Chris' monthly reflections
The Indwelling God
Brenda was a woman I met in the parish in Southport where I was parish priest. She was at Mass most days, in the SVP and helped in the sacristy. She was very tall and slim, always dressed exquisitely and her nature was generous and kind. She wasn’t a living saint. Brenda had no nonsense about her and was not beyond the sharp word especially if a person was not doing what Brenda thought they ought to!
When the nuns left the parish, Brenda and her friend Betty took over the sacristy. Each morning at 8.30 sharp Brenda would arrive in the house for her morning cup of tea, having already opened the church and worked solidly for an hour.
As the years went by, she became frail and developed dementia. She eventually settled in a nursing home. One day I went along to the lounge, where Brenda was sitting with another woman. The other woman’s dementia was more advanced than Brenda’s and she was obviously upset about something. Brenda had her arms around this woman and was stroking her hair and as she did that, I could hear her whisper, ‘it will be alright, God’s within you’.
Richard Rohr the American Franciscan writes, ‘unfortunately, we are not very well acquainted with God within. We have mastered the theology of God’s transcendence but have failed to embrace God’s immanence’.
In other words, we’re not able to come to terms with the truth that God is closer to us than the very air we breathe, that God is within. Many of us have grown up with a theology that sees humanity as poor and needy, and which pays lip service to the truth of the God who lives within us.
It takes a lot of prayer and reflection to have the courage to let go of false ways of seeing ourselves and God. Paul showed how much he understood the truth of the indwelling God when, in his letter to the Galatians, he cried out, ‘it is not I who lives, but Christ who lives in me’.
What might all that mean in our lives? I think it means that we can reveal the face of God in everything we do and are. It means that our ordinary human existence is holy. That is an extraordinary revelation. We are Temples of the Holy Spirit.
To be a Temple of the Holy Spirit is all about change. Our hearts are to be compassionate; our lives broken for others. It involves letting go of our judgmental attitudes and our condemnation of our brothers and sisters. It means thinking of others before ourselves.
God is within each of us and our ministry is to help others recognise that truth by the way in which we live, speak and act.
Because He lives...
Many years ago I met a woman called Anne. She and her husband John had been faithful churchgoers all their lives until age and infirmity got the better of them.
John who was the love of Anne’s life died. Intelligent, articulate and crabbed Ann wanted physical proof of the things of God and was blind to the God who was all around her and died pretty much despairing. So sad that she couldn’t see the God who was with her constantly.
In John’s Gospel as we do in all the other accounts we discover after the crucifixion the Disciples are frightened, gathered together trying to find comfort and help from one another and Jesus came and stood among them.
John is trying to show us a new kind of presence. It's a presence that can come through closed doors and is among. It's a presence outside space or time and his greeting to them is Shalom a word that for the Jews promises fulfilment. It’s John’s way of showing us that in the presence of the risen Lord we can find complete fulfilment. Because he lives we can find true and lasting fulfilment.
Then he shows them his hands and his side. The risen Jesus is still the wounded Jesus. It's a symbol of humanity. We enter into eternity in our wounded state. Jesus brings his wounded humanity before the Father and trusts in the Father’s love. That's what we do, and the father’s gaze of love will bring us to wholeness and peace.
Then we will finally know that we don't have to be perfect to be loved. We just have to trust and believe in his love. Our hope in the resurrection is that God will be God, that God will be the kind of lover that we understand. It was true for Jesus and so will be for us. Because he lives, we know God can be trusted.
The resurrection of Jesus is an invitation for you and I to really trust in God’s love and to believe that we will follow the Lord. There is no need to be afraid of your sin, your wounds or your brokenness. God’s love is enough. Because he lives forever, we too will live forever in his love.
The Kingdom of Peace
In my sitting room, I have a footstall that was given to my mum by a French lady called Mrs Ganley who was well into her eighties when I was a child. Married an English man before the First World War, she had a heart that had been gentled through her life’s experience and was a warm, open person who had time for anyone.
After her marriage she had two children very quickly. Then her husband was tragically killed in a farming accident. Mrs Ganley rolled up her sleeves and got on with life. She took any job she could to make ends meet. It would have been so easy for her to become bitter and angry, but actually the opposite happened. She became more and more loving. Her door was always open and anyone was welcome not just people who were part of her Catholic ghetto. She was suspicious of nobody and accepted everyone. Her son ran a farm in Lancashire, and she would often arrive with a couple of children and a tired mother, because they needed a break.
Every Palm Sunday I’m drawn to chapter 12 of John’s Gospel where we have Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Why did people gather as Jesus entered Jerusalem? Maybe some of them felt that they were on the verge of liberation from the power of the Romans. Jesus does something powerful; he finds a young donkey to show that he doesn’t enter Jerusalem triumphantly but peacefully.
The donkey is a symbol of peace, fulfilling a prophecy of Zechariah who says that the Messiah will banish all the instruments of war, Jesus the humble king of peace sits on a donkey and will bring peace to the whole world.
It's at this point in John’s story that some Greeks ask "to see" Jesus. They represent the entire Gentile world who, along with the Jews, were being invited to allow the Kingdom of peace to reign. That peace will begin when he is lifted up from the earth, through that self-giving love, which will give new life and bring people together. We, too, are called to love as he did and to allow the violence within to die, in order to bear fruit and be messengers of peace, just as my old French friend did.
The challenge is to become counter cultural so that the kingdom of love and peace will reign within us. Don’t ignore the challenge of this week we call holy because it’s a week that can lead us into a life of deep peace.
Open your eyes and see
I have been very blessed to meet Jimmy McGovern, the playwright, on several occasions. He is a very humble, self-effacing man who sees that he is called to highlight very difficult situations. It was my encounters with him that made me help to write a Lenten series around his programme ‘Broken’.
In Lent 2019 we ran this series in a middle-class area. There were some people who got it immediately but there were others who felt that the scenes Jimmy and his scriptwriters had written did not really show modern Britain. They were shocked when I told them that the stories were all based on factual incidents. They could not believe that in Britain today, those scenarios were a reality.
The whole series was a real challenge to open our eyes and see and in many senses that captures what Lent is all about. We are invited to open our half-shut eyes and really see the presence of the risen Lord everywhere, even in difficult places and messy situations. That has to mean that we work on ourselves, taking times of silence where we face the attitudes within that stop us seeing. These periods of silence are an invitation to the spirit of God to transform us. Our times of fasting and abstinence are not just times when we observe our Lenten duty. They are experiences where we heighten our awareness of ourselves and the things within that we need to let go.
One of the main calls of the Gospel is to serve and I guess in order to serve, we have to open our eyes and really see. Two things have to happen. Firstly, we have to face ourselves and let go of all we hide behind that stops us seeing. Secondly, we have to put down our rose-tinted spectacles and see the world and its people as it is, and not as we want it to be. Anything else is a betrayal of the calling we are given, to live in our glorious messy world as servants of the Good News.
Lent is a time the Church gives us each year to face ourselves, to journey, to deny, in order to see. Let’s pray for the courage this Lent to do what we have to do in order to open our eyes and see the presence of Christ everywhere and to serve him, maybe even in the poorest of the poor.
Revealing God's love and grace
Norah was an elderly woman that I met when I was a deacon. In her late seventies, she was the sort of woman who could easily fade into the background. She was, seemingly, insignificant. I met her most days at Mass but apart from a beaming smile and a quick hello, I didn’t get to know her at all. So I decided to visit her and found out a little about her life.
Like many people in Vauxhall, she had been born the area and lived within a square mile all her life. She and her family lived in one of Liverpool’s famous courts and she used to beg in Scotland Road’s markets.
Eventually the courts were demolished and Norah moved into a tenement block with her parents. The tenements were eventually demolished and Norah, by herself now, was rehoused in the flat that I was sitting in. She seemed to have very few needs and was content in her life. She filled her day by ‘helping out’ she said.
As I got more used to the area, I began to visit several community projects, food banks, nurseries, credit unions, pensioners clubs and wherever I went, I met Norah. These were the ‘few things’ that Norah ‘helped out’ at. I discovered she was one of the main people behind the credit union. She had founded the mother and toddler group and the pensioners group. In her quiet, deprecating way she had not really wanted me to know what she did in case I thought she was blowing her own trumpet.
One day I was in the mother and toddler group and Norah was on the floor with a couple of babies crawling over her. I sat down next to one of the mums who was at pains to tell me that she didn’t really believe in God. Then her eyes filled up and she nodded at Norah and said to me, ‘but if I did, I would find God in that woman’.
You see, the face of God can be found in the most ordinary of people. These people may well have had an ignominious start in life. They may well have nothing much to show for their years on earth other than, and this is everything, a depth of compassion and love which has its roots in God. Our lives, if we want them to, can be a revelation of the mystery of Christ and the love he pours out on the world. We are called to serve and in serving to reveal the face of God. Let’s pray for the courage to get involved in the world and be channels of God’s love and grace.
God of the new beginnings
Here we are at the start of a new year, a time that always fills me with new hope. What will this year bring? Where will I meet God? Many years ago I met a young guy called John. John had lived a pretty tough life. Virtually on the streets from a young age he had learned how to survive. He’d been in prison and when I met him he was due to go down again for fraud. I remember saying to him ‘John, ask God to help you.’ He looked at me with a tear in his eye and said ‘I am too bad for your God.’
So, I watched this young man whose life was such a mess break down and weep. He was unable to hear the call he was being given to trust God with the mess of his life. He felt too bad about himself and that was the biggest barrier to opening up to love which could transform him.
There is nothing in our lives that is a barrier to keep God away unless you allow things to be a barrier. God is simply waiting for us to open ourselves to the power of love and to stop pushing God away. God is waiting for us to realise that God never gives up on us. There is always another chance. That is the Good News. Jesus has shown us the heart of God, compassion, mercy, love flowing out towards us, made flesh in the body of Jesus so that we can look and say ‘that is who you are, you are the God who transforms the messiness of human life through the power of love.’ All it takes is that we trust and believe in it.
Sadly, we think it’s about what we do and how good we are. But in reality, it’s all about the goodness of God and not about our pathetic attempts to be worthy. The twelve step processes understand it. It is faith in God that makes real God’s saving power in our lives. The challenge is never to wait until you’ve got it all together before you let God in but simply to know that, in your mess and with your mess, God can do anything.
So, the kingdom is about life in the here and now. It exists in so far as we are willing to allow a revolution to take place within us. It exists in so far we are prepared to stop being religious people with our temptation towards self-righteousness and intolerance and become like Jesus prepared to give everything away for the sake of others. It exists, when we know in the depth of our being, that God is the God of the new beginnings, the second chance, the all-embracing forgiveness that knows no end.
Non-violence the way of God
I’ve been working recently with a man who is so afraid of the anger that lies within him, so afraid that it will burst out and do some real damage. He’s afraid of the violence that lurks within him threatening to break out. That struck a chord with me because I know there are times in my life when anger bubbles just below the surface and it frightens me. Yet to follow Jesus is to follow a path of non-violence.
The Bible from beginning to end, is a progressive revelation, or maybe it is a progressive realisation on our part, of the loving non-violence of God. This is a revelation that ends in Jesus who shows a God of radical non-violence. Even his death on the cross is a teaching on non-violence. That blows our minds. We are so violent not just in our actions but in our language and in the way in which we treat one another.
It was Ghandi who said, ‘non-violence is not a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our very being… if love or non-violence be not the law of our being, the whole of my argument falls to pieces… belief in non-violence is based on the assumption that human nature in its essence is one and therefore unfailingly responds to the advances of love… if one does not practice non-violence in one's personal relations with others and hopes to use it in bigger affairs, one is vastly mistaken’.
The God whom Jesus reveals is free of all violence, and so for those of us who follow Jesus, non-violence has to be one of the cornerstones for our lives.
Thomas Merton wrote that “meekness” is the biblical word for non-violence. Throughout Luke’s Gospel, we find many passages which deal with non-violence. It is one of the evangelist’s major themes. Jesus’ death is itself a teaching on how to attack violence by taking it into himself and triumphing over it by love. In a few weeks we will celebrate the birth of a child vulnerable innocent non-violent. Could it be that non-violence is the gift of the Christ child?
We, as his followers, are to live non-violently too. To live in his Kingdom demands non-violence.
The Kingdom of God, where compassion, love, mercy and forgiveness reigns is not at the top of many people’s priorities. So to live in it is to be radically different than those around us. If we are honest, much of the world’s way of living is violent, as politically we attack one another or enter into wars with one another. Where does the Gospel point us? I think it invites us towards being transformed within that we may spread the Gospel of non-violence, captured in the birth of a baby at Bethlehem.
What can separate us from the love of God?
Some months ago, a friend who has mental health issues invited me to a concert at the Philharmonic Hall. It was hosted by an organisation called Life Rooms which provides a safe place for people with mental health issues to gather and do various courses to enhance mental health. My friend was taking part in this concert and wanted her mum, me and a few friends to go. I was not prepared for the emotional roller coaster that happened within me as I listened to these extraordinary people share deeply, not only about their issues, but also about their giftedness.
The second half of the concert left me an emotional wreck. Each of the participants shared why a particular song had impacted them. My friend used the song, ‘Another day in Paradise.’ She told how she had wandered through life thinking everybody else was living in paradise and that she would never experience it. My heart broke as I listened to her talk about the amazing turn around in her life; she now knows that she tastes paradise because of the drugs that control her mental health issues and through the love of a God who had never left her. She knows that whatever has happened in her life; breakdown, depression, voices in her head, hospitalisation, suicide attempts - nothing can separate her from the love of God.
Psychologists tell us that us deep within, all of us are either guilt based or shame-based people; we carry the guilt of not being Good enough. We have a deep sense of shame about who we are. Some of us live life hating ourselves and rejecting that within us that we see as weak or immoral or bad.
The problem is that we will not believe who we are, God’s beloved children. I think most of the journey in faith is about discovering who we truly are. We have to discover that God really does love us, that we are children of God despite what has happened in our lives. That is our true identity. Guilt and shame will not help us know that. Only Jesus can do that. Thank God that is what Jesus has done.
It is when we realise that we are God’s beloved son or daughter that life takes on a new meaning, and we know that God will never abandon us, and that love is all around us and within us. Nothing can separate us from the love of God.
I will sing of the goodness of God
I was recently in a local prison and met a long-term offender who both sold and took drugs. His story was typical of many of the prisoners as he shared the inadequate parenting that he had received. He began to believe the lie that he was no good and gave up on himself.
Every week our team would go to the prison and share something of the love of God. I watched as this man began to respond to what he heard, so much so that by the end of the month his heart had been softened. He had begun to hear the good news of God’s love for him. He began to read the Scriptures and prayed each day. He discovered that God is good, and it changed his life.
Some while back I heard a song the chorus of which repeats ‘You’re a good, good father. It’s who you are. It’s who you are and I’m loved by you.’ If only we knew that truth in the depths of our hearts then we would give thanks because of the goodness of God.
Do you really know the truth that God desires you with all the desire of a lover for the beloved? Do you know that you are the apple of God’s eye? Do you know that God is good? The Scriptures want to take you to that place where you know it’s true and all the suffering and the shame that dogs our hearts and minds can finally be put to rest as we let the essence of God fill our soul, our mind, our being.
God is good and if we take time to reflect and pray and look at the Scriptures, we will discover that goodness and know that it is always present sustaining us and guiding us. Take time to look back in your rear-view mirror and see how good God is.
So give thanks for the goodness of God poured out upon us. Give thanks for the desire of God to be with us always. Give thanks with a heart full of gratitude that God is not distant and scary or capricious and nasty, as some would have us believe. Give thanks that God is good and has chosen to let that goodness overflow into this magnificent, wonderful world.
The power of the Word
I was not always very happy when I was at the seminary. Much of what I was taught seemed irrelevant to me. I also found some of the seminary lifestyle difficult to handle. I had been catapulted into a profound experience of God some years earlier. For me it was hard to equate what went on in the seminary with my experience of a God who brought extraordinary life.
The one thing I did love were the lectures and courses about the Scriptures and I drank in every word, loving the scholarship and the reflective aspects of the lectures. What I knew with all my heart in those early days of my faith journey was that these Scriptures are the Word of God and can fill us with power, the power to live out our lives in service.
I remember reading the stories of the miracles in El Paso where a group of middle-class Catholics met each week for a bible study on the forthcoming Sunday's readings. They were impacted by the invitation Luke gives that when we give a party, we should invite the poor, the crippled, the lame. This led to miracles happening on the Mexican/US border, the sweeping aside of class barriers, the reaching out in love to feed the poor and the broken, and the multiplication of food.
Every time we read the Scriptures, God will speak - challenging us, comforting us - and we will be drawn into an experience of God where we know that He is alive and with us. For most of us who are Catholic, when we think of the presence of God we think about the Eucharist. We talk of the 'real presence' but the truth is that God is as really present in the Scriptures, and in people, as God is present in the Eucharist. Every time we read the Word we enter into the presence of God, that indescribable sense of relationship where another is walking with us and entering into the reality of our lives.
It is extraordinary how the Word calls us into an encounter with the living God. Somehow through praying and reflecting we can meet and experience the power of the God who set ancient peoples free, the God who became flesh in Jesus, the God who transforms individuals and peoples.
The Word invites us to find meaning in life, to discover what it means to be a human being. The Word invites us to become people who are in love with God, in love with life because in our lives we discover the presence of God, in love with each other and in love with the world that we live in. So read the Word each day and let it become a living force for you.