We won’t be just souls floating around in heaven. We’ll be whole people, spiritual bodies, relating to God and to one another in love, using body, mind and spirit. Of course, there will be far more to it than that; the Bible says that the human mind can’t begin to conceive of what God has prepared for those who love him. Our new existence will be more than physical, but it won’t be less than physical. Our bodies are going to be redeemed, not cast away.

So that’s the first statement: in Jesus, we will pass from death to life. As Aslan says in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, ‘death itself will begin to work backwards!’

But there’s more in these scriptures for us today. Resurrection is not just future tense for us followers of Jesus; it’s present tense too. We won’t just pass from death to life in the future; in Jesus, we are passing from death to life – in the present – as well.

One of the most startling metaphors for becoming a Christian in the New Testament is just this: resurrection. In Ephesians chapter 2 we read these words:

‘You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived…But God, who is rich in mercy…made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus’ (Ephesians 2:1, 4, 5-6).

Before you became Christians, Paul is saying, ‘you were dead’.

Now that sounds just a little bit harsh, doesn’t it? Does he mean that all the good things they were doing and enjoying before they became Christians were as stinky as a rotting corpse? What about all the loving acts, the family life, the generosity, the moral virtues of a good pagan? Does all that count for nothing?

To help us understand what Paul is saying here, we need to think about the sort of language lovers use. In the movie Shadowlands, the script writer puts some words into the mouth of C.S. Lewis when he’s talking to the woman he has lately come to love. “I began to live”, he says, “when I started loving you”.

This is the sort of language lovers use all the time. Of course it’s highly metaphorical, but does that mean the metaphor is a lie? Lewis’ friends might protest and say, “Look, Jack, before you met Joy you wrote lots of good books and enjoyed good times with your friends, and you became a Christian and you helped other people become Christians too. Surely you’re not saying that you were – well – dead while you were doing all that?” And Lewis might reply, “In a way, yes, and in a way, no”.

A relationship of love can transform a life, can’t it? It can lift us to a whole new level of living, to the point that the life we had before seems drab, dreary and meaningless by comparison. It might have been a good, worthwhile life while we were living it, but looking back on it now, we can see how much we were missing out on. We now know so much more about the joy that’s open to us as humans, so we would never think of voluntarily going back to that life we once lived, before we met this person we’ve come to love so much.

That’s what Paul means. The miracle that Jesus has done, by giving us the gift of the Holy Spirit, is to bring us into a new relationship with the living God. That’s what we were designed for – to have God at the centre of our lives. And when we begin to experience what that can be like – well, then we’re spoiled for everything else. That old life seemed okay while we were living it, but now we can never think of going back to it, because what we’ve received from God is so much better. It really is like moving from death to life.

But this isn’t just something that happens to us in baptism, or when we come to faith in Christ. That decisive moment of spiritual resurrection is important, but it’s not the end of the story. Remember, I used the present tense: in Jesus we are passing from death to life. How does that happen? Well, how were we raised to this new life in the first place? We were raised by being brought into a new relationship with God in Christ. So we practice this as a daily reality – we ‘practice resurrection’, if you like – by seeking each day to deepen our conscious contact with God, so that every day we walk with him and he walks with us.

This is accomplished by the Holy Spirit, the breath of God. In that great Old Testament passage from Ezekiel, the valley of the dry bones, the bones are all joined together by God and become bodies again, but they’re still dead bodies. So then Ezekiel is called to prophesy to the wind – the ruach in Hebrew, which means wind, breath, and spirit. The ruach then comes and breathes into the corpses, and they are resurrected, and they stand up and become an army again!

And this is true in our Christian experience too – the Greek word pneuma also means wind, breath, or spirit. And in our epistle Paul says,

‘If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you’ (Romans 8:11).

This is what it’s all leading up to, this Christian faith. It’s not about the dreary duty of dragging ourselves out of bed on Sunday mornings to go to church when we’d much rather sleep in. It’s not about gritting our teeth to obey commandments that we secretly suspect were designed by God specifically to spoil our fun. It’s not even about filling our head with knowledge about the Bible or Christian doctrine, and leaving it at that.

No – being a Christian means that, for every one of us, God has come to live in us by his Holy Spirit. The Spirit lives in you, and he lives in me, and when we come together, we are a fellowship of the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit living in us makes impossible things possible. The Spirit living within us makes it possible for us to follow Jesus’ teaching and example. He makes it possible for us to love other people with the love of Jesus. He makes it possible for us to see things we would have missed before. He gives us wisdom to make wise choices and grow day by day into the people God calls us to be.

So ‘practising resurrection’ turns out to be all about asking the Holy Spirit each day to fill us with his power and love. In the words of the well known hymn (that we’ll be singing in a few minutes):

Breathe on me, breath of God
Fill me with life anew
That I may love what thou dost love
And do what thou wouldst do.

So let’s have the courage to pray that prayer and really mean it. Pray it every day. Pray it many times a day, if you like! But be ready, because the Holy Spirit is real, and he is powerful, and by his strength, you can practice resurrection – not just after you die, but now, today, right here in this place.

‘We British: the Poetry of a People’

29958072This book isn’t quite a history of British (i.e. English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish) poetry from Caedmon to the present day; it’s more a sort of annotated anthology, with poems and excerpts from poems giving a representative sample of each period. As such, it’s an excellent introduction for the person who enjoys poetry but isn’t well-informed about the history of the craft in the British Isles.

For me there were lots of old favourites here, but also many with whom I was unfamiliar (old and new). Like all poetry fans reading the book, I was ticked off by the omission of some of my favourites (John Masefield, R.S. Thomas), but a book of 640 pages attempting to introduce the reader to 1,350 years of British poetry is bound to offend in that way. Overall I thought the book was brilliant. And I’d give this one word of reading advice: read it aloud, and with a spouse or partner or friend if you can. Marci and I read it in coffee shops and we thoroughly enjoyed this treat for the ears as well as the eyes. Five stars, and well-deserved.

Andrew Marr: We British: the Poetry of a People (Fourth Estate, 2016).