Thursday, May 31, 2007


The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him.

Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 'Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.'

The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches our hearts knows what is in the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

Mary... sat down at the feet of the Lord and listened to his teaching. Martha was upset over all the work she had to do, so she came and said, 'Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to come and help me!'

The Lord answered her, 'Martha, Martha! You are worried and troubled over so many things, but just one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the right thing, and it will not be taken away from her.'

Listen, then, if you have ears!

(Psalm 19: 1-4; Psalm 37: 7; Exodus 3: 5; Job 38: 1-3; Mark 1:12-13; Romans 8:26-27 -- all RSV; Luke 10: 39-42; Matthew 11: 15 -- both GNB)

The voice of God is never silent. In every circumstance and situation God is speaking. But are we able to hear and to receive what he is offering?

We have to learn to comprehend the many languages of the Spirit. And this insight, this ability to perceive the speech that pours forth without words is itself a gift of the Spirit. It is given to those who will wait patiently upon the Lord.

Without speech, without sounds, yet through all the sound and fury of our stormy beings, and in all the dullness and emptiness, God speaks.

God speaks without words and in forms we may not at first recognise as having any meaning at all. But if we wait patiently on him, we can learn to recognise his presence and his meaning in such things as the rhythms of our lives. There he is inviting us to know new dimensions of health, activity and rest. In our relationships, in the great tapestry of the years, God speaks. God speaks, and faith learns to listen.

Paul Tillich encouraged us to think of God speaking to us from 'the darker side'. He knew this from his own experience, especially his sense of being enveloped by death while serving as a chaplain in World War I. His theological work grew out of that lifelong struggle with the darker side. Tillich spoke of the sacred void and of an absent God. But this gap is intentional, in the philosophical sense; that is, the gap has a meaning and signifies something rather than nothing.

Tillich also spoke of God being present with him at the 'needlepoint' of absolute despair. Later still he gave thanks for God's presence with him through long periods of silent unknowing.

We have since learned -- or rediscovered -- the spiritual disciplines of listening to God, speaking to us from the storm and in what someone has called 'the long littleness' of our everyday existence. God is not with us only in our moments of devotion or intense religious feeling. God is always with us. In the storm, or in the humdrum, God is there.

But what can we do when we cannot hear? Then faith takes on a different meaning for us, at least for a time. Faith then is a 'holding on' and an enduring.

When we cannot hear and cannot read the silence or the turmoil, faith persists. Faith persists, when all is perplexity and we do not even know what questions to ask, or to whom. Faith persists, till it learns the language of his silence, and the language of our silence. Faith persists, till we sense his presence and hear his voice in all the activity and all the stillness, in all the world.

Persisting, waiting, listening: these, too, are dimensions of prayer and of theology. In these times, too, we are learning the language of God.

Our spirituality should not only touch our so-called inner life -- which in any case is significantly shaped by all that we do and experience in our day-to-day affairs -- but emerge through and connect with the complex web of situations, incidents and encounters that make up our lives. It, too, should have an everyday cost to it: we should constantly be meeting God in it, not only apart from it. Through intimations, parables and dreams as well as through what we hear, read and observe, the voice of God, which as the Psalmist reminds us is never silent, should echo in our minds.

Robert Banks, All the Business of Life

The garden of our private worlds is cultivated not only when we draw apart for times of silence and solitude, but also when we begin, in that environment, to deliberately practise the discipline of listening. I have not met many who know how to listen to God. Busy people find it hard to learn how. Most Christians learned at an early age how to talk to God, but they did not learn to listen as well.

Gordon MacDonald, Ordering your Private World

It is the work of the Spirit that removes God from our sight, not only for some of us, but sometimes for many in a particular period. We live in an era in which the God we know is an absent God. But in knowing God as the absent God, we know of him; we feel his absence as the empty space that is left by something or someone that once belonged to us and has now vanished from our view. God is always infinitely near and infinitely far. We are fully aware of him only if we experience both of these aspects. But sometimes, when our awareness of him has become shallow, habitual -- not warm and not cold -when he has become too familiar to be exciting, too near to be felt in his infinite distance, then he becomes the absent God. The Spirit has not ceased to be present. The Spiritual Presence can never end. But the Spirit of God hides God from our sight.

Paul Tillich, 'Spiritual Presence'

Honest doubt is a form of faith; it is faith facing the storm, faith searching for God, even though all we sense are clouds of confusion and threatening questions. If we will not shirk it, but cling to our quest for truth, for integrity, for meaning, that in itself is a sign of faith and of hope. And God honours that. God appears. God embraces the faith of those who in honest doubt accept their plight, who face the issues, who travel right into the heart of the storm.

It is the Spirit who leads us into such a wilderness and, though Satan is there to tempt us, and the wild animals may roar about us, so too the angels are there to minister to us.

Frank Rees

Individuals cry out for God because they remember; that memory serves both to sustain faith and at the same time to throw it into question. A lively recollection of previous mutuality and trust prevents retreat into a view that denies authentic relationship on the vertical dimensions, for humans are reminded that a bond once existed and hence may be restored at some time in the future. Here is the ultimate locus of hope which springs eternal in the human breast that is torn apart by its own agony over an apparent change in God. At the same time, here is also the source of consternation, for something has disturbed a vital relationship and everything seems to point an accusing finger at the deity.

James L. Crenshaw, A Whirlpool of Torment

You keep on asking me, 'How can I find fulfilment?'

If only I could lay my hand on your shoulder and go with you along the way. Both of us together, turning towards him who, recognised or not, is your quiet companion, someone who never imposes himself. Will you let him plant a source of refreshment deep within you? Or will you be so filled with shame that you say, 'I am not good enough to have you near me'?

What fascinates about God is his humility. He never punishes, domineers or wounds human dignity. Any authoritarian gesture on our part disfigures his face and repels. As for Christ, 'poor and humble of heart' -- he never forces anyone's hand. If he forced himself upon you, I would not be inviting you to follow him.

In the silence of the heart, tirelessly he whispers to each of us, 'Don't be afraid; I am here.'

Wait for him, even when body and spirit are dry and parched. Wait, too, with many others for an event to occur in our present day. An event which is neither marvel nor myth, nor projection of yourself. The fruit of prayerful waiting, it comes concretely in the wake of a miracle from God.

In prayer, prayer that is always poor, like lightning rending the night, you will discover the secret: you can find fulfilment only in the presence of God... and also, you will awaken others to God, first and foremost, by the life you five.

With burning patience, don't worry that you can't pray well. Surely you know that any spiritual pretension is death to the soul before you begin. Even when you cannot recognise him, will you stay dose to him in long silences when nothing seems to be happening? There, with him, life's most significant decisions take shape. There the recurring 'what's the use?' and the scepticism of the disillusioned melt away.

Tell him everything, and let him sing within you the radiant gift of life. Tell him everything, even what cannot be expressed and what is absurd. When you understand so little of his language, talk to him about it.

In your struggles, he brings a few words, an intuition or an image to your mind... And within you grows a desert flower, a flower of delight.

Brother Roger, The Wonder of a Love

Thine is what we are and have. We consecrate it to thee. Receive our thanks when we say grace, consecrating our food and with it all that we receive in our daily life. Prevent us from using empty words and forms when we give thanks to thee. Save us from routine and mere convention when we dare to speak to thee.

We thank thee when we look back at our life, be it long or short, for all we have met in it. And we thank thee not only for what we have loved and for what gave us pleasure, but also for what brought us disappointment, pain and suffering, because we now know that it helped us to fulfil that for which we were born. And if new disappointments and new suffering take hold of us and words of thanks die on our tongues, remind us that day may come when we are ready to give thanks for the dark road on which thou hast led us.

Our words of thanks are poor and often we cannot find words at all. There are days and months and years in which we were or are still unable to speak to thee. Give us the power, at such time, to keep our hearts open to the abundance of fife and, in silent gratefulness, to experience thine unchanging, eternal presence. Take the silent sacrifice of a heart when words of thanks become rare in us. Accept our silent gratefulness and keep our hearts and minds open to thee always!

Paul Tillich, 'In Everything Give Thanks'

You wait for us
until we are open to you.
We wait for your word
to make us receptive.
Attune us to your voice,
to your silence,
speak and bring your son to us –
Jesus, the word of your peace.
Your word is near,
O Lord our God,
your grace is near.
Come to us, then,
with mildness and power.
Do not let us be deaf to you,
but make us receptive and open
to Jesus Christ your son,
who will come to look for us and save us
today and every day
for ever and ever.

Huub Oosterhuis, Your Word is Near

Lord, make me receptive to your many voices, in all your languages. Teach me to listen, with my whole being and in all the business of my life.

Open my dull heart and frightened spirit to the music of your creation.

Give me the courage to go with your Spirit into the wilderness. Make me prepared to move and feel and think beyond the fringes of the familiar places, to follow you into dark and uninhabited places, to face the Tempter and dwell among the wildest elements, and there to meet with you.

Assure me that no doubt and no despair can separate me from your love. Forgive me that I imagined your presence with me depended on my believing. Help me simply to accept your grace, the gift of your mysterious, healing and transforming presence, wherever I am and whatever I may believe and feel.

Help me to wait upon your presence. In waiting help me to be compassionate with all who share the journey. Grant me the grace to be gentle with myself, and in everything to give thanks. Amen

A Benediction

May the mystery of his presence light your way, guide your actions and nourish your innermost being, till you find your rest in him. Amen.

Rivers in the Desert ed. Rowland Croucher pp. 98-105

Tuesday, May 29, 2007


And there was evening and there was morning -- the first day.

So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man's ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

I remember thee upon my bed, and meditate on thee in the night watches.

At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto thee be cause of thy righteous judgments.

My eyes are awake before the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises.

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.

He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you -- the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm -- he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and for evermore.

The day is yours, and yours also the night; you established the sun and moon.

When you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.

The sleep of a labourer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep.

This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces corn.

Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, 'Teacher, don't you care if we drown?' He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, 'Quiet! be still!' Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.

They urged him strongly, 'Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.' So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recog nised him, and he disappeared from their sight.

Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.

(Genesis 1: 5, NIV; Genesis 2: 21-22, NIV; Psalm 63: 6, KJV; Psalm 119: 62, KJV; Psalm 119: 148, RSV; Psalm 127: 1-2, RSV; Psalm 121: 4-8, NIV; Psalm 74: 16, NIV; Proverbs 3: 24, NIV; Ecclesiastes 5: 12, NIV; Mark 4: 26-28, 38-39, NIV; Luke 24: 29-31, NIV; Ephesians 4: 26-27, NIV)

There is no more innocent, peaceful sight than that of a young child blissfully asleep. There is no more refreshing feeling than crisp, cool sheets on a hot summer's night after a hard day's work. There is nothing more tortuous than the inability to sleep. It is a premonition of hell, almost endless duration, endless frustration.

The secret of good sleep is to be able to leave all that is undone and unsaid, and all that has been done and said that we wish could be undone, in the Lord's hands. When the storm is raging around us, when pastoral and work problems beset us, when the little boat of the church is buffeted by great waves, we can let our heads hit the pillow and sleep soundly just as Jesus did. For our sleeping can be, like his, not a sign of lack of care and concern for those who are perishing, but of trust in the totally competent care of the Father. It was a truly faithful woman who, during the bombing of London, was heard to excuse herself for having laid quietly in bed, with the words, 'Well, I reflected that God does not sleep, and there seemed no reason why both of us should stay awake.'

It is in vain that we allow anxiety to strangle good sleep. Burning the midnight oil has its place occasionally as some Psalms remind us, though not for the purpose of worrying or feverish working. When it becomes a regular practice it can be a sign of lack of faith in the One who keeps watch, and grows the grain of the kingdom while we sleep. It can also represent a refusal to respect the inbuilt rhythms of the Creator, like the beach mission team I once was on, which expected the teenage team to survive on six hours sleep a night and then wondered why everyone was tired and irritable towards the end of the mission, and why the team's witness was slipping.

We can kid ourselves that we are somehow infinite and immortal, forgetting that we are mere dust, and we need our sleep. Bonhoeffer once asked, 'Who is there among us who can give himself with an easy conscience to the cultivation of music, friendship, games or happiness? Surely not ethical man, but only the Christian.' One might well add sleep to that list. The person who sleeps too little or doesn't sleep well may be taking life too seriously. It is good to simply let the Lord lavish his love upon us, while we sleep.

My subject is the theology of sleep. It is an unusual subject, but I make no apology for it. I think we hear too few sermons about sleep. After all, we spend a very large share of our lives sleeping. I suppose that on an average I've slept for eight hours out of twenty-four during the whole of my life, and that means that I've slept for well over twenty years. What an old Rip van Winkle I am! But then, what Rip van Winkles you all are, or will one day become! Don't you agree then that the Christian gospel should have something to say about the sleeping third of our lives as well as about the waking two-thirds of it?

John Baillie, The Theology of Sleep

As we re-enter that sequence of days when God spoke energy and matter into existence, we repeatedly come upon the refrain, 'And there was evening and there was morning' one day... a second day... on and on six times.

This is the Hebrew way of understanding day, but it is not ours. Our day begins with an alarm clock ripping the predawn darkness and closes, not with evening but several hours past that, when we turn off the electric lights. In our conventional references today, we do not include the night except for the two or three hours we steal from either end to give us more time to work. Because our definition of day is so different, we have to make an imaginative effort to understand the Hebrew phrase evening and morning, one day. More than idiomatic speech is involved here; there is a sense of rhythm.

Day is the basic unit of God's creative work; evening is the beginning of that day. It is the onset of God speaking light, stars, earth, vegetation, animals, man, woman into being. But it is also the time when we quit our activity and go to sleep. When it is evening, 'I lay me down to sleep and pray the Lord my soul to keep' and drift off into semiconciousness... a state in which I am absolutely nonproductive and have no cash value.

Evening: God begins, without our help, his creative day. Morning: God calls us to enjoy and share and develop the work he initiated.

Creation and covenant are sheer grace and there to greet us every morning. George MacDonald once wrote that sleep is God's contrivance for giving us the help he cannot get into us when we are awake.

We read and reread the opening pages of Genesis, along with certain sequences of Psalms, and recover these deep, elemental rhythms, internalising the reality in which the strong, initial pulse is God's creating/saving Word, God's providential/sustaining presence, God's grace.

As this biblical rhythm works in me, I also discover something else: when I quit my day's work, nothing essential stops. I prepare for sleep not with a feeling of exhausted frustration because there is much yet undone and unfinished, but with expectancy. The day is about to begin! God's genesis words are about to be spoken again. During the hours of my sleep, how will he prepare to use my obedience, service and speech when morning breaks? I go to sleep to get out of the way for a while. I get into the rhythm of salvation.

While we sleep, great and marvellous things, far beyond our capacities to invent or engineer, are in process -- the moon marking the seasons, the lion roaring for its prey, the earthworms aerating the earth, the stars turning in their courses, the proteins repairing our muscles, our dreaming brains restoring a deeper sanity beneath the gossip and scheming of our waking hours. Our work settles into the context of God's work. Human effort is honoured and respected not as a thing in itself but by its integration into the rhythms of grace and blessing.

Eugene H. Peterson, The Pastor's Sabbath

It is a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that every dissension that the day has brought must be healed in the evening. It is perilous for the Christian to lie down to sleep with an unreconciled heart. Therefore, it is well that there be a special place for the prayer of brotherly forgiveness in every evening's devotion, that reconciliation be made and fellowship established anew.

In all the ancient evening prayers, we are struck by the frequency with which we encounter the prayer for preservation during the night from the devil, from terror and from an evil, sudden death. The ancients had a persistent sense of their helplessness while sleeping, of the kinship of sleep with death, of the devil's cunning in making them fall when defenceless. So they prayed for the protection of the holy angels and their golden weapons, for the heavenly hosts, at the time when Satan would gain power over them.

Most remarkable and profound is the ancient church's prayer that when our eyes are closed in sleep, God may nevertheless keep our hearts awake. It is the prayer that God may dwell with us and in us even when we are unconscious of his presence, that he may keep our hearts pure and holy in spite of all the cares and temptations of the night, to make our hearts ever alert to his call and, like the boy Samuel, answer him even in the night with: 'Speak, Lord; for your servant is listening (1 Samuel 3: 9). Even in sleep God can perform his wonders upon us or evil bring us to destruction. So we pray at evening:

When our eyes with sleep are girt, Be our hearts to thee alert; Shield us, Lord, with thy right arm, Save us from sin's dreadful harm. (Luther)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

If a psychologist wants to understand the sort of person I am, he will not listen to the conversation I make, or read what I write on paper; he will rather try to penetrate beneath this official selfhood to my most secret thoughts. He is not hidden in the public show-places of my mind, but in its hidden nooks and crannies. He would like to know what visions I see in the clouds of my tobacco smoke as I lie back in my easy chair. He would like to know what I think of as I lie awake in bed, and he will question me in particular about the dreams that come to me when at last I drop off to sleep. It is the inner life that counts ... What do I remember on my bed, and on what do I meditate in the night watches?...

These old worthies went to the centre at once. When they laid their heads upon their rude pillows, they remembered God. When they composed themselves to sleep, they were thinking upon his Word. And if they woke up in the middle of the night it was to meditate on his precepts... I think some of these Psalmists were dwellers in tents [awake and on guard] perhaps in the course of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and others were Levites on night duty at the Temple; and what they are telling here is how they spent these hours of enforced wakefulness. But one of them at least tells us more than that -- he tells us that he gets up a little sooner than he has to, in order to have time to think about God.

John Baillie, Night Thoughts

If we have surrendered our hearts to God in the sunlight, he will be with us no less during the hours of darkness. Nor can the devil get at us by night, if we have not allowed him some entry by day. It is certain that if there were no evil in our waking souls, there would be no evil in our dreams. But, of course, evil is always at our doors, at least in the form of temptation... There is, after all, one way in which we can exercise some control over our dreams, and that is by the proper direction of our thoughts before we retire... Everyone who calls himself a Christian should go to sleep thinking about the love of God as it has visited us in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

John Baillie, The Theology of Sleep

Those whose spirits are stirred by the breath of the Holy Spirit of God go forwards even in sleep.

Brother Laurence, The Practice of the Presence of God

God is my portion and joy, His counsels are my light; He gives me sweet advice by day And gentle hints by night.

Isaac Watts

Of all the thoughts of God that are Born inward into souls afar, Along the PsaLmist's music deep, Now tell me if that any is, For gift or grace, surpassing this - 'He giveth his beloved sleep'?

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

My head and hands and feet Their rest with gladness greet, And know their work is o'er;

My heart, thou too shalt be From sinful works set free, Nor pine in weary sorrow more.

Paul Gerhardt

Nature has ended another day, struck down another life! Someone has music in the evening, others the fruit of strife, Yet in the balance: Love draws the curtains and makes her entrance, embracing the suffering to her side.

Kenneth T. Crotty, Nature had Ended Another Day

All is still and gentle as if all creation shares with tender empathy the last whisper of this dying day. The lights are low now, and everything is suspended as if waiting for some final word.

Bruce Prewer, Vespers by the Murray River

Now that dusk is near - with parrots in the gum trees lessening their chatter, with the distant roar of cars fading to a mere murmur - may I hear the voice of the One who walks in the garden in the cool of the evening and, in hearing that voice, find a little of the Eden-peace which some day will be perfected. This I pray in the name of him who was once mistaken for a gardener.

Bruce Prewer, 'God of the Evening'

Lighten our darkness, Lord, we pray: and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of your only Son our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Be present, merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night: that we, who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world, may rest on your eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Evening Prayer collects, An Australian Prayer Book

Lord, be the guest of this house; keep far from it the deceits of the evil one. May your holy angels watch over us as guardians of our peace. And may your blessing be always upon us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, who at this evening hour rested in the sepulchre, and sanctified the grave to be a bed of hope to your people: make us so to abound in sorrow for our sins, which were the cause of your passion, that when our bodies lie in the dust we may live with you, through the saving merits of your cross; for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

As watchmen look for the morning, so we wait eagerly for you, O Lord. Come with the dawning of the day and make yourself known to us in the breaking of the bread, for you are our God, for ever and ever. Amen.

A Benediction

Let us praise the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; let us praise and magnify him for ever. The almighty and merciful God preserve us and give us his blessing. Amen.

Prayer at the End of the Day, An Australian Prayer Book

Rowland Croucher ed., High Mountains Deep Valleys (Albatross/Lion), chapter 30

Saturday, May 26, 2007


In everything do to others as you would have them do to you. (Matthew 7:12) Forgive, if you have anything against anyone. (Mark 11:25) Love your neighbour as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbour. (Romans 13:9,10)
We urge you... to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all. (1 Thessalonians 5:14)

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. (Philippians 1:1-2) Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. (Philippians 4:4-5)

Be angry but do not sin: do not let the sun go down on your anger. (Ephesians 4:26)

No one should wrong or exploit a brother or sister... For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness. Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another. (1 Thessalonians 4:6,7,9)

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness. (Micah 6:8)

And now I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples. (John 13:34,35)

Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called - that you might inherit a blessing. (1 Peter 3:8-9)


Let's summarize our journey together so far: we were created by God to enjoy him, appreciate our own and others' uniqueness, and to grow in community, or fellowship with others.

In the brilliant film Kramer vs. Kramer the divorced father has to explain to his five-year-old son that he's just lost the custody battle between himself and the boy's mother. Soon the child will be going to live with her. The little boy sobs out what for him are questions of ultimate concern: 'Where will I sleep? Where will I put my toys? Why can't I stay with you too?'

The movie is about three people. Two grown-ups - a man and a woman - have needs that aren't being met by the other. Their little boy, therefore, has to have his life messed up too. Where does such a vicious circle begin? Why is it not possible for humans to live together without conflict? What can we do to stop the chain reaction of grief being handed on to another generation?

Oscar Wilde believed that 'other people are quite dreadful; the only possible society is oneself.' Wrong, Oscar, and sad. (There is more wisdom in something else he said: 'In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.') How can we get along with those we live with?

You begin by knowing who the real 'me' is. If you don't like yourself you won't enjoy living with others either. When I ask people in counseling 'What do you like about yourself?' I often get a 'nothing' response. Some of us avoid responsibility for our behaviour with the excuse 'Well, nobody's perfect.' True, but you don't have to opt out of growing; nor do you have to live with the negative self-fulfilling prophecies you or others have heaped on yourself. At the deepest level your identity, your perception of who you are, has derived from what others have communicated to you about you. It's on the esteem of others that you base your own self-esteem. With the help of a caring friend, learn to accept yourself. You are an unrepeatable miracle of God's creation. If you want to get along with others, you had better start with the person inside your own skin!

Then, affirm the uniqueness of others. They, too, are who they are as a result of the mix of verbal inputs into their lives by significant others, plus the accidents of life they have experienced, plus their own success or otherwise in determining to become a whole person. The Christian approach here is simple, and it works: pray to your and their Creator God for a gift of love: to view the other as one precious to God and made in his image. You can't pray this prayer sincerely for too long without beginning to appreciate the other!

Then, let's be lovingly honest with one another. One of the great middle-class sicknesses of our time is affability. We are so nice to each other it's sickening. We play games to cover our true feelings. Rather than 'walking in the light' we leave one another to stumble in the darkness about who we are and they are. But then, if we cannot 'speak the truth in love' without the risk of creating greater hurt rather than healing, we might have to (a) learn 'win-win' conflict resolution skills, and/or (b) follow the advice on my desk calendar the other day: 'Never miss an opportunity to make others happy, even if you have to leave them alone to do it.' (Marcel Proust once said, 'The one thing more difficult than following a regimen is not imposing it on others').

We exist in homes, families, communities, to 'care' for each other, as well as being cared for by others. However, 'care' has ambiguous connotations, as Henri Nouwen has pointed out. For example, when a Mafia boss tells his henchmen to 'go take care of somebody' that somebody had better watch out. He is about to be made an offer he can't refuse! Actually, our English word 'care' goes back to a Gothic root, kara, meaning to 'lament, weep with, grieve'. So caring should mean we become aware of the other in ways that stir deep feelings, and out of these feelings resolve is born to care for them in appropriate ways. This means breaking out of the circle of selfishness and making our lives a resource to others.

This is the meaning of the Good Samaritan story. Every 'good Samaritan' says to the other: 'What happens to you makes a difference to me.' Just as God makes an unconditional covenant to commit himself to us no matter what happens, so we forgive 'seventy times seven' and serve the other, even if we are not thanked, or such labours are not returned. This is authentic caring.

Again, let us take a journey back to the first few chapters of Genesis. There's a wonderful story about God's desiring communion with the creature man/woman he had made. When Adam sinned, that fellowship was broken. God arrived in the garden for their usual fellowship-time, but Adam was hiding. The 'Fall' was a fall from fellowship, not only between us and God, but between humans themselves. Cain killed his brother Abel, and we've had to work very hard to maintain fellowship, particularly where our fallenness has led us to create barriers between persons and groups. And yet, though God in the Old Testament is characteristically sovereign, and holy, in his 'apartness' from sinners, his statement to Moses - 'I will be with you' (Exodus 3:12) - indicates his desire to commune with his covenant people. The Divine Presence within Israel was symbolized in the ark, the cloud, the guiding angel, and later in the Jerusalem Temple. But, as Psalm 23 tells us, he feeds us, cares for us, protects us, guides us and encourages us.

In the New Testament the Greek noun koinonia simply means 'sharing', and is translated variously as 'communion', 'communication', 'community', 'fellowship', 'partaking', 'contribution', etc. An ancient inscription put up by a husband in memory of his wife said: 'I shared all life with you, alone'. Thus 'fellowship' in New Testament usage is the sharing of something with others in a community, not merely the act of associating with them. The outpoured Spirit had created a community that broke through the barriers of language, culture, race, sex - even possessions (see Acts 2:42, 4:32, 35, Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11).

This new joy, and mutual love, emanated not from a Divine mandate, but from their high conception of being 'in fellowship'. It was nothing short of a miracle! These early Christians experienced a sense of oneness, unity, togetherness, unlike anything they had known before. People didn't just associate with a few 'cronies': Jesus said tax-collectors and other disreputable people did that. The foundation of koinonia is nothing less than the Incarnation: Jesus sharing his life with us.

Again, we repeat: the Christian good news is about God's acceptance of us even before we change. He loves us unconditionally. This was essentially the difference between Jesus and the pharisees. Jesus 'accepted', loved people before they had changed, he loved them into change; the pharisees rejected people who were alien, sinners, until they had changed and mended their ways. With Jesus, acceptance preceded repentance, with the pharisees it was the other way around. So we are to accept one another, as God accepts us - as people who are made in his image, who are like him! (Romans 5:6-8, 15:7). This does not mean we ignore or gloss over others' mistakes or sins: it does mean we will recognize their Godlikeness before we barge in to 'fix' things. Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery 'I do not condemn you' before he said 'Go and sin no more' (John 8:11). Jesus understood others. Two proverbs express it well: To understand all is to forgive all; if you can understand the other person you can stand them.

We'll all meet difficult people from time to time. Jesus did. He didn't get along with everybody. He condemned injustice and godlessness and if you're going to do that you're going to get crucified by the unjust and the godless. If we are 'change agents', then we'll suffer at the hands of those who benefit by things staying the way they are. (But then, some of us want to change things because we ourselves are not at ease with ourselves.)

Many interpersonal conflicts result from our idealised picture of who the other should be. Others' incompleteness reminds us of our own. It's sometimes called 'transference' - transferring emotions to a person or situation which belong somewhere else. He married to escape a dominant mother, so when his wife 'nags' and reminds him of a bitter past, he over-reacts. She's trying to make him like her father, who was so helpful around the house, and he does nothing.

Acceptance is helped by empathy. Empathy is 'the imaginative projection of one's personality into that of another person' - putting yourself into the other's shoes, listening deeply with mind, heart and soul. It's not sympathy, which can sometimes be a selfish emotion, where you're hooked because of some unresolved emotional conflict in your own life. And it's the opposite of antipathy, where you judge the other for not measuring up to what you want them to be.

And after all, what do we mean by a 'difficult person'? Who of us is not abnormal in some sense? Who decides what is normal, who is difficult? Maybe schizophrenics are sometimes the sane ones! Perhaps we have to work harder at dealing with the log in our own eye, before we take splinters out of others' eyes!

The church is meant to be a therapeutic or 'salvific' community, a community of people-helpers. But to be a people-helper, one must be committed to one's own growth - physical, intellectual, social- emotional, and spiritual. It is a community of people who practise faith, hope and love: faith that people are loved already in spite of their crabbiness; hope that with patience and acceptance we and others can grow and change; love which covers a multitude of faults and we desire only the good of others. The challenge is to see Jesus in others, and practise 'being Christ' to others. And that's tough work: overcoming prejudices is the hardest work of all!

Mary Claerout, in her book Friday She Gave Him Flowers, tells the story of Willings, a confirmed bachelor. Every Friday his maid would put flowers on his breakfast table. The white roses on the table must have cost her a fortune, so he imagined 'she must simply adore me,' As he sat back and contemplated the flowers, a warm feeling swept through him. He thought, 'The woman is a blessing; if only she weren't so ugly.'

He thought about himself. He was a lady's man. He had himself. As a boy he loathed looking at his peer group with pimples and acne and blackheads. He abhorred their wrinkles and warts. His stomach turned over when he saw hair growing out of noses and ears. He could hardly bear to look at others' mouths. All his life he had seen only one flawless mouth, his own. He enjoyed himself, being alone... He decided to thank Emily for the flowers and called her in.

She said, 'Oh, it's nothing to speak of really Mr Willings. It's just that I feel so sorry for the flowers. Hardly used they are, when the undertaker puts them out for Friday's rubbish collection. So I always pick a few out when I go by. I wouldn't want them at home, you know, seeing where they come from. That's why I put them in your vase. I mean, it's not your own choosing that you are all alone and don't have any friends. At least you should have a few flowers.'


From what I have learned in my own marriage, and seen in others, there are not many questions more important than this: 'Am I willing to train myself away from selfishness toward the point where I honestly care how the other person feels?'

Charlie W. Shedd, Letters to Philip on how to treat a woman, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell, 1968, p. 19 [43]

If you share your bread in fear, mistrustfully, undaringly, in a trice your bread will fail. Try sharing it without looking ahead, not thinking of the cost, unstintingly, like a child of the Lord of all the harvests in the world.

Dom Helder Camara, A Thousand Reasons for Living, London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1984, p.98 [41]

A famous English preacher named Alexander Whyte was very disturbed one night because his closest friend was at the point of death. Whyte was praying earnestly to God that this man might be spared when suddenly a Voice said to him, 'How serious are you about this one's survival? Would you be willing to divide with him the number of years you have left to live upon this earth?' With that, Whyte reports getting up off his knees in a cold sweat for suddenly intercession had become more than a matter of words. Now it was the precious substance of his own life that was at stake. He pondered this question very deliberately for a while and dropped back to his knees and said, 'Yes! I hereby relinquish half of the time I have left, if this will enable my friend to survive.' He got up with no idea what the ultimate outcome of this agreement would be... Here I am with a given pool of physical and emotional and psychic vitality. How will I spend it? How much of it will I keep for myself and how much of it will I make available to others?

John Claypool, from an unpublished sermon, 'How Much of Yourself Will You Give?' [197]

Carl Sandburg talks about the 'zoo' inside each of us - there's a pig, and a lion, and a tiger, and a gentle deer. We have all kinds of feelings within us: we are responsible for some of them and not others. But although there is a zoo in me, I am keeper of that zoo!

For example, it is not wrong to be angry, but what you do with your anger could be very harmful. Jesus got angry sometimes. And if you want to get mad at me, that's O.K. I should pray for the maturity to handle our conflicts constructively. Just as friction between certain types of rocks produces sparks of light, so it is the friction of our individualities rubbing against each other that illuminates who we really are. There is a sense in which I do not really know you nor you me until we get to a point where we differ...

So the words 'ought' or 'should' mustn't generally be used in relation to feelings. Our feelings are like toothache - they're there - and no amount of exhorting will make a toothache or the feelings go away...

When you are more in touch with your own feelings, you'll be more compassionate with others. Here's Frederick Buechner's definition of compassion: 'The sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else's skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.'

True community is born from love that risks the sorrow of rejection for the love of acceptance. Community implies participation; participation implies action. True community means walking in the light, being open, and perhaps vulnerable with one another. Perfect love casts out fear. The root of war, Thomas Merton has taught us, is fear.

Rowland Croucher, from an unpublished sermon, 'Getting along with the people you live with.' [309]

To Victor, who agrees with me in nothing and is my friend in everything.

Carlyle Marney's dedication at the beginning of his book Faith in Conflict. [14]

Some families readily express hostility and anger, but fail to express tenderness, love and appreciation. Other families appear to have unwritten rules that allow the expression of kindness, concern and positive feelings, but then suppress irritation and exasperation, shame, self-doubt and expressions of disagreement, dislike and requests for what one wants for oneself. Healthier families [are] able to express a wide range of feelings...

'Letting it all hang out' [is not recommended]. It is the range of feelings that can be expressed without attacking other members that seems to create human development and intimacy. It may be because the family members can modulate the intensity of their negative feelings that they are able to express whatever they wish. In fact, the modulation of intense feeling is one of the prerequisites of effective conflict management.

Moira Eastman, Family: The Vital Factor, Blackburn: Collins Dove, 1989, pp. 65-67 [132]

A generous mind does not consider itself as belonging to itself alone, but to the whole human race (Ulrich Zwingli). A friend adds to your joy, divides your burdens, multiplies your happiness (Anon). If two people doing a job agree all the time, then one is useless. If they disagree all the time, then both are useless (Darryl F. Zanuck). We are invited to be thermostats, not thermometers - affecting our environment, not merely reflecting it (Charles Hembree). We keep passing unseen through little moments of other people's lives (Robert T. Pirsig). I am part of all that I have met (Ulysses). If you wish to please people, you must begin by understanding them (Charles Reade). People must help one another: it is nature's law (Jean de la Fontaine). If you are gracious and courteous to strangers, you are a citizen of the world (Francis Bacon). If your Christianity is not contagious, it may be contaminated (Chester Johnson). I am as close to God as I am from the person from whom I am most divided (Anon.) The nobler your heart is, the more you will be inclined to make allowance for others (F W Robertson). Kindness is one thing you can't give away: it always comes back (Anon).

Desk calendar quotes

Christianity is a community event. As Christians we have always believed that the life of faith is not a private enterprise but a communal venture. Over the past several decades in the Church we have come to renewed awareness of this fact. One of the most significant efforts within the Church today is the movement of Christians to understand themselves as the people of God and to experience their relations with one another as a life together in community. We rejoice in this vision of Christian life, taking hope in its challenge to the formality and bureaucracy that can find their way into church structures. But, gradually, many of us have come to sense that this goal of life together as Christians is both a gift and a most difficult ambition.

The language of ministry today is filled with the vocabulary of mutuality: mutual support, shared decision-making, collegiality, and collaboration.

Evelyn Eaton Whitehead and James D. Whitehead, Community of Faith: Models and Strategies for Developing Christian Communities, New York: Seabury Press, 1982, p.xi. [151]

Christian community is... a gift of God which we cannot claim. Only God knows the real state of our fellowship, of our sanctification. What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God. Just as [Christians] should not be constantly feeling [their] spiritual pulse, so, too, the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.

Christian [community] is not an ideal we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1954, p. 30. [122]

The gospel tells of the triumph of the personal in the silence of a technological world. The Word became flesh. The Word dwells among us. The metaphor of the personal is carried in the stories of Jesus again and again. The shepherd seeks for a lost sheep, a father looks for a lost son. Here is a parent who gives not a stone but a loaf of bread, not a serpent but a fish. Here five thousand sit down together to share a simple meal. Two men travel on a road and are joined by a third. In deep conversation they end their journey with the breaking of bread and what is hidden is revealed, what is a mystery penetrated with the joy and wonder of communion.

Denham Grierson, A People on the Way: Congregational Mission & Australian Culture, Melbourne: David Lovell Publishing, 1991, pp. 89-90. [127]

An Irish tenant farmer who died last century left a widow and three little children. This was before the days of social security. The man who owned the farm needed the house to get another field hand, and so this poor widow was literally turned out into the road with no resource whatsoever for herself and her family. She went to the nearest town and began to go from door to door explaining her plight and offering to do any work to provide for her children. However, person after person turned her away, saying, 'I have problems of my own. What happens to you is of no concern to me.' After four days of no food and sleeping out of doors in the park, the youngest child's body was weakened and she woke up with a burning fever. By noon all three of the children were sick, and before the sun went down this little neglected family was the centre of an epidemic of diphtheria that spread to the whole town. Only at that point did it become clear that this woman's plight was the concern of the larger community. Their failure to deal with the problem at one point in time meant they had to deal with it later in a worse form.

Source unknown

'Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad...'

One important rule for being happy and successful is - don't let things agitate you. This is vital... People get sick largely because they cannot control and discipline their minds...

Imagine that Jesus Christ is actually by your side. When you start worrying, stop and say: 'Lord, you are with me; everything is all right.' At night, before you turn out the light have a word with him and say, 'Lord, I'll not worry, for I know you are watching over me and will give me peace.'

Practise taking a detached attitude towards irritating things. Practise lifting your mind above the confusion and irritation around you. One way to do that is to hang pictures [of nature] on the walls of your mind and think about them habitually...

Robert Louis Stevenson made a wise statement: 'Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune or in misfortune at their own private pace like the ticking of a clock during a thunderstorm.'

One of the surest methods for overcoming agitation is to put yourself in contact with the re-creative process of nature.

Norman Vincent Peale, 'How to Avoid Getting Upset' in A Guide to Confident Living, Kingswood, Surrey: The World's Work, 1955, pp. 128-142. [193]

An apology,

Is a friendship preserver, Is often a debt of honour, Is never a sign of weakness, Is an antidote for hatred, Costs nothing but one's pride, Always saves more than it costs, Is a device needed in every home.

Forgiveness breaks the chain of causality because the one who forgives you - out of love - takes upon themselves the consequences of what you have done. Forgiveness, therefore, always entails sacrifice.

The price you must pay for your own liberation through another's sacrifice, is that you in turn must be willing to liberate in the same way, irrespective of the consequences to yourself.

Dag Hammarskjold, Markings, Faber, 1964, in Michael Hollings, Hearts Not Garments, London, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1982, p.82. [103]

When you stand praying, forgive.

If you are not getting answers to your prayers, check yourself very thoroughly and honestly as to whether you have resentments on your mind.

Spiritual power cannot pass through a personality where resentment exists. Hate is a non-conductor of spiritual energy.

I suggest that every time you pray you add this phrase, `Lord take from my thought all ill will, grudges, hates, jealousies'. Then practise casting these things from your thoughts.

Norman Vincent Peale, Thought Conditioners, New York: Foundation for Christian Living, p.24. [77]

Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savour to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back - in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.

Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, London, Collins, 1973, p.2. [86]

According to the Bible, we are to love others as ourselves (Luke 10:27), and as God loves us (John 4:11). In other words, there is an intimate connection between our love for ourselves and our love and esteem for God and others. When we fail to love ourselves, all of our relationships suffer. We fail to love our mates, our children, or our neighbors properly. Think of your own life . Remember the last time you were feeling miserable and were angry with yourself, discouraged, or depressed? How did you relate to your mate, children, and friends at that time? Were you loving, sensitive, and kind? I doubt it. When we are uptight about ourselves, we are usually uptight with others. We take our frustrations out on them.

Bruce Narramore, You're Someone Special, Michigan: Zondervan, 1978, p.119. [125]

The past is, perhaps, not totally lost, but it is no longer ours; it is in the hands of God and is his business. It will be retrieved in the tota simul possessio of eternity, but should not be stored away on earth. As far as we are concerned, we must realize that we are like children, at the beginning, not the end, of a road. Whatever past achievements might bring us honour, whatever past disgraces might make us blush, all of these have been crucified with Christ; they exist no more except in the deep recesses of God's eternity, where good is enhanced into glory and evil miraculously established as part of the greater good.

John Garvey (Ed), Modern Spirituality, an Anthology, London, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1985, p.65. [116]

I was amused to read of the adjustments Paul and Nellie Tournier worked through in their first years of marriage. 'I'm an optimist and she's a pessimist,' Paul Tournier reported in Faith at Work magazine (April, 1972). 'She thinks of every difficulty, misfortune, and catastrophe that might happen, and I cannot promise her that such things will not happen. But God is neither optimist nor pessimist. The search for him leads one beyond his own personality and temperament to a path that is neither optimism nor pessimism.

'Little by little I have learned that God speaks to everybody - men and women, adults and children, blacks and whites, the rich and the poor. To discover the will of God, you must listen to him in everyone. Of course, I prefer to have God speak directly to me, rather than through my wife, and yet in truly seeking his will I must be persuaded that he speaks as much through her as through me; to her as much as to me.'

Quoted in Philip Yancey, 'Marriage: Minefields on the Way to Paradise', Chrisianity Today, February 18, 1977, p. 27. [168]

Abba Theodotus said, `Do not judge a fornicator if you are chaste, otherwise you will be transgressing the law too. For he who said, "Do not fornicate", also said, "Do not judge".'

We are all, equally, privileged but not unentitled beggars before the door of God's mercy.

John Garvey (Ed), Modern Spirituality, an Anthology, London, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1985, p. 67. [47]


In the Ravensbruck Nazi concentration camp - where an estimated 92,000 men, women and children were murdered - a piece of wrapping paper was found near the body of a dead child. On the paper was written this prayer:

O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not only remember the suffering they have inflicted on us; remember the fruits we bought, thanks to this suffering: our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this. And when they come to judgement, let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.

Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home, Kent: Hodder and Stoughton, 1992. p.238 [113]

Why do we look a the speck in someone else's eye but ignore the log in our own? The measure we use for others, God will use for us.

If we do not judge others, God will not judge us; if we do not condemn others, God will not condemn us; if we forgive, God forgives us even more; so let us give, and God will give to us a full measure, a generous helping, poured into our hands, more than we can hold.

The measure we use for others, God will use for us.

Jesus, you are the giver and the gift.

A New Zealand Prayer Book, Auckland: Collins, 1989, p.131. [103]

Accompany me to-day, O Spirit invisible, in all my goings, but stay with me also when I am in my own home and among my kindred. Forbid that I should fail to show to those nearest to me the sympathy and consideration which thy grace enables me to show to others with whom I have to do. Forbid that I should refuse to my own household the courtesy and politeness which I think proper to show to strangers. Let charity to-day begin at home.

John Baillie, A Diary of Private Prayer, London: OUP, 1936, p.89. [86]

Jesus, friend of sinners, you call us to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us, and pray for those who treat us badly.

Jesus, reconciler, when someone slaps us on the cheek, you call us to offer the other; when someone takes our coat, you bid us give our shirt as well; when someone takes what is ours, we may not demand it back.

Jesus, Son of God, our friend and brother, when we love our enemies and do good we are children of God, who is kind to the wicked and ungrateful.

Jesus, teacher without peer, you have turned the world upside down.

A New Zealand Prayer Book, Auckland: Collins, 1989, pp.121-122. [114]

Lord, we come before you, not alone, but in the company of one another.

We share our happiness with each other - and it becomes greater.

We share our troubles with each other - and they become smaller.

We share one another's griefs and burdens - and their weight becomes possible to heal.

May we never be too mean to give, nor too proud to receive.

For in giving and receiving we learn to love and be loved; We encounter the meaning of life, the mystery of existence -

and discover you.

Terry C. Falla, Be Our Freedom Lord, Adelaide: Lutheran Publishing House, 1981, p.158. [88]

Lord Jesus, we hold our families before you; we are ashamed because so many of them are broken or are about to break. How foolish we must look in your sight as we express ourselves so harshly to one another! Lord, forgive us, and help us to make the necessary repairs on our families. We know that we cannot do much by ourselves, we need the help of your Holy Spirit. So please bring his power into our hearts. And, O Holy Spirit of Christ, work mightily among those who have heard the gospel again, and bring many of them to faith.

God the Father, look with your compassion and pity upon those who are living within families in which there is much tension and suffering. Use the message of your grace to help those who are discouraged, and enable them to see that through your power there is hope that their families can become good places to live.

We pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.

'A Good Place to Live', The Radio Pulpit (publisher and date unknown). [167]

O God the Father, good beyond all that is good, fair beyond all that is fair, in whom is calmness, peace and harmony; make up the divisions which keep us apart and bring us back into a unity of love which may bear some likeness to your divine nature. And as you are above all things make us one by the unity of a good mind, that through charity and affection we may be spiritually one, through that peace of yours which makes all things peaceful, and through the grace, mercy and tenderness of your Son, Jesus Christ.

Dionysius, cited in Praying with the Saints, Dublin: Veritas Publications, 1989, p.37. [98]

Lord, speak to me, that I may speak in living echoes of your tone; as you have sought, so let me seek your erring children... Freely I have received, may I freely give.

Help me to remember that a cancerous cell expects the rest of the body to nourish it: may I nourish others, and contribute to their well-being, without being concerned too much about any reciprocity.

In relating to others, help me to adjust to them sometimes, to be flexible when I ought to adapt to them; to be courageous when I am called upon to do or say something difficult to help another; to live in hope, that little by little I can have a part in the ongoing process of the divine redemption of the human race.

Reveal your gifts to me, and the limits of my abilities. I can't do everything to help everyone, but I can do something to help someone. Give me, please, wisdom to know how to help without getting all messed up; and how to help without messing others up.

Thank you Lord. Amen.

A Benediction

May God grant you the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.


Rowland Croucher


TEXT: 1 Peter 1:1-19

Victor Frankl was a young psychiatrist who had just begun his practice when the Germans took over his native Vienna and shipped him and all the other Jews off to a concentration camp. Then began the awesome task of survival. With his trained psychiatric eye he noted that many prisoners simply crumpled under the pressure and eventually died. But some didn't, and Frankl made it his mission to get to know these special people and discover their secret. Without exception, those who survived had something to live for. One man had a retarded child back home whom he wanted to care for. Another was deeply in love with a girl he wanted to marry. Frankl himself aspired to be a writer, and was in the middle of his first manuscript when he was arrested: the drive to live and finish that book was very great. Frankl did survive, and has contributed greatly to our understanding of the human 'will to meaning'. He developed a process called 'logotherapy', which, expressed as a simple question is: 'If the presence of purpose or meaning gives one the strength to carry on, how do we human beings get in touch with it?'

Peter's answer, in a word, is 'HOPE'. Writing to Christians who were living in constant, real danger, he begins this general letter by praising God for 'hope'. And he ends his letter with the same general idea in chapter 5. Despite all the threats of persecution and death, Peter advocates a vibrant 'hopefulness'.

And he ought to know. He's writing as one of the church's 'senior statesmen', but he wasn't always that way. He was once a stumbling, faltering, sometimes failing disciple. We might have been tempted to 'write him off' as a hopeless case! When his friend and Lord was crucified Peter's despairing outlook was anything but hopeful. The passage before us provides some clues to this man's dramatic change.

I have a friend who is an Anglican priest, and an alcoholic. Once or twice he has phoned me late on Saturday night, in drunken despair over his lack of adequate preparation for the coming day. His favourite book in the Bible? 1 Peter!

'Hope' has been called the Cinderella of Christian graces. Perhaps we talk - and preach - more about faith and love than hope. But the Bible is full of hope. The God who called Abraham and his family to leave the land of Ur and go to the unknown land of Canaan is the same God who is ahead of us, too, beckoning us to the land of 'not yet'. The New Testament mentions the idea of hope more than fifty times. Our God is the 'the God of hope' (Rom. 15:13), so we can 'place our hope in the living God' (1 Tim. 4:10). Those who do not know Christ personally are 'without hope' (Eph. 2:12, cf. 1 Th. 4:13). On the other hand hope is so much an essential part of Christianity that Paul says without it the Christian is the most miserable of all persons (1 Cor. 15:19).

The Greeks did not have this idea of a God who goes before his people: their God was rather the transcendent Other who is above and beyond the processes of the world. So it is not surprising that their word for hope (elpis) was a very ambiguous term. It had the sense of 'foreboding' - a future of either good or evil. The gospel of Christ emptied elpis of all its bleakness and filled it with only good.

In our text, Peter says four things - explicity or implicitly - about hope.

(a) First, Christian hope is CERTAIN, simply because God is its author! Note how often 'the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ' is mentioned in the first three verses. Peter begins by affirming the essence of the 'good news'. This is a very different idea from our words 'I hope so...' It's not Mr. Micawber's 'hoping that something will turn up'! Nor is it a kind of 'everything will be all right' wishful thinking - considering something to be so because we desire it to be so. It's not a holiday-maker's 'It should be fine tomorrow' nor the politician's 'the economy should pick up by the middle of next year'! Those sorts of statements may or may not be based on demonstrable grounds for hope, but merely on the desire that things should turn out that way.

Perhaps, however, wishful thinking is better than not thinking at all. A lonely refugee child, told that his parents were dead, still believed they were alive and went on searching for them. As it happened, he eventually found them. His 'wishful thinking' wasn't based on anything concrete, but it drove him on.

Christian hope is not an 'airy fairy' thing, building castles in the air. It's not merely 'such stuff as dreams are made of'.

No, our hope is certain because 'we can trust God to keep his promise' (Heb. 10:23). It is based on the character - the trustworthiness - of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is rooted in our understanding of who God is, and how in history he has proved himself utterly reliable. It is based on fact, not fantasy.

F.W. Boreham in one of his essays tells of his boyhood expectation of finding a pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow. 'I never met another boy,' he write, who actually found a pot of gold, but what had that to do with it? Such an irrelevant circumstance could not keep me and my brothers from setting out in quest of that magic spot on which the many-tinted pillars rested... What castles in the air we erected as we made our way to the rainbow's foot.'

Many people have searched vainly for El Dorados, or Loch Ness monsters, or what-have-you, and their 'hope' has been baseless. Ours is grounded on the trustworthy promise of a trustworthy God.

(b) Second, Peter says our hope is LIVING (1:3). Only dead things have no future. The very word 'living' implies a future, a destiny. Hope, says the author of Hebrews, is 'set before us' (6:18). We are encouraged to 'hope to the end' (Heb. 7:25). Just as a truthful God provides grounds for our hope's certainty, so 'the living God' guarantees that our hope, too, is living.

In fact, the notion of hope is woven like a golden thread through the whole fabric of God's creation. An experiment by psychologists at the University of North Carolina found that rats soon drowned if they were put in a large bottle without an apparent escape. But put the rat in a jar with the lid half cut away, and it will swim for about 36 hours before drowning from exhaustion!

In South Pacific, Mary Martin sins 'I'm stuck like a dope with a thing called hope, and I can't get it out of my heart.' Nor can any healthy living organism.

The essayist Pope put it well: 'Hope springs eternal in the human breast'. It does, and it was put there by God. Hope sustains the farmer when he ploughs and sows, the student when she studies, the athlete when he trains. And, the first person in whose body an artificial heart was placed. He was chosen, the doctors said, because of his 'attitude to life'. The old maxim 'Where there's life there's hope' could easily be turned around: 'Where there's hope, there's life'. Give up hope, and you may die - literally! I once pastored the downtown Baptist church in Sydney, Australia. Around that city-area, many men (and some women) slept in parks, in drains, in railway tunnels, or abandoned buildings. They were called 'no-hopers'....

What oxygen is for the lungs, such is hope for the meaning - and existence - of human life.

A visitor to Chartwell, Winston Churchill's old home in Kent, asked the guide (who was on old friend of the family's), 'Did Winston Churchill ever lose hope?' 'No,' she replied, 'hope was built into him. He never expected anything but victory.'

Nor can the Christian!

The absence of a living hope is the essence of despair. The person who's simply 'given up' believes there's no ray of hope anywhere. All the possibilities have been exhausted. That's a false assumption for a believer in the living God. He's 'the God who is there', who will never leave us or forsake us, in whose vocabulary the word 'hopeless' cannot exist! He's the 'God whose other name is surprise', and he's the God of the Easter-event...

(c) Third, Peter says our hope is a RESURRECTION hope (1:3). God raised Jesus from the dead, and this fills us with a living hope. This fact, of course, gives special meaning to the word 'living' for a Christian. Such 'living' is much more than biological - or psychological - survival. Jesus was the 'incarnation of God' - God in a human body - and if on Easter Sunday he broke loose from the tomb, overcoming all that human nature could do in its evil schemes, then our ideas about the nature of reality are drastically altered.

The hope Peter talks about (and it's a recurring theme in his epistle) is very specific: it is a vision of eternal realities. His expectation is that of a glorified life, a life with God, an 'eternal life' that conquers death. Such is the Christian's 'Open Door of Hope' - a firm belief in limitless possibilities beyond death.

That is why, at funeral services, there is the biblical affirmation of 'a sure and certain hope'. This hope is not immortality, as such, but 'resurrection'.

When I was a theological student I was able to spend three weeks in a few hospitals. During that time I saw a couple of Caesarean operat- ions. These experiences were among the most profound of my life. What a privilege to witness, not just the skill of medical science, but the miracle of birth itself: that moment when the baby was born into its new world, breathing, yelling, kicking - and very much alive. The resurrection for Peter was like being born into a new life, a new environment.

Peter goes on to speak of hope as related to 'an inheritance'. What does that mean? Simply that one now possesses in reality that to which the person was an heir. Peter paradoxically talks about possessing an inheritance - in the present - but which 'will be revealed in the last time'. Kierkegaard said it's something like a new garment: we have it already, clean and glittering, but the event for which we will wear it in all its magnificence is still to come.

So, with this resurrection hope we are always 'leaning forward' in passionate longing for the 'not yet' (Moltmann). We share - with de Chardin - the vision of a 'divine milieu', when God will be all in all. 'How many of us', he asks, 'are genuinely moved in the depths of our hearts by the wild hope that our earth will be recast? The Lord Jesus will only come soon if we ardently expect him. It is the accumulation of desires that should cause the pleroma to burst upon us... Only twenty centuries have passed since the Ascension. What have we made of our expectancy?'

So Christian hope, in this sense, is much, much more than mere optimism. The New Testament talks about 'the patience of hope'. Christian hope is deep; mere optimism is shallow. Optimism may be a good natural trait - and have no religious connections at all. 'Hope', says John Macquarrie in his magnificent little book The Humility of God, 'is humble, trustful, vulnerable. Optimism is arrogant, brash, complacent... Our hope is not that in spite of everything we do, all will turn out for the best. Our hope is rather that God is with us and ahead of us, opening a way in which we can responsibly follow.'

(d) Finally, Peter says this hope is a very PRACTICAL thing. This message was addressed to suffering people. They could literally become food for the Colisseum lions at any time. This is real 'crisis theology'. Such hope was the spiritual motivation, not only to wait for the end of all things, but to 'live in hope' in the here-and-now.

These people couldn't share the rollicking optimism of the musical Oklahoma: I have a wonderful feeling Everything's going my way.

No, their hope rested on God, not on humans, or luck, or fate. It is a dynamic, transforming quality, not only 'hoping to see my Pilot face to face, when I have crossed the bar' (Tennyson), but providing deep meaning to life's struggles before that time. Christian hope says 'History is His story'. God's divine purposes for the world and its inhabitants can't be thwarted by the evils humans perpetrate. The hope for our sick, tired world is the Kingdom of God, for which we wait, but which we also experience now. Hope sures us that there is a 'joy seeking us through pain'. It's not based on a kind of utopia-idea, but rather issues in active, productive obedience.

The Power that can raise the dead can also conquer evil.

This sort of hope is the mainspring of our confidence in God, especially when the traumas and troubles of life come in upon us.

Have you ever heard the little poem by Victor Hugo?

Let us learn like a bird for a moment to take Sweet rest on a branch that is ready to break; She feels the branch tremble, yet gaily she sings. What is with her? She has wings, she has wings.

Hope provides the Christian with wings.

You see, life is difficult. Morning to evening, each day is a problem- solving period. No one's life is problem-free. No, life is problem- solving, and problem-solving is life. Our human choice is never between pain and no pain, but rather between the pain of loving and the pain of not loving. To be human is to have problems. But to be Christian is to have problems - and hope.

Life, wrote Baudelaire, is a hospital in which each patient believes he or she will recover if they is moved to another bed.

That's not the Christian life. Hope, for the Christian, is not just 'the icing on the cake'. It is the cake! It helps him or her 'face forward'. (Have you heard about the poor man in Denver who was stricken with a strange mental illness that forced him to walk backwards all the time?' Predictably, his form of hysteria ended him up in hospital). We aren't going backwards, or living life looking over our shoulders. We can face the future - and the present - with confidence, with hope.

Can human beings really live in the reality of this sort of hope when the going's tough?

Perhaps this story, from The Reader's Digest, by Kingsley Brown, answers for itself:

'Among the works of art which draw visitors to Europe are the great cathedrals. I have stood in awe of many - Notre Dame, Chartres, Reims and Canterbury. But none has stirred me so deeply as the shrine built by Russian prisoners-of-war in Stalag 3A at Luckenwalde, just outside Berlin.

In February 1945, I was one of hundreds of British and American POWs thrust into Stalag 3A. Unlike us, who rated some protection under the Geneva Convention, the Russians were helpless. Underfed, denied medical attention and forced to do hard labour, their death rate was staggering. Although we had no communication with their compound, each morning we watched in fascinated horror while a truck collected its daily quota of corpses.

The days of tribulation ended on April 22, 1945, when we were all liberated by the Ukrainian army. Within hours, the Russian barracks were emptied; hundreds went off to fight again, while those too sick to volunteer remained behind. We then entered the Russian compound. It was a scene of indescribable horror. But in the heart of a barracks block they had wrought a miracle - they had built a church.

We stood breathless. A great golden crucifix flashed from the altar, its radiance reflected in prismed chandeliers hung the length of the nave. The windows were a splendour of stained glass, and along the walls were the Stations of the Cross, fashioned in coloured mosaic. It seemed incongruous. How could starving, dying men have created so magnificent a place of worship? Then we looked closer and all was explained. The golden crucifix was two pieces of slim timber, painstakingly sheathed in gold-foil paper salvaged from the refuse dump. The chandeliers were creations of thousands of tiny slips of cardboard, each covered with silver paper and suspended by almost invisible threads. The stations of the cross were crafted not from Florentine porcelain tile but from bits of coloured paper snipped from magazinewes rescued from rubbish bins.

In the constant presence of death, and from scraps gleaned from the dump, they had built a church. God had illumined it with a divine authenticity.'

Mother Teresa cares for the dying in a building called 'The House of the Living', a place I have been privileged to visit. On a visit to Australia she said, 'I picked up a man dying in an open drain. He said, 'I have lived like an animal all my life but now I will die like an angel'.

Rowland Croucher

[This is one of four sermons from 1 Peter. The others: Holiness, Humility, and Happiness.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east.
(G M Hopkins, 'The Wreck of the Deutschland')

Most early Christians were Jews who were used to celebrating religious festivals at various times in the year (Passover, Tabernacles, Pentecost etc.). So Christians were encouraged to follow the great events of our Lord's life at various times in the year. We begin the 'Christian Year' with Advent as we prepare for Christ's coming. Advent also completes the cycle by reminding us of Christ's second coming to judge the world. The Christmas festival celebrates the Incarnation of God in Christ, when 'the Word became flesh'. Some churches commemorate the coming of the Wise Men at Epiphany (January 6); others the baptism of Jesus. Lent reminds us of Jesus' temptation and sufferings, preparing the way for the celebration of the triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and the contemplation of his Passion and death on the cross on 'Good Friday'. Easter is the celebration of Christ's resurrection. Then we have Ascension Sunday. Pentecost, seven weeks after Easter, is the anniversary of the coming of the Holy Spirit. (It is sometimes called Whitsunday, the Sunday on which baptismal candidates were dressed in white). Last of all Trinity Sunday recalls the key doctrine of our faith: there is one God, in three Persons - Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

In the forty-day season of Lent (46 if you include Sundays) we take a spiritual inventory. Moses, Elijah and Jesus fasted for forty days, so from the fourth century the Church has observed Lent as a time of inner examination, prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Fasting is more than 'giving up candy for God'. It is the sharpest way we know of making ourselves pray, and pray more intensely. For Jesus and his disciples this was a time of tension, a time of expectancy and excitement. In Lent we prepare ourselves to experience the mighty meaning of the Cross. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, when in some churches ashes are put on people's foreheads to remind them of their mortality: 'Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return'. Lent comes from the Old English lencten, the 'lengthening' of the days of Spring. Lent anticipates new life. It's when 'the daffodils come before the swallow dares' to quote one of Shakespeare's loveliest lines.

Beyond the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Jesus weeping over that city, his anger at the exploitation of the poor as he overturned the Temple money-changers' tables, his anguish in Gethsemane, the mockery of a trial... Jesus the Son of God is crucified on a cross between two criminals. And they call that Good Friday.

Good Friday? Yes, for three reasons: reasons associated with the three greatest needs humans have - to be loved, to be forgiven, and to find meaning in the face of their inevitable death.

(1) When Jesus died he was demonstrating that the God who was his Father entered our life and loved us even to the point of death. The death of Jesus, says Bonhoeffer in Letters and Papers from Prison is the ultimate symbol of the suffering of God in the life of the world. God allows himself to be edged out of the world and on to a cross. Only a powerless and suffering God can really help us... God did not come to save us by an act of terror so that we would be cowed into belief, but by a great act of love. Abelard, a twelfth century philosopher and theologian, believed the cross primarily demonstrates the greatness of the love of God, a love that should move us away from our sin and to love God in return. God so loved, that he gave (John 3:16). The Son of God, says Paul, loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20). Our response? Obedient love - even if we suffer too (1 Peter 2:21).

(2) There's a theme running through the Bible which is somewhat foreign to Westerners, that of animal sacrifices for human sins. John the Baptist recognized Jesus as 'the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world' (John 1:29,36). Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers describe how animals can 'bear the sins' of humans. These animal sacrifices (eg. of bulls and goats) were repeatable, but, says Hebrews, Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many (9:28). Jesus thought of himself as the Suffering Servant (see Isaiah 53) offering his life as a sacrifice, as a ransom for others' sins (eg. Mark 10:45). Anselm, an eleventh century Archbishop of Canterbury argued that sin is an insult to the majesty of God, and at the cross God's honour was 'satisfied'. The Protestant Reformers emphasized more our sin breaking God's holy law, we deserved to incur the penalty - death (Romans 6:23) - but Christ died in our place, paying the penalty and setting us free. We are so important to God that what is destroying us is of ultimate concern to him, and he acts to offer a way out of our misery. We are invited to repent, turn from our sins, and be forgiven, because we have been pardoned!

(3) Gustav Aulen, a Swedish theologian (Christus Victor) says the cross is mainly about a cosmic drama in which God in Christ does battle with the forces of evil and defeats them. Jesus' death on the cross not only demonstrates God's amazing love for us and saves us from our sins, but it also saves us from death and all the evil powers as well. Through his death he destroyed the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free us from the fear of death (Hebrews 2:14,15; see also Colossians 2:13-15, 2 Timothy 1:10).

The three traditional theories of the Atonement, a demonstration of love, the bearing of penalty, and victory over evil may have had more appeal to earlier ages than our own... Australian New Testament scholar Leon Morris has suggested that today we might also see the cross addressing problems of futility and frustration (see Romans 8:20, Hebrews 2:8-9); sickness and death (Isaiah 53:4, Matthew 8:17); ignorance (Jeremiah 17:9, 1 Timothy 2:4); loneliness (Genesis 2:18, Mark 15:34, Romans 8:38-39); and selfishness (Luke 9:23, Galatians 2:10, Romans 6:4).

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian dissident, was working twelve hours a day at hard labour. He had lost his family and had been told by the doctors in the Gulag that he had terminal cancer. One day he thought, 'There is no use going on. I'm soon going to die anyway.' Ignoring the guards, he dropped his shovel, sat down, and rested his head in his hands.

He felt a presence next to him and looked up and saw an old man he had never seen before, and would never see again. The man took a stick and drew a cross in the sand in front of Solzhenitsyn. It reminded him that there is a Power in the world that is greater than any empire or government, a Power that could bring new life to his situation. He picked up his shovel and went back to work. A year later Solzhenitsyn was unexpectedly released from prison and went to live in the United States.

Good Friday? Yes. When God's human creatures are bad, God is good. When we are at our worst, God is at his best...!

The French thinker, August Comte, once told Thomas Carlyle that he was going to start a new religion to replace Christianity. 'Very good', replied Carlyle, 'all you have to do is to be crucified, rise again, and get the world to believe that you are still alive. Then your new religion will have a chance.'

Easter is the annual celebration of the resurrection of Christ, and is the most important date in the Christian year. In the early church the Easter celebration included the lighting of a candle, prayer, readings from Scripture, and the joyful celebration of the Lord's Supper. It was also a common time for baptisms, with resurrection life symbolized by white robes. Over the centuries some pagan spring customs have been added, including Easter eggs and rabbits!

The death and resurrection of Christ are the key events and doctrines of the Christian faith. In an early creed (1 Corinthians 15:3 ff.) Paul reports several eyewitness accounts to substantiate his claim that if the resurrection had not occurred, the whole Christian faith is false (verse 14) and inneffective (verse 17), Christian preachers are wasting their time (verse 14), our sins aren't forgiven after all (verse 17), we die without hope (verse 18), we are the most miserable of people (verse 19), and so without resurrection let's 'live it up' for tomorrow we die (verse 32).

The dominant note in the celebration of Easter is joy. 'Make people laugh and you open heaven to them', says a rabbinical proverb. 'The risen Christ makes life into a constant celebration' writes the 4th century bishop and theologian Athanasius. Some Greek Orthodox Easter worship services include the Rite of Laughter: 'Now let us laugh. Let us worship God by laughing together...!'

Easter turns despair into hope. The American playwright Eugene O'Neill lived tragically, and shortly before his death he wrote poignantly: 'I can partly understand how God can forgive humans, for we are so weak and ignorant. What I can't understand is how he can ever forgive himself?' We have each, in our darkest moments, probably wondered the same thing ourselves. But Easter, if it has any message for us at all, says that human tragedy is never ultimate. He who vacated the tomb is alive, and has not vacated his throne! All powers-that-be will become powers-that-have-been (1 Corinthians 2:6). Easter reminds us that God is is control of the universe. The Easter-event is about a God who loves eternally, individually and sufficiently.

My dear Saviour, let me ask Thee
since Thou art nailed to the cross
and since Thou sayest Thyself: It is finished!
Am I now set free from death?
May I, through Thy suffering and death,
inherit heaven?
Has salvation come for all the world?
True, Thou canst not speak for pain,
yet Thy head Thou bowest
And tacitly Thou sayest: Yes!

Chorus (Chorale):

Jesus, Thou Who wert dead,
now livest forever;
in my last agony
nowhere will I turn but to Thee
Who hast redeemed me.
O my beloved Lord!
Give me only that which Thou hast won,
more I do not desire.

Aria and chorus from J.S.Bach, St. John Passion

'Yes' and 'no' are little words, Lord, but they are very powerful. The Son of God said 'yes' and submitted himself to the joys and pains of our life. Mary said 'yes' and submitted to the mystery of bearing the incarnate God. Jesus said 'yes' and submitted to Gethsemane and arrest and trial and death on a cross.

But Jesus also invites us to say 'No'. If we will come after him we will deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him. This is the only way of saying 'Amen' or 'Yes' to him. To deny ourselves is to love him, and our neighbour. To die to self is to live for you, Lord God, and for others.

Remind me, Lord, that life is only lent to us. So may Lent and the Cross be truly Life to me. I truly and earnestly repent of my sins.

Rowland Croucher