Monday, July 07, 2008

Rowan Williams: In the Waterless Pit

From here.

Sunday 06 July 2008

General Synod, July Group of Sessions

Any congregation might be forgiven for wondering what are we going to hear about this morning. Members of Synod in particular (but perhaps members of the Church of England in general) may have the slight sense that there's rather too much to be hearing about, that we're suffering somewhat from issue fatigue. So perhaps we ought to begin where we always ought to begin, in listening to what the Word of God has to say. And scripture says, 'Rejoice greatly, o daughter of Zion. I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit". And today's scriptures say, 'Who will rescue me from this body of death. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord'. And scripture says, 'Come to me all you who travail and are heavy laden. My yoke is easy and my burden is light'. In a way, the pivot for understanding all this is provided in the epistle today. Paul in the letter to the Romans gives us the key.

We live under law, different kinds of law. The law of God, which is for our health, and the law we make for ourselves. We long to be masters of our future, and so we become the prisoners of our past. We long to take control of the world we're in. And because we are who we are, and our histories have been what they have been, we dig ourselves deeper and deeper into unfreedom. The will that we want to use to conquer the world, is a will weakened and bruised by the legacy of self-love, going back to the very roots of the human race. The effects of that legacy work themselves out as relentlessly as any oriental karma. We want to take hold of our future and we are gripped, paralysed, by our past.

We find ourselves in that 'waterless pit' of which Zechariah speaks. Waterless pits - perhaps that should trigger a memory of one particular Old Testament story. Do you remember that when Joseph went in search of his brothers and they decided to kill him – they threw him into a pit where there was no water. Remember Joseph? Joseph who was so unpopular with his brothers because he believed his future was in his hands. He knew he could foresee the day that his brothers and his father would bow down to him. But he finds himself in a waterless pit, sold into slavery. God's future for him only begins to happen when he is stripped of his claim to be master of his own future. In a waterless pit the dreams fade away. There is only God over against the body of death.

So, reflecting on Joseph, we can perhaps turn back to our own moments of waterless perplexity, those times in our discipleship, individual and corporate, our discipleship as persons, our discipleship as a Church, to which we may turn back to those moments, as moments when – if we will – we can hear the Word, when – if we will – our dreams are overtaken by God's future. And how very hard it is to let go of our claims upon our own future. How very hard to accept the waterlessness of the pit, how very hard to understand that we are there in the presence of God and of death.

And so we struggle. And no doubt at all that Joseph in the first few hours struggled mentally and physically in his waterless pit and began to devise plans. And as we load ourselves down with that struggle against God and against death, we are doing exactly what Jesus in the Gospel tells us not to do. We are burdening ourselves. One of the desert fathers remarked, 'And how very easily we laid aside the yoke of Christ and burdened ourselves with the heavy yoke of self-justification' - There's a phrase to ponder – a heavy yoke of self-justification. That's the law, that's the curse. That's the waterless pit indeed - where we struggle ceaselessly, unrelentingly, to make ourselves more right, and to lay hold upon our future. We lay upon ourselves a heavy yoke, from which only the grace of Jesus Christ can deliver us. In a nutshell, we lay upon ourselves the yoke of desperate seriousness about ourselves.

And Christ's promise is so difficult because it's so simple. 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being', as the novelist says, that is what Christ offers to us: receiving it is hard. Naaman of Assyria when he came to Elisha to be healed of his leprosy, could not believe that the answer was easy. There must be something complicated for him to do. There must be some magic to be done. The word alone, 'release' is not enough. We long for, we are in love with the heavy yoke of self justification. Naaman wanted to go away from Elisha, able to say, 'Well I had some part in that – I did the difficult things the prophet asked me'. And Elisha, in the name of God, tells him to do something simple, to immerse himself in the mercy of God. And when Jesus says, "Our yoke is easy and my burden is light", that is what he says, to all of us as individuals, to us as a Synod, to us as a Church, to us as a society, to us as a human world: lay aside the obsession to possess the future, receive the word of promise, here. And that's why, as Jesus himself says in the gospel, that's why only some people really do hear the word easily - only the tax collectors and the sinners.

It's never a bad idea, during meetings of synod or indeed any other church activity, to turn your eyes occasionally – literally or metaphorically – through the windows. You might see Jesus passing by. And where is he likely to be and who is he likely to be with? The Gospel suggests very, very strongly that he's going to be first and foremost with those who do find it easy to hear the word of simple promise. Because, in their own waterless pits, they've had to let go of confidence about the future, confidence in their power. 'What would Jesus do?' is a good question to ask, but, 'Where would Jesus be?' is just as good, and, 'Who would Jesus be with?' is a question the Gospels force on our attention again and again.

In the middle of all our discussions at synod, where would Jesus be? Jesus is going to be with those who feel the waterlessness of their position: with those traditionalists feeling the Church is slipping away from them, the landmarks have shifted, and they don't know how what they've taught and heard and what they've been taught can be life-giving for tomorrow. He'll be with those in a very different part of the landscape who feel that things are closing in, that their position is under threat, that their liberties are being taken away by those anxious and eager to enforce new ideologies in the name of Christ. He would be with those who feel that their liberty of questioning is under threat, he would be with the gay clergy, who wonder what their future is in a Church so anxious and tormented about this issue.

Where will he be? He will be with those members of the Synod staff and the staff of the University of York; the people in the Press Gallery, who are trying to keep their minds on their business while dealing with any number of complex personal issues, who may be inflicted by private anxieties, griefs and losses, who will never be noticed by those who take them for granted as they go about their businesses. He will be all over the place. He will be with people we don't much want to sit with, because that's a place he always occupies. He pipes for them, and they will dance, because in their unprotected-ness they are able to meet him at a level any of us can't. Where will Jesus be? In whose company? The company of those who feel lost; have lost; and who are just beginning to see that lost-ness is the beginning of wisdom. It's in that lostness they're beginning to let go of the law that is in their members, the compulsion to take hold of and script and control their future.

Into this darkness comes Jesus to release us in our prison and make us, as the Prophet says, 'Prisoners of hope'. 'He comes to be with us so that we may be where he is' as he tells us in the fourth Gospel. 'So that we may be where he is? And where he is (he says in this morning's gospel) is in the presence of the Father; seeing and knowing that unconditional depth of love out of which he comes, to which he looks in adoration and obedience, into which by his Holy Spirit he draws us. He alone knows the Father, sees the Father, and there is no salvation but to be where He is, seeing, knowing, as He sees and knows by the gift of his Spirit. He alone rests in that eternal, unifiable life. That is why he says, 'Come to me and I will give you rest; I will give you sight; I will bring you hope.'

'My yoke is easy; my burden is light' which is why we need to be where he is, nowhere else, where he is with the Father; where he is alongside those occupying their waterless pits, oh and where he is in the waterless pits into which we, gradually, bit-by-bit are being introduced the agonies, complexities, of our life as a Christian community.

'Who shall deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord', we are delivered from the body of death by our incorporation into the body of his life; the body that is the Catholic fellowship of Christ's Church. The body that is all of us in our various waterless pits, in our corporate waterless pit of bewilderment and confusion and division today. Nonetheless, his body, his body of life, which this morning as week-by-week we take once again into our hands in the sacrament, the body of life. The body of life which makes us prisoners of hope, which takes us where he is. 'Come to me, I will give you rest. The yoke is easy and my burden is light'.

Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

1 comment:

Rafael said...

Is there a God? I will not try to say yes or no to this question. Rather, I will make this place a law court. I will ask you to be the judge, and I will be the prosecutor. The work of a judge is to make decisions, to approve or disapprove the truth of statements; the work of a prosecutor is to present all the evidence and arguments that he can possibly gather. Before we proceed, we have to be clear about one fact: all prosecutors are not eyewitnesses of crimes. They are not policemen. A policeman may personally witness an event, whereas a prosecutor obtains his information only indirectly. He places all the charges, evidence, and arguments collected before the judge. In the same way, I shall present before you everything that I can possibly find. If you ask whether I have seen God or not, I would say "no." I am reading or demonstrating what I have gathered. My job is to search for facts and to call for witnesses. You are to arrive at a conclusion yourself.
First, looks at nature, the world that is before our eyes and every phenomenon in it. We all know that scientific knowledge is the rational explanation of natural phenomena. For example, there is an observed drop in the temperature of a patient. The drop in temperature is a phenomenon, and the explanation for it is scientific knowledge. When an apple falls from the tree, it is a phenomenon. Why does an apple not fly into the air? The explanation for this phenomenon constitutes knowledge. A man with knowledge is a man who has the proper explanations.
The universe displays countless phenomena of diverse forms, colors, shapes, and nature. We cannot fail to notice these phenomena before our eyes. The explanation for all these phenomena is known as knowledge. All thoughtful persons have only two explanations as far as the origin of the universe is concerned; there is no third explanation. You have to take one or the other of them. What are these two explanations? The first says that the universe came into being through natural evolution and self-interaction; the second attributes its origin to a personified being with intellect and purpose. These are the only two explanations presented by all philosophers of the world. There is not a third one. Where did the universe come from? Did it come into existence by itself or through chance? Or was it designed by the One from whom we derive the concept of God?
What are the characteristics of things that come about by chance? First, we know that they are unorganized. At the most they can be partially integrated. They can never be totally organized. One can achieve a specified goal by chance once, but he can never achieve a specified goal by chance all the time. Anything that comes together by chance can only be integrated partially, never totally. For example, if I throw this chair to the other side of the room, by chance it may come to rest at a perfect angle. If I do the same with a second chair, it may also lie neatly beside the first one. But this will not keep on happening with the third and the fourth and so on. Chance can only provide partial organization. It does not guarantee total integration. Furthermore, all random interactions are aimless, disorganized, and purposeless. They are without order and structure; they are loose, formless, disorderly, and not directed toward any meaningful purpose. Briefly, we can say that the characteristics of chance events are disharmony, irregularity, inconsistency, purposelessness, and insignificance.
Now let us compare the things in the universe with these characteristics. Take, for example, the human being. He is carried in his mother's womb for nine months and delivered; he grows up and eventually dies. This cycle is repeated for every single individual. Consistency can be observed. It is not a wild game of chance. Again, look at the sun above your head. It does not exist purposelessly. Rather, it has its purpose and significance. Look at the moon, the stars, and the myriads of galaxies through your telescope. Some stars have their own planets. They all follow definite tracks and patterns. They are all organized. Their manner of motion can be calculated and predicted. The calendar in your hand is derived from them. Even next year's calendar can be printed before this year is past. All these show that the universe is organized, consistent, and purposeful.
Let us turn to the micro-world or quantum mechanics. Take a thin slice of wood. Put it under a microscope and observe its grain and structure, all meticulously regular and rhythmic. Even a blade of grass and the petal of a flower are finely fashioned. Nothing is unorganized or confused. Everything is disciplined and functional. All these things witness one fact to you: the universe, with its macro (the whole universe and galaxies) and micro aspects (quantum), is purposeful and meaningful. Can you say that all these came into existence by chance? Surely you cannot.
The universe has to be created by someone with profound wisdom, vast knowledge, and intricate design. If you cannot accept the concept of random formation of the universe, you have to admit that it was created by such a God. There cannot be a third explanation. The choice is left to you. You have to decide if the universe came by chance or whether it was created by God.
One witness may not be enough. I will call in another. This time we will consider man's heart. Before doing so, we should also observe one fact: wherever there is a desire, there must first be an object for that desire. For example, an orphan who has never seen his father naturally has a desire for a kind of paternal love. I have asked many people who were orphans, and they all have felt this irrepressible yearning. By this we can see that every desire of the heart arises out of an object in the world. As human beings we have a need for social belonging. We need companionship and mutuality. If you put a boy on a deserted island and he grows up alone, he still has the yearning for companions, for beings like himself, even though he has never seen a human being. This yearning or desire is the very proof that somewhere in the world there is something known as "man." At a certain age, man begins to think about posterity; he starts desiring children and grandchildren. This is not a mere fantasy. This desire stems out of the existence and possibility of offspring. Hence, where there is desire, there is an object for that desire.
Do we have any desires other than social identity and self-propagation? What other cravings do we have? Deep in everyone there is a craving for God. Whether they are highly civilized races, such as those among the Caucasians, or the ancient civilizations, such as the Chinese civilizations, or the African natives and uncultured aborigines, they all have a common craving --God. As long as they are men, they have a yearning for God, no matter what race or nationality. This is a fact. You cannot argue against it. Everyone is seeking after God. Everywhere man is craving for God. This is very clear. By applying the principle that we just mentioned, we can see that since our heart feels the need for a God, there must necessarily be a God in the universe. Since there is a need for God in the heart, there must be the existence of God in the universe. If no God exists, we would never have such a craving in our heart. We all have an appetite for food. In the same way, we all have an appetite for God. It would be impossible to live if there was only an appetite for food but no food. Likewise, it would be impossible to live if there was a capacity for God but no God.
Once, an atheist rudely rebuked me in a loud voice: "You said that a man has the psychological need for a God. But there is no such thing, and I do not believe in it." I said, "Well, do you mean to say that you never think about God? In fact, even while you were talking, you were thinking about Him. This indicates that you do have a capacity for God. There is no one who has never thought about God. He may try not to think much about Him. Since this thought is in you, there must be such an object outside of you.
A young man once came to me to argue about God. He was vehemently against the existence of God. He gave me one reason after another for saying that there is no God. As he was enumerating the various reasons why God should not exist, I listened to him quietly without saying a word. Then I said, "Although you insist that there is no God and support yourself with so many arguments, you have lost your case already." He said, "What do you mean?" I went on to explain: "Your mouth can say as much as you want about there not being a God, but your heart is on my side." He had to agree with me. Although one can give all sorts of reasons in the head, there is a belief in the heart that no argument can defeat. A stubborn person may give a thousand and one reasons, but you can have the boldness to tell him, "You know better in your heart that there is a God. Why bother to look for evidence outside?"Now what would you say? After looking at nature and the universe, after checking with your inner feeling, it is up to you to decide whether or not there is a God. But you should not be irresponsible; your attitude must be sober because everyone has to meet God soon. One day you will all stand before Him. Everything concerning you will be laid bare. On that day you will know God. But now is the time for you to be prepared. We should all be prepared to meet our God.
Finally is there is a God. Who is he? Who among the most ancient religions claim to be God’s son?
As well there must be a written record of God and God’s son. Among all the ancients’ written records is there such a book?